On a trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago as a participant in National Extension Leadership Development, I had a chance to see a community health organization that is still going strong 20 years after being founded by a group of youth. As a youth development educator, I was struck by the power of youth when they are engaged as leaders in their community. As an program evaluator, I got to thinking about factors that play into sustaining a program and its overall value to the public over time.
Our hosts, a family of five, warmly oriented our group of three Extension educators, despite our limited Spanish. We quietly sat with the matriarch of the family in the courtyard under the rock "gate," a formation that crowns the nearest mountain and creates an opening to the sky. The eldest daughter Lety greeted us as she returned from the Atekokolli clinic in the village that she helped to found on communal land.
As a child, Lety was at her grandmother's side as she treated community members. Lety learned where to find the healing plants, how to
harvest them, and how to use them in treatments. When she was a teen, Lety and 20 other young people in Amatlan started a project they called Atekokolli - the Nahuatl word for the conch shell used in religious ceremonies. "We got together and talked
about what we could do to help the community," Lety remembers.
They agreed to create a place where traditional healing is provided to everyone who needs it. Over the years, the group grew and shrank in size and worked together through times of growth and uncertainty to realize the original plan.
Eventually, they secured funding of 35,000 pesos / US$3,000 from a competitive funding source, which allowed them to begin building on a designated site in the middle of town. The considerable time Lety spent at Atokekolli took away from the kitchen, leading to tension with her mother. Despite this and other obstacles, Lety notes that when the project sat dormant for a period of time, it was her mother and her grandmother who told her that she should see it through to completion.
Twenty years after Atekokolli 's inception, Lety leads the clinic with two colleagues. The three founders who continue the vision for the clinic prepare the herbs and plants for use, oversee the temascals (a healing ceremony similar to an American Indian sweat lodge), offer massage, and chiropractic services. Their clinic is busy and clientele draws from a large area. Lety is especially focused on diabetes prevention as obesity and less active lifestyles are taking a toll on the health of community members.
Back at my desk in Minnesota, I am reflecting on the success of this
"program." In Extension, we strive to demonstrate the public value of
programs for youth. The Atekokolli model lacks the typical trappings of a
program, yet accomplished what we hope to accomplish with youth through
programs. What did these 20 youth leaders bring to it, and how did the
community that they lived in contribute to make Atekekolli so valuable to so many? What examples can we point
to of similar youth-led development efforts that have staying power in US communities?