Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: Each day


Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #5:

September 5, 2018

Each day

My padrino tells me, obsessing over the past is what breeds depression. Fixating on the future is what breeds anxiety. That we can only truly ever appreciate and have a life well-lived if we focus our energy on the present, allowing ourselves to be fully here and now.

In this work, and especially in this mighty city, it is easy to find excuses not to follow this thoughtful and somewhat sage advice. The trains are late, we are waiting for our next check, one of the children may be gone next week, new sets of expectations, someone is late, we didn’t get that gig…the list is long.

Working with refugee youth, and specifically unaccompanied minors during my time with ASTEP has granted me a different relationship with impermanence. It came almost all at once, as I spoke to a fellow teacher from the Refugee Youth Summer Academy about my work at our site with Lutheran Social Services. I expressed my struggle with endings, how saying goodbye (or harder still, not being afforded an opportunity to say goodbye) never got easier with this work, how I had cried and not known how to channel that sorrow after a child leaves, especially when they’ve been at LSS for a long time and then one day are just not there anymore.

The advice she gave me was a total game changer. She suggested at the end of each class I take a moment to let the children know how much they mean to me. That way, even if I don’t have the opportunity to say an individual goodbye to each of them before they leave, I can rest assured that they know how I feel about them, that I believe in them, and that I care. Little did I realize how effective this would be and also how soon I would need to say a goodbye of my own.

I am moving on from ASTEP to further my work in arts activism, working full time for an arts and social justice organization. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and yet I will miss ASTEP dearly. Of course, I will find ways to collaborate and stay connected, always.

My last day with the children at LSS  I actually didn’t have a Volunteer Teaching Artist and was able to take the lead as opposed to offering on site support. It felt fortuitous. I threw them a little party, we had snacks, listened to music, and drew together. I took the advice of my colleague, and now friend, and explained that this was my small way of expressing my gratitude. That I wanted all of them to know that they are important. That whether we have been together one day, or two weeks, or seven months, that each day is special to me, and that I will always think of them. I told them the time I have spent with them has changed my life. I thanked them for their time and for their presence. And I thank everyone at ASTEP, for your support and encouragement, for the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship, for the honor of carrying on this work for those who no longer can. And though I must say goodbye, please accept this modest writing as an expression of my gratitude, and know that each day was special to me.

Pablo Falbru’s blog: We Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here


Pablo Falbru, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about his experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP at Refugee Youth Summer Academy. A team of 13 ASTEP Volunteer Artists lead the creative arts classes at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, which supports the personal growth, cultural adjustment, and education of multicultural refugee youth and helps them successfully transition into the US school system. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #3

August 22, 2018

Week 6 | RYSA: We Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here

We’re in the home stretch of the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA). It has been quite an experience in all the good ways. As we gear up for graduation performances, the reality that my time with these amazing students is coming to an end starts to sink in. Seeing each class grow in confidence not only in the fundamentals of music, but in self-expression and vocabulary, has been an honor and a privilege.

The joy and excitement they have when they come into class reminds me of the power each of us has to impact someone’s life. My co-teacher Nick and I reflect on our classes at the end of each day and we are always blown away by how fast our students grasp the lessons. It inspires us to push ourselves in our own work outside of teaching. For me, it’s also a reminder that we have the capacity to grow and do more. And that we should set mindful intentions so that we can be the best version of ourselves.

One of the most heartwarming things that happened during the program was when a new
student was added to the class. There was always a “veteran” student that supported the new
kid. Helping them get their bearings, teaching them what they knew and just being there to
support them. It’s adorable to watch and witness unbiased kindness really does something to
ya. I have no doubt that it’s going to be an emotional final week. I’m proud to have been a part
of their lives and feel blessed to experience their love and gratitude. I learned a lot from them
and will keep the joy, wonder and kindness they emanate in my heart.

We could all learn something from the innocence of a child. Some of these kids have had
experiences that I couldn’t imagine having to go through. Yet, they are full of love, excitement
and understanding. If more adults had this mindset, the world would be a better place. So thank
you, students of RYSA. You have made me a better man. And thank you to the administrators
of the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship for the opportunity to grow, give back and
honor Jennifer’s legacy.

