Inspiring Children for Guatemala’s Tomorrow: Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes

Guatemala is a tough place to be a kid. The fastest growing country and primary recipient of U.S. remittances in Central America is also one of the hemisphere’s poorest nations, where nearly half of the children under five years old suffer from chronic malnutrition. Gangs and homicides make day-to-day life perilous both in and out of school. More than a third of the Central American unaccompanied minors detained at the U.S. border started their journey in Guatemala. Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, who describes himself as a self-taught educator and social activist, decided to help as many children as he could. The young teacher was born during the civil war that ended in 1996 and grew up with political instability, gang and drug crimes as the norm, in Jocotenango, in south-central Guatemala, about 35 miles from the capital. About 10 years ago, when he was 23, he obtained his family’s permission to use part of their home to create a safe space for young children to learn about art, music and culture, preparing them for academic success and life. From that humble beginning, Romero Fuentes and a team of about a dozen collaborators grew the educational, nutrition and health program into the multisite Los Patojos nonprofit with local funders and support from Just World International and the Give Kids a Chance Foundation, which is a global group of equestrian funders. Patojos is used in some Latin American countries as a term for youngsters, or kids, and the nonprofit has helped more than 1,000. “Children and youths get involved and participate in graphic arts, journalism, ballet, break dance, photography, juggling, music, and theater activities,” according to the Spanish website for the nonprofit, which serves children from three to 18 years of age. “Through this, their self-confidence, sense of security, and hope in a better future grow or often are born.” Romero Fuentes, who is very thankful to his grandmother and his parents for their early guidance and support for his life’s work, was selected as a CNN Hero in 2014.
“In a violent country, the only weapon we can have is love,” he told CNN in an interview. “These kids are already powerful, but they don’t know that yet.”
Romero Fuentes, who was working on establishing the nonprofit’s second community center in late 2016, said he particularly appreciates the international exposure that Hispanics in Philanthropy has provided to Los Patojos. “It makes us feel like a part of the diverse, global community by the opportunity to convert what was invisible into visible, to help us showcase our processes,” he said. “We hadn’t been able to become integrated or share them due to the lack of resources.” “From the HIP platform,” he added, “we can finally be seen and be part of the Latin American processes of hope, reconstruction and dignity.” Romero Fuentes is making incredible strides towards changing the lives of children in Guatemala, and the waves of his work are being felt far and wide, both nationally and globally.