The theme of the 2015 World Day Against Child Labor, “No to child labor - Yes to quality education,” underscores the importance of providing quality education to children in order for youth to secure promising opportunities for decent work. On many occasions I have seen how providing quality education can change lives. On a recent trip to Panama, I met Emmanual Pinto, an eight-year-old who embodied this. 

Emmanuel does not have an ounce of quit in him. I met him on a visit to one of our projects in Panama, where I traveled on the heels of the recent Summit of the Americas. I found Emmanuel to be full of energy, enthusiasm and insatiable curiosity. His teachers say, “He has energy to spare.” He loves to write poetry and race over soccer fields. Like most kids his age, he dreams big.

But like many kids in Colon, one of the poorest regions in Panama, Emmanuel had been facing an unjust and painful choice: work to ensure survival now or seek a chance to find greater opportunities in the future.

With no food at home, no safe space for schooling and no one else to watch over him while his mother worked, Emmanuel had little choice but to accompany his mother and help her sell fruit on the streets of a dangerous neighborhood. But one day, things changed.

Through a project called EducaFuturo, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Emmanuel and others like him are now being given a space to grow and learn, so that they can be the leaders who make a better tomorrow in their communities.

Here, at the Espacios para Crecer (“Spaces to Grow”) center, children learn through an engaging and proven curriculum, which actively involves them in learning through song, dance and sport.

It has certainly worked for many, including Abraham Centeno, another shy but determined boy I met. For years, Abraham had struggled with a learning disability and a school system that lacked the capacity to address his special needs. By the time he reached the fourth grade he still could not read or write. But he never gave up, and with the support of his determined mother and the tutors at the center, he fought through his difficulties and got over the hump. He is now able to read the lyrics to the songs he likes to sing and is free to write his own story.

What changed for the Pinto and Centeno families is precisely the kind of transformation we’d like to see for vulnerable families throughout Panama and the region. As President Obama put it recently at a town hall for young leaders in the Americas, supporting youth in the region “is not charity for us. An investment in your future is an investment in our future.” That’s because prosperity, stability and security throughout the region contributes to our own.

Marica Eugenio

By the time the next Summit of the Americas takes place, many of the children I met will be among the 5 million youth in the region entering the labor force in the coming decade. Harnessing their energy and drive to make a positive contribution to the economy will fuel not only their personal development, but that of the region as a whole.

Meanwhile, projects like EducaFuturo will continue to work every day to help set more young people on the path to opportunity, bringing better education to the region’s most vulnerable children and a chance at a better life for their families.

Marcia Eugenio is director of the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking in the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.