Be loved, inspired and live your best life,

Pablo Falbru

Brigid Transon’s blog: The Adventure Continues


Brigid Transon, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP at Refugee Youth Summer Academy. A team of 13 ASTEP Volunteer Artists lead the creative arts classes at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, which supports the personal growth, cultural adjustment, and education of multicultural refugee youth and helps them successfully transition into the US school system. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #2:

August 22, 2018

RYSA: Week 4

Hello this is Brigid again. I cannot believe that RYSA is four weeks in! This summer has flown. Before RYSA I could not have imagined how fast this summer would go by.

This past week was one of my favorite days at RYSA. It was international food and fashion day, students brought in food from their home countries and wore traditional clothing. It was incredible to see all of the students feeling proud and walking across the stage.  Not only were the students proud, but the cheers ringing through the audience created an amazing culture of support.  After the fashion show I could not help but smile
for the rest of the classes that day!

More from RYSA since my last post includes incredible creativity seen through the dance class.  Each and every one of the 6 classes of students choreographed their own dances with various levels of support. For the youngest students we divided them into two groups and had them pull cards with movement on them. The students then got to make the card their own. For example, the card may have said jump, then I would ask the student what kind of jump we should do as well as how many. The oldest students started by working in small groups. Each group chose four movement cards and making a dance with these four movements. From there they added their own movement.  Once the groups were solid we combined groups, making the dance longer and longer!

I am extremely excited while simultaneously dreading the last weeks at RYSA. I cannot wait for the students to show off in the talent show and showcase their creativity and art during the graduation ceremony. I am dreading the ending because I will miss the students, the positive environment and my coworkers. There is an incredible feeling of family that exists at RYSA, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

 

Pablo Falbru’s blog: This Is How We Do It


Pablo Falbru, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about his experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP at Refugee Youth Summer Academy. A team of 13 ASTEP Volunteer Artists lead the creative arts classes at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, which supports the personal growth, cultural adjustment, and education of multicultural refugee youth and helps them successfully transition into the US school system. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #2:

August 22, 2018

Week 3 | RYSA: This Is How We Do It

Ahoy! Pablo here, feelin’ and doin’ and movin’ and groovin’. We are now halfway through the Refugee Youth Summer Academy and my oh my, how the time flies! Thinking back to how I felt after week one, when a day of classes felt like a three hour nonstop performance. There’s a noticeable difference in my energy, as well as the kids. I’m feeling conditioned for the back to back classes, while the students are feeling complacent and trying to test boundaries. But the good thing is, aside from typical kid outbursts, they are very respectful and comply when being called out on their behaviour. All in all, it seems like they enjoy being there. You can see it on their faces that they’re excited to come to class and participate. And I love that they are more comfortable expressing themselves and gaining confidence with the material.

I start every class with a few simple warm ups, i.e. face stretches and lip trills. In the beginning
of the program there were a few students who couldn’t really do the exercises. After
encouraging and modeling the exercises along with their peers and mentors, they started
getting better at it. It sounds like a small thing but some of the main goals of the program is to
promote confidence and a growth mindset. Giving them this small win at the start of class
makes them feel good and translates to more confidence throughout the lesson. That
confidence shows as more and more kids are raising their hands to ask and answer questions.
They are proud that they know what we are talking about in class. One of my favourite things is
after a weekend off from classes, they come in saying the music vocab terms from the week
before. It’s awesome that they remember these words and the definitions. Even if they don’t
remember parts of the terms, they try hard to figure it out, often using synonyms which I have to
give credit for.

As we jump into the second half, I’m excited to start working on our final performances. I’ve
been incorporating a small performance called “ImprompTunes” at the end of each class to get
them used to being in front of people. The goal of the activity is to create a song on the spot
using what we learned that day. So they pick the qualities of the song (i.e. Forte/Piano,
Presto/Largo, Legato/Staccato etc.) they pick the key and they suggest words that can be used
as lyrics. I lay down the foundation and they add onto it until we have something that resembles
a tune. It’s probably their favourite activity. Most are intrigued by the gear I have and a few just
like the opportunity to be in front of the class and all the attention. It’s a fun way to show them a
tangible example of the days lesson and review all of the ideas we’ve covered during the
program. We shall see how this all translates to the final performance! Until then…well, until my
next Blog Post, be well, be inspired and live your best life, namaste.

