This is the speech that I gave at our two fundraisers in Australia and New Zealand. It was written 3 months ago.
Now for those of you who don’t know exactly what we do, here is a brief description. -We are Social Opportunity Group.
-We facilitate fundraising events to raise money.
-We have a social enterprise café in South Yarra, Melbourne called The Final Step.
-With all of the funds raised we run Food for Thought in the small community Monte Chingolo, Argentina. Food for Thought is a project feeding and educating children living in poverty.
While in isolation the individual challenges these children face in Argentina are not unique over those faced by children in New Zealand or Australia, these communities lack the fundamental infrastructure to support these kids and their families.
In Argentina, on many occasions, Food for Thought has been the last line of defense because of the appalling family support services. In one particular case of domestic abuse, we were the ones making sure that the victim (a 12-year old girl) was safe and had a place to stay that wasn’t at home with her abusive father. In Argentina, the family support mechanisms are non-existent. There is also one statistic that paints a picture. In the province, Lanús, where we work. 1 in 2 children live in poverty.
I have a question. Have you ever really wanted to do something, but because of a lack of confidence or fear, you didn’t do it?
I’ll tell you a little story. One day a good few years ago, I was sitting in our social enterprise cafe in South Yarra, and in walks Jack white. Do you all know who Jack White is? (White Stripes). To give you some background info.
1. Jack White is my hero. He is a phenomenal musician.
2. In the café, we have a beautiful German-made 1929 piano that has a nouveau, country, honkytonk sound made for the fingers and voice of Jack White.
To make a long story short, I was completely star-struck. I couldn’t talk, I had hot and cold sweats, and I may or may not have even peed in my pants. Anyway, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to play just one tune on that piano.
Looking at the situation objectively. The potential gains drastically outweighed the downfalls by a magnitude of like 57 million! What is the worst that could happen? I ask him to play a song and he says no. But if he says yes. 3 minutes of pure ecstasy and the most amazing private concert of my life! Anyway, Jack white didn’t play honky-tonk piano in my café! He purchased his takeaway cappuccino with one sugar and left the shop.
What was it that blocked me from asking him? Was it my cultural background? My education? My innate shyness? The underlying question was this; “What stopped me from doing something that I really wanted to do?”
Over the last 6 years, I have been asking a very similar question. I find this question intriguing in relation to all aspects of my life. But it becomes exponentially more interesting to me when asking it in relation to children living in extreme poverty. If I feel the restrictions of everyday life, that can stop me from doing the things that I really want to do, what is it like for kids living in situations where almost every single right that they have as a human, let alone a child, is being violated? What stops these kids from reaching their true potential?
I know they have potential; I have seen it. I’ve seen the way she dances like an African child with rhythm flowing through her veins. I’ve seen him play soccer weaving in and out of the other children’s legs like he has the ball tied to an invisible string. She sings like an angel. He plays the drums like Animal from the muppets! he has the ability to solve problems on the spot! She is a born Leader! We all come into this world as brilliant humans with unique abilities. It is the environment within which we live that promotes or destroys these innate traits!
All of the families of the children that we work with at Food for Thought live below the poverty line. This environment of violence, neglect, malnutrition, crowded living, and abuses of every kind, has a crippling effect on those living within it!
Luckily, we have a lot of experience working closely with children living in this context, and we have found a little nugget. If we can focus on the development of this one specific character trait, then we have the chance to truly change the reality for children living in these circumstances. To be honest, it is something that all of us could benefit from having more of. Any guesses what the character trait is?
CONFIDENCE. With it, we can take over the world. Without it, our world can collapse around us.
So, this environment of endemic, cyclical poverty is a confidence destroying machine for people of all ages, but particularly children. It affects their physical, mental and emotional development. I see these kids who have so much potential but may never reach it because they don’t have the confidence to move towards it. I see the same thing in their parents, grandparents and great grandparents who are all living proof of the vicious cycle that destroys confidence.
You can literally think of this environment of poverty as a machine. In goes a confident, imaginative and creative young child who is born to learn, and out pops a young human who it literally incapable of functioning as a social and cooperative adult. I am generalising here. This is not in every case.
But the good news is, because of our experience with these children and their families, we have developed a program that specifically targets the slow and sustained development of confidence!
So, in a minute I’ll show you a video of a typical week in Food for Thought. I could tell you a story about every child in this video, but I’ll just tell you about one. His name is John (not his real name). John has been beaten by his father for as long as he can remember. The worst beatings were when John was protecting his mother from his father’s fists.
Just before I left Argentina a few weeks ago, he came to Food for Thought with a cut above his eye. It was where his father had hit him with an object. John didn’t know what the object was. He didn’t see it when he was hit by it.
