In Tijuana, Mexico, Youth Help Youth Bridge the Opportunity Gap

In Tijuana, Mexico, Youth Help Youth Bridge the Opportunity Gap

In a sun-drenched room at the Ricardo Flores Magón Community Center on the outskirts of Tijuana, Mexico, 16 young men and women set out to imagine their futures. Clustered around three folding tables and equipped with markers, magazines, and flipchart paper, each carefully selects the words and images that best describe their career, family, and life goals.

Leading the activity are Janeth de la Rosa, a facilitator, and Natalio Ruiz, a youth mentor—both just a few years older than their trainees. For the assembled youth, all of whom are neither working nor in school, the Proyecto de vida (Life Project) exercise marks the halfway point of an eight-week social-emotional learning (SEL) journey. Through a series of mutually-reinforcing workshops, participants are gaining a deeper understanding of their strengths and aspirations, while learning about proper nutrition, disease prevention, effective communication, sexual and reproductive health, how to prepare for a job interview, and more.

The comprehensive training, delivered by Fronteras Unidas Pro Salud A.C., seeks to open new pathways of opportunity for these youth and others like them in 32 communities across Tijuana. “Almost 30 percent of young people [in the region] between 15 and 28 don’t have jobs or don’t go to school,” says Pro Salud Executive Director Marcela Merino. Her organization’s efforts to equip these youth with the skills needed to lead productive lives is the latest chapter in its 25-year history of supporting the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations in Baja California, Mexico.

A Holistic, Hybrid Approach

In recent years, the number of youth not in school, training, or work in Tijuana has climbed to over 43,000, with migrants from other parts of Mexico and Central America moving to the border region in search of jobs. Merino refrains from using the common Spanish term nini, or ni estudia, ni trabaja (not in school, not in work), to describe this growing population. “If you say they are ninis, [it implies] they want to be like that,” she says. “I don’t think so. I think they don’t have opportunities.” Instead, she refers to them as sin sin (without, without).

With a reputation for delivering quality, community-based health services, Pro Salud opted in 2014 to expand its programming to prepare vulnerable youth to pursue productive livelihoods. “We knew something was missing,” says Merino. Preparing young people to lead healthy lives wasn’t enough if they didn’t have a future they could strive toward, she adds. 


That’s where the Órale model comes in. First developed in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by the International Youth Foundation, Órale offered a proven means of equipping youth with essential soft skills, employability training, and job placement services. Órale, a common expression in Mexico, means “Come on” or “Let’s do it.” Through combining its highly interactive life skills methodology with Pro Salud’s proven health expertise, Merino saw real potential for addressing the multi-faceted needs of Tijuana’s disconnected youth. Both approaches were deeply rooted in a peer-to-peer educational philosophy; both placed a premium on delivering services to youth in their communities.  

Today—three years after Pro Salud adapted the Órale model—the results speak for themselves. Of the more than 730 youth who have completed the program, 84 percent have graduated, with 81 percent returning to school, securing employment, or both.

A Focus on Comprehensive, Community-based Services

According to Merino, what makes the Pro Salud-Órale hybrid work is its comprehensive approach and youth-friendly delivery. “If you go into a training workshop, the youth are laughing, they’re playing,” she explains. “They don’t have to sit and listen like a student in school.” The playful activities belie a deeper purpose: to nurture trusting relationships. From that foundation of trust, young people’s self-esteem grows. “When you ask them what they learned, most say, ‘now I can trust people,’” says Merino. “When I hear that, I know we’ve been successful.”

Marcela Merino on Pro Salud's Approach & Impact

Pro Salud Executive Director Marcela Merino describes Órale's holistic approach combining life skills and reproductive health training with mentoring and job placement support.

To ensure a greater likelihood of youth succeeding in the program, Pro Salud pursues a rigorous outreach and recruitment strategy. Program staff rely on their relationships with local youth groups, government agencies, and community-based organizations to identify youth, ages 16 to 28, who can benefit and are ready to work hard to achieve new life goals.

