Esther Brown is out to steer troubled youths to a better life.
A native of Barcelona, Spain, Brown has a background in law and criminal justice. She established The Embracing Project in 2005 as a result of tutoring youngsters in a juvenile detention center while living in Fayetteville, N.C.
“What I saw was pretty shocking to me because I saw the revolving door effect,” she said. “ ... One day I decided to share with them the stories of the child soldiers in Uganda. The kids were like, ‘How can we help? Can we bring them here?’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re in a pretty bad situation yourself and yet you want to help other children.’ That told me there was room for growth, and I could” use that to effect a change.
Now living in Las Vegas, Brown teaches juveniles in the criminal justice system the similarities between gangs and genocide –– recruiting by peer pressure, identifying with a certain color clothing, using symbols, taking on nicknames and protecting their leader. She then relates it to genocide in other countries. The Embracing Project’s 12-week curriculum includes tools for improving self-worth and bettering themselves.
“In Las Vegas, we work with youths who are involved in violence, specifically gangs ... and with the victims of sex trafficking,” Brown said. “We do a lot of advocacy, training, leadership. Also we do groups in county jail with the boys who are being sentenced as adults and ... with the sexually exploited girls.”
Brown’s efforts are bringing her recognition. The northwest Las Vegas resident has been nominated for the 2013 Women of Worth Award from the Points of Light Foundation, presented by L’Oreal. Ten honorees will be selected to receive $10,000 for her charitable cause, with one national honoree receiving an additional $25,000 for her charity.
Mothering Across Continents nominated her for the Peace Progress Award, issued by the Generalitat of Catalunya in Spain. That one could result in about $6,500.
If she wins, Brown said she intends to use the money to take six teenage girls with a history of drugs, alcohol and/or gang affiliations to Liberia for nearly two weeks. Brown set up a sponsorship program there in 2008. The following year, she returned with six girls, ages 15 to 17.
The troubled youths helped at an orphanage for children who had lost their parents to genocide. There was no running water and no electricity. Often, the orphans receive a bowl of thick mush for meals, which they eat by hand.
The six Las Vegas girls brought the children toothbrushes, a luxury item in Liberia, and taught them how to use them. It was a first for the orphans.
“It was so funny because they kept pulling out the floss and going, ‘What is this?’ ” Brown said.
Hope for Peace sent hula hoops, and the children got lessons in how to use them.
“The miracles work both ways,” Brown said. “It’s our girls teaching the kids in the orphanage things, but it’s also the orphanage experience teaching (the American kids) to be humble, to be grateful, to be open and giving. ... They saw that their situation was nothing compared to how other children live around the world.
“It changed the way they thought about themselves. It was like the hope of helping another was the hope to help themselves. ... These kids are in so much pain. If they don’t convert that pain into something positive, it’s a waste. The tools we teach them, we train your way of thinking, the way you perceive your reality.”
The eye-opening trip was not the end of the teens’ contact with The Embracing Project. When they returned to Las Vegas, the girls committed to six months of volunteer work, much of it sharing their experience at various schools or functions.
Brown reported that all six girls stopped doing drugs and/or drinking and have never had contact with the law again. They stay in touch with her, keeping open a line of support.
Getting The Embracing Project up and running hasn’t been easy. Jimmy Bryant, who began his own nonprofit, Lights 4 Love, knows how tough it is to secure exposure and funding.
“It’s extremely hard to get the word out, to find the right people,” Bryant said. “She deserves the attention for what she’s doing. ... A lot of times, you wind up using your money to get something to happen.”
That’s exactly what happened in 2009. It costs about $5,000 per girl to take them to Liberia. Brown and her husband, Mike, ended up raiding their son’s college account. She is trying to raise funds to take another group to Liberia, hopefully in June 2014.
To celebrate Global Peace Day, “Healing the World Together” is slated to include a photographic exhibit of the trip to Liberia to gain support for The Embracing Project. The event is set for 5 to 8 p.m. Sept. 21 at 3rd Street Studio LV, 1400 S. Third St.
To grow the effort, Brown trains professionals and parents how to effect change in troubled youths, and she speaks around the country on conflict resolution. Brown said she sees the Embracing Project being replicated in other cities until it is all across the country.
For more information, visit theembracingproject.org.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 702-387-2949.