~Pablo Falbru

Brigid Transon’s blog: RYSA: Week 2


Brigid Transon, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP at Refugee Youth Summer Academy. A team of 13 ASTEP Volunteer Artists lead the creative arts classes at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, which supports the personal growth, cultural adjustment, and education of multicultural refugee youth and helps them successfully transition into the US school system. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #1:

August 22, 2018

RYSA: Week 2

Hello All, I’m Brigid Transon.  This is my second summer with RYSA (Refugee Youth Summer Academy).  I have been honored to be chosen as one of the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellows.  This summer I have the opportunity to not only teach the young students, but I am teaching Upper School as well. Teaching the Upper School students was something I was nervous about as soon as I was given the role.  I have lots of experience with young students, where my expressive silly self can communicate when language may not suffice.

Last summer I taught Lower School dance and assisted with Lower School music.  I loved the RYSA experience and working with these incredible and inspiring students.  My love for these students made me decide to work with the elementary students every Saturday (SLS) during the school year.  SLS provided a space to see students and talk to them about their transition into public schools in New York.

The ASTEP team is incredibly strong with brilliant ideas and inspirations.  Now with two
weeks completed I have learned a lot. I have learned not only about my fears teaching
Upper School, but also about what I can learn from students who I have taught for
more than one year.

Three Lessons Learned from RYSA thus far:

1)    Upper School is crazy creative
a.    During our first class our oldest students were creating choreography based on the
name game.  These dances not only included levels but formation changes as well!

2)    Lower School is never what you expect
a.    As a returning teacher, I had an idea of what the class
dynamics would be from the class rosters.  And WOW was I wrong! One of the classes
who has a group of students who were more serious in the past creates the most
interesting movements when going across the floor.  In Lower School, we focus on
combining dance concepts, therefore as an example I give the students the prompt “go
across the floor in a low level, quick speed and near kinosphere.”

3)    Upper School LOVES to dance!!!!
a.    RYSA goes on field trips every Friday.  Week one the students went to the Natural
History Museum and then ate lunch outside in the park.  I was eating with Lower School
when suddenly I looked up and saw a dance circle had started.  What started with only
one class turned into almost everyone from upper school.  Each new song was from a
different country! The students started with bachata, the Azonto, to the Macarena to
Cardi B. Everyone got a say in the music and dance choice!
b.    Week two the students were at Central Park. Here multiple dance circles were
started.  One right when we got to the park, another while making friendship bracelets
and a final one after lunch.  Unlike the first field trip these circles did not include all of
Upper School but each class started their own circle and always welcomed anyone who
wanted to join!

I want to thank the ASTEP administration, the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger
Fellowship, the IRC and my co-teachers.  I cannot wait for the rest of the summer and to
discover what else I can learn from this incredible program.  I am provided with the
space to be challenged about my ideas of education, learn from my students and co-
artists, and have fun using the arts to transform lives.  I will keep you updated on the
programing and what I have learned after week four.

-Brigid

 

Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: An Ode to Lesson Planning


Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #4:

August 3, 2018

An Ode To Lesson Planning

Much of being an Arts Educator is about doing your best to prepare in advance, have a plan of action, and also be open to throwing that away and having multiple backup plans in case the lesson takes an unexpected turn. With flexibility and room for creativity, one can navigate a class and shape it based on the children directly in front of them. Preparation, abandon, improvisation, systematic approaches, being open to surprises. It’s a constant balancing game between having plenty of tools and plenty of flexibility in the event of cut time, extra time, changed time, interruptions, latenesses, etc. Depending on the setting, depending on the partnership, no class looks exactly the same.

In addition to continuing my work at Lutheran Social Services with our Unaccompanied Minors Program, this month I have also joined the ASTEP staff at The International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA). There I am the Lead Teacher in Storytelling. At this particular site we are preparing the children for public school in the fall, while incorporating English Language comprehension into our lessons. It’s been an incredible experience and I can’t believe we’ve already hit the halfway mark!