“We approach them [the youth] door-to-door, at farmer’s markets, churches, and community centers,” says Merino. “If we know they’re not doing anything, we invite them to learn more.” Interviews with prospective trainees focus on identifying those that possess the desire and drive to complete the program.

Once selected, participants meet four hours a day, five days a week for eight weeks. To make it convenient for youth to attend, trainings take place at schools, churches, and community centers in their neighborhoods, with services also delivered to youth in rehabilitation centers and juvenile detention facilities. Daily activities alternate between sessions on health, wellness, life skills development, and career preparedness. On a Tuesday, for example, youth might learn about addiction prevention and their rights in the labor market, while on a Thursday, their day could begin with a personal hygiene lesson followed by career planning.

Young adults with backgrounds in psychology, social work, and related fields provide a strong foundation of peer-to-peer support throughout the program cycle. Each receives 40 hours of training, complemented by coaching, and assumes a dedicated role as a workshop facilitator, mentor, or job placement counselor. Participating youth benefit from training sessions led by facilitators well-versed in participatory techniques and are paired with a mentor, who offers one-on-one support to help navigate obstacles. The job placement counselor gets to know the youth and their career goals and then provides four months of follow-up support to help graduates transition successfully into school or work.

Lessons Delivered in Week 2 of Pro Salud's 8-Week Training

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Identifying My Skills Sexual Diversity Learning about the Job Market Interviewing Job Market Experts Mapping Community Needs
Gender Violence Sexual Rights Life Project Learning About the Job Market in my Community Nutrition
Healthy Youth        


Victor Hernandez Bataz left the formal education system after completing elementary school. Now 17, he admits he was shy and lacked confidence. Besides, school didn’t hold much interest compared to his real passion: music. “I was good at school but I didn’t feel I needed it,” says Victor, who plunged ahead with learning how to play the trumpet, the guitar, and more recently, the harp. Still, his choice to leave school left him feeling isolated and depressed at times.

Órale Gave Me Confidence

Through Órale, Victor gained greater confidence in himself and his future.

Six week after enrolling in Órale, Victor feels more energized and enthusiastic about his future. “The instructors help us concentrate on positive stuff. I wake up excited,” says Victor, who’s developed a close relationship with his program mentor, Natalio.

“Natalio is the person I trust most,” says Victor. “He’s an inspiration.” With Natalio’s support, Victor gained the communication skills needed to discuss sensitive issues with his parents, like his relationship with his girlfriend. Daily teamwork exercises motivated Victor to be more outgoing. “The workshop staff are teaching me how to be confident so I can speak to anybody,’ says Victor, whose goals now include finishing his secondary education and acquiring a license to teach music.

Natalio, who finished high school only recently after a prolonged lapse in his education, also credits the program with contributing to his growth and goal to obtain a social work degree. “It makes me feel good,” he says of his work as a mentor. “Having experienced many of the same problems, I have a lot of empathy for these youth.”

Esthela Lizarraga, 19, finished secondary school in her community of La Morita but failed to pass the exam required to pursue higher education. She spent a year babysitting and helping her mother before enrolling in Órale. Now, Esthela feels more confident and better able to express herself. She’s also learned about goal setting, proper nutrition, and her sexual and reproductive rights, including the importance of mutual consent in intimate relationships and how to communicate with a partner.

“My friends and family have noticed a big difference,” she says. “I’m more motivated and sure of myself.” Esthela attributes her newfound self-esteem to the warmth and accessibility of Órale staff. “It helped that the facilitator was young,” she says. “It gave me more confidence to speak up.” Now, with support from her Órale placement counselor, Esthela’s poised to retake the university entrance exam and hopes to eventually start her own business.

For Victor and Esthela, Órale offered a chance to get ‘unstuck’—to identify their goals and pursue them with passion.

