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A Long Time Coming

So, it has been a while since my last blog. To be completely honest, it has been all go here in Argentina, and I just haven’t had the time to put words on the page. A problem that I have is that writing doesn’t really come naturally to me, so on top of finding the time to do so, I also have to be in the right frame of mind to put thoughts into words. Fortunately, this morning, a great cup of coffee from my local coffee shop (Santa Café), sparked a little enthusiasm to attempt some thought-to-word conversions.

I am very excited about the project at this current point in time. The physical space is changing, we are developing Food for Thought’s educational pedagogy, and our collaboration with Fundación Arché is beginning to take shape! So, seeing as I have been off the radar for a while, I thought it would be a good idea to give a little recap of our progress, and maybe a synopsis of the current project.

What is SOG? It is the name of our Organisation. It is our official entity in Australia. SOG facilitates all of the fundraising activities within Australia. Our current fundraising activities are: Annual Latte Art Competition, Annual Fundraiser/Auction night, and The Final Step Social Enterprise Café. Jason Williams is our operations manager based in Melbourne.

What is Food for Thought? (La Sartén por el Mango in Spanish) It is our education project aimed at vulnerable children and their families in Monte Chingolo, Argentina. We support around 25 primary school aged children, five days per week, providing nutritious food and creative educational activity. I, Benjamin Whitaker, along with Justine Fayon, Soledad Arce, and Valeria Taraborrrelli are in charge of operations here in Argentina.

First, I will give a little context to the environment within which we are working. The community Monte Chingolo where we work is situated in the town of Lanús, in the Province in the south of Greater Buenos Aires. The economic situation for communities such as Monte Chingolo is worsening month by month. The social support networks provided by the state have been steadily disappearing. Hyperinflation is making day to day economic decisions of families ever more difficult. Within this environment, every kind of social problem arises. Drug and alcohol abuse, crime, malnutrition, violence and abuse of every kind, especially towards children, and those most vulnerable.

So, taking into consideration this extremely difficult social context, we have created a safe, positive and encouraging space where children have access to healthy, nutritious food, and opportunities in learning and self-development, that otherwise don’t exist. From our experience in teaching, and working with children, we understand that a child reflects their home environment. Every act of a child, or behaviour demonstrated, indicates to us their specific need or needs. So with this in mind, and with the resources that we have available to us, we tailor the delivery of our learning activities to best suit learners within this specific context.

I’ll give an example. Four children from one family, attend Food for Thought. All of these children are very shy and they have low self-esteem, which means they give up very easily and lack confidence. We also see the way that the mother speaks to the children and how she speaks of them (often in front of them). She is constantly talking down to them, berating them, and never has a nice thing to say about them. (Not to mention the violence, non-existent personal hygiene and malnutrition within the household). So, many of our activities involve strategies to boost the children’s self-esteem and confidence. We use positive reinforcements. We give additional responsibilities to the older children. We support the voicing of opinions. We listen to the children’s needs and wants. We ask children what activities they wish to participate in. We search for any opportunity for one of these children to demonstrate a good idea, a great piece of work, or a particular skill that that child has. We also give these children one on one time for them to actually feel that they are listened to and respected.

We started Food for Thought in 2013. Since then, we have been getting to know the community and learning how we can best serve it. What we have learned in the last four years has been crucial in the development of the project. I never imagined us being in the position that we are now in. I never imagined the impact that this project could have on the lives of the children and their families.

The actual physical space within which we are facilitating the project is around half a block in size. We are sharing the site with a local foundation (Fundación Aché) who have been working within the community for around ten years. The site is called the ‘Community Participation Centre’. The buildings within which we work are large concrete fortresses left over from the second world war. Just kidding, but if you were to think of a concrete fortress, that is the type of building that we are working in. They are cold in winter and hot in summer which is not great, but we are making the most with what we’ve got!

It has been two years in the making, but we have finally moved into our new kitchen. It is a true luxury to work within the new kitchen space. It is spacious and has a tiled floor and walls. It was mostly paid for by a grant that we received from the Australian Embassy here in Argentina. We were able to do enough local fundraising to put the finishing touches on the kitchen so that we could move in.

The Community Participation Centre has a metal workshop, a second-hand clothes stall, storerooms for equipment, a large new kitchen, a large concrete sports pitch, a small interview room, a small garden space, a hall for activities, and two new classrooms in the process of being finished. It is all concrete so it isn’t exactly comfortable, but little by little, with the resources that we have, we are improving the functionality of the space. The truth of the matter is that I am really excited about the Community Participation Centre because it has so much potential. We are not only improving the physical space but also constantly working on the culture and climate of the space so that it is a positive and encouraging learning environment for everyone!

I truly believe that we can transform the space into the community centre that it should be, and we are on the way. The following activities take place on site. A mothers group run by psychologists, family support run by psychologists, sewing classes for mothers, metal work classes for adolescents, capacity building for youth wanting to go into the workforce, an alcoholics anonymous group, and the following activities for children: school support, hockey, music, yoga, drama, cooking, physical activity, and gardening. We will also be facilitating cooking workshops for parents and other members of the community very shortly.

The foundations on which we have built Food for Thought are the relationships that we have formed with the children and their parents. Those relationships are fundamental to the functioning of the project. We evaluate our progress every day as to assess our effectiveness and to find ways in which we can improve our connection with the children and their families. I cannot stress enough the importance in not only creating strong and healthy relationships but also modelling them for everybody to see. It is important for the community, but most of all for the children. The idea is that the children will replicate what they see from the people who they respect.

We believe the way that children feel respected is by having choice. We give the children the opportunity to choose as often as it is possible. The children choose where they want to sit during meal time and also during circle time which happens two to three times per day. We give them a choice of what activity they wish to do, they always have the space to speak and question, and there is a time to play every day where they choose what they do. Within this environment the children feel respected and trusted, therefore, they feel supported in making effective learning decisions for themselves.

So, at Food for Thought we combine a balanced diet with creative and imaginative educational activity which is the formula that we use to support the healthy physical, cognitive, social/emotional and spiritual development of children. (Spiritual – deeper connection with oneself). We deliver this in an environment that is positive and supportive as to see that children have the confidence in their own ability to learn and make sensible decisions for themselves and those around them today and in the future.

There you have it. A little run down of our progress. Stay tuned. Hasta pronto!