Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Un cuento, una vida"

Over the last couple of weeks, the kids in the Kaya Center have been working on a special school project called “Un cuento, una vida” – “A story, a life”. The project involved having the kids become authors and write and illustrate their own stories. While they were given the freedom to choose which kind of story to write, the majority chose to tell their own stories and write about their past experiences.

The staff observed that the kids were particularly enthusiastic about this activity. It prompted many conversations between the kids, in which they shared about their pasts and were able to see the striking difference between their lives on the streets and their lives now. We’ve found that projects like this help the kids practice important academic skills, while offering the additional benefit of helping them process and reinforce their decision to come off the streets and work toward a healthier, more positive future.

The project culminated in a special celebration during which each student had the chance to present his or her completed book. All of the books are now on display in the Kaya Center library for visitors to enjoy. At the end of the exhibition, one of the books will be selected to be made into a film, with the winner getting to be the director.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Birthday Dedication for Street Children

On the face of it, the scene at the Legacy Park Community Center pool in Lee’s Summit, Missouri this past January looked like a normal birthday party. A handful of parents accompanied 65 rowdy 7 year-olds enjoying swimming, games and plenty of cake to go around. But there was something very special about this particular party. The stars of the party, twin sisters Morgan and Madison Goeser, decided to forgo all gifts and instead have attendees make donations to former street children in Bolivia and to a nearby school in inner-city Kansas City.

Their mother Julee got the idea for the party from a friend who raised books for an inner-city school during her 7 year-old's birthday party. Morgan and Madison liked the concept, but along with their younger sister Olivia, they decided they would take it a step further and help out street children in Bolivia as well. The girls had been very concerned about the plight of children living on the streets in Bolivia ever since Julee told them stories from what she had read in the book When Invisible Children Sing written by Kaya founder Dr. Chi Huang. "They have so little," said the girls, "no toys, house, bed or food and we have all of these things."

Overall the party was a great success. In addition to raising money for Kaya Children, the girls also collected 270 books, which they donated to a nearby inner-city school. "Everybody loved it," they said. "We got lots of cards and checks and cool books." While all the children clearly had a good time, many of the parents really liked the idea of a donation party. "I think it is wonderful the girls gave up their gifts to benefit others," said Chandra Fender, one of the parents in attendance. "I am going to take the example for my daughter's birthday this year, too!"

Morgan, Madison, Olivia and Julee discovered a great way to support Kaya's work, but they also did something much more meaningful. Children coming off the streets into Kaya's programs typically have never celebrated their birthday before. For this reason, the Kaya staff does everything possible to make birthdays special for these children as a way to show them they are loved and that their lives are important. When Morgan and Madison decided to dedicate their birthday to help former street children, they also sent a message of love that means far more than any financial gift. As they put it, "It makes us happy because we made other kids happy."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dia Del Niño

April 12th was National Children’s Day, or Dia del Niño, in Bolivia. Typically, this is a day when children are celebrated and when they are reminded of both their rights and obligations as members of society. To mark the occasion, the children in the Kaya Center participated in a full day of fun and celebratory activities.

To start the day, children engaged in a special ceremony where they were matched with buddies. Older adolescents became big buddies to their younger counterparts in an effort to foster positive relationships among the kids and emphasize the importance of taking care of others. The pairs were matched by the teaching and clinical staff, taking into consideration each child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. Buddy pairs had an opportunity to get to know each other better through a time of sharing, and little buddies got to ask their big buddies about their experiences in the Kaya program.

The day continued with buddy pairs participating in a variety of games together. The 3-legged race, balloon volleyball, and marble bowling were just a few of the many games played. The kids enjoyed winning prizes like stickers and fancy pencils, and the day ended with a special meal that was selected by the kids themselves. Guisela Mustafa, our Clinical Program Coordinator, said, “The kids were really happy and had a great time. I think they learned a bit more about the need to be cared for and to care for others, an important aspect of healthy emotional development.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hasta Junio

It's been a busy week here in La Paz, but thoroughly exciting watching the new Kaya Center in action. Early tomorrow morning I head back to the States and back to our US office far away from our kids. Though I'll be back here for the summer and I'm in constant contact with everyone via phone and email here while I'm stateside, it's always a bit sad leaving. Here there is daily inspiration and more hugs than I can count, and just enough chaos to keep things interesting.