With the prevalence of the drug trade in and around Tijuana, the city has one of the highest addiction rates—estimated at 20 percent—in Mexico. While rehabilitation centers exist, most are poorly funded and ill-equipped to address youth needs. To help bridge this gap, in 2016 Pro Salud began piloting the Órale model within rehab centers.

Many of the youth in detention grew up in single-parent households, where lack of education, financial resources, and positive activities contributed to stress, according to Jorge Salas, a psychologist working at the El Mezón rehab center in Playas de Rosarito. For such youth, drugs offer an escape, he adds.

Alan Cisneros Gonzalez’s parents placed him in the center for six months to treat his addiction to crystal methamphetamine and marijuana. “I was angry at first,” says Alan of his early days at the center. “It took me four months to stop wanting meth,” adds the 25-year-old, who left school at age 16 to work fast-food jobs.

Alan credits Órale with shifting his attitudes toward himself, his family, and his future. Through the program, he gained greater awareness of his strengths: playing sports, reading, and acquiring new skills, along with his weaknesses: poor decision-making and apathy. He also gained insight into his family dynamics and how to counteract the emotional triggers that can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

“My parents wanted to control my life,” he says. “Now, I’m better equipped to handle my emotions and negotiate with my family.” On the practical side, Alan says he learned how to dress and prepare for a job interview. With support from Pro Salud staff, he’s poised to begin work at a warehouse and plans to finish his secondary education.

Órale graduates now work at some of the largest and most visible companies in Tijuana, including Walmart, Hyundai, Office Depot, and Samsung. To engage the local business community, Pro Salud first identified growth sectors of the economy (e.g., retail, hospitality, sales, manufacturing) where youth with limited education and training could gain a foothold in the job market. Then, it forged partnerships with businesses looking for qualified entry-level workers. It helped that businesses in the region seek to distinguish themselves as socially-responsible companies, says Merino. To connect youth to opportunities—and as a complement to its placement counseling—Pro Salud hosts job fairs where young people network with potential employers.

“Before, we had to go to businesses and talk about giving young people opportunities,” says Merino. “Now, they come to us. They tell us the youth have a different attitude. They’re behaving the way the employers want them to behave.”

Pro Salud’s partner companies, now numbering over 100, employ program graduates as receptionists, waiters, kitchen staff, secretaries, sales clerks, machine operators, and more. “The [Órale] youth love to be in the service area,” says Merino. “They love to work in restaurants and in stores… to have relationships and to communicate.”

One of the most important lessons learned by Victor, Alan, Esthela, and other Órale trainees is how to plot the steps needed to achieve larger goals. The same holds true for Pro Salud as it deepens and expands its youth employability focus. When we first introduced Órale, “we had no proof we’d be successful,” says Merino. According to a six-month follow-up study of program graduates, 88 percent of participating employers were satisfied with graduates’ performance, with 94 percent of employers expressing a positive attitude toward hiring Órale-trained youth in the future. As for program graduates, 88 percent reported feeling better prepared to resolve work and/or life situations. With positive results to build on, Pro Salud seeks to partner with the government to scale its approach to reach many more of Tijuana’s youth. 

Pro Salud/Orale Model
10 Elements of Effectiveness

Rigorous selection process Identifies youth with the enthusiasm and determination needed to complete the program.
Orientation activities Ensure a gradual transition to structured learning.
Community-based approach Reaches young people in their neighborhoods with services tailored to their needs.
Peer-to-peer learning Contributes to recruitment and retention; reinforces trust; facilitates relationship building.
Delivery of health services Addresses existing health needs (e.g., for STD testing, contraception, diabetes screening) while preventing future health problems.
Sexual and reproductive health lessons Enhance youth knowledge and practice of healthy behaviors.
Life skills lessons Strengthen youth self-esteem, employability, and agency. 
Interactive training methodology Encourages youth participation, facilitates learning, contributes to retention.
Job placement assistance Ensures youth get the support they need and don’t get discouraged. 
Relationships with employers Creates a pathway for trained youth to secure jobs, while meeting employer needs for qualified entry-level staff.