In the middle of April, the MindLeaps Rwanda team was concentrated on sending kids back to school. These were kids that finished our preparatory program last December and went to school for the first time ever in January 2017. Some kids had excellent results in the first term. Others struggled. According to those who did not do well, the first term was challenging because they had to adapt themselves to a different learning environment with an extensive curriculum in a very short period of time. After many years out of school, these kids said they could not imagine themselves sitting down in a formal class. Everything was new and different. But they did it! And now they are so excited and motivated to improve their marks in the second term.
The local authorities and 24 youth from Nyarugenge District joined MindLeaps students to plant kitchen gardens that will help 65 former street children improve their family nutrition. These gardens will add vegetables to their diet and excess produce will be sold to provide a much needed source of income.
The activity was part of a monthly communal service, commonly known as “Umuganda” in Rwanda. According to Rwandapedia, the word Umuganda can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’.
In Guinea, two more children have received the chance to attend school : Aissatou Tounkara and Mohamed Samaké.
It has been a long, tough road for Aissatou and Mohamed. In both cases, their parents are handicapped and very ill. Aissatou had to drop out of school in 8th grade to help at home. Mohamed dropped out in third grade. In 2017, their lives will finally get easier because of the generous support of Bintou Diallo and a grant from Western Union. In October, at the start of the new school year, these children will be enrolled in school and their families will be supported to help stabilize their lives.
Often, there are some times when we experience great joy due to achievements. Science says that the tears of joy represent an emotional release due to the mixture of optimism and challenge in our lives. For some people, it usually includes a sense of relief after a long laborious journey.
About two weeks ago, while I was watching kids packing their school bags, I realized that some kids were shedding tears. I was curious to know why kids who worked so hard and received well-deserved opportunities to attend excellent boarding schools were sad. Here are some reasons those kids told me…
“Thank you” – a word of appreciation that we use when we feel gratitude toward someone. One of MindLeaps’ top students, Pacifique, is known by his nickname “Passy”. Passy thinks that “thank you” is not enough unless it comes with action. Here is how Pacifique chose to say thank you… read more…
In November 2009, Rebecca and I had the pleasure to teach more than 100 vulnerable children in Rugerero, a small village on the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. It was a very big experience because we were teaching dance and raising awareness about water conservation and sanitation issues through movement and dialogue. It rained everyday, but the kids came everyday!
This month, I visited the families of the youth served by the MindLeaps program in Conakry. I understood and felt the pain that each child has living within these difficult conditions. These children have all the same desires to learn and flourish in life as other, “normal” children, but truly lack the means.
We give supplies to each of the children’s families in our program. This includes sacks of rice, basic clothing and other food stuffs. These items are necessities, the most elementary things families need. I can finally understand what it actually means to give people “the basic necessities of life”, and it also gives me a chance to ask our students what they are learning and their impressions of our program.
I was particularly interested in the story of Aissatou Tounkara. She is 16 years old. She joined our program this past July. When I asked her if she had every used a computer, she responded :
Since our first program this summer in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, we have recruited 22 out-of-school youth that we are preparing to reintegrate and sponsor to attend school in 2017. In our first program with these 22 youth, we partnered with Hope of Guinea. Over the course of three weeks, the youth studied English, Science and the Arts.
Now, MindLeaps has partnered with EDUGRADE to continue the rehabilitation of these youth and work with another 22 new youth. The group of 44 students is studying daily in IT and English classes while also participating in our dance program and receiving nutritional support. We also have a weekly program to visit the families that are responsible for these children.
On one day this month, a girl in our program said: “Since the day I was born, I have never touched a computer. I am really in a hurry to study and learn in these IT classes.”
A few months ago, I was telling the kids at MindLeaps that we will host a group of special guests in August. The kids asked me why I call them “special.” I responded, “They are special because, thanks to them, our MindLeaps Center exists.” I could see doubt on their faces. Then came August 1, the first day of Level8 Projects visit. The MindLeaps kids were so excited to see Carnoustie High School students who are almost their age.
A specific schedule was designed for this three-day visit from our Scottish visitors and supporters. Small groups were created with Scottish team members, MindLeaps students and MindLeaps Rwandan staff. Each group presented a final piece of their collaborative work on the third day of the visit. Those three days were full of joy. I have never seen MindLeaps students that open and happy with foreigners. The Scottish guests exchanged everything they knew with our kids. They even visited the ones who have been rehabilitated and reinserted into their families.
ABOUT JANELLE: Janelle Junkin is a PhD candidate in the Creative Arts in Therapy program at Drexel University. Janelle conducts research on the impact of the MindLeaps’ program on the participating students; she has completed research at Drexel in addition to being in the field in Rwanda. Janelle is involved in several areas of research with MindLeaps; first, she completed a program evaluation in December 2015. Second, she is analyzing data with a partner organization to determine if there is a viable predictability model for MindLeaps’ students success stories at boarding school. In January 2016, Janelle trained four MindLeaps boys using a data collection tool to determine selectivity bias. Finally, since January 2015, Janelle has worked with on ground staff in Rwanda analyzing the skills measured by MindLeaps to determine student progress in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. We sat down with Janelle to ask her about her experience and thoughts on MindLeaps and her work.
How did you get involved with MindLeaps?
JJ: In the fall of 2013, I was doing a literature search for my dissertation, and I came across an article on the Rebecca Davis Dance Company (RDDC). The article discussed work that it had been doing abroad, and mentioned that RDDC was based in Philadelphia and that the Executive Director, Rebecca Davis, lived there. I had never heard about programs like this in Philly, so I emailed Rebecca. We later set up a Skype chat, and I interviewed her to get background info for the dissertation.
