Stories from the Journey: When Dreams Come True, Against the Odds
In Spanish there is this great word, “logro.” A logro is a success or achievement. It’s a win, a goal met, a dream accomplished. Today, in the midst of a very dark crisis, we wanted to share a bright spot with you. This is the story of a logro; a dream that came true, against the odds and despite many obstacles.
The story starts in 2016 with a group of youth who dreamt of having a safe place to play. In the community of San Sebastián there are no safe places to play. No parks. No libraries. No school lots or safe open spaces. But the ACJU youth had a dream and they saw potential in an abandoned lot down the street from the office.
Vero, who has been on the Urban Mosaic team for almost 10 years and who is often the ‘mama bear’ to younger team members tells me, “We were in the community of San Sebastián. The team in San Sebas was fairly new and just starting to build relationships in the community. While doing community outreach, the teens in UM’s youth program, ACJU (which, in English, stands for Youth Agents of Change), found a vacant lot near the office. It was a dusty dirt lot full of weeds and trash. The kids decided to clean it up. Together over the next year or so they worked at removing trash, and even put up tires around the edges so that the space would look better.”
It was a dirty abandoned lot, full of weeds and trash
Dani, now 24, is a youth leader who has been involved with UM since he was 17. He tells me, “In 2018, we started a pilot project intended to reach more local youth through soccer. In these marginalized communities there are so many bad things that kids can get into: drugs, alcoholism, and just unhealthy living because there are no places to run around or exercise. So, we started a pilot project with the intent of reaching more kids through sports and physical activity. And we were using the lot the youth had cleaned up, close to UM’s offices. We had about 150 youth training in our programs then. People were really interested in the project. No one else was doing anything like it.”
“For me it all started when I was invited to train at the lot,” says Beto, a member of ACJU who is now 22 and has been a part of UM since he was 18.
“It was a place to run freely. And yes, there were rocks and things you could trip on. It was easy to get hurt. But it was our space. We could train and run freely there. Of course, we wanted to have something nicer. So slowly, little by little, we tried to improve the lot. Short term teams came and helped us clean the lot in the summer and that was really inspiring too…to see that they believed in the project inspired us to keep going even though it was a long, slow process.”
People take notice
When a group of teenagers ban together for the good of their community, picking up trash and cleaning up an abandoned lot, people take notice. This project was so remarkable that the local municipality even took notice and offered to donate the land to Urban Mosaic.
This, in so many ways, was a dream come true. A logro…The youth of ACJU had been told their dream was impossible. But here it was, actually happening.
But unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. A group of neighbors living near the lot misunderstood the intentions of the youth. There were some very angry encounters. The neighbors said the land was theirs, not the city’s.
It was devastating; heartbreaking
“It turns out the land already had owners,” sighs Vero. “Even though that’s not what the municipality said… It didn’t matter anymore. The neighbors were furious. We tried to negotiate with them but they were very angry. We wanted to reach an agreement so that the land could serve as a soccer field and benefit the community. We didn’t want the project to end. But the neighbors would not accept this. So, we had to leave.”
“When the project was canceled, I was so frustrated,” recalls Beto. “It was such a shame. I felt so powerless.”
Brenda, another ACJU youth who is now 22 and has been a part of UM since she was 18, adds, “We all worked so hard to clean up the first lot. We got our hands dirty, picked up trash and cleared out weeds. We just wanted a flat, trash-free place to play. When we were told we couldn’t use the lot anymore, we were so sad. It was devastating; heartbreaking.”
But the youth of San Sebas didn’t sit still for long. Their dream had been crushed. They were frustrated and sad. But there was no giving up.
“The only thing we could do was keep going… even with the loss of the land,” Brenda tells me. So, the ACJU youth started using one of their super powers: adaptability and innovation.
In 2019 they started training in a nearby ravine. “There were lots of problems in the ravine. It was very unsafe. There were neighborhood teens doing drugs while we trained. There was lots of glass. And every time it rained, the ravine flooded and we had to cancel our programs,” comments Brenda.
Training in the ravine was hard
“We were looking and looking for a place to train,” adds Beto. “Training in the ravine was hard. It wasn’t safe and it was kind of far away.” But training in a ravine was better than not training at all. And while they trained, the team continued to search for a new place.
“I was searching and searching for a new lot.” says Vero. Because of Vero’s role on the UM team, she has been very involved in legal and land rights processes over the years. “I probably looked over one hundred lots. The problem is that they either weren’t flat enough or they weren’t big enough for a soccer field or they weren’t the right dimensions. All of 2019 we were searching for a new place for the kids to play. We didn’t want the dream to end this way.”
