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Youth Empowerment and the Peace Corps

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

Ever since I made the decision to join the Peace Corps, I knew that I wanted to be involved with youth development. And so when the day came, I was lucky enough to get the chance to work with students in high-school as well as those enrolled in colleges. What both these groups had in common was that they belonged to Pantawid families. The Pantawid is a conditional cash transfer program hosted by the Philippines government to provide monetary grants to families in the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder. As the purpose of the program is to invest in health and education, the dispersion of the grants is contingent upon the families complying with certain conditions and regular check-ins. It is one of the largest initiatives of its kind being spearheaded by the Philippines government in its efforts to alleviate poverty.

My service with the Peace Corps in the Philippines had two focal points. The first, high school students. Upon arriving in my community, my counterpart and I facilitated community analysis workshops to explore possible opportunities for youth engagement. With this newly collected information in mind, we designed a youth leadership program catered specifically for Pantawid high school students. In my local dialect, Kinaray-a, this program is called Hangkat Kina-iya which translates to ‘one of a kind skills’.

The project kicked off in 2015 by gathering Pantawid students from all areas of the town. The students participated in workshops on topics that they themselves had decided, which is one of the reasons it was effective. Some of the topics covered were crucial life skills such as decision making, self-awareness, and goal setting. Following this, the students delved deeper into their learnings by taking part in a youth camp where they learned facilitation and community activism skills. The next year, these students are invited back to assist in training the next batch of Hangkat youth by helping execute the sessions, recruiting new youth, and taking on a support role. And so the cycle goes on.

The program has been continued every year since its inception. Due at least in some part to it, these students are inspired to take academic initiatives such as applying for colleges, running for student government, pursuing summer jobs, and guiding other youth in their neighborhoods. We've also been told by the teachers how they've noticed a sizable increase in the overall confidence of the students and watched their academic performances skyrocket.

Getting to know these students personally, and watching them come into their own has been nothing short of absolutely blissful to me. It is so heartwarming to see the quietest of these students return time after time to share their experiences and give back to their communities. For many of these students, it is the only organized youth they have to be a part of. It is truly a sight to behold. Another source of pride and testament to the success of the program has been its continuation by the alumni and the local staff following my departure in 2016.

(Hangkat students at the youth camp)

The other part of my work with the Peace Corps was with college students who also belonged to Pantawid households. They had been allotted a unique grant that allowed them to pursue a college education at a minimal financial cost. Where myself and two other volunteers came in was in bridging the gap between them and their non-Pantawid counterparts. We partnered with the Student Affairs team at the University to provide mentoring and workshops on college success skills to these students.

These students are on the path to ending the cycle of poverty for their families. All of the 122 students we worked with ended up graduating from college. It has been an extraordinary honor for me to be a mentor and a friend to these students.

(College students during a workshop)

I am a youth service provider because all youth deserve someone who will advocate on their behalf, encourage them, and empower them. I serve the youth to pay it forward to those that have served me. I serve the youth because they are our present and our future. Investing in youth today will enable us to create a better society tomorrow. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2014 to 2016. As I write this four years later I have seen my former high school youth go on to college (many on full scholarships), my college students graduate and land jobs, start families, and become elected officials. Harness the innovation, strength, and resilience of youth and they will change the world.


Further Links

-   The Peace Corps Alumni Foundation for Philippines Development is an organization that provides higher education scholarships to Filipino students. More on their scholarship can be found here.

-   This TED talk; How we can help young people build a better future by Henrietta Fore can be seen here.

-   To learn more about the Peace Corps check out


About the Author

A Texas native and D.C. transplant Ricardo Espitia was a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines from 2014-2016. During his service, he worked for the nation’s social welfare program where he supports children, youth, and family programming.

He has a passion for cooking, hiking, volunteering, traveling, and youth development.

For more of Ricardo's work, check out his writer's page.

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