A sighting of Charlie Chaplin, complete with cane, bowler hat, and signature “wobbly walk” was an unexpected and pleasant surprise on my recent trip to Brazil. Of course, my encounter wasn’t the actor made famous through the early days of silent films, but a small Brazilian child who greeted me and my classmates on a warm Friday afternoon in São Paulo. Our group of 20, an international study class from William and Mary’s Mason School of Business, had paid a visit to the “House of Culture” project, located in one of the more disadvantaged neighborhoods of São Paulo. This undertaking, created and privately funded by the electric production and distribution company AES, is a unique and amazing sustainability effort that invests directly in the people living in one of the poorest sections of the city. The center has about 1000 children enrolled in before- and after-school programs that teach social responsibility, culture, basic team building skills and safety, all within an arts-based curriculum.
To say that we were impressed would be an understatement. Children of all ages showed us the results of AES’s effort, by singing, dancing, presenting improvisatory and creative drama, by using visual arts programs within a computer lab, and most especially through an entertaining and fascinating circus, complete with a “big top” tent. With little imagination, this circus, which included trampoline acts, and high-flying gymnastics, could (and likely will) be a training ground for future Cirque de Soleil entertainers. The directors of the program briefed us on how this program was initiated with intentional, careful planning – and how many different stakeholders within the community were engaged for feedback on their needs and desires—for example, while soccer is certainly very popular within Brazil, the organizers could not allocate space for such a program. The “House of Culture” program is also closely monitored and evaluated, using objective, measurable data. And participation isn’t a given – rather, it is linked to academic success. So, for students, good grades keep you in the program. As many of the children in this neighborhood leave the local public school system before beginning high school, one of the chief aims of the program is to reverse this trend, while teaching meaningful and lasting life-skills to the participants. And adults and parents within this community are also utilizing this center, during evening hours, to learn how to create small business opportunities for themselves—such as creating artwork and jewelry for sale.
During our visit, we witnessed the amazing activities of children of all ages, who clearly were excited and energized to be in this environment. For many of them, this is their only opportunity to use and to learn basic computer skills, to experience the joy of a making music with a choir or band, to draw creatively, or to produce and present a “school play.” The program is relatively new – only three short years define its history – yet, the level and quality of creativity among all ages was remarkable to see. Clearly, good progress is happening. The conclusion of our day included a spectacular and very entertaining circus show, complete with live music accompaniment, involving around 50-60 of the children. On their invitation, we gave it our best shot at dancing the exciting conclusion, with all the performers at the end. Our visit was too short, so I hope that I can return someday soon to see “Charlie” and his fellow performers once again.
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