This month ChildFund New Zealand CEO Paul Brown visited ChildFund projects in Mexico, where he discovered innovative techniques for helping children.
By Paul Brown
After two and a half hours climbing up twisty mountain roads our bus driver gave up. “No further,” he shrugged. We were now over 2500m high in the misty mountains, and our group began a 10 minute trek to the ChildFund project, Centro Social Ayuuk. In this state of Mexico, there are 16 different ethnic groups, and this community speaks its own dialect.
Shortly into the walk we were met by 50 children, singing to a song being played on a flute by a man in traditional costume – it was almost a scene from the Pied Piper. Some of the children wore ghost like sheets, with mystical creatures’ heads peering high above them on sticks. (Later in the day we would see the children making these fantastic masks).
New friends were instantly made, we swapped names, and the children showered us in confetti and adorned us in huge necklaces of marigold. Soon we too were caught up in the piper’s tune as we made our way up higher on the gravel path.
At the project we met mothers, volunteers and social workers, each group proudly showing their work and the impact it had on the children’s lives. The ChildFund project had developed supplementary education programmes – this was one of the poorest parts of Mexico beyond the reach of the national schooling system. It was great to see the children playing chess, which was taught as a means of bringing children together, helping them to think through problems. They had even made a child-sized chess board, with the children making masks for each of the chess pieces so the whole community could watch a huge game being played.
In another room a 14-year-old boy ran the local radio station. This was his pet project – from birth he was confined to a wheel chair and the radio provided a great outlet for him, enabling to reach the community. He interviewed a few of us, and shared with us a love story he had written that he broadcast over several episodes.
Another highlight was learning about an innovative French therapy programme that the ChildFund team has introduced for at risk children. Domestic violence and abuse are sadly high in impoverished communities; and alcoholism was a catalyst for this in the Ayuuk community.
In a hall purposely built for the children, we met the therapist – our piper from earlier in the day. With a post-graduate degree in social work he was applying the therapy to reduce children’s anxieties. The room was covered in brightly coloured huge cushions, and groups of four to five children were making forts, houses and mythical rooms. The therapist was involved too – initially passively, before the children would invite him to play.
“We wait for the child to come to us,” he explained, rather than typical interaction which is adult-driven. In this way the child could build up trust. Over time the therapist would then ask the child the issues they were facing – many could not explain it in words, and pictures were used to capture the child’s thoughts. The child would then explain each drawing, and in turn, reduce their anxieties and grow in confidence.
It was a powerful technique delivering excellent change – using play to help a child. The programme also extended to other children in the community, and we met the mother of a four-year-old girl, and watched as this young girl with cerebral palsy was learning new motor skills. “ChildFund has helped my daughter to move and walk,” the mum told our translators.
Making a traditional All Souls costume with papier mache
Later in the day we visited this woman’s home – more like a shed made from corrugated iron and branches. It clung to the side of the cliff, above was the mountain road. She pointed below to us – a pile of debris which was her main living quarters for her six children, washed away by a landslide last month.
Unable to own the land, her family had no chance of compensation, and would slowly rebuild their lives. This six of us from various members of the ChildFund Alliance didn’t know what to say. I thought about how in New Zealand the Earthquake Commission assists families affected by natural disaster. The woman then presented us with oranges she had bought from the market that day in preparation for our visit, and we were both humbled and awkward with the hospitality and warmth this woman offered to six total strangers in her tiny house.
We were also spoilt with a lovely lunch at the project – late in the afternoon, which is typical in Mexico. This gave us time to meet more children and their mothers. It was incredible to see how in the space of just one generation, that these children towered over their mums as a result of a more nutritious diet.
Soon it was time to say farewell, through tears and songs to newfound friends. As is always the case with ChildFund’s work in these desperately poor communities, the children have so little, yet they are so happy, and their glow remained in our bus for the long drive back through the mountains. Adios amigos!