We believe it is important to give the children in Cochabamba an environment in which they not only learn new skills, but where they can also relax, have fun, and feel like kids for a while. Using this idea as a starting point, and combining it with Laurie’s background as a drama teacher, we came up with the idea of teaching drama, music, art and dance workshops, so we could teach the kids serious skills in a relaxed, fun environment. We also think it is crucial for children to learn to be proud of themselves and of what they have accomplished, so we have incorporated this theme into all of our workshops.
To help make the kids stronger both socially and emotionally, we have set several different goals. Examples of these are aggression management, expression, self-awareness, working together and making them more aware of their bodies, particularly in the context of sexual health and abuse. These are all difficult subjects, and call for small steps. Learning to work together for example starts with breaking through the culture of machismo. Something as simple as holding each other’s hand is a great challenge for the boys, and something we really have to work up to. The next step is building trust, and only then can we start to work on getting them to work together. This is a slow process, but we believe it is better to take our time and do things properly, especially with these complicated issues, than to spread our attention over too many things and only get mediocre results.
When we first started out, it quickly became clear that aggression is a very big problem with these kids, which is why we decided in an early stage to make this our primary goal. Within this goal, we aim to teach the kids more constructive ways to deal with both aggressive behavior from others, and the anger within themselves. An important aspect of this goal consists of teaching them to be more aware; to recognize the angry feeling in their bodies, and to feel it coming in time. However, this is usually not enough for the situations these kids are in, which is why we also teach them that there are different, less destructive ways to deal with these emotions. For many of them, this is a completely foreign phenomenon, and they listened to the examples the teachers gave them – running, screaming, or hitting a punching bag or pillow – with amazement. For many kids, the punching bag has now become a popular alternative to hitting siblings or friends, as they can get rid of their aggression in a controlled environment without negative consequences.
Not only do we want to help these kids feel better, and teach them how to deal with their emotions in a more constructive way, we also want them to be able to build a better future for themselves. For this reason, we also work on practical skills and help them discover where their talents lie; what they like to do, what they’re good at. We then help them develop these talents. This helps to build their self-esteem, a trait that is severely lacking in most of the children, and teaches them to be proud of themselves and of what they have accomplished. Apart from increasing their feelings of pride and self-worth, developing a practical skill also gives the kids a chance to earn their own money, either now or in the future, and enables them to become more self-sufficient. In this way, social-emotional development and practical skills come together to help these kids build a brighter future.
A good example of how these things can come together is that of Dante, a 9 year old boy in our Buena Vista project. Dante is very hyperactive, has problems concentrating and issues with aggression, in short, he is pretty difficult. He can also be incredibly sweet, but we had never been able to really reach him, and we were pretty nervous about his future. But then Karito started with a creative project. For the necklace making workshop he had laid out a little pile of materials for each child, and when Dante entered the class he took his pile, took it to a corner of the room and sat there, alone. He started by sorting the beads into piles, first by size, then by color, and then proceeded to make them into a necklace. We were baffled; he worked in full concentration for an entire hour, and even his friends could not seduce him into his usual mischievous ways. When the necklace was finished he showed it to Karito. ‘¿Está bien así señor?’(is this alright sir?), ¡Si está muy bien!’(yes very good!). ‘Hmm, no it’s not’, Dante said immediately, ‘this bead is bigger than that one!’. The necklace was not perfectly symmetrical, and even though everyone thought it was wonderful he started over from scratch, as often as it took for him to be completely happy with the result. After this afternoon Karito made a habit of sitting down with Dante on a regular basis, always with a new pile of beads, and slowly but surely whole conversations started to develop. Dante is still hyperactive and difficult, but has learned to express himself better, and because of all the positive reactions to his necklaces he has developed more confidence in himself. He talks about them with pride and enthusiasm, and hopefully in the future they will enable him to make a living without having to resort to crime. He is proud of his skills, and they can help him to become more self-sufficient. This shows how small things can help kids in a big way, by giving them more confidence, and making them proud of who they are and what they can do.