September 12, 2011
At age 14, very few youngsters have even begun to figure out who they are, let alone establish their professional career paths. But Carlos Pavel Smith, at age 14, was already volunteering with the Youth Leadership Movement Foundation in Panama, and setting his sights on a lifetime of service to his community.
Now 27 years old and coordinator of the "Cuanto Sabes?" HIV preventive education program at AID FOR AIDS Panama, Carlos calls upon his own youthful experiences to inculcate that same spirit of commitment and service in thousands of Panamanian teenagers. To date, he has been enormously successful in that regard.
"The small bets we make in our work with young people yield enormous fruit," he explains. "For example, when we train 15 or 20 youth to become peer HIV educators and ask them to do 100 aftershocks (peer interventions), and they end up doing 500 ... that kind of dedication on their part makes my job so rewarding."
Carlos specifically recalls the fierce commitment of one young "Cuanto Sabes?" graduate, who, after completing the program, traveled on horseback across the country, carrying the message of HIV prevention.
"He gathered large groups of people in outdoor workshops, under trees and in all kinds of makeshift spaces, to deliver his message," raves Carlos. "This kind of commitment makes me want to give more of myself to the struggle every day."
Carlos' work involves close contact with a very diverse mix of youth throughout Panama that are already focused on healthy activity and inclined to participate in an innovative educational program like "Cuanto Sabes?" These youngsters come from a number of churches, Boy Scout troops, environmentalist groups, syndicalists, cooperativists, and sexual diversity movements as well as young people from diverse ethnicities, indigenous groups, religions, and sexual orientations. In addition, Carlos' HIV prevention work takes him into the Panamanian business community, and encompasses consulting on HIV issues for international organizations such as UNESCO and the Peace Corps. He wishes that all these constituencies exhibited the passion and dedication of youth.
"There is a serious lack of political will in the adult community," he laments. "It's especially sad that in the nonprofit sector, there is such limited capacity for coordinated effort. The lack of response we encounter from many organizations is the most frustrating part of my job."
Carlos, holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Panama and is currently pursuing a master's in Clinical Psychology (with a specialization in children and adolescents) at the University of Santa Maria la Antigua. He has worked with drug-addicted youth prior to joining AFA Panama. Down the road, he says he would love to teach psychotherapy courses in college, but right now, he is finding all the challenge he needs in empowering adolescents to stem the spread of HIV and trying to deliver to them a set of comprehensive sexuality and health services.
"AFAI, for me, has been the realization of a dream," concludes Carlos. "Working with young people, in a relaxed atmosphere where everyone is free to propose alternatives ... to do what I love and get paid for it. That is truly a dream job."