Lauren Diaz: “I See People Who Build and Are Happy Despite the Bars”

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At age 25, she has already given new opportunities to hundreds of prisoners.

In 2012, Lauren Diaz, a native of Tilaran, created the Nueva Oportunidad (New Opportunity) Foundation. Through the Foundation she supports the development of trades, professions and mini-businesses, to help with the difficult social reintegration of people who have been in prison. Diaz has received recognitions like the “Yo Creo” (I Create) prize from Latina University, as well as having won the 2013 Talent and Innovation Category (TIC Americas) from the Organization of American States (OAS).

Why were you interested in working with the prison population?

I was studying law at the University of Costa Rica and I had an opportunity to visit a penal center and I met people the same age as me, who did not have the same opportunities that I had for a higher education and to have a family who cared. At that time, I began to feel the deep desire to return to the penal center with a program designed for these people, giving them real opportunities. That is how New Opportunity was born.

Why a “new opportunity” for people who committed crimes?

Our main focus are the so-called criminals born in poverty. They are young people who are in jail for minor offenses, in reality, 60% of those in the prison system. In Costa Rica, there isn’t much empathy for these people. Worse yet, as a society, we are not aware that they are going to return to the community eventually, so it seems to me that it is a responsible act as a society we stop hiding the problem and create solutions for these people.  When we succeed in preventing them from becoming repeat offenders, we have solved a problem not only for them but also for society as a whole.

What it is the most important achievement you have gotten with New Opportunity?

Seeing former inmates who did not have real options, who did not have a job offer, now watching them work on their own business ideas and thereby supporting their families. See people who build and are happy despite the bars.

What do you think of the prison that they wanted to build in Nicoya?

As a society, we have taken responsibility for hiding the problem and putting prisons where we cannot see them, so since we do not see them, we think they do not exist. When it turns out that the prison is going to be our neighbor, we realize that they exist and they start to make us uncomfortable. If I were a neighbor of a prison, I would also be worried. I can’t be hypocritical about this. When most penal centers are built, they are not accompanied by real options for social inclusion for these people. In the case of the Nicoya project, which is at the level of design, I know that it is a different option and that it does promote comprehensive training of the prison population. I do not think it is a matter of being in agreement or not, but rather of being aware that it is a problematic issue.  If we review the statistics, a large number of people from Guanacaste are in penal centers. I would not be against the construction of a prison in Guanacaste.

What would you say to Guanacaste residents who are unemployed and suddenly can be encouraged to make their own business projects?

Take risks. If we stay with just the plans and look for funding and hope that someone gives us everything solved and ready, we are going to stay with nothing but plans. Do small pilots, do tests, start over again.  I think that the moment when anyone says “I want to be an entrepreneur” this is already the most important step, but the next one, and the transcendental one, is the moment when they decide to take action.