By Barabara Inglin – COTA Projects Coordinator
I met up with Libia and Diana who work for the HRBC Foundation and we caught a taxi to the núcleo in Siloe. (A núcleo is a place in a community where children come with their families.) Siloe is the name given to a neighbourhood of Cali, situated in the foothills in the west of the city. It was originally a slum settlement that has since been “legalized”, but remains an area with high levels of poverty and violence.
Our taxi soon left the ordered streets of downtown Cali and plunged into the chaotic streets of Siloe. Saturday is market day, and the narrow pavements were spilling over with market stalls, people selling everything and anything from a plastic sheet on the ground, horses pulling carts piled with hundreds of bottles of a fizzy drink that someone was selling off cheap, stray dogs running here and there, children playing on the kerbside, cars, taxis, buses, bicycles all seeming to “battle” for space in between. People everywhere.
About 5 minutes later, we arrived at the Community Centre in Siloe – an oasis of calm by comparison with the hustle and frenzy of the streets outside. The Centre has a small library, a concrete football pitch, an open-air stage and a meeting room.
HRBC has been running a núcleo from this Community Centre for over a year now. All of HRBC’s núcleo’s are run by volunteers, and the volunteer at Siloe is Isabel – an energetic woman with a wonderfully engaging smile who makes the children and families feel right at home the moment they walk through the door. Isabel has a slight disability herself, with reduced hearing, but this is no obstacle to her work with the children.
When we arrived, there were 6 children sitting patiently round a table, with a large plastic sheet stretched out, and Isabel was pouring a small pile of flour in front of each child. They looked on curiously, wondering what the flour was for. Isabel announced that today they were going to make a “cake” from flour and glue! The children giggled, but waited eagerly for the next step. They had to pat the flour down and make a hole in the middle, where Isabel then poured the glue (non-toxic, child-safe glue). They were then instructed to start mixing and kneading the mixture until they had a dough-like texture. This caused lots more giggles and not a little consternation on the part of one little girl who wasn’t keen on “getting her hands dirty”, but with gentle encouragement from Isabel, she soon dug in and her hands became covered in a gloriously sticky mess of flour and glue. Slowly but surely the mixture changed to a dough, and became more manageable, all the while the children chattered away, making jokes, telling stories and asking questions.
It didn’t matter in the slightest to them that Sandro couldn’t see, that Sofía had trouble communicating, that Peter couldn’t hear, or that Henry had a learning difficulty. They were children having fun, sharing ideas and learning new things.
More children arrived and joined in – each one curious to see what the others were doing. By the end of the session, there were 12 happy children in the núcleo. Their parents, mostly single mothers, went over to join Edith, HRBC’s Pyschologist who was holding a “support session” with the parents to discuss and share ideas about how to cope with their child’s disability or general parenting skills, as well as conflict resolution within the family home.
Isabel invited the children to shape their dough ball into a person from their family – some of the children immediately chose a family member and began shaping and creating their figurine. Others took longer, thinking about what to make, and opting in the end for a different shape. Sandro, for example, spent several minutes carefully rolling the dough mixture in his hands, thinking and thinking – he thought about making a figure of his mother, he thought about making a figure of his pet dog, he thought about making a star, but in the end he decided to make a fruit basket – delicately shaping the different fruits and accompanying the basket with a water jug, a bread board, and a knife. What his eyes couldn’t see, his hands were able to shape perfectly and the end result was impressive.
Sofía, decided to make lots of balls, Henry ummed and ahhed and then asked for help, María gave Henry ideas, shared her dough with him, and together they made a range of different shapes.
Then the painting began – oh what fun, watching the different shapes come to life as the yellow paint made María’s sun shine, as Peter coloured the hair on his model black – the children shared the paint and the paintbrushes without quibble, no-one complained, and everything progressed smoothly. Isabel sat by one girl’s side and quietly helped her paint her dough ball – a difficult task for this girl who has coordination problems and a cognitive disability that makes it difficult for her to follow simple instructions. With patience and kindness, Isabel was able to help this girl finish her painting and then watch her run, proud and full of emotion to show her mother in the other room.
The whole time the children were mixing and shaping the dough, and painting their creations,Isabel asked them about the textures, the shapes, the colours, how many people live in their house (practising numbers/counting), and thus in such a simple, but effective and fun way, got the children to practice their learning of basic maths, geometry and colours, each at a different level. She helped them with their communication, encouraging them to repeat the names of the colours and use the names to ask another child to pass them a colour. Without them even realizing it, the morning’s session had not just been about fun and sharing, but also about learning and developing learning skills.
The workshop was a simple but effective way of showing how HRBC supports disabled and non-disabled children from very vulnerable backgrounds to develop their learning and social skills, and helps them improve with their school studies or, in many cases, get ready to join mainstream school. All it took was a bag of flour, some glue and paint, and lots of patience and encouragement from Isabel!
At midday the session ended, but no-one was in a hurry to leave. The mothers finished their workshop with Edith, and wandered into the children’s room, where their children showed them proudly what they had made. They spoke with Isabel, checking how things had gone, when the next session was and if anything was needed. Slowly they helped to pack everything up and clear away the wonderful mess of bits of dough and paint that had dropped onto the floor; and then they left, the children clutching their creations in one hand and waving goodbye to Isabel.
This morning’s visit was a good example of a typical day at one of HRBC’s núcleos, where disabled and non-disabled children share time, experiences and activities without prejudice or negative attitudes; where Sandro’s example helps the children’s families (and other members of the community) understand that lack of sight does not mean lack of vision; where Sofía’s example helps them realise that having Down’s syndrome is not something to be afraid of; where Peter’s example shows how important it is for children to share and learn together. And in this way, HRBC is managing to break down some of the biggest barriers to inclusion of disabled children in society, where a person’s attitude and understanding of disability can make a world of difference to how disabled children are accepted and involved in their community.
All names of children are pseudonyms
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