“If you are Haitian, you have lost someone. My Mom’s cousin lost five children. . . We don’t have enough food.”

Benaja Antoine, a teacher from Haiti who had been one of my hardest-working and most gracious classmates for the last six days, has been often asked what BuildaBridge Artists on Call will find when they visit his country next month.

“If you are Haitian, you have lost someone. My Mom’s cousin lost five children. We don’t have enough food to feed our people. The price of food is very high,” he said over lunch.

“Haiti needs a lot now. The best way to help is through education. We don’t have enough education,” he said in the afternoon session.

How to get started in Haiti? “It is always better to have conversation with experienced people. Meet with local artists. Ask some questions, like what they have done already and how — and how we can we connected and do things together,” he replied.

“Sit down with teachers,” he continued. Ask what kind of training they would like and how they can use you to help.”

— Henry J. Holcomb, BuildaBridge volunteer Artist on Call and board member

Benaja Antoine describing life today in Haiti

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Preparing specifically for work in Haiti

Dr. Hoskins opening class preparing artists for July project in Haiti

Today we’re focusing on preparing to work with children whose lives has been shattered by the earthquake in Haiti. Ruth Hoskins, Ph.D., a Red Cross volunteer who worked at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is teaching a half-day class entitled “Psychological First Aid: Helping others in Times of Stress.”

BuildaBridge Institute participants have been joined for today’s sessions by volunteer artists we have recruited for July projects in Haiti, where they will sleep in tents while working to help children find ways to recover from what they have been through. We’ve been invited to do a pilot youth arts camp at a school, assess opportunities at an orphanage and train teachers in the BuildaBridge curriculum at a university.

Here’s a link to our Haiti blog:  http://artsrelief.wordpress.com/

This class is pulling together all that we’ve studied over the last five days about the developmental stages of children, working across culture boundaries, and how the arts can be a vehicle of teaching and healing, helping children to create their own ways of dealing with the problems and traumas. Dr. Hoskins is skillfully applying that to what the artists who go to Haiti will encounter there and how they must e aware of cultural, emotional, spiritual and political realities there. She’s also teaching the importance to taking care of oneself while helping others.

The artists who go will make a difference, she said. “You are going down there as an amazing supportive presence. The people there will emember your good, heartfelt response and compassionate presence.”

As we came back from a break, pictures our co-founder, Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt has assembled showing the continuing tragedy in Haiti are being project a big screen.

Dr. Hoskins gave us intense training on natural responses to disaster, how to know when to refer to a mental health professional, maintain appropriate boundaries and compassionate body language, and how to avoid melting down ourselves.

After lunch Christine C. Wineberg, MA, MT-BC, LPC, a Philadelphia therapist, used role-playing exercises and music to help explain post-traumatic stress disorder and caring for caregivers, and responses to various types of disasters. Be prepared, she said, to “hear people express themselves differently that we do in the United States” and be sensitive to the local survival culture.

Provide familiar music in non threatening manner. Create a nonjudgmental environment that’s safe for people who don’t believe they can sing, a safe place to use their voice. And set things up that can continue for a long time, after you’ve come home, because that’s the only way to truly help the children.

She urged those who go to stay focused on the positive effects of witnessing healing, and to celebrate successes.

Know yourself, she urged, and your own history of trauma exposure and recovery. Seek support when you need it.

Make sure you are not going to a site to help yourself — be sure you’re going to be there for others. Pay attention to the children, not your own sense of what they should be doing — follow their lead.

Dr. Gene Ann Behrens, PhD, MT-BC, associate professor and coordinator of music therapy at Elizabethtown College, described her work with children in trauma in Palestine and the neurological and behavioral changes stress produces. She outlined how music therapy can help differentiate sensations and emotions, develop coping skills, focus on the present and increase resiliency.

She demonstrated with the class how to use non-traditional instruments. These instruments, she said, encourage risk-taking and exploring from different perspectives.

— Henry J. Holcomb, BuildaBridge volunteer artist on call and board member

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Drums — an instrument of growth and change

My first experience opening a gathering with a drum circle was last summer at a BuildaBridge Artology camp for children. My first thought was I wished that many of the 10,000 or so meetings I’ve attended at work, church, my labor union and elsewhere had started that way. The drum circle helped the children make the transition from all that was going on outside to the work to be done, and it gently required children to listen to the rhythm of others before they took their turn at improvising on what the leader had started.

