A ‘Brigade of Joy’ in Ciudad Juárez
Extortion. Drugs. Gangs. Violence. In the not-too-distant past, life in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico was so dangerous that few residents ventured into the streets. Storefronts closed. Parks and playgrounds emptied. A generation’s worth of joy was draining from the city as children—especially those living in the poorest and most affected areas—no longer had the freedom to play outside. And that’s when the Salesians showed up.
Waving colorful flags and broadcasting lively music, Salesian missionaries and lay volunteers rolled into neighborhoods throughout the city on a bus bursting with cheer. Slowly and with intention, they worked to reconnect girls and boys with their childhoods—in the spirit of their founding father and patron saint, St. John Bosco.
After assessing neighborhoods for safety, they arrived at a selected location at sunset and set up a bunch of outdoor activities. They called themselves the ‘Brigade of Joy’ and compared themselves to a traveling circus. It was a tremendously effective initiative because children couldn’t help but be drawn to the activity and fun—which kept them away from the dangerous streets and gave them a way to just be kids.
The program also served to introduce impoverished families to the educational opportunities and other supportive services Salesian missionaries provided throughout Ciudad Juárez.
“So many parents were desperate to find a way to give their children a better future,” says Father Gus Baek, director of Salesian Missions. “But that’s difficult when you’re afraid to send them to public school and can’t afford to pay tuition anywhere else.”
That was in 2012. When it initially launched, this ‘Brigade of Joy’ received state funding that helped the group visit more than 20 areas of the city on a regular basis. After supervising two hours of games and activities, members would hand out a free, healthy snack for each participant and lead a group reflection based on an affirming “thought for the day.” They invited children to return the next time—and they always did. Before long, more than 100 girls and boys were showing up to each event.
That’s still true today. While the state funding no longer exists, and the city’s situation has somewhat improved, children and families still face the many adversities that come with poverty and lack of opportunity. Therefore, the ‘Brigade of Joy’ not only marches on but is also expanding its reach. Twice a week, the bus arrives at one of the city’s two juvenile prisons for boys ages 14-18 who have been caught up in violence and crime.
“Engaging the youth in this program can help to remind them that they are still just kids even if they are in prison and may have made some bad decisions in the past,” says Fr. Gus. “And it’s a way to welcome them into the preventive system of Don Bosco, which is available to them when they are released. When the boys realize they can go to school instead of falling back into gang life, it opens up a world of possibilities.”
Don Bosco would be proud!
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