In 2015, MindLeaps opened its center in Kigali, Rwanda, welcoming street kids and vulnerable youth to a safe place where they were given a lunch meal and enjoyed a fun dance program. Fiston was among the first kids to join the program.
Fiston had never danced before, and he thought dance was a waste of time. At first, he didn’t attend classes regularly, and even when he came to the MindLeaps center, he couldn’t focus. “In the beginning, dance seemed like a waste of time and energy. I never imagined dance would influence my life. With time though, I fell in love with dance, and my confidence and hope started building. Seeing other kids getting school sponsorship encouraged me to work harder so that I could also have a chance to go to school,” Fiston recalls.
Since 2014, when it opened its permanent center in Kigali, Rwanda, MindLeaps has witnessed amazing transformations. Kids have left street life forever and now excel in school after reintegration. Vulnerable in-school kids have a renewed interest in learning and their academic performance has steadily improved.
MindLeaps has also sponsored youth who chose to pursue TVET/vocational training education, which is currently encouraged in Rwanda. After completing a full year of training, 20 young people have graduated in fields of their choice: 7 in hairdressing, 7 in culinary arts, and 6 in tailoring. Among these graduates, 3 have secured full-time jobs after their internship period. Marius, one of these recent graduates, told us that “During my internship at Tam Tam restaurant in Kigali, I used my culinary skills, grit, creativity and teamwork to improve customer satisfaction. After my internship, the restaurant manager immediately gave me a full-time job. I was thrilled at this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing my work.”
In January 2019, MindLeaps recruited twenty new out-of-school youth. When they joined the program, these kids had never danced before. “Our muscles hurt the first two weeks and we almost wanted to stop coming to the center. But as time went on, we fell in love with dance because it helped us become more flexible, it’s fun and helps us relax,” said Anipha and Janvier.
Despite the challenges faced at home, these twenty young people were very committed to regularly attending the MindLeaps program. Kelly told us that “Before dropping out, we had computers at school, but we weren’t allowed to touch them. MindLeaps not only lets me touch the computer, but has also given me a chance to learn basic IT skills like software, hardware and the Internet.”
In March 2019, MindLeaps hosted supporters Dr. Howard Bilofsky, Margaret Shapiro and Linda Blackstone for a week-long visit to Rwanda. During their stay, the visitors were able to sit in on a meeting of the MindLeaps parents’ committee, a part of our Family Strengthening Program. Currently, the program includes 100 parents as active members of five self-help groups. Through these self-help groups, MindLeaps is able to work not only with the children enrolled in dance classes, but with their families as well, helping to strengthen the larger community.
It was inspiring to hear how meaningful the family strengthening program has been to parents, from providing a sense of belonging, to making available small loans to start businesses or meet basic family needs. Beyond that, the program is also seen as a security net. All groups contribute weekly to a joint social fund to support their peers who may need help to meet emergencies like unexpected illness or a death in the family.
This particular class was a room of twenty Rwandan girls, ages 13 to 19, who come from vulnerable families living in the slums of Kigali. They are students at MindLeaps where I began teaching classes this past spring.
Thanks to the generosity of the Alice Rowan Swanson fellowship grant program awarded through Students for International Training (SIT), I was able to launch a comprehensive sexuality curriculum for MindLeaps, which was piloted for four months with a group of twenty Rwandan girls. The program emphasizes confidence building and communication skills, putting youth at the center of their sexual health and giving them the tools and confidence to make healthy, informed choices.
Zidane Ndatimana lives with his mother and 10 siblings. Coming from a poor family and facing difficult life conditions, in 2009, Zidane decided to go to the street.
Zidane joined MindLeaps dance program through its early partnership with FidesCo, another organization working with street children, back in 2011. His consistent hard work and discipline enabled him to be sponsored to join formal education at Sonrise Primary School in the Northern Province in 2012. Zidane’s commitment to get the best out of himself has always been inspiring. Despite his background, the lowest grade he has ever got is 67% in 6 years of his primary school studies.
At the end of 2017, we had 16 kids take the national exam in Rwanda. This exam is an educational milestone for all Rwandan children. At MindLeaps, all 16 of our kids passed with impressively good scores! They were admitted to good schools; in January, they started their lives in formal education.
In our country, like in other countries in this region of the world, there is mistrust of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (national or international). Often NGOs are established with a mandate to help children, but after they receive funding, the organizations disappear. This creates an overall distrust in the entire system of NGOs and philanthropy here. This is really misfortunate because, in the end, it simply hurts the children. But, it is the sad reality of our country, and hence, private corporations and states do not trust NGOs. What can be done?
Saturday, December 16th was a great experience for our MindLeaps kids. We had a performance at Nyagatare Children’s Rehabilitation Center in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. It was the first time to travel a long distance (a 4-hour drive) for most of our kids. On the road, they were able to see Lake Muhazi surrounded by cows and rice plantations. It was a joy to watch their excitement.
Most of us didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at Children’s Rehabilitation Center (The Center). The Center is the only detention facility in Rwanda that houses teenagers who have been accused and sentenced of crimes. It functions as a home and also a place of education so that these youth can continue their lives. read more…
These children were very happy to resume the path of education. It also represented the highest achievement of our MindLeaps team here: entering vulnerable children into formal education.
