Being greeted with massive hugs upon arriving at a destination for this project should no longer surprise me, but Elsmarie Norby’s hug in the bodega parking lot near San Miguel Viejo thawed my nervous heart.
The days spent with the volunteers and children of Ojalá Niños flowed languidly — from waking up with the roosters to hearty breakfasts to long conversations over coffees to hearty dinners to deep sleeps. Rinse and repeat.
But while life may seem detached from the hustle and bustle of the capitalism, Ojalá Niños, founded by Elsmarie in her home, follows an expansive mission to use artistic creativity to enable the kids in San Miguel Viejo to become successful entrepreneurs by developing their own sustainable businesses. There are several artisan business cooperatives consisting of 14 – 16 year old children that Ojalá guides and mentors. The staff and volunteers encourage these children to envision futures through their art rather than just pure entertainment.
The official mission is:
To be a model for extra-curricular education in rural communities in Mexico for children of all ages, using art, music, and literacy in a space for learning that inspires creativity and develops critical thinking skills and self-confidence. To further help children to expand these activities into cooperative businesses for sustainability, and to have the vision to create projects that will offer solutions to environmental, health, and social justice issues in their own communities. [emphasis added]
There are hundreds of non-profit organizations in San Miguel de Allende that are “helping the needy,” but many are detached from the true needs of the community. Children don’t need to be fed just at school — they need to know how to feed themselves. Children don’t need an education composed of recitations and memorization — they need to be able to trust their creative problem-solving abilities.
Only by living in the community can the leaders of Ojalá observe the true needs of the kids and respond immediately. Therefore, the Board of Directors is heavily weighted with Mexican nationals and San Miguel natives. The local director, Veronica, even lives next door to Elsmarie.
Elsmarie eagerly recounted the first time she encountered the children to whom she would dedicate six years of her life:
When I first met the children in the rural community of San Miguel Viejo where I’d decided to live, they were extremely shy, but their curiosity was stronger. They gladly came into my house where they were given nothing but pencils and plain paper in a space free from any direction. They hunkered down like starving beings, focused on what they could do on their piece of paper. As they got a few more materials — tape, scissors, colored pencils, string, old photos, recycled scraps – their creativity amazed me. They were not being taught or told anything, and they blossomed before my eyes. They chattered a little among themselves but always stayed with their project and didn’t look to me for anything more! Then they cleaned up the area and said, “Gracias, Elsa.”
What I learned from them has become the way children learn at Ojalá Niños in the afternoons: they are given a space — a table and a seat of some kind; they are given a variety of materials, depending on what or who is there; a person will give them ideas and information about what might be done with the materials; that person might give them information and guidance about a way to do something, how to develop a skill. Most of all, when they come into this space, they feel no judgment and no sense that there is a right or wrong way to express themselves. Among 30 – 40 children work in a relatively small area, there is no noise, no chaos or conflict — just the murmuring of children being busy, focusing and cooperating.
I believe that this environment offers them the greatest gift… freedom to explore and discover their own unique self in their thoughts, emotions, and spirit.
There is one perfect way to entice children to learn: ask questions!
There is one perfect way to know that they are — and will be — who they are meant to be: trust them!
What do you think? Do you think trusting children to determine what they need will work? Do you think more guidance is needed? What creative models do you have for addressing the roots of poverty?