Erika Ender - photo by Ernesto Coria

Preventing juvenile delinquency in Panama through talent and purpose

// Interview: Erika Ender

Singer-songwriter and philanthropist, founder and president of the Puertas Abiertas Foundation, Panama

JT: How and why did you create the Puertas Abiertas [Open Doors] Foundation?

 EE: The Puertas Abiertas Foundation was created in 2009 and its roots go very deep — they are tied to the way I was raised since my parents are very socially responsible. They are very spiritual beings who believe that we have all come to this world to love and serve. My parents always taught me that I should use my musical talents for the common good.

Therefore, being very well known in my country and having a lot of credibility, I felt that I was at a time when, with my connections and media power, it was much more formal and serious to create a Foundation to knock on companies’, governments’ and other entities’ doors.

From there on, we began a strong awareness campaign to eradicate child labour. I joined the NGO “Casa Esperanza” and started to establish free music classrooms for children that had already been removed from child labour. These free music classes had the objective of sensitising and disciplining those children and giving them some way of unloading their feelings through art. Arts and sports work miracles… From there, the Foundation extended its services to include training and education.

I am involved in many causes. I believe in training and in reformation. The Foundation has this great project, TalenPro, which precisely means “talent with a purpose”. TalenPro is a competition that uses art as a vehicle to do good and re-educate young people; it involves competitions in four categories (Best Performer, Song, Dance Group and Audiovisual Work) for young people who are in their last two years of school. To reach the grand finale, they have to use their talent and purpose.

This includes recruiting colleagues who will help them to do social work and who will be part of a group of workshops, tools for life, values, etc. They also have to select a school in a vulnerable state and restore it, working under our supervision, with our support and with the funds we grant them. Annually, under this program, 12 schools are restored. The final prize is to have their degree fully paid, either in Panama or abroad.

With TalenPro, we are trying to train new human beings; people with new habits, with a dedication to service and empathy to help others. And, at the same time, we are empowering those people through art and helping to create a better environment.


JT: How is it that you use music and the arts to train and reform young people who may be in fragile socio-economic situations?

 EE: We try to make them realise that if they have some aptitude, they can use it to reach higher education. For example, we take them to meet people who have committed crimes, so that they understand what should not be done, and also for those people to understand what their future would be like if they had not committed crimes, and how they can have a better future by leaving the situation they are in. We try to operate towards the development of well-rounded human beings, who know how to behave and manage themselves, who have emotional intelligence and higher education, who will never commit a crime.


JT: How is the financing model of your project?

 EE: You must have a solid base because it is very expensive to fix dozens of schools! TalenPro is maintained by sponsorships from private companies and I myself also contribute funds. In addition, we have agreements, for example, with a State organisation that grants the scholarships for the winners and gives student financial support to the finalists. We also have some government institutions working hand in hand with us, such as the Ministry of Education, the Panamanian Mayor’s Office, the office of the First Lady… The truth is that we all join forces to make it like a “telethon for education”.

We started with free music classes with the objective of sensitising and disciplining children eradicated from child labour. Arts and sports work miracles...

JT: Panama faces several social and justice problems, from high crime rates and gang violence to poverty, child trafficking and more.
To what extent does the Puertas Abiertas Foundation contribute to the improvement of these challenges facing your country?

 EE: The Foundation does everything, I focus on everything that can make the world a better place. By educating and reforming, we can make a difference, because all the solutions depend on the human being. For example, I have been the image of the Environment in my country and I work with topics of inclusion— I am a global ambassador for the Special Olympics—, but my biggest project so far, within the Foundation, is TalenPro. In addition, I have visited the Juvenile Court and even adult prisons and I regularly visit the women’s rehabilitation centre. I have a model and a programme that I also want to develop to be able to help to reform people who need a second chance because they did not have a first one or did not know how to take advantage of it.

In the Foundation, we already verified that the training part is working very well and continues to add positive results. I want to maintain the training and work in the reformation part because everything changes if you have a well-rounded human being.


JT: To what extent has the work of your Foundation impacted Panamanian society?

EE: Since 2009, the impact has reached thousands and thousands of people… But if I talk about TalenPro, I can say that more than ten thousand children have benefited from the initiative in the 24 schools that we have restored. Additionally, we have about 700 young people doing social work every year…

At the national level, awareness is up to 4 million people because TalenPro is seen all over the country. Mostly, it is a joint effort to change the mentality of all parts involved, but also to use the means to sensitise as many people as possible.

We are present in all the schools in the country and apart from that, over the years, we have worked in high-risk areas, because, by doing the music classrooms, we not only offered the service to the people who were inside the classroom but also to the people of the community, who are low-income children and youths.

At the same time, I use my profile as a public figure and my ability to reach other colleagues to get some of them to work as motivators. We even have had people who have been in jail —who have been released and have success stories— giving talks to young people. For example, Michael Vega is a familiar face in my country’s television: he made a mistake and was involved in a drug trafficking case that took him to jail; however, he corrected his mistakes, and, upon re-joining society, he became an example of personal improvement. He is one of our motivators.

