When inspired children inspire

Demobilized child soldiers dancing in Goma, October 2009

Before the trip of “by art we live” to the Democratic Republic of Congo, an open line of communication and collaboration was opened with Jody Kennedy who teaches Middle School students in White Plains Public Schools, NY. Ms. Kennedy currently serves as a virtual trainer and consultant with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration in Cleveland Ohio. She is the founder of the Global Ambassadors program and the Global Run project which is highlighted on the United Nations’ UN WORKS For People and the Planet website. Connecting with over 26 countries, Jody provides a virtual stage for youth to share ideas, art, music, and poetry-she has pioneered live videoconferencing to promote a global, borderless classroom. Jody’s expertise in interactive technology brings young people all over the planet face to face, in real time, to celebrate culture and art and a collaborative vision of humanity.

The Global Ambassadors, who are a very inspired and inspiring group of children, were very moved to launch an Art Drive to raise awareness and raise funds for the purpose of assisting demobilized child soldiers in Congo.

After several video conferences that I was invited to by Ms.Kennedy and the Global Ambassadors, a video was produced as well as a drive to collect art supplies and materials for sending to the Congo.

Quoted from Ms. Kennedy: “These are some examples of what the students who learned about the Congo from you created in order to help teach our community about Child Soldiers! Hannah created the T shirt design,Daniella and Sophia had the idea of selling pencils for $1 to raise funds to buy more art supplies. Daniella created the drawing . Hannah is an accomplished artist for her age. She herself has said that art has taken her through some hard times in life. I think that is why she feels so connected to this project.”

The GLobal Ambassadors' pencil design

What is better than children helping children? So inspiring! Thank you to Jody Kennedy and her Global Ambassadors who are always doing so much. I am so honored to work with you.

Imagine a life so simple…

Imagine a life so simple

life in a little house on the lake

it is warm enough not to need any clothes

your toys are a little boat and a stick

no television, no video games, no ipods,

imagine that!

your school is on a boat and it floats

your playground is made of water and sky

your world is empty of complications,

you are not nagging to get the latest toy,

you don’t even know that it even exists,

because your life is so unimaginable simple…


Photos taken at sunset on a little floating village on the Tonle Sap in the kingdom of Cambodia

How do we unlock their future potential?

Photographs are funny things. They can capture the state that you and your subject were in when you clicked the photo, and each time you look at it again, you are magically transported to that moment and it all returns, the smells, the weather, the sounds, the colors, and your emotional state at that time.

This photograph was during my last day with the children at CCPP ( The Cambodia Children’s Painting Project) in Sihanoukville. It was very hot and very humid like every other day I experienced there. I remember thinking that it is going to be so difficult to leave this place. The smiles, giggles and joy of the children were so contagious and so attractive to be with.

But on that day, this boy caught my attention in such a different way. He was not painting, not laughing, not smiling and not even remotely aware of the camera or me as I photographed him for at least 5 minutes. He seemed so engrossed in his thoughts, thoughts that were perhaps too much for him to handle. I wondered for a long time and remained haunted by his look, by his state. He seemed to be locked in his own bubble of sadness.

I so wished I had magic dust, a wand, a circus, or anything that would take away his pain.

Children are meant to be protected, cared for, shielded from pain, allowed to be children. Whenever I see a child having to meet the pains of adulthood it tears me apart. I always think of my child and how I would do anything in the world to protect her from hurtful experiences. Doesn’t every child deserve the same parental shielding? Aren’t children coded with the potential of our future? It is so crucial that we help them, that we allow them to become who they are meant to be. I am always so grateful and in awe of people that I meet who dedicate their life, efforts and talents to help children in need.

Such a glory is found in the giving where a gift is needed. Such an honor it is to give respect and value to the potential of a child and to be an instrument in unlocking it. And whatever this child is doing now, I hope he is smiling and being a child.

Eyes that tell a story

A friend told me recently that when they see photos of children from countries like Cambodia, they cannot help but see the difference between their eyes and the eyes of western raised children.

This is so true. And what is it about eyes? They are the first thing we meet normally in a person, the first thing we seek to connect to when we want to know someone. They seem to be a doorway or gateway of some kind.

Love needs the eyes to pass its messages. Most of us remember getting chills when we looked into the eyes of someone we loved for the first time and held their gaze. We often say we felt something pass between our eyes and our loved one’s eyes.

The eyes hold power and can transfer that power to another person quite easily. They can do what the voice cannot. Their message is deeper and much more subtle.

You can tell so much about a person from the way their eyes “act”. If you watch the show “lie to me”, you may be fascinated by the stories eyes can reveal. Eyes that shy away from yours, eyes that stare you down with determination, shifty eyes, blinking eyes, eyes that don’t blink, piercing eyes, shallow eyes…

And yes, there is a huge difference between the look and power in the eyes of the children I met in Cambodia or in Congo and the eyes of our western children. The stories this girl’s eyes told me went soul deep and were desperate to be told. Eyes that saw too much and want to tell it because it is just too much to bear.

This is a little girl that has to sell to survive, has to learn a few words of English to be able to communicate with the strange “rich” tourists, hoping to charm them into buying so she  and her parents can have rice for the week. Her play time is cut short. Her innocence is hijacked. Of course her eyes are not the same. How could they be?

More than one reason to smile…

Sombath Srey Toch is a 13 year old girl who has been coming to the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project for two years. Srey Toch never smiled when she first started coming and she had no good reason to. Her mother died leaving her and her brother to the care or rather abuse of an older father who drinks heavily, is unemployed after a job related injury and beats Srey Toch and her brother regularly.

She also lost her front teeth and therefore was very shy to show her smile.

