Vieques Youth Leadership Initiative

The Challenges Facing Young People Vieques
by Josue Cruz

Vieques is a beautiful island in the Caribbean, located 7 miles from the East Coast of Puerto Rico. On May 1, 2003 the young people of Vieques celebrated the end of the U.S. Navy bombing after 68 years. So now is a chance for the youth to build a new Vieques. We need everyone’s help.

Young people represent 25% of all those living in Vieques. Out of the 10,000 people, 9,000 are Viequenses, 2,526 are youth. Unfortunately these youth have been neglected for too long. Vieques now has the distinction of having the highest school drop-outs, teenage pregnancy and alcohol-drug use.

Vieques is experiencing a social-economic crisis, which far surpasses any other town in Puerto Rico. The recent Brookings Institute declared Puerto Rico to be twice as poor as the poorest state in the U.S. The Municipality of Vieques is the poorest in all of Puerto Rico. The annual income per capita is just $11,036.00.

While significant new resources are pouring into the island for tourism and real estate development, Vieques has been seriously neglected — receiving little to no help for its people, especially youth. In the last 3 years, the economic divide between the foreign-rich and the local poor has grown exponentially. Over 600 families don’t have their own homes.

With few opportunities for economic and personal development, the Island’s socio-economic condition continues to decline. Young adults with skills and higher education usually relocate to the main Island and beyond in search of better opportunities. This brain-drain seriously undermines the islands’ future. Vieques urgently needs attention and support in order to become a socially healthy and prosperous island.

School Drop-Out Rate is Alarming

  • 21% never graduated from 9th grade; 50% didn’t graduate high school.
  • These out-of-school youth become fertile ground for the ever-increasing petty crime.
  • Lacking the skills to help rebuild Vieques, an estimated 50% of the people are unemployed.
  • While there is tourist boom on the island, most businesses are focused to hire people from off-island.

Teen Pregnancy Epidemic

42% of all births in Vieques are from teen mothers; 87% are single and 44% dropped out of school.

  • In 2001, 54 of the 129 babies were born to teen mothers, some as young as 12 years old.
  • These young mothers are ill-equipped to care for their children – and depend on their parents and grand-parents to raise them. 65% of Viequenses depend on government assistance, including most teen mothers.
  • All of this combined, has resulted in a poverty-stricken island for the majority of the Viequenses.

Mental Health Crisis

Vieques has the highest incidence of alcohol abuse and second highest drug use in all of Puerto Rico. Many teens are depressed and attempt suicide.

  • Limited access to services: with only few psychologists for everyone on the island, many travel the 3 hour round trip ferry ride to Fajardo on the main Island. Out of the 270 patients in Fajardo’s district of 100,000 people, 160 patients were from Vieques (59%); 33 are teenagers (21%). Many more teens are in need, but are unable to get help and are self-medicating.
  • No youth center: young people in Vieques have no healthy options. Too often, they end up in local bars.
  • Petty Crime: Fighting and stealing. In 2001, there were 7 police reports; by 2003, 115 reports with youth under 18 years old. Three years later, the trend is increasing.

Child Abuse

  • Reported cases to Social Services increased from 188 in 2000 to 317 in the year 2001– an 59% increase of 59% in just one year. Too often this abuse is kept a secret within families.

The social economic crisis of Vieques needs urgent support from both the public and private sectors, in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and the international community. Statistics: from the U.S. Census 2000 and the Municipality of Vieques.

VYLI is the first major program to be developed in support of the young people in Vieques. VYLI’s mission is to prepare young and emerging leaders to help build a new Vieques. Our programs educate, motivate and engage young people to learn how to make their dreams come true. Founded in 2004, VYLI is under the auspices of the Stone Soup Leadership Institute, a 501c3 global non-profit educational organization, founded in 1997:

During the last two years, VYLI has developed a comprehensive youth empowerment program that engages young people to become part of the solution instead of the problem. We are proud of we’ve accomplished in such of short time, with so few resources and overcoming so many obstacles. Our goal is to expand this pilot program to become an ongoing demonstration project for the Caribbean and the world.

Cultural-Entrepreneurship Initiative — VYLI participated in the 3rd Annual Caribbean Artisan Festival in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Teens learned how to preserve their unique culture and discovered how they can help contribute to the economic well-being of the Island. Funding was provided from the sale of jewelry made by VYLI youth.

Technology Initiative — Thanks to a grant from Microsoft, VYLI conducted computer training sessions for teens and non-profit organizations in Vieques. Students learned to create portfolios and applications for college scholarships, as well as how to navigate in the world of the web.

Academic Excellence: VYLI requires youth to be in school. A few drop outs have returned to school. Several VYLI students have been accepted at colleges and 18 VYLI high school graduates received a cash gift for their future studies.

Community Involvement — VYLI is registered in Puerto Rico, conducted a community planning process, created a diverse Board of Directors and Advisory Board; trained residents to be project coordinators, engaged the extended families and friends of youth as mentors, and received the support of local and foreign organizations.

How VYLI is affecting young people and the future of Vieques:

  • Reducing School Drop Outs : We invite everyone to dream about what they want for their lives, their future and the future of their island. We motivate and direct youth to education and opportunities; connect to the world of work through mentors, apprenticeships and internships.
  • Each one, Teach One : we invite everyone to share their gifts with our youth – young and old. We train emerging leaders in their 20’s to work with teens, who in turn work with younger children.
  • Reducing Teen Pregnancy by Increasing Positive Role Models – and supporting the dreams of aspiring teen models with the mission of “beauty with a purpose.” Increase youth self-esteem through education/opportunities.
  • Reducing Unemployment and Government Dependency by Increasing Skills: We train people to become entrepreneurs and reward them recognition in the community and with travel opportunities. We train people in computers and technology to connect them with the world of opportunities.
  • Reducing Petty Crime by Bridging the Cultural Divide: We appeal to the enlightened self-interest of the business community to get involved with training the young people of the island. As part of our quest to connect young people with caring adults, we invite everyone in our community to serve as mentors. Statistics show that young people who have a caring adult in their lives are more likely to succeed.