2 weeks ago, his father was finally put in jail for domestic abuse. He is violent, a thief and an addict, and when the police came to get him, he went out to meet them with a knife. It is a good thing that his father is out of the home, but now there is nobody in the house to put food on the table for the 8 children in that family. When we can, we send leftover food to his family, but most days John only eats one meal. It is the meal that he eats with us at Food for Thought. Our nutritious meals are sustaining him. Just to let you know $20 will pay for the meals of a child like John for one month.
It is important to note that in this video you won’t see the fighting, abuse, panic attacks, or any of the behaviours that reflect this environment of poverty. Instead, you will see a safe and positive learning space that is dedicated to the sustained growth of children’s confidence. We have designed the program so that it can be a happy escape, from a harsh reality!
There are a million different struggles for the kids living in this particular context. You heard of one example in the situation of John. I’d like to share another.
I’ll call him Steve. He has been in the project for the last four years. I am fascinated by him. I could do a whole case study just on Steve.
There are 16 people living in his house right now. His uncle who was 40 years old, died a month ago. He had a mixture of health problems, complicated by a drug problem, but the core of them was diabetes. Because of their diets, diabetes is an epidemic. His mother has it and soon Steve will have it. He is 11 years old and weighs 90 kilos.
We have watched him develop. As well as being an extreme example of poor physical health, he is also an extreme example of poor mental and emotional health. He has been physically and psychologically abused his whole life. I don’t know which one is worse. The most sustained abuse comes from his mother.
John’s basic hygiene needs are not being met. He always has rings of dirt around the folds in his neck and a constant stench that is worsening because he is a maturing preadolescent. I constantly have to plead with his mother to wash him, which might happen once a month. He is bullied and physically abused by his whole family, and lives an extremely confusing life. His home environment is destroying the possibility of any kind of positive self-image. You can imagine where his confidence levels are at!
So, this has been our challenge. We have focussed a lot of time and energy on making a positive change with Steve. It has been an uphill battle, particularly because he is only with us 4 days per week. The rest of the time he is either at school, at home, or on the street, and they are not safe environments for him. These spaces have an accumulating negative effect on Steve’s self-confidence.
Steve is an amazing musician! I’m not saying that he has to become the next famous singer or percussionist, but it will be very interesting to see where he takes his music. He has the talent to take it a long way. The one thing that will hold him back is the sense of value that he has of himself as a person in this world.
We use a million different strategies, and each child has their own individual challenges. What is important is that we do not use a formula, but treat every child as an individual! Our individual work with Steve seems to be paying off.
Over the last 4 years, we have been persistent in our attempt to raise his sense of self-worth. At the moment Steve needs time away from the other children every day. He really struggles in social situations. We have time out options for him.
-he has a mandala colouring in book
-he helps out our chef in the kitchen – sometimes he just needs a change of environment.
-we also give him the opportunity to play music as much as possible.
Music is his life, it is his form of communication, but most importantly, it is his therapy!
4 years ago, because of his stutter, he couldn’t string together the words to make a sentence. Earlier last month, we recorded him singing. He also played percussion for the piece. One month ago, Steve sang into the microphone in front of the whole project! You can imagine my smile, and also the tears running down my face!
Right there is the indication that what we are doing in working. Steve is proof that a program focussed on the sustained development of confidence can have huge positive repercussions in a child’s life. The fact that he has evolved from not being able to finish a sentence, to not only talking with confidence, but singing in front of a crowd of people, gives me a huge amount of joy, and hope!
We are working side by side with him to improve his self-awareness and his connection and communication with other children. We are witnessing huge changes in him, but we also have a long road in front of us.
I’m not going to lie. We need money and resources! We need the money to continue paying our chef Alejandra who is a mother from the community. Her funding runs out at the end of the year.
If we had the money, we could pay for a social worker so that we could have a more integrated approach to family development. Although we have a great fundraising team, we don’t raise enough to cover our costs. We have no administration costs in Australia or New Zealand so all money donated goes to the project in Argentina.
So, what happens from here? Food for Thought will continue to grow and develop. Our team consists of 7 part-time Argentine staff members, myself, and three international volunteers. Proudly 4 of those staff members are from Monte Chingolo. For us, sustainability means local staff members. The seeds of sustainability are local social and cultural knowledge. It is very important that the project is sustained by those who have grown up within the local environment. They have lived and breathed it and understand the nuances of life within the local context.
We have a product that has been tweaked and molded during the last 6 years with kids in this specific context. We know what works and doesn’t work when engaging with traumatised children. A program with the development of confidence at its core really works. The program is still being developed and will continue developing as time passes. There is no silver bullet in this type of therapeutic work. It has to keep changing and evolving in relation to the local context.
So, I’ll leave you all with the question. It is the question with which I started this whole crazy journey. It is a question that helps us support the growth of confidence in children living in poverty, but is it also a question that has made me reflect deeply on the direction of my own life. What is it that stops us humans from doing the things that we really want to do?