Stefania Doebbel recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with Covenant House International (CHI) in New York City, the largest network of shelters for youth experiencing homelessness across North and Central America. Originally from Chile, Stefania recently graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), with a Master’s Degree in International Affairs.
In this blog post, she writes about her experience developing culturally sensitive training curriculum for youth and staff, in Spanish, to foster greater sensitivity and build the capacity of staff service for LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and/or Intersex) youth.
I had first visited Mexico with a team of Columbia University graduate students to assess Casa Alianza’s service delivery for LGBTI homeless youth and help improve their capacities. Casa Alianza, as Covenant House is known in Central America, is the leading youth shelter organization in Mexico and Central America. As part of our initial research, I conducted more than 40 interviews with the organization’s staff.
One client named Gerald often came up in the conversations. Gerald was a 16-year-old transgender girl who had fled her home country, Honduras, where she had experienced persecution and harassment for being LGBTI. While facing the daily dangers of living on the streets, Gerald had begun transitioning from her assigned-at-birth male identity to her female gender identity, taking non-prescribed hormones and injecting silicone in her chest. She had been doing this without the aid or support of any relatives or networks. Finally, she found refuge at Casa Alianza in Mexico City, where she was able to receive shelter and care in a safe community.
Unfortunately, Gerald’s case is far from unique. LGBTI youth are often victims of constant violence, discrimination, and victimization. They experience rejection from their communities very often by their own families. Furthermore, there is often limited cultural tolerance for sexual diversity in Central America which can lead homeless LGBTI youth to experience rejection by many shelter organizations.
Casa Alianza has been working hard to address the unique needs of LGBTI homeless youth. After the research I conducted in Mexico with Columbia University, I came back to the organization as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow. In this capacity, I led a wonderful team of practitioners and experts from each of the organization’s sites in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico to develop a training curriculum to provide high quality services to the sexually diverse youth population they host, and also began the process for human-rights-based internal policies that support the full development of LGBTI youth.
I was lucky to travel to Nicaragua during my Fellowship, and spent a week with a selected team developing a detailed and culturally sensitive curriculum that will allow the organization to increase their knowledge and expertise on LGBTI issues. The final curriculum contains four Modules and covers topics such as Basic Terminology, Psychological Development of LGBTI Youth, Anti-bullying Techniques, and Sexual and Reproductive Health, among others. The curriculum is built from the experience of Casa Alianza counselors and the expertise of other well respected organizations working with LGBTI homeless youth.
The ultimate goal is that through this training, Casa Alianza staff across Central America continue to develop a greater understanding of the norms that many times guide our behavior and perceptions, and have the right knowledge and practical experience to give LGBTI youth in need the best chances of developing their highest potential.
(Girls participating in a Pep Rally in La Alianza Guatemala)
The Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship has been an unforgettable experience. It has enhanced my professional development as a human rights international practitioner, has improved my leadership and cross-cultural communication skills, and most importantly, has strengthened my commitment to work for the empowerment of the most vulnerable populations.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the trainings and policy reforms that Casa Alianza is implementing to protect and fulfill the needs of LGBTI youth, working to empower the future of many kids like Gerald throughout Central America.
(Boys from Casa Alianza Nicaragua starting a running race on a football court in Managua)
In this post by youth psychologist Gabriela Monroy, readers are offered a glimpse inside one of the projects currently being implemented under the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program. Coalition members Covenant House International and the IRCT (the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) are working together to develop a comprehensive set of materials on issues related to trauma informed care. These materials will be used for training and as reference for healthcare workers and specialists to better understand the effects of trauma and how to approach traumatized youth.
Reflections on Working with Survivors of Violence and Torture
by Gabriela Monroy
I am a psychologist at La Alianza, Covenant House International’s (CHI) safe house for trafficked and sexually exploited girls in Guatemala. I am also the CHI regional coordinator in Latin America for the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program on trauma-informed care, which is being carried out by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and CHI. I was invited to attend the 10th International Scientific Symposium organized by the IRCT in December 2016 in Mexico City. When I received the invitation, I very much looked forward to the opportunity to learn from survivors of torture and those who work to support them. I knew I had much to learn and much to share. After three days of listening to the presentations and experiences from different countries, I began to realize that in many countries across the globe like mine, “normal” is similar to a war zone where death, torture, rape, abuse and abandonment of children is the norm and life is a continuum of traumatic events. The exception is a moment of human and humane interaction–which is what we strive to accomplish at La Alianza.
At La Alianza, young girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation find an environment that offers them the opportunity to finally be treated as human beings, in a dignified, respectful and non-violent way. For some of them, the violence in their lives has been so overwhelming that it can feel traumatic to be treated in such a humane fashion. Using a trauma informed care lens in my day-to-day work as a youth psychologist, I see, after some time of working with them, that the impact on their lives is visible. Society seems so surprised at the transformation that care, affection, and dignified treatment can produce. It is ironic because acting in a humane way should be the most common thing we do as humans, yet it still surprises us even more than the violence itself.
Every single presentation at the Symposium presented the testimonies and experiences of survivors on this continuum of violence and torture as examples of integrity and dignity. This simple reflection on my experience of this symposium hopefully will be a recognition and a homage to their courage and an expression of my respect for each one’s journey and all they have gone through.
When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organizations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.
Also, we need to realize that best practices for dealing with survivors of torture and violence need to be based in respect for their day-to-day experience and respect for the ways they have survived, and if we can recognize this then we may be able to transform the norm that violence has become into the exception. This is my hope. I am grateful to the Hilton Prize Coalition for giving me the opportunity to be a witness to such courage.
(Gabriela Monroy, right, with one of her patients at La Alianza in Guatemala)
Founded in 1972, Covenant House operates in the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua. Today, it describes itself as “the largest privately funded charity in the Americas providing care and vital services to over 50,000 homeless, abandoned, abused, trafficked, and exploited youth annually.”
Casa Alianza (Spanish for “Covenant House”) won the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2000. With this support, Covenant House opened Hilton Home in the center of Managua, Nicaragua, which each night can care for up to 110 boys and girls 12 – 17 years of age.
Covenant House maintains three core programs for homeless youth: Street Outreach, Crisis Care and Rights of Passage, its long-term transitional living program. Supporting these core programs is a wide range of services that include education, job training, counseling and legal advocacy. This holistic approach allows children to reclaim their lives and become active citizens, removed from violence and poverty. In addition to providing residential and support services for homeless kids, the charity advocates for homeless youth at the local, state, national and international levels of government. It holds consultative status with the United Nations and held a prominent role in The Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Last year, the organization released its collaborative 60X20 Strategic Plan to reach more than 60,000 homeless and trafficked youth a year by 2020. Read more about 60X20 and its strategic goals here.
In 2016, Covenant House became an active member of the Hilton Prize Coalition, an independent alliance of the 20 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. As an active member, the organization has committed to engage with the Coalition’s Signature Programs and Collective Impact Initiatives to foster collaboration in the international development and humanitarian sectors. “Covenant House/Casa Alianza is honored to be part of the Hilton Prize Coalition and to work together to make a collective impact in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations,” says Enny Rodriguez, Covenant House Ambassador to Latin America.
Covenant House’s comprehensive care on behalf of youth in the Americas captures the spirit of the Coalition. Its participation in the Coalition’s programs will not only raise awareness of issues related to at-risk youth, but will also empower communities and advance local, national and international partnerships.