So Vero and the UM leadership team searched. The ACJU youth trained in the ravine. And in the meanwhile, something surprising started to happen. “We continued making new alliances and partnerships. The team was working in local schools, building trust in the community, following through on our word, doing drainage projects. Even at the ravine we started reaching new youth,” adds Vero.
“And that’s how we connected with Don Hermenegildo and Don Pablo on Esperanza street. They had a small organization called Na-Chijmay. And they owned a piece of land that was perfect for a soccer field. Don Hermenegildo and Don Pablo saw the work we were doing, that we were a peaceful organization working to really benefit the community. We started conversation with them about the possibility of them donating a piece of land. It was a long, slow process… lots of conversations.”
They saw how many people would be impacted
“On Nov 27, 2019, the paperwork was signed and they donated a piece of land to be used as a soccer field and community center. The land is flat. It’s the right size and dimensions: 1100 m2 ,” Vero tells me with a smile.
“They told us that they wanted to donate the land because they saw how many people would be impacted…they realized that there was nothing like this nearby and that this could have a huge impact on thousands of families. They saw that we didn’t intend to profit from but rather the goal was to benefit the community,” adds Vero.
The donation of the land was officially announced at the end of 2019. Then came 2020 and, as we all know… the pandemic.
Projects were paused and delayed. In summer of 2020, after waiting for months, the youth started using the new lot for the first time. A soccer tournament was held with COVID-19 prevention measures in place. It was still just a dirt lot and training with face masks wasn’t fun. But it was a flat and clean space. And it was theirs.
A real soccer field finally in sight
Unfortunately, the pandemic has hit Mexico hard and at the end of 2020 all projects were once again suspended and cancelled until further notice. In the meanwhile… construction of the lot continued and just a few weeks ago, in Jan 2021, there was a very exciting development: grass! The kids had never played on grass before in their community. A real soccer field finally in sight and ready to use.
Dani sighs and tells me “Now we are celebrating because we are finally finishing the field. It’s a huge achievement. It’s going to bless the youth, the kids, and their families. But beyond that, it’s amazing to see how God has worked. God sees the youth of San Sebas. He didn’t leave them. God sees them and has come through… Now we are just waiting for the pandemic to calm down so we can re-open activities.”
“The youth are really excited. The ones who live nearby are always asking me when we can start to use the field. They’ve seen that grass is installed and they just can’t wait to start using it. At the end of the day, this field is a part of them too… it’s a space for them. It’s something they have been fighting for. It’s a logro for them, knowing that if there is something you need or want, a dream or hope, by the hand of God it’s possible. It’s such a good lesson for life: all things are possible with God.”
Dani pauses, a slight smile creeping across his face. “And for me? I’m excited. I just can’t wait to start training again.”
“Yeah, I’m really happy for the kids of my community,” Brenda adds with a giggle. “Over two years ago we had this dream in the palm of our hands. We worked so hard for it and then it was taken away from us. We were furious and more than anything we were heartbroken, but we simply had to accept it and keep going. But because of that, we had to persevere. We kept going. I am thankful to God because we know now that nothing is impossible with God.”
“I feel so happy and thankful that we can continue training on a real soccer field. It’s a dignifying place… a luxury in our community. And even more, it’s great because so many more youth will get to experience the soccer field,” adds Beto.
Toño, who was 12 in 2016, was one of the original youth to help with the project. Now almost 18, Toño has grown up with the project. It’s been a central part of his life and own development as a young man and local community leader. He helped clean up the first lot, participated in trainings and most recently he helped referee for the tournament held a few months ago.
“I feel so happy that, after 5 years of trying to find a safe place to train, we finally, finally, have a clean, trash free, weed free, flat place to play. It’s safe. And it’s ours. We trained in a dirt lot full of gravel, and then in a ravine that flooded, and now, thanks to persistence, prayer and so much effort, we have a dignifying, safe place to train. It’s a dream come true, a logro. And I’m so happy to think I was one of the original youth with this dream that’s now it’s a reality which will benefit thousands of other youth.”
The new soccer field sits, waiting for kids to come play as soon as the pandemic calms down.
The AJCU youth of San Sebastian participating in a peace and justice march in 2018
The new soccer field is fenced and even has a gate- a long ways from the original field surrounded by tires.
Some of the ACJU youth and UM staff embrace in a group hug at the UM Christmas party in 2019.