For most of the people in Guinea, “summer camp” means traveling from town to town or from country to country. But, the MindLeaps–Hope of Guinea Summer Camp is an innovation in Guinea: The STEAM CAMP (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) took place for three weeks for 50 youth in Conakry. The children took dance classes with MindLeaps’ teachers, and English, math, and science classes provided by Peace Corps’ volunteers. This novelty enabled the children to develop a healthy state of mind, and I have personally found that dance has provoked radically positive changes in their behavior. read more…
Summer Camp ! This is the first time that many street youth in Guinea have had the chance to participate in a summer program. These are children that live on the streets and/or deal with difficult issues in their families that prevent them from experiencing safe, ordinary childhoods.
When 50 children came to the first day of summer camp, we heard some say, “I feel like an ordinary kid now”.
For this particular program, MindLeaps teamed up with Hope of Guinea, a not-for-profit organization working to increase access to education. MindLeaps recruited 20 street children to join Hope of Guinea’s 30 in-school children for a joint summer program. The children are between the ages of 9 and 15 years, and there are more girls than boys. read more…
Our society is composed of different layers that can be categorized according to one’s ability to meet his or her basic needs. Within these different categories, you can especially see the reality and challenges of young girls. These young girls can find themselves on the street and at risk of many dangers, such as prostitution and teen pregnancy.
It is rare to meet a person in our society who has not met or seen a street child. But, usually people pass these children on the street and don’t give thought to the state of the child.
This leaves me to ponder two questions :
- How did these children come to be on the street (malnutrition, orphans, family poverty, failure at school)?
- Who will take care of their basic needs now and in the future ?
Rene is a former street child. When I first met him, he was completely lost. He was not even strong enough to stand under the sun for a few minutes. Most of the time, he was talking in a sitting position avoiding eye contact. Now, when you engage in a conversation with him, he immediately smiles and shares his current feelings and his past. I cannot believe how far he has come, and he tells me he is very grateful.
“I was lost, totally lost. Now I realize how crazy I was. Can you imagine yourself not being able to differentiate days and nights? When you are high [on drugs], they both look the same. I am still wondering how I survived in such bad conditions…The street is a hell,” Rene told me. He also added that there is no future on the street, but sometimes, street children do talk about it – as if it belongs to others not to them. “On the street, you just get high and you sleep. The only thing you have in mind is how you are going to get the next dose of a drug. Whatever you find is fine as long as you just get high.”
His name is Fiston Sindambiwe, and he arrived at MindLeaps in January 2015. As he told me, he was just passing by the center. Fiston ended up on the streets because he wanted to stay away from the problems in his family. He could not afford paying the last three years of secondary school; just to find something to eat was a very big struggle.
He didn’t have any intention to stay in the MindLeaps program. He came because all his friends joined MindLeaps. He could not stay alone on the street. He thought he will come along and just fake it or “pretend” to be a part of the program in order to stay with his friends.
When we started this program, there were just about four to six kids who used to dance on the streets and wanted us to teach them something. They were the very first youth to access this program and help us structure it for the future. Youth were attracted to the program because of the free dance classes, but they also asked for English lessons. Their ambitions grew and we saw the need to provide essential nutritional support through a meal program too. These youth dream of becoming professional dancers and traveling the world (using their English skills). Their dreams motivate them to change their lives. read more…
Late last year, MindLeaps launched a new girls program with the support of American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland. This program was implemented with the aim of serving girls at-risk in Kigali. Like the boys at MindLeaps, classes of 15 kids at a time are recruited. Fifteen girls were received in the program with a warm welcome from Misty. This also marked a first for Misty herself – her first time to Africa!
Our girls were so excited to hear a superstar talk to them and share life lessons. Misty gave them a short summary of her long path to become the first female African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Misty told the girls that she is still dancing, and through her experiences, she understands how dance can change one’s life and help one to follow his or her dreams. She said that dance teaches discipline, perseverance, teamwork, and confidence. She also added that dance will help young people believe they are worth something. As a formerly underprivileged girl, she proved that hard work and perseverance produce results.
There’s a saying: “Sometimes you have to kind of die inside in order to rise from your own ashes and believe in yourself and love yourself to become a new person.”
I have heard some regular students at MindLeaps speak of who they were before, and then change to become proud of the person they are now. I would like to share the story that shocked me the most during the last two years: The Story of Claude.
There was a boy, Claude, and his brother who were abandoned by their mom when they were little boys. While they were both coming from school, the boys realized that their mother was not at home. She moved without telling them where she was going. They told me that they “waited for her for a few days but the landlord didn’t let them keep waiting for their mother to return. The house was re-rented.” This is how Claude and his brother became street children.
Most of the street children that I meet do not perceive the immediate importance of literacy in their daily struggle for survival, but Ali Sibomana is an unusual street kid.
Ali is one of the top students at MindLeaps. He recently received a scholarship from Misty Copeland, the first African-American female Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre. When Misty and Ali visited the school that will host him next year, it was the first time I saw Ali happy and excited to go back to school. I’ve known Ali since 2012, but I have never seen him happy.
Three weeks ago when I was passing in a village situated around 60 km from Kigali, the bus stopped at the gas station for a few minutes. I saw a man biting a kid. I asked people who were selling cookies to passengers why the man was biting the kid. With a smile, one of the guys responded that the kid had stolen money from that man.
“Hmm,” I responded but I could not believe what I was seeing. Then I asked the guy who was sitting beside me in the bus why no one intervened to stop the man. The person smiled and told me that the kid who was being bitten is a thief; he already knew the kid. I was curious how he knew that kid. The guy responded to me that all street children are thieves. I felt chocked up, but I kept my silence and did not argue with him.