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Good bye Valeria

If felt like forever that I have been away from the kids. A month in Australia (fundraising), a month in New Zealand (fundraising and family), and a month here is Buenos Aires (designing a curriculum for Food for Thought). There were a few butterflies in the stomach before getting back into the project after such a long time away, but the nerves were unfounded. I reconnected with the team and the kids, and quickly felt like I had never left! The kids always bring me back down to earth!

I am in the fortunate position of being surrounded by great people. The team of Foundation ARCHE, and the team of Food for Thought, have now become one. It has taken a few years to smooth off the edges and a little bit of accommodating by both sides to different styles of working, but it is fair to say that we are now functioning as a single unit. What is good from one side can be combined to what is good on the other, to make something great! What is not so good can be slowly transformed into something better! When many people are aiming at the same goal posts, differences seem to become points of growth.

The best part about our collaboration is that we can not only provide education and support for the children but also for their family. For their older siblings and very importantly, their parents. To be honest we are really playing the role of social workers, but with extra tools in the belt. As teachers and psychologists, along with the help of volunteers, we can provide a multifaceted approach to community development.  

I had a great time in Melbourne, Australia, reconnecting with The Final Step (TFS) customers. Some of which have been loyal customers for over nine years. In June this year, TFS will be turning ten! Before we changed into a social enterprise, we were a normal for-profit café. It has been a not-for-profit business supporting Food for Thought for over five years now. I love seeing the faces of those people who have been buying coffee from TFS for close to a decade. Even those who used to come in during the first year of operation when there was a serious lack of cliental! I would sit in the corner and play guitar for hours on end because I had a total of about seven regular customers that would come in sporadically throughout the day. Luckily these days we have a few more than seven!

With our fantastic Australian volunteer team, we facilitated our annual latte art competition at Maker coffee. Latte art has really gone to the next level. I literally could not draw the designs with pencil on paper that these baristas are creating by only pouring milk into coffee without any other kind of intervention! The team also decided to change it up a little with our annual auction night. We decided to make it a formal sit-down dinner fundraiser. As per usual at Top Paddock café. The more formal approach proved to be a great choice. Australia, TFS, Latte Art, Dinner Fundraiser, Check, then off to New Zealand.

It is always amazing to get some family time back in New Zealand. Especially around Christmas time when there is more family around. During my time back home in Alexandra, our Kiwi volunteer team organised a formal dinner fundraiser in the neighbouring village of Clyde. A friend Paulina who is originally from Chile, kindly offered her restaurant “Paulina’s” for this event! It was a successful event, and Paulina is keen to do it again when I’m home again next time! At both dinner fundraisers in Australia and New Zealand we auctioned off some paintings that the kids had created. I’m excited to see what the children want to purchase with the money this year!

Then it was back to Buenos Aires. The Food for Thought team had been running the project through November and December. We take a break for January, so I spent the month investigating and studying The time had come to put all our learnings into a type of curriculum, of which we could use as a guide for our little school. You could call it our own teaching philosophy. I passed countless hours per day at the apartment where I live, and at random cafes close by, attempting to consolidate on the hundreds of post-it notes that I had accumulated.

Zooming back in time to before I opened TFS, I had stints as a teacher in New Zealand, Australia, and London. Mainly London (four years). Those were the years of getting to know formal education based on a British system. It was a life changing experience working with children from all parts of the world. In my third and fourth years as a teacher I taught at a school with a vast ethnic and cultural diversity. There was a total of fifty-two different languages spoken at that school.

It primary school of five-hundred children. I got to create the music curriculum which truly sounds like a dream job as a twenty-five-year-old, music loving teacher! There were some amazing experiences during those two years and a lot of beautiful learning opportunities. I learnt about the amazing social connection tool, music. I also learnt a lot from the other teachers at the school. At the time I didn’t understand why I wasn’t head over heels about that job! I just thought that I didn’t like teaching that much.

I was only a few years into teaching so there was probably more learning happening on my behalf than there was on the part of the children. I was cutting my teeth as a facilitator of education and even though I was loving the learning, there was something that wasn’t quite right. I got a teaching degree because it only took three years, and it meant that I could travel and work in different parts of the world. I didn’t see myself as a teacher. It was just something that I was doing at the time. I wouldn’t say that I was unhappy, but I wasn’t really jumping out of bed in the morning either!

