Today we took a taxi into barrio 18 on the far side of town. The taxi took us zooming right up onto the foothills of the mountains and down the other side – a switchback of a ride with dizzying views of the city in the morning sunshine from the top. The day that was to follow would be rather similar…
Building bridges for working children
Our first stop was ACJ (the YMCA in Colombia). The team here are providing education for working children. Many of these children have never been to school at all. They spend their days working on the streets of the city – selling sweets, washing car windscreens, or shining shoes. Some are sexually exploited or used in the drug trade. The project leaders told us that they earn very little, and the money does not generally make a great difference to the families, but it is simply expected that children work.
ACJ aims to change this, working with families, schools and the children themsleves to ensure that education is seen as a priority for all children. The education centre we visited today is a bridge between the street and school, providing a halfway place where children can ‘learn to learn’. The children spend a half day at the centre where they take part in reading, writing and maths classes as well as painting, games, gardening, music and other activities. The classes are really small (just 8 – 12 kids) so that teachers can give individual attention. Children spend between one and two years coming to the centre, while the educators work on getting that particular child into formal education.
It was clear from our visit that this is not easy work. The children who attend the project travel from the very poor and conflict-ridden barrios (neighbourhoods) that we visited yesterday, and it does show. Many are years behind in their schooling, finding it hard to concentrate or progress. Others are very underconfident or disruptive. However, ACJ is not giving up on these children, and they have many success stories. They have helped hundreds of children into formal education over the years, and the specialised attention staff are able to give makes a real difference.
We heard the story of one little girl who used to feel ill whenever she was in a classroom. Her teacher at school used to just send her home until she dropped out altogether. But at ACJ, they realised her ‘illness’ was a response to the fact that she was behind the other children and very underconfident. They worked with until she grew in confidence and began to learn. She is now in school and has the opportunity to learn and get a job off the streets.
Another woman who won’t give up
There are some people in the world who are born to smile. Libia is one of these people. She founded and is the head of HRBC – the next project that we visited. The afternoon was spent in chatting and laughing as we went round the project. But behind Libia’s sunny outlook there is a steely determination to make a difference to the lives of children in the deprived areas of Cali.
HRBC is working to improve the quality of life of children with disabilities. They do this by supporting the learning, development and educational inclusion of children with disabilities and by helping families to support their kids.
At the project we talked to the children and helped with an activity they were doing. The kids were eager to know everything about England. “Are there cars there? And trees? And cats? And people?” came the breathless torrent of questions in Spanish. “Do you kow the Queen? Do you live in a castle? Do you know Harry Potter?” (I’m not sure whether this last question was meant as literally as it sounded!)
There is something very special about the projects we have visited over the last two days – the ones where disabled children are included. We have seen kids who are deaf and blind working on a photography project alongside able-bodied kids. (THAT was extraordinary – we will have to tell you more at some point!) We have seen kids with Down’s Syndrome, Autism, learning difficulties and those with no disability taking part in an exuberant dance and music performances together. We have heard from parents how their children had calmed down and opened up after spending time at the projects. We have heard from the children themselves about the friends they have made and the good time they are having.
I think it is the inclusive nature of these organisations that has really touched us – the fact that disabled and able bodied kids are doing things together, having fun and genuinely valuing each other as friends. We really saw the ability of these disabled children today. This, coupled with the fact that many of them would never normally have the opportunities on offer here, is what makes these projects so special. It left us on a real high!
In the evening we had a look round the local area and met our COTA photographer and film maker – Ben – a very important man! Ben is based out in Cali and takes all our photos of children, checking to make sure that the children have given full permission and understand how the photos will be used. As a charity that believes in the rights of children, we never use a photo without a child´s permission and believe this to be very important.
Ciao until tomorrow!
Hannah & Emily