We used the drum ceremony at the BuildaBridge Arts for Hope Camp on the Flathead Indian Reservation last summer in Montana. We learned a lot more about how to use it this week, from James E. Borling, a professor of music at Virginia’s Radford University and a board-certified music therapist.

Drum circles are used to help people of all ages work together in settings like the Artology camp in Philadelphia and the camp Indian children in Montana and for serious therapy sessions with children and adults suffering from a variety of personal demons and addictions.

“A good group is six-to-eight, but I’ve forked with much larger groups,” Borling said. “It engages the fundamental core of wanting to be alive but being afraid to do so. . . music is a vehicle for change.”

The sessions help people deal deeply held anger and grief.

You don’t have to be a trained musician. Playing drums in a rock band requires serious talent, but almost everyone can play well enough to participate in a drum circle, where others help move past times when you mess up.

Professor Borling learned first hand the power of what he’s teaching and using as a therapist. Twice in his youth he was deeply into addictions which led to two near brushes with death. “Thanks to the grace of God and 12-step programs” and the work he now teaches and practices “I’m 22 years clean and sober,” he said.

Music has been a huge part of my personal growth,” he said.

Drums are just one of the skills taught at the BuildaBridge Institute 2010, which has attracted people from many regions of the United States as well as Haiti, Guatemala, Scotland, Australia, Korea and the Bahamas. Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt and Dr. Vivian Nix-Early, BuildaBridge cofounders, will soon post materials we used online. They are preparing to offer BuildaBridge training online and overseas in alliances with colleges and universities.

— Henry J. Holcomb, BuildaBridge volunteer Artist on Call and board member

James E. Borling, music professor and board-certified music therapist

Professor James E. Borling teaches how to use drums as instruments of change

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Preparing for the road ahead

The sun was low on the horizon and birds were singing joyfully when I fired up the Miata, put the top down and headed west for another day of learning how to build bridges over cultural barriers to help children. My thought-inspiring journey included a 20-minute dash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a half hour on tree-sheltered suburban byways.

As I drove, I pondered how really efficient the BuildaBridge approach we are studying this week really is. For example:

1. We engage artistic gifts already in the communities and locally available resources. What we add are mentoring and a curriculum, and a disciplined focus on desired outcomes and helping children develop the inner motivation and strength to deal with their own dilemmas. We offer methodology for planning, teaching and problem-solving. This makes what we do more relevant and sustainable, even in dysfunctional communities and societies.

2. We work with all ages but our primary focus is ages 9-14 because that’s where we can have the most enduring impact.

3. Our approach engages artists to work with and serve others. We help them deal with their issues while they are helping children deal with theirs. The drum exercises this week (which I’ll tell you more about later) helped one artist/teacher, as she put it, release something that was bothering her and focus. In a mask-making class, another artist/teacher said making the mask helped her “say something she couldn’t say verbally and let go of something that she needed to let go of. . .”  This is important. Our work is with children in really scary, tough, emotionally draining and stressful situations.

4. We’re not limited to the successful programs we do ourselves. Whenever possible we form alliances with others who are doing good work to help them do more. This is critical with tens of thousands of non-profit organizations are competing at for funds at a time when many sources have been limited or dried up altogether by the global economic crisis

5. We’re developing technology to teach artist/teachers and make resources available online. We have developed a curriculum for a full masters degree and we are working on relationships with colleges and universities overseas. This is important because BuildaBridge people network very well. Word of what we do is spreading wonderfully and creating a demand for what we do that far exceeds what we can offer ourselves given our limited financial resources in the current economy.

6. Many artists who work with us donate their time and pay their own travel expenses. (There are many more artists we could use if we could subsidize their costs, and we’re working hard to raise money to do that.)

7. We build bridges across cultural barriers and deal with people and communities where they are, as they are. We give teachers and children the ability to be resilient, to remain positive, cleanup messes from mistakes and learn from tough moments. We know how to engage in creative disruption if powerful forces are maintaining a status quo that benefits them but harms many. We help develop sustainable strategies that work in dysfunctional communities and societies. We build relationships and commitments that endure.

More on this later. I want to tune in to what my classmates sharing.