As part of what CCPP does, Srey  Toch received free dental work that fixed her front teeth. And a contract was made with the abusive father that promises him help with his home rent (and home is a one room and one bed that the whole family shares), and some weekly rice allowance if he refrains from hitting his children.

And of course the daily painting sessions bring a glowing smile to Srey Toch. Every time I saw her at the center she gave me one of these beaming smiles that should never have been hidden in the first place.

More inspiration and many thanks overdue…

I just love it so much when I come across people in my life who do so much good, have so much dedication, offer so much service without realizing how much they do. Most of the time these people do not hear enough “thank you” or “wow” or “amazing”. They are so much into what they do and the love of it that they are content and satisfied to be in the doing.

And because of this selfless quality they grow and develop qualities and skills otherwise not easily attainable.

Such a person I met in Sandi Bassett. Sandi is the art manager at CCPP http://www.letuscreatecambodia.org and during the few days I spent around her and around the children artists of the CCPP, I was more and more amazed at how she handles, teaches and assists sometimes over 150 children at the same time.

I remember coaching in art camps myself and finding it a challenge to handle a few children at a time and that was only for a few weeks. Sandi has been doing this every day, all day for almost 2 years and plans on continuing to do so.

If you have ever been to Cambodia and felt the heat and humidity that people endure all year round, you would realize the enormity of such service. I was watching Sandi, who is a Canadian artist, coach these children so gently, keeping track of everyone’s progress never stopping or wavering her attention. Hugs were given in between, sharing of food, playful teasing, serious instruction, jokes and so much love throughout!

Sandi has children and a grand child in Canada that she says she misses so much and gets to see in the summer, but she has found her calling in this service of children who need her so much. Because of her service and the service of others in CCPP, these children get to gain confidence, earn decent money from their work, go to school, stay off the streets and beach, get medical care and most importantly feel loved.

Chab Chamreoun, social worker, inspiring Cambodian

Huge smile always on the ready, willingness, brightness, intelligence are a few of the qualities that emanate from Chab Chamreoun, also know as “James Brown” around the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project.

He was studying for 8 years at a wat (Cambodian Temple) near Sihanoukville. There he studied and received a degree in social work. Despite coming from a very poor background, he has hopes to continue and do his masters. ” My dream was to become an engineer, he told me, but I ended up only becoming a teacher”. He obviously loves what he does despite not becoming an engineer.

He was hired by the CCPP  and is a figure of inspiration for the 160 children registered there.

I was so lucky to be able to visit some children’s homes today on the back of the motorcycle of Chamereoun. There we were on his motorbike with 10 year old Syvaren squeezed between us as we went to visit his family.

You are so lucky to meet one or two inspiring people in your life, but on this adventure “by art we live” I am meeting so many.

So many more stories to tell…

First photo is of Chamreoun, second photo is on the bike ride and the last photo is with Syvaren, his sisters and grandmother.

What gets into a humans to make them do something like this?

On the first day of my trip to Cambodia I took a morning trip to visit The Killing Fields also known as Choeung Ek, where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Vietnam War.

About 2.2 million out of 7 million were killed during the Khmer Rouge rule under big brother number 1, Pol Pot .

The facts are there to be read and retold, but the feeling and registrations you get while there are impossible to forget. It was so overwhelming to think of all the children and women killed in this execution center which is only one of thousands that sprung around Cambodia at the time.

To try and push away the thought of babies smashed on trees to save bullets, and women raped and then killed in cold blood is a task I will never be able to achieve.

And yet I wanted to see this. I wanted to know what my fellow humans did, what possessed them to do this.

And it keeps going on all over the world atrocities, cruelty, genocide.. and so many of us just turn around and pretend that we don’t see.

I suppose I had to go through this day before I went on to see the beauty, spirituality and charm of Cambodia. Our human history taints us and is an integral part of who we are.

Cambodians are now happy  to have peace since the year 2000, and they are content. Because of the extreme cruelty they had to endure, they are happy to simply enjoy their lives and their families in peace.

Much to learn here…

A first care package goes to Safari in Congo

The first “by art we live” package is on its way to Safari in Congo!

Safari is one of the child artists profiled by “by art we live” and his story is one that moved me so greatly. Safari (a self chosen name) is a 17 year old demobilized child soldier in the DRC. I met him back in October with the great assistance of UNICEF and MONUC  in a center for demobilized child soldiers in Goma. It was during a trip that I took looking for child artists in a beautiful African county ravaged by war. Safari was kidnapped from his home by the armed forces and was made into a child soldier against his will. The experience left him like other child soldiers devastated and emotionally fragile. He is a child who had seen too much and done many unnatural things.

I met Safari through “art” and I met “art” through him. Through painting he found his happy place, a place where he can be a child again, dream again, find hope and inspiration again. He loves color, painting, drawing and being in a state of peace that art allows him.

The UNICEF office in Kinshasa is being kind enough to facilitate the arrival of  this first care package to Safari’s hands.

A photograph captures a lot more than a smile, a look or a moment in time

After coming back home from my trip to Congo, I keep going back in my mind to the thought of what the camera really captures. It is strange how many cultures believe truly that a photograph can capture part of their soul, and so they hesitate to let you photograph them for fear of losing part of themselves in that process. I wonder about the truth of that, because the more I look at those faces in the photos, the more I feel a strong connection to something inside of those children. It reaches deep and stirs so many feelings in me that cause me to relive the moment that I met them and the moment that photo was taken.

I love photography for that reason, to be able to reconnect to a special moment, where  I can see, feel, smell and experience the elements that moved me to take the photo in the first place. Yes, for sure the soul of that moment is captured in a photo. At least it is a trigger for my soul to relive the experience and be with it again, because that is how life changing and important it was to me.