Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Panama's Historic District Through Hospitality Training

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A grass roots program in the impoverished historic district of Panama City has a remarkable track record of turning around the lives of unemployed women through hospitality industry training. The program, created by the non-profit Fundacion Calicanto, graduated its sixth class on May 5, 2010 at the Panama International Hotel School.

If history is any guide, one month from now at least 85% of the 16 currently unemployed women who graduated today from Fundacion Calicanto’s “CAPTA” program will be permanently employed in the hospitality industry.

The graduation, which took place today at the Panama International Hotel School in Panama City’s Ciudad de Saber (http://www.panamahotelschool.org), was the sixth group to have gone through the intense two-month program. To date, over 120 women have graduated, and more than 85% of those women obtained permanent employment following graduation.

The emotional ceremony was attended by the womens' families, program donors, staff and dignitaries, including U.S. Ambassador Barbara J. Stephenson, who praised the program for its effectiveness in empowering women, and spoke about the role of women in breaking the cycle of poverty in developing countries.

Even more impressive than the employment rate are the performance reviews of the employers. Says Samantha Sagel, manager of Canal House (http://www.canalhousepanama.com), a Panama hotel that hires exclusively from the program, "Every day the strength, commitment and affection that the CAPTA women give to our hotel impresses me. Each one of them gives their all. It’s a huge part of what makes our hotel."

Panama International Hotel School's director, Jean-Francois Robert, says "In my years of teaching and training, which are many, I have not seen a success rate as large as those achieved with this (CAPTA) group."

CAPTA (which in Spanish stands for Capacitación Para el Trabajo) is an intense six-week course run by Fundación Calicanto to provide job and life training for women from the impoverished Panama City neighborhoods of San Felipe, Santa Ana and El Chorillo. The neighborhoods together make up Panama City's historic district, known as Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo, which is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.

The key to the program’s success, says Foundacion Calicanto president Hildegard Vasquez, is what happens before the women even get to the arts of housekeeping, food handling and customer service. "We spend the first four weeks of the program working on the women as individuals and building a sense of team." This intense "Foundation Cycle" includes professionally taught workshops on emotional intelligence, resentment and forgiveness, personal finance, effective communication, personal image and beauty, first aid and other subjects, along with frequent one-on-one counseling sessions with the program's psychologists.

According to Vasquez, the cost of putting a woman through CAPTA is around $900. "We've been blessed with a very supportive group of donors. Money will always be hard to come by, but I think that if we can prove to donors that $900 can break a family out of the cycle of poverty forever, we will find the support we need to keep going."

At least one local donor looks at CAPTA as more of a long-term investment than a charity. "I believe that the single biggest threat to Panama is the gap between rich and poor," says K.C. Hardin, president of Conservatorio SA (http://www.conservatoriosa.com), a major program donor. "Anything that helps people out of poverty makes our business safer in the long run."

About Fundacion Calicanto

Fundacion Calicanto is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the architectural and human heritage of Panama City’s historic district, Casco Antiguo. Founded in 1997, Fundacion Calicanto led the drive to designate Casco Antiguo a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

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Dagmar de Alvarez
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