One of the highlights of the week was meeting the father of one of the kids in our residential program. His son, I., is in the process of transitioning back home, a process which will take some time. This past weekend was his first full weekend visit with his family and by all accounts it went well. The father was checking in with our clinical staff to give them an update of how things went. He was so proud of his son and he told me he saw a marked difference in him since he entered our program. His son spent the weekend talking about school and his goals for the future. Quite a difference, his father noted, from the kid who used to inhale paint thinner and hang out on the streets all day, avoiding school. For his part, the father has been working hard to control his drinking and has secured a good job. He admitted that he's definitely not ready for I. to come home yet, but little by little he is getting there. When the time comes, I. will continue to attend our full day program so that we can continue to support him and his dad as they adjust to being a family once again.

Another highlight was hanging out with some of our newest students, two 12 year old girls. Both are attending our day program while living at home with their families, and neither has ever been to school before. Our clinical staff has been working quite a bit with the girls to help them recognize the dangers of street life and begin pulling away from various street activities. Two days ago, one of the girls announced that for the past 2 weeks, she has not gone out on the streets in the middle of the night - something she was doing regularly. "I made a decision," she said, "I'm not going to do that anymore. I want to focus on school now." While we took this announcement with a grain of salt, having seen many kids make statements like this and then go back on their promises, we nevertheless were extremely proud of this accomplishment and celebrated her decision.

Baby steps. That's what it's all about down here. Each step forward feels like a miracle and is infinitely rewarding.

Now onto the miracle of getting myself out the door and onto the airport at 4am!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kaya Center Opens in La Paz

This past February marked the opening of the Kaya Center. Through the Kaya Center we offer a full-day therapeutic school program for 3 main categories of children: children living in our residential program, children who have come through our residential program and have been able to return home to their families, and children who have been out of school and on the streets, but who can remain with their families with intensive support.

The full-day program was designed around the unique needs of children who have been heavily involved in street life. Most of these children are years behind academically or have never been to school at all, despite being school-age. And most have suffered multiple forms of abuse and come from severely dysfunctional families. As a result, they are unable to succeed in traditional school environments. In the Kaya Center, children have the opportunity to receive intensive, individualized academic support to help them catch up to grade level, and they work with clinical staff members to address various psychological and emotional issues. Since such issues often surface within the classroom and impede learning, our teachers and clinicians work closely together.

To illustrate, I’ll share an incident that happened just this week. During her language arts class, one of our teachers started to introduce a lesson on word families. Think of the Spanish equivalent of “at, cat, sat, bat, mat…” Hearing the word “family,” one of her students, Miguel*, jumped out of his seat and began screaming. “No!” he yelled, “I don’t want to talk about my family!” He started to cry and refused to participate in the lesson. The situation was resolved fairly easily, since the teacher has a small class and enjoys a close relationship with her students. She was able to assure Miguel that the lesson was about word groups, not families, and he was able to calm down for a few minutes in the therapy room with the psychologist before rejoining the class. The psychologist made a note of the incident and is now meeting with Miguel to help him process his feelings about his family. She also alerted Miguel’s house parents in the residential program about what happened so that they could provide extra support and attention in the evening. This is just one example of the ways in which the Kaya Center provides integrated care to children.

By offering a full-day therapeutic school program, we are now able to better meet the needs of the children in our homes. We are also able to partner with families to reduce the need for residential care. Most children on the streets do have families, but their families are ill-equipped to provide adequate care and supervision for them. They have multiple problems and struggle to survive in extreme poverty. A typical solution is for families to relinquish full responsibility for their children and have them cared for entirely in a residential program, or watch them become fully absorbed into street life and delinquency. Many of these families, however, can provide basic levels of care. One of the primary goals of the Kaya Center, therefore, is to enable families to play an active, positive role in the lives of their children and to work together with them to make sure their children don’t wind up back in the streets. Our hope is that, through the Kaya Center, we can help more children transition back home and back into mainstream schools.

-- Kristin Huang, Executive Director

*Name changed to protect privacy