Now, looking back, I realised that it wasn’t the teaching that was the problem. It was the fact that I was teaching as part of a large system. A system that’s purpose was to equip children with the skills to take on life, but, was doing a bad job at it! It might have also had something to do with the fact that I wanted to be my own boss! I was sick of taking orders. The school was great, the teachers were great, the kids were great, but the system wasn’t! The schools were being run like businesses, with bonuses for head teachers if a certain number of children attained a certain grade!

Anyway, what happened after almost five years of teaching, and then a five-year break from teaching, was that I could come back with a new perspective and dive head first into an education project of my own. A project that has many positives: I could start an education journey within a team who was interested in alternative education, we could learn about and support the needs of a vulnerable community, we could investigate and evaluate the implications of education within a complex environment, we could find out what education really means to us, what education means to children, and what kind of approaches we should take in delivering it.

So that was really the long way of saying, the time had come to create our own curriculum. So, that’s what January turned into. Study, coffee, post-its, coffee, internet rabbit holes, coffee, and in the end, a guide for us to work from this year. We are going to have a crack at applying the guide this year, making the adequate changes as we go.

Because we are still in the school holidays here in Argentina, and February is typically the hottest month of the year, we decided to start off the project with a holiday style program. We filled up two 4x3meter swimming pools, put up some shade clothe, designed a summer style menu with salads and homemade lemonade, and pulled out the basketballs and skip-ropes. Just as we organised the pool, with chlorine, filters and shade clothe, we had a week of cold weather where it was only hot enough to swim one day! The next week made up for it! It was almost too hot, but it definitely made for some good swimming time!

Because of the holiday program, we have a mixture of kids attending. Some who have been with us for a long time and others who are new and will only be with us until school starts. This week we had 28 nurses from Canada who came to do a small workshop on hygiene, take the weights and measurements of the kids, and obviously play some games together too! There was a lot of movement, and excitement, which turned out to be too much for two young boys. There was a little bit of a tussle and one boy ended up with a bleeding nose.

The mother of the boy was not happy. She pulled her two sons from the program and has refused to have a meeting with us. We suspended the twelve-year-old boy who threw the punch, for a day, which is our standard procedure for this type of violence. We had a good talk to him, and he understood procedure. We didn’t talk to his mother because she doesn’t live with him anymore. She moved out last year, leaving him with his older brother. He was eleven at the time. All things considered, he is doing extremely well.

Every child must be enrolled with a care-giver, but his mother wouldn’t make the time to enrol him in the program. So, a few weeks ago we went to his house to enrol him. He came to the gate of his house with scratches on his face. He spends a lot of time on the street and was open in telling us that he was in a fight at the local plaza. The unfortunate reality is that conflicts are usually resolved with fists on the street. It is quite impressive that he hasn’t been more violent in Food for Thought.

So, we will let the mother of the other child cool down a bit before we try and engage with her again. It is a real shame that she has taken he sons from the project, because her boys are the ones that most need it. They have some very concerning behaviours that will only get worse if we can’t actively work with them. Hopefully we can convince her to let them return!

On other news, after co-founding Food for Thought, five years on, Valeria is leaving town. She is moving to Spain with her husband, Bernardo, and her one-year-old son, Otto. Her family is her priority, and Argentina is not the best place to be raising a child in terms of access to education and healthcare. They are moving to Mallorca to make a fresh start.

This first five years of Food for Thought would have been impossible without Valeria. She has been the master chef in the kitchen, the actress and drama teacher in the classroom, the connection with the local council, and the ever so important, searcher of funds, quietly applying left, right and centre for any available local funding. We have a fully equipped commercial kitchen, and a long list of equipment and resources that we received due to her application for funds.

But much more than all of that, she has been the most amazing friend since the beginning. I moved to Buenos Aires with very little Spanish and just one friend. The last five years of extreme ups and downs has been a relentless rollercoaster ride. Not only dealing with the realities of working in this type of vulnerable community but also, a big city can be a lonely place when learning the nuances of the culture and language. Valeria held my hand from the second that my feet touched Argentinian soil. I am so deeply grateful that I had a friend such as Valeria to support me in this huge life-changing process.

The thing that connected us together, Food for Thought, will not be the same without her, but this cycle has come to a close, and the next steps of the journey are about to happen. Food for Thought will continue to change, evolve and grow, but only because of the hard work and dedication of one Argentine woman who put her heart and soul into creating a secure and solid launching pad for this rocket ship!

From Food for Thought we wish you and your family all the best Valeria on your new life in Mallorca. Gracias for being such a kind and generous person and showing us all how it is to work from the heart. Until next time.