Surfing: One way to keep young people out of gangs in Peru

By Carla Samon Ros

Lima, Apr 29 (EFE).- From the summit of the Alto Peru neighborhood’s sandy hill, the view of the ocean and the city of Lima is beautiful, sharply in contrast with the abandoned homes from the colonial epoch and the rickety houses in this marginalized zone in the southern part of the Peruvian capital.

One walks through the streets there with a mixed feeling of insecurity and astonishment, the first created by the massive street sales of illegal drugs and the second by the spirited life of the community, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

In the main plaza, a young man monitors a drug salespoint beside a little boy who’s just hanging out, an elderly man fixing a fishing net and other locals chatting outdoors and reading the newspaper.

It was precisely this strong sense of community life that surfer Diego Villaran decided to take advantage of 15 years ago when he, a local resident, started the Alto Peru Project, an initiative that – using surfing as a vehicle of empowerment and discipline – seeks to keep kids and teens away from gangs, drug addiction and alcoholism.

“We started teaching (for free) the neighborhood kids to ride the waves to be able to escape a bit from the reality that some of them were experiencing,” Villaran told EFE, adding that working with the younger kids is “fundamental” in terms of “creating the change that this community needs.”

The project attracts about 120 participants per year and uses the sport as a therapy to show young people “other reference points, new ways of behaving, understanding the world, seeing that they can achieve things in another way, that it’s not necessary to do it via crime or selling drugs.”

“On the one hand, it’s a way to escape and a refuge from the craziness they’re experiencing and, on the other, it also lets them develop professionally,” Villaran said, going on to mention one of the main goals of the project: “training the kids so that they can teach and find a job.”

One of Villaran’s first students was Jesus Verano, a young man who “for a little while worked washing cars on the main street” of Lima’s Chorillos district and now, at age 25, teaches surfing to his neighbors.

“I devote myself to giving classes and, in that way, I can have an income to support myself,” Verano told EFE, adding that if not for the project “I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

The project also made a decisive change for Johaira Aldazabal, who came across it five years ago when her life “had no direction.”

There, she learned “muay thai” (Thai boxing), another activity that the project has incorporated over time and which is now taught to other kids and young people in Alto Peru.

The 27-year-old told EFE that the result of all this effort can be seen ranging from situations like kids who stop engaging in criminal activities to go to college to Alexander Chavez, a two-time youth world muay thai champion.

“Each person has different challenges, for some it’s already very difficult to stay out of trouble, train and take classes, not to steal, not to traffic (in drugs) and for others it can be the competitive issue,” Villaran said.

Over the years, the free surf “school” expanded and morphed into an opportunity to provide social cohesion and to transform “abandoned” public spaces in Alto Peru, a zone that for decades has been virtually ignored by the country’s authorities.

“We’re trying to recover certain places that were unused or badly used, like trash dumps, (coca) paste smoking spots” to transform them “into brighter and healthier places,” Villaran said.

Specifically, the “Community Urbanism” program has attracted architects who have been linked to the project, like Aldazabal, who are working to fix up plazas, clean the streets, lots and buildings and, in these pandemic times, install hand-washing stations where access to potable water is very limited.

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