Meet Julia Sawatzky – Part Two!

Julia with MindLeaps’ students in Conakry

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?

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Meet Julia Sawatzky!

Julia helping a young Guinean girl receive new shoes

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?

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Why Dance?

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…

My First Impressions of Guinea

Julia helps a MindLeaps’ student with her new shoes

Just 10 days into my time in Guinea, I am reeling from the huge diversity of fascinating experiences I have had being in Conakry with MindLeaps. Guinea is truly like no other country I have ever been to before, in terms of both its difficult political history and challenging levels of development, as well as its vibrant and multi-faceted culture. While there have already been many bumps in the road, from power outages to miscommunication to broken laptops and getting lost, none of these things have deterred in the slightest from the warmth of my welcome here or the important lessons I am beginning to learn.

My first and perhaps most pivotal experience so far was a visit to Cité de Solidarité, a government-run compound for 300 of Conakry’s most vulnerable families. These families were originally gathered from the area surrounding the Grande Mosquee, where they had previously turned to begging for income due, primarily, to disability and stigma (ie. parents suffering from blindness, missing limbs, albinism).

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Rene’s Story: Using the Internet to Increase His Skill Level

Rene is a MindLeaps graduate who just finished vocational training school in Tailoring.

I have been so impressed by the fact that his skills are improving day after day since he graduated. The creativity he developed from our dance program combined with the skills he learned from technical school are helping him grow professionally.  He is making improved products to generate income and attract more clients to his own sewing business. Last month we were so amazed by the way he crafted fabric gifts to thank MindLeaps’ outstanding volunteers.

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Promoting Girls Education

I will not call them street girls. For some people, the word “street girls” means “prostitute”. They don’t look like prostitutes and using that word might be offensive. I don’t know them yet. I don’t know where they come from.  This is just what MindLeaps needs to discover in the next few days before they officially enter our program.

I will not call them “street children” either.  They are all over 16 years old. They look very clean. They sleep in “a home”. They smile.  They enjoy playing and learning. They are just vulnerable girls who need support to achieve their dreams.

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Giving Shoes To Children Across Guinea

The government of Guinea is one of our partners in the distribution of shoes donated by Ruben’s Shoes from Canada.  These shoes are destined for all the children of Guinea, and recently, we organized a series of activities to distribute the shoes throughout the interior of the country.

After the direct involvement of Madame Sanaba Kaba, the Minister of Social Action, for this distribution, it was decided to make an official tour of the town of Dabola, which is about 450km from the capital, Conakry.  This tour was made under the official slogan, “One Pair of Shoes for Each Child”.

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Former Street Children Succeed In School

What would you say if you realized that all those begging faces that you pass by everyday on the street have hidden talents inside themselves?

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.

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Kitchen Garden At MindLeaps Center

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’.

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Western Union Sponsors Aissatou & Mohamed

Assiatou and her parents

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.

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Tears of Joy

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…

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The Meaning of “Thank You”



Passy Cooking at the MindLeaps Center

“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…

Children in Rugerero Village

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!

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Aissatou’s Passion for IT

img_6524This 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 :

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From 22 to 44: Helping Youth in Guinea’s Capital

guinea2016-blogseptember1Since 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.”

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Level8 Projects: From Scotland to Rwanda

level8bestA 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.

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Conversation with MindLeaps Researcher, Janelle Junkin

Blog_JanelleABOUT 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.

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Mixing Out-of-School & In-School Children Together

Guinea2016 - HOGRehearsal1The words: “summer camp”…

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 in Conakry, Guinea for Out-of-School Youth

Guinea2016 - HOG1Summer 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…

Girls Changing Their Lives in Guinea

Guinea2016 - FatimSylla

Fatim Sylla – A Student in MindLeaps Guinea Program

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 :

  1. How did these children come to be on the street (malnutrition, orphans, family poverty, failure at school)?
  2. Who will take care of their basic needs now and in the future ?

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