Until Performing Life pitched its tent in Cochabamba, Bolivia, impoverished children could only dream of better circumstances. These neighborhoods lack piped water, sewage and paved roads. Many families share one-room houses. Instead of attending school, poor children unable to afford books and supplies wander the streets and panhandle for money.
Abject conditions alarmed Performing Life founder John Connell, whose mom had promised him a plane ticket anywhere if only he would finish high school in West Branch, Iowa. Soon after his 2003 graduation he flew to Bolivia, where he visited the granddaughter of the country’s president.
“High society was not what I wanted,” says Mr. Connell. He headed off to see more of the country, eventually reaching Cochabamba, a city whose colonial roots are visible in buildings, statues and churches. Bolivia appealed to him more than college or work, the two alternatives awaiting him at home. “I figured if I didn’t get on the plane my mom would send money,” he says. He missed the plane but his ruse backfired. “She said I hope you get a job and then she hung up.”
Limited command of Spanish hampered job prospects. He saw young jugglers earning change at intersections. Thanks to a workshop that taught him to juggle in high school, he started juggling the next morning.
He soon got to know dozens of poor street children. As a foreigner, he saw how performance skills might lift them out of poverty they couldn’t see past. “It wasn’t really a plan, it just kind of happened,” says Mr. Connell.
Juggling, the core of community-minded performances, produces income while promoting intellectual development. In 2005, ABC News reported on German researchers who divided 24 juggles into two groups. One group practiced juggling for three months. Brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, measured activity before and after subjects learned to juggle.
The study found that volunteers who did not train to juggle showed no difference in their brain scans over the three-month period. However, those who now acquired the skill demonstrated an increase in gray matter in two areas of the brain involved in visual and motor activity.
In circus arts, Mr. Connell saw a larger chance to spur hope that motivates children to seek better lives. Once they can see a path out, education makes change possible.
In 2005 he went home for a visit. His mom, a seasoned grant writer who works with Native American tribes in New Mexico and Arizona, helped him write a proposal. She shared it with a funder at Hope for the Children Foundation who called the next day to ask when Mr. Connell could return to Bolivia to form an NGO.
The first juggling workshop started operating in March 2006. More activities soon catered to robust demand for ways to keep youngsters in school and away from drugs while improving their chances for economic independence.
Today, multiple programs advance Performing Life’s mission:
- The circus arts program teaches skills that increase coordination and concentration, and self-esteem and self-determination in the process. Children learn acrobatics, hula-hoop, unicycle riding and “poi” that uses balls or weights on ropes and chains, swung in circular patterns. On this performance-based foundation, youngsters find more time to attend school, study, spend time with families and take part in community building activities.
- The music program engages youth with the least amount of opportunities in life in an environment where they develop self-esteem. Music expresses their feelings about their lives and the world around them. They write lyrics, put them to music, create beats, and produce albums in diverse genres such as pop, acoustic, contemporary, and hip hop.
- The youth-managed bracelet and micro-enterprise program furnishes the opportunity to make beautiful, high-quality bracelets for sale in the United States for sale. All profits come back to participants’ savings accounts set up by Performing Life. Families can use these funds for education, improving living conditions, and starting small businesses.
- An Educational program aims to boost educational achievement by teaching subjects outside of students learn in Bolivian schools. Weekly classes promote skills useful in school and jobs, including use of the Internet.
- Health programs collaborate with local organizations to improve overall health. Dental care, general health check ups and educational workshops improve living conditions, family planning and disease prevention.
Mr. Connell took the steeper path to humanitarian impact. “Learning by doing,” he says, “is definitely harder short term and takes more perseverance.” He sees merit in his hands-on approach and in going to college, with its valuable mix of education and connections. He takes great pride when Performing Life graduates go on to university, including a young woman now attending college in Washington State.
After almost ten years in Bolivia, and more than 3,000 children who have embraced Performing Life, Mr. Connell sums up a central lesson. People commonly believe that money alone can rescue children from poverty. “They don’t need money, they need skills,” he says. “Skills build a better future.”