RYSA differs from the Lutheran Social Services site in that I am not working with the children in their native languages (at Lutheran Social Services all classes are taught in Spanish). That is a different set of challenges and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to experience both.

Lesson planning plays a crucial role at both sites. RYSA is a framework where we work to establish a more traditional school culture in an effort to prepare students for public school. At Lutheran Social Services, the volunteer Teaching Artists are afforded more freedom within their lesson plans, and each lesson is built to stand alone as opposed to at RYSA, where we plan for 6 weeks all while keeping in mind that it will culminate in a brief final performance.

It’s a different set of stressors and expectations but the ultimate goal remains the same: to use the arts as a means to uplift, educate, and inspire the youth. In all of our classes we work to share a joy, to provide tools for critical thinking, self reflection, imagination, and exploration.

Lesson plans are never anyone’s favorite part of teaching I don’t think, but they are helpful in organizing one’s thoughts and approaches to a particular class or project. They serve as a roadmap and a guide and even a script at times. Being an educator is not easy; it takes a lot of energy, focus, and social awareness to do it successfully and meaningfully. The different approaches to lesson planning have taught me a lot, and while there has definitely been a learning curve with adapting to different sets of expectations, I have more skills to include in my tool belt. While seemingly small, the concept translates into a larger one: having access to and the ability to offer different approaches each time I walk into a classroom is a kind of agency I hope to implement and pass on.

 

Pablo Falbru’s blog: Some may say I’m a dreamer


Pablo Falbru, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about his experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP at Refugee Youth Summer Academy. A team of 13 ASTEP Volunteer Artists lead the creative arts classes at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, which supports the personal growth, cultural adjustment, and education of multicultural refugee youth and helps them successfully transition into the US school system. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #1:

July 17, 2018

Week 1 | RYSA: Some may say I’m a dreamer

Greetings! I’m Pablo Falbru, one of the recipients of the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship. It is truly an honor to be selected for this Fellowship and contribute to the legacy of Jennifer. I was picked to be the head music instructor for the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA), and have been brimming with excitement since I got the call. We just finished week one of the program, though my journey started at the end of June. I spent the last weekend of June meeting and training with the ASTEP team, followed by a week of training with the RYSA Team. Over the course of that training period, the importance of this work grew even clearer for me.

The scope, circumstances and challenges that these kids face really puts our lives in the U.S. into perspective. Certainly we face our own challenges of poverty, violence, and oppression. But the sheer scale that this happens in the countries that the RYSA students come from is staggering. So first and foremost, this has been an opportunity to put my privilege in check. To reflect and be grateful for everyone and everything I have. And to practice infinite kindness and understanding of the students I teach, the strangers I meet and of my own friends and family.

As I mentioned, we just finished week one and I couldn’t have asked for a better start! I have three classes, each translating to roughly Kindergarten-1st Grade, 2nd Grade-3rd Grade and 4th Grade-5th Grade. In some classes, I could have as many as 4 different languages being spoken, not counting English. So that is hands down, the most challenging part of the job. But I’ve always been a fan of languages, so I’m using this as an opportunity to learn something new. As with any class, some students are stronger than others. So finding ways to empower and inspire each kid is a delicate balance. They have all responded well to everything I’ve put forth and it’s rewarding to see their eyes light up when something clicks.

One of my favourite things that happened this week was when a “challenging” kid from the K-1st class…(this student had been reprimanded earlier in the day in another class)…played the djembe with confidence and consistency. As he played I could see he had a natural talent for music, in particular rhythm, and he was so happy to show me what he could do. These are the moments that remind me of the transforming power of the arts. How a creative outlet presents an opportunity for the “challenged” to excel. To show the dimensions and range we have when given the space to explore and express freely. So for me, having the chance to cultivate that and create an environment that everyone can shine, makes my life all the more worthwhile. So thank you to the administrators of the Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellowship for the honor of carrying the torch that keeps the inspiring legacy of Jennifer alive, namaste.