I heard this sentence many times in August from different conversations I had with volunteers and visitors: “In this small space, you are changing lives.” The whole month of August, it kept coming up. Here are a few people who mentioned the same idea in different circumstances:
The first one who said it was Chase Johnsey. Chase, a ballet dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, volunteered to train MindLeaps dance teachers in classical ballet. During his stay in Rwanda, he had more time to interact with kids and visit where they live and sleep at night.
Street children come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. I have met some from whom I learned a lot, but I think Ezila is not a typical street child.
“An inspiring idea” is something you will always find when you are talking to this young boy. Ezila will share with you his projects, his ever-changing plans for the future, and if you still have some time to talk to him, he will persuade you to support his new project.
Back in March 2014, our dance program began at the MindLeaps Center in Kigali. Aboubakar Rutayisire (AKA “Abouba”) was not among the 15 street children collected from the street to attend the program. He knocked at MindLeaps gate two weeks after we had started that cohort. He said he was looking for a chance to learn dance. He said he heard from other street children that MindLeaps was looking for street children to attend dance classes. He was told by MindLeaps security guard that the registration was over but there is a chance that next year he could join. Abouba didn’t lose hope. He kept coming to MindLeaps Center to make sure he hadn’t missed the opportunity to join the next group of street children dancers.
We had the pleasure of hosting a volunteer for one month from Canada: Julia Sawatzky. Julia helped our program with the development of an elaborate tool used in recruiting new children into our program. The tool involves collecting data and creating detailed profiles of the children’s backgrounds.
Before starting our program in the area called Nongo, we decided to visit the families of the children who would register for our program. During these visits, we saw that it was truly a relief for these parents and caretakers to know that we – MindLeaps – will always be there to help their children and communicate with them as guardians.
Likewise, it was an important experience for this volunteer to know that we are in direct contact with the people who our program impacts – both directly and indirectly. There are no intermediaries between the service providers and the beneficiaries.
There are some children who do not know what to say when you ask them if they have hope for their future. They have no response when you ask them, “What do you want to become one day?” They tell you, “I don’t know…Nothing.” Often, I don’t even know if they fully understand such questions.
For these children, here at MindLeaps, our program represents “hope”. It is why we fight every day to make children smile and give them the opportunity to believe – just a little – that hope and the possibility to “become something” in the future is a reality.
Just like that, one of the most incredible months of my life is drawing to a close! Guinea has welcomed me so warmly that it is nearly impossible to think of leaving again so soon. Luckily, my heart is full to bursting with memories, learning, and love for this country, so it will certainly stay with me as I move on to my next adventure!
In my last few days here, I’ve been working hard to compile all of the research work that I’ve done, look back on it as a whole, and gleam from it all of the insights and learning that it offers. I think it is perfectly fitting, then, that after 11 different qualitative interviews on school success in Guinea, one of the main themes that emerged was the necessity of bringing critical thinking into Guinean schools and student mentalities, and many of our experts described this kind of thinking as “the ability to analyze and summarize.” I suppose it makes total sense that the way I’m learning that, processing it and taking it away with me in a meaningful context, is exactly through that very process of “summarizing and analyzing”.
My third week in Conakry felt like it vanished before my eyes! All of my projects are in full swing now, and the days are equal parts busy, exciting and fulfilling.
The children spent three days here at the centre this week for the MindLeaps program: English lessons, followed by dance class. I have loved watching and taking part in the English classes, practicing with the kids and letting them demonstrate to me their enthusiasm for everything they have learned and accomplished. The MindLeaps’ English teacher, Mr. Doumboya, is charismatic and wonderful with the kids, and one of my best decisions in Conakry was taking him on as my own French teacher. He and I usually set to work on my curriculum of useful phrases and conversational skills once the kids have finished with their English lesson, and I’ve found it to be extremely helpful in how I’m able to get around and immerse myself in life in Guinea.
Last time we found out why Julia decided to partner with MindLeaps and how important dance had become to her. This time around, with the second part of our interview (if you haven’t read the first part, you MUST!), we discuss her recent trips as well as what she will do with the knowledge she has acquired.
Julia is our newest volunteer working in Guinea. She is a dancer and medical student traveling to developing countries on a R&A International scholarship to study public health, global health and how art and culture can contribute to the studies of medicine.
So, where were we last time?
Q: How has your recent trips (Myanmar, Laos, India, Tanzania, Guinea) affected/ inspired you as a medical student and a person in general?
MindLeaps is proud to introduce our newest volunteer from the Guinea team, Julia Sawatzky! She is a former dancer turned medical student. After graduating from University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she went on to receive the R&A scholarship that allows her to travel on a year-long trip around the world to volunteer, gain insight as a medical student, and grow as a person. Her project involves three crucial themes: public health, global health, and how culture and art tie into medical practices. She has been to Myanmar, Laos, India, and Tanzania so far and look where we are now: Guinea!
We had the pleasure to do an interview with Julia about her inspirations, why she chose MindLeaps, and what this trip has meant to her. Here is Part One of the interview. Part Two… coming soon!
Q: What prompted the change in career path from a dancer to a medical student?
During my second week with MindLeaps in Conakry, the dance program began – and with it came a full-on plunge into new and diverse avenues of this learning experience! I am learning about both Guinean culture and society, and the capacity of dance to empower!
On the first day of dance classes, I began the second half of my research project for this stay in Conakry: testing the appropriateness of an intake questionnaire developed to capture the circumstances and stories of kids who come into the Guinean MindLeaps program. read more…