We try above all to cultivate values, to encourage self-esteem and empathy, to empower people to be aware that there is a world outside of crime.


JT: Recently, with your Foundation’s team, you visited a detention centre for young people in conflict with the criminal law, and there you showed interest in working with those who are there under custody (Source: Erika Ender recorre instalaciones del Centro de Cumplimiento de Pacora,, 23 October 2018). What reality have you found in that Centre and what would you like to develop with these young inmates?

EE: We have already worked with young people who have had some kind of problem with the law and, with this centre, the intention is to see how we can incorporate them to what we are doing in TalenPro.

The idea is for the contestants to be able to spend time with the incarcerated youths, to listen to the stories of what happens outside and inside the centre, to have the ability to empower them, to be able to apply some of the things they do inside the centre at the schools that we restore; that is, to see how we can unite the projects so that all those involved benefit from the initiative, and so the children at the centre see the world that could be waiting for them outside once they understand what the correct path.

In that centre, they do not focus on punishing but on empowering, on making the youths understand the mistake they may have made and introducing them the opportunities that, perhaps, they did not know before.

No child comes to this world with the dream of committing a crime. I believe that society and difficulties lead people to commit crimes, so what I like from this centre — which has a lot to do with the model that I am also advocating, a reform model for other prisons — is how they look for that positive side, as they make you develop self-esteem through art, arts and crafts, construction, cooking, etc.

However, I also think we have to set the example first, in order to then act, and then to have. So, in the model that I am working on, the focus is on the human being, on the wounds of the inner child of that person who, suddenly, got lost in the way; on understanding what their environment was and how we can clean and rebuild all those habits and make a solid and sustainable base.

No child comes to this world with the dream of committing a crime. I believe that society and difficulties lead people to commit crimes.

JT: You were born in Panama, have a Brazilian mother and live in the United States, all of which are countries with high incarceration rates and difficult challenges in terms of their criminal justice systems.
What is your vision regarding the justice systems and criminal policies of these three countries?

EE: I do not agree with approaching people in such a cold way, without understanding their stories. We should focus much more on understanding how we can really reform people instead of punishing them, because the loss of freedom is already a big enough punishment, in addition to also having to continue accumulating traumas, mistreatment and everything you must endure within prison to continue surviving.

We need to reform securely. Let’s view with compassion the people who have reached that point —which does not mean that we should applaud what is wrong—, let’s try to get to the root of understanding: why is this the bad root of a tree? And how can we reach that root and clean it?

I wish we can see the day, in Latin America, or in countries like Brazil or the United States, where jails are being closed, as is happening in certain European countries. The essential is training, education and opportunity. There are a million things that must be understood, from the background, which shape the essence of the human being. There is no way for this place to be better without human beings being able to understand that the other person is their neighbour, and that he or she is going through something specific, and that we have to see in what way we can fix it.


JT: Your philanthropic vein is being well recognised, to the point of having been invited to participate as a panellist in the Social Good Summit of the United Nations, in September 2017, and also in the 10th Citizen Security Week, in November 2018, to be held in Santiago de Chile, organised by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Chilean Government.
What are the main messages that you communicate in this type of events?

EE: My main message is that, in the end, we are all the same. We are part of the same house, which is called Earth, and of the same race, called the human race.

We are so robotised in such a materialistic world that, many times, we become selfish. If we grew up in a world with greater self-esteem and empathy, we would not have the chaos that we have now, because people who love themselves and who love their neighbour neither harms themselves nor harms others.

I always try to reach the child that is inside us: the child that came to the world being perfect, without discrimination, without prejudices, without paradigms… That child, which we all have, has the natural desire to love and serve. I try to reach that child to tell it what my song says: “We are all equal”, that we should not put up barriers or complicate our lives, and that we are all linked to one another.


JT: What are your expectations for the future, in terms of working in the area of rehabilitation and reintegration of those who are in conflict with the law?

EE: The expectations are to be able to apply the model we have regarding values and tools for life, and also to add the psychological and emotional intelligence part so that young people in rehabilitation could gain access to it. The objective is to find their traumas and understand where they come from and where they should go. In the same way, the expectation is to try to make possible for the participants of TalenPro to interact with them up close, within the centre so both parties can get feedback. At the same time, the goal is to be able to create, in the long term, something to advance women’s prisons —a plan that has all these steps and, first of all, strives towards an internal reconstruction, and then a reconstruction at the environment and social level, and also for the awareness that society needs.


Erika Ender is a Panamanian singer, songwriter and actress. Winner of a Latin Grammy, she is the co-author of the musical hit “Despacito” and dozens of other Latin music hits. Her Puertas Abiertas Foundation, in Panama, started in 2009. It is a project that uses music and education to positively influence the lives of children and adolescents with limited income and who are at social risk. In May 2018, she was awarded the Humanitarian Award from the T.J. Martell Foundation in Los Angeles, United States.



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