~Pablo

Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: send me your weary, a scattering of poems


Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #3:

July 9, 2018

send me your weary,

                              a scattering of poems

i.
In the red of uncertainty
In the dawning of hope
In the throes of sorrow
In the echoes of despair
I will reach for the beginnings
For the endings trail behind
In the songs of my country
In the dance of our pride
Worth fighting for and working for
Keep living for
The dawning of expectation
The certainty of demise
I send my children on without me
I will not let them see me cry

ii.
In the throes of uncertainty
In the wake of my fear
I will make my parents proud
Even though they are not here
In me they live on
In me they find hope
In me they find solace
And a chance for something more

—————

These tears betray not
The paths I have traversed
Roadways you’d die on

————-

These arms are empty
Hold no hope, discarded
Ready for anything

 

-when you have nothing left to lose

 

#istandwithrefugees

 

Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: Paint on the edges


Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.


 

Blog Post #2:

May 10, 2018

It’s always amazing to see how quickly things can change and how at times they stay remarkably the same. For several months I had much of the same core group of students, and then while somewhat knocked out of commission due to being sick this month, I came back and it felt like I had to start all over again, earn their trust again, explain why I had been absent, deal with the guilt of unexpectedly needing to stay home to rest. Then learn someone from the core group, one of the little ones (which is how we affectionately refer to the younger class), left while I was gone. The turnover struggle is real, and you would think it gets easier with time.

Recently we had a class working with body and face paint, and the children really got into it. Maria, our Teaching Artist for this particular lesson had worked with the children before, and those who had been there, remembered her favorably. We had a large group of older students, and bunched them in at the tables.  We had some newer students who came in a little late, as they were completing their orientation. No matter, the more the merrier, and for whatever reason, at this site I’ve observed that the children take particularly well to the visual arts, and are good sports about sharing materials and space.

I always find it interesting how the confidence of very small children is something to be envious of. Perhaps it is not even what one would call confidence, more a disregard, or a lack of self awareness, a beautiful naiveté that leaves them refreshingly unguarded and willing to try something new. Working with children ages 5-17, I notice that self-conscious behavior can often set in as early as 10. I say all this because in the younger group, I had a little girl and boy saying they couldn’t paint a heart, even after I saw them do it, and wanted me to do it for them. They wanted it to be perfect. A new child, 5 years old and all smiles (also the younger sibling of the little girl) not only did not care whether he could make the perfect heart, he was not interested in it. He proceeded to paint his entire arm green with such dexterity, he would have painted his sleeves had I not jumped in to roll them up. Una casa! he proudly proclaimed. If only we were all so confident in our renderings, in what we create. There is always much we can learn from the little ones.

He proceeded to wipe off his arms and paint over and over again, enthusiastically creating new temporary masterpieces, marvelling at the fact that he had transformed his skin into a canvas. There was a lot of laughter, and his sisters kept telling him not to get it on his shirt, as I repeatedly rolled it up and he repeatedly painted to the edge (he definitely got it on his shirt, but it washes off easily). If I could give the students one thing only, it would be the ability to never lose that innate curiosity so many little ones have. To maintain that spark, that eagerness, that imagination, that beautiful naiveté, and fearlessly transform it into art. To not worry about getting paint on the edges.

 

 

 

Rachel Kara Perez’s blog: A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy.


Rachel Kara Perez, a 2018 Jennifer Saltzstein Kaffenberger Fellow, will be sharing monthly blog posts about her experiences teaching the arts through ASTEP on STAGE! This program gives over 1,500 NYC youth access to the transforming power of the arts by bringing performing and visual artists from the Broadway and NYC community to after-school and in-school programs. ASTEP on STAGE! partners with schools and community organizations serving youth affected by the justice system, incarceration, gun violence, homelessness, immigration status, systemic poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Through the arts, these young people learn they have what it takes to succeed no matter the obstacles, which is key to breaking cycles of poverty.