— Henry J. Holcomb, BuildaBridge volunteer Artist on Call and board member

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Two media from Institute

Click on the following links to view listen to songs from the Institute.

Dudu Muduri

I know I can Hip-Hop Workshop

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Creating alternatives to gang membership in Guatemala

Had lunch today with one of my BuildaBridge Institute classmates, Nancy Perez, 27, of Guatemala City in Central America, and heard a story I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.

Four years ago she founded an all-volunteer organization called Sonrisas, which means “smile.” It works with children who live in hard neighborhoods ruled by gangs. They come from large families where the younger children are raised by older children. This happened when she was in her early 20s, just out of college with a degree in architecture and a full-time city government job as an urban planner.

“I had been a Christian all my life. I grew up in a Christian home. It frustrated me because I wasn’t out there doing service,” she said. “I didn’t know what, where or how to get involved.”

About that time friends of hers started helping a local pastor, Johnny Sagustume, who despite being confined to a wheel chair, was feeding meals to children who worked in local cemeteries. “His wife prepared healthy meals for them,” she said.

Ms. Perez started playing with the children and was amazed by how much this meant to them. “I knew it was meant to be, that God had set this up,” she said.

A year or so later she won an Italian government scholarship for students in underdeveloped nations and earned a masters degree in urban development from 700-year-old Sapienza, the oldest and largest university in Rome.

Back home Central America she began to use her artistic talent — “I like painting, music and dancing” — to teach the children in the cemetery. She and her friends had no experience in teaching. They showed up every Saturday and did their best to share values and form relationships with them. They coordinated with local artists. They helped the children write a play which they presented at Christmas.

Everyone involved had a busy life, either holding jobs or going to school full-time. Still they set objectives and worked toward them. “We all do double tasks,” she said. Now, instead of one-day workshops, they teach four-month courses that allow the students to achieve something.

Meanwhile, Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt, president and co-founder of BuildaBridge, was becoming known among people who work with children in Guatemala. He and others from BuildaBridge, including board member Ronald W. Hevey, at the invitation of local officials, had taken the BuildaBridge program inside a local prison to help transform young lives.

One thing led to another and Ms. Perez learned about BuildaBridge and decided to come here to participate in our annual institute, a week-long training program on how to use programs we have developed on how to plan, create, implement and sustain programs for children in dysfunctional communities and societies.

Before she came she already knew what she wanted to do. She wants to strengthen and articulate what she and her five-member volunteer board are doing with 110 children so they can replicate it in many high-risk neighborhoods.

“We have a vision. We want to created a workable model we can repeat over and over,” she said.

She wants to work toward ending the class system in Guatemala. “Our higher and lower classes are very segregated. Some people don’t even know about the poverty we have,” she said. “I don’t think we can make progress as a nation if we don’t come together as one people, one community.”

BuildaBridge has been very helpful, she said, helping her develop ways to not just teach artistic skills. She now sees ways to use the arts as a metaphor for life, a way to teach skills that allow children to develop hope and skills to implement their hopes.

When they get older and the gangs try to recruit them, we want to give them values and skills so “they won’t choose that life because they have experienced other things.”

Being here for the institute is much more than a training course that sends her home with a head and notebook full of ideas and skills. It is the beginning of a long-term mentoring relationship with BuildaBridge. So stay tuned for more of the Nancy Perez story . . .

— Henry J. Holcomb, BuildaBridge volunteer Artist on Call and board member

Nancy Perez participating in a BuildaBridge Institute exercise

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Suggested books to read . . . for those who want to get involved, help children and transform communities

I’ve been asking people at BuildaBridge Institute 2010 what are the first books one should read to prepare for getting involved in using the arts to help children and the communities where they live. Here are three suggestions.

Taking it to the Streets: Using the Arts to Transform Your Community. By J. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nix-Early, 2003. (Baker Books)

The Power of the Arts: Creative Strategies for Teaching Exceptional Learners. By Sally Liberman Smith, 2000.

Creative Community Builder’s Handbook: How to Transform Communities Using Local Assets, Arts, and Culture. By Tom Borrup, 2006.

Books, Web sites and other resources are being assembled online at http://www.buildabridge.net/institute/ Before long you’ll be able to take our courses online and work with our mentors wherever you want to serve. Stay tuned!

— Henry J. Holcomb, volunteer BuildaBridge Artist on Call and board member

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