15 May 2007
After an hour ride on a “traditional” Argentian minibus we had reached our destination – one of probably hundreds of Buenos Aires’ suburbs. Like most Latin American capital cities, Buenos Aires is home to nearly 35% of the country’s population and continues outward from city center for nearly 100 miles. The town was totally adorable, with it’s tiny single-family homes, main street with pharmacy, bank, super market (where we ate breakfast) and coffee shop and central school, which was our destination.
We met Gonzalo and Julia Souto there. Brother and sister, they started Abuelos y Chicos: Hagamos Teatro (Grandparents and Children: Lets Make Theater) in December with an Avancemos (Youth Venture’s Argentine partner) grant funded by Office Net, the name Staples uses in Latin America. We began with coffee and a roundtable discussion with their high school’s headmasters and teachers. Now 23 and 24 respectively, Gonzalo and Julia are “the only two students” to come back and work with kids from their own school,” the headmaster told me. “We are very proud.” They gave me an impressive book about their school, Newlands, as well as an official student pin. I got pinned in Argentina!
Then we hopped on a bus full of all the seventeen and eighteen year-olds from Newlands en route to a local nursery for children whose parents have to work all day to make ends meet, leaving the kids with nowhere to go. The bus ride was more than amusing. Laura, who would soon become our guide, strummed her guitar while the entire bus sang Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” As we drove up to the Nursery I could see all the kids standing at the fence. They clearly knew today was visitor day. Half of the high school kids started in immediately playing with, teaching and mentoring the five to eight year-olds. The other half disappeared into a back room, which I discovered played host to the most adorable infants and toddlers I have ever seen. I honest to goodness wanted to take one home. I wheeled one around in his walker, made playdoh with Olivia and helped another boy secure his mask for the upcoming theater rehearsal. He was the lion.
In talking with Laura, my guide, I learned that what Gonzalo and Julia have done is find a way to improve cross-generational relationships between high school youth, underprivileged children and senior citizens that have been “left to die” in homes, as she described it. Gonzalo and Julia, along with their old teacher from Newlands, bring the high schoolers to the Nursery every Monday, where they not only feed the babies and make playdoh, but work with the kids to develop a short play with singing, dancing and costumes. Local senior citizens also come to the nursery once a week, adding additional insight into the production while acting as another role-model figure for these small children in need. The kids then take the production on the rode, performing at local soup kitchens, other low-income schools and senior citizen’s homes. This helps them improve their interpersonal skills while simultaneously building confidence in themselves; both necessary and crucial to early childhood development.
I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to addressing impact. Gonzalo and Julia have found a way to support at-risk youth, offer a positive outlet for teenagers and give abandoned elderly something to live for using an incredibly important and timeless medium – theater, something he believes brings generations together. When asked what inspires him to keep going, Gonzalo said “because I want to put the old people in a role that fits them and I am satisfied because I see the expression of the children when they do this and it makes me happy.” Plus, I got to make playdoh!
The afternoon played host to back-to-back media interviews with Argentina’s two largest publications, Clarin & La Nacion, who also happen to be major competitors. Clarin was at 3pm, La Nacion at 4pm, which meant we had to do a little dance to keep things flowing smoothly. We convinced the Clarin people that it would be a better idea to shoot photos and host interviews in the Plaza, since it was such a beautiful day. Per usual, things were running long. After I was done with Clarin and Gonzalo was being interviewed, Carolin (Avancemos staff) and I ran back to the office to catch the folks from La Nacion. Their photographer suggested the Plaza for photos. Carolin told her there was construction (half true) and that there was this really nice fountain the other direction, which was also nice. Now, this photographer was a total character. She had long hair down past her butt and kept telling me what to do in Spanish, which I don’t understand. “I don’t understand either,” Carolin told me. The other interviews were still dragging on, which meant more stalling. We walked back to the office and I started talking with the reporter. The photographer was busy redesigning the office to fit her photographic needs. Mid sentence she poked her head in and asked if anyone wanted coffee. There were nods all around. I assumed she meant she was going to run down to a coffee shop. Nope. She just popped into the office kitchen, made some coffee and returned to the room with a full coffee service – a plate of tiny cups, spoons, sugar and French-pressed brew. No one thought that was strange except for me. Could you imagine a total stranger, who just took your picture for the newspaper, in your kitchen making coffee? So friendly here!
The others eventually showed up and did their interviews, which were followed by another photo shoot with the wacky but lovably woman; only this time, she had me holding a map of Argentina, as if it belonged to me or something. After a few shots she realized this image was less than desirable and we regrouped. Now I’m just doing final prep before boarding the bus to the North. More soon, I promise.