Blog Post #1:

March 31, 2018

March was quite the month. I have had to say goodbye without the opportunity to actually say it, to a few of my students who had been with us the longest, nearly 6 months. It is important to note that each week the size of the group alters. Some children come and stay for a couple of weeks, some several months, though it is rare, and some only once. As all of the children are protected as Refugees under U.S. law, once they move on, and for their own privacy and protection, they are not permitted to maintain contact with anyone who works at the Social Services agency, nor with each other. So imagine our heart beak upon discovering young love had blossomed between two of the teenagers. One in particular, whom I will refer to as Jose, had been with us for about six months. He was generally reserved, and more brooding once he fell in love with the “new girl” who arrived a few weeks after him. The children are not permitted to date one another and for many months I have dreaded the day that took place just two weeks ago. I walked in, asked where Jose was, and discovered he had left that morning. I could not disguise my disappointment, and the girl who told me expressed her observation that I looked as if I would miss him. Of course I will, I told her that each week is difficult, and I will miss him. A younger boy popped his head up and asked if I would miss him when he left, and I said of course. The girl who told me, she has also moved on since that week.

When asking each child to go around the room and say their name (for review and also to meet the newcomers), the girl he loves was still there, and bravely and honestly said that she was feeling sad. I thanked her for her honesty, and told her I respected her. I did not push for her to participate in all the activities. Just two weeks prior there had been a grey cloud over the heads of the older group, as two other students who had been there for a long time had also moved on. It is hard to explain the feeling, the impermanence, the hope, and yes even joy that is also found in this classroom. I have seen children arrive and be despondent, head hung low, tears streaming down their faces because they are far too recent arrivals in a new place, a new land, with a new language, and new cold weather that seems to be adding insult to injury. I have witnessed these same children, miraculously, come running into the classroom to meet me, jovial, playful, delightfully rambunctious, at times content, verbal, expressive, smiling. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes a few days. To see them again just being children.

These children have traversed and overcome great odds just to be here. Alone, for that is truly what Unaccompanied means..these children have experienced much more in their 5-17 years than many of us will in a lifetime. Many are escaping violence, poverty, gangs, hoping for a better life, hoping to succeed and thrive, sent ahead by families desperately hoping they will do better without them, or by joining others who are already here in The States. And this is where we come in.

ASTEP. An art class. A reason to laugh, to create, to channel one’s anger, or to express one’s joy. I am always amazed at how respectful, and eventually willing to play the children are. I admire them when they advocate for themselves, when they tell me they feel uncomfortable dancing or acting, and ask to observe, ask not to be pushed, not yet. And when they do it anyway, awkwardly, laughing, getting out of their heads if only for an hour.

At times we explore deeper themes, such as the day I led an activity with poetry and music from our cultural backgrounds, where the children were encouraged to write poems of their own, many expressing their pride for their native lands, for their culture, how they carry their flag in their heart wherever they are. Other days I just want them to laugh; we play theatre games, we make weird sounds, we dance.

A couple of weeks ago, our Volunteer Teaching Artist taught a dance class, and one little girl, whom I will call Liana, who had recently turned 9, and is often a very vocal and helpful and expressive participant, sat in the corner with tears streaming down her face. She had danced the week before and this had not happened, but at times we can be triggered unexpectedly. As the Volunteer Teaching Artist continued her lesson, I went to Liana in the corner and asked her why she was crying. She told me her father had taught her to dance, and it made her sad to think of him. I said I understood, that I had also learned how to dance from a parent. I let her know that to dance we don’t always have to be happy, that I even dance when I am sad, that it helps me, to literally move through it, that it can help her feel better. I said if she wants to come back and join us, I will be waiting, but if not that’s ok too. She nodded while more tears splashed on her cheeks, and I went back to the group. 5 minutes later she walked back to the circle, I motioned to her to stand beside me. We danced together. We laughed, we smiled. She taught me some words in her native indigenous language, Mam. Promised me a vocabulary list, one I am constantly worried I will never receive, for she keeps forgetting, or perhaps won’t be here the next week to give it to me.

Another boy who taught me how to say “thank you”, in Mam, also from Guatemala, lit up as I attempted the pronunciation. Quiet, shy, hesitant, this was the same boy who the week before during our poetry and music exercise I mentioned above, showed me his work, a paragraph written in both Mam and then translated to Spanish. Telling me a little about his life. Because I had asked him to write, or draw, express something. This is the power of storytelling. And this is what we do, this is why I use the arts as a tool for empowerment, for social justice, to foster empathy, to build community. To give them a voice. To facilitate the space in which they may discover it for themselves.

 

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