Speech for the event.

  •  Benjamin Whitaker
  •  December 4, 2015
  •  blog

Exactly two years ago I moved to Argentina to join forces with my good friend Valeria. We started Food for Thought, a project focussed on improving the physical, emotional and cognitive health of underprivileged children. It has been an amazing two years in the small community of Monte Chingolo. During this time our team has been constantly challenged and therefore in a continual cycle of evolution. We have been adapting and experimenting with the best approaches to functioning in this vulnerable community.

In food for Thought the relationship between the teacher and the child, and the communication between the two, is fundamental. Ok, I want you to all think of a teacher that you liked at school. Now think of a teacher that you didn’t like at school. With which of those teachers did you perform better? I’m going to guess that it was the teacher that you liked! Listening, empathising and interacting with children, is where a healthy and positive environment for education begins.

I have always been interested in education. The part that interests me most is how we learn. The biggest contributor to how successful we are as learners is the environment in which we live. These conditions set the platform for physical, emotional and cognitive development. The easiest example to describe what I’m talking about is the comparison between the environment of which I grew up in and that of a child of Monte Chingolo.

– As I was growing up my mum fed me a very healthy diet. A child of Monte Chingolo’s diet consists of carbohydrates, bread, pasta and processed sugars. Low-quality nutrition greatly impacts how children learn and grow!

Another example – My parents supported me physically and emotionally within the household as I was growing up. 90% of the children that attend Food for Thought come from violent homes.

Just a couple of examples to give you some perspective and an understanding of the obstacles to learning that children from this community encounter. It’s not just in this community. There are so many parallels in disadvantaged communities all over the world. Ask Diamond and Brian about their experience in the outback of Australia.

Facilitating Food for Thought in Monte Chingolo has given us an eye-opening insight into the social environment of this community. Through gaining this perspective we have been able to develop a program that suits the needs of children within this social context.

I believe the key to a sustainable future, not just in Monte Chigolo but all over the world, is education. In my experience, the form of education that is most effective is the type that places teachers and students as equals. Having both parties on the same level promotes trust and respect. What larger lesson can a child learn, than that they are respected and their thoughts and ideas are valued? This not only creates a vibrant learning environment but it also creates confidence and self-belief in children. From this point, imagination, collaboration, questions, investigation and experimentation form the base of learning.

Through all of our experimentation, we have created our own education recipe. We have a year-long plan for Food for Thought, which consists of nutrition, art, music, drama, yoga, and recreation. Because we believe so strongly in relationships, communication and human connection, this year we incorporated an overall theme of “emotional expression” into all of our planning.

Although Argentina has a very expressive culture, the children of Monte Chingolo have great difficulty expressing their emotions. Violence within these homes, as the first reaction, causes children to automatically shut down. The fear of being physically punished builds walls around any sort of emotional expression.

As a culmination of the year’s work we create a theatre production. Last year it was our take on Alice in Wonderland and the child’s right to play. This year it was Little Red Riding Hood and the four seasons. We spent the last two months designing the script, sets, costumes, music and dance with the children. We had four scenes, each connected to a season and an emotion. Because I’m a bit of a hippy, we also had an underlying theme of caring for the environment.

The production is a great way to combine the whole year’s work from all the different subject areas. It is also the perfect excuse to bring the community together to see their children perform, observe their skills and abilities, and witness how capable their children can be when they set their minds to something. Click here to see a clip of photos of the show.

Now I would like to talk about one child in particular. His name is Nico. He has been with us almost since we started this project. I have picked him up from his house and walked with him to Food for Thought almost every day for two years. Some days Nico will is bright and sparkly when he leaves the environment of his home. Other days he is frustrated and upset, it depends on the day. Nico’s favourite game on our walk is the “guess what we are going to eat today” game. Inherently Nico is a beautiful kid. He is loving, and super friendly. He’s got a smile that would melt your heart. He also has amazing rhythm and can dance like Michael Jackson.

Now to give you an idea of the home environment in which Nico and many other children live. The violence in Monte Chingolo and many other communities like it, is cultural. It’s not seen as doing the wrong thing, it’s seen as the way that you can control your children. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the violence that that goes on within these homes. It’s definitely thickening my skin, which is a good and bad thing! It makes it easier to deal with, but I also don’t like the fact that I am becoming numb to the violence!

The state school system is complicated when it comes to hyperactive children. The school couldn’t manage Nico without him being assessed by a neurologist. So he has been on and off all sorts of medication since we have known him. Earlier this year Nico was taking two forms of medication. One for hyperactivity or ADHD and the other, an antipsychotic usually used to treat bipolar or schizophrenia. He stopped being violent… but he also stopped being Nico. These drugs made him a completely different child. Until he became accustomed to the medication he was very much a zombie. Even when he started to get used to them, he just lacked life!

When Nico isn’t on medication he is very hyperactive. He has a lot of energy and quite often when trying to play, it results in him hurting another child. He loves to play but sometimes his excess energy get’s the best of him and play turns rough. Also the fact that he smells bad and he has trouble communicating with children of the same age means that he doesn’t feel comfortable in many group situations.

Luckily for some reason, about four months ago Nico stopped taking the medication. We don’t know why he stopped. We have found it very difficult to get any information from Nico or his mother. The reason for him stopping in the past has been that they have finished the batch of pills and haven’t bothered to get any more. But the great thing is that he stopped taking the drugs!

Nico is nine years old and lives with his four sisters, one new baby brother and his mother. They don’t have a shower in their house. If Nico does wash, which is not that often, he does so at his grandmother’s house. The way he smells truly limits his ability to make friends.

Another hindrance on his ability to make friends is Nico’s first reaction in many situations. This reaction is to threaten. It comes so naturally to him that he can’t help it. His home is so violent that his first response in many situations is violence or threatening behaviour or gestures. I’ve witnessed him kick his older sister in the head, without remorse. Quite often his actions come with a smile on his face but it doesn’t bode well for him making friends. He is such a beautiful kid but socially awkward and still learning how to communicate and empathise with others.

On several occasions when Nico has gone missing, I have found his mother walking around the community looking for him with a stick in her hand. She has also described to us how she back-handed one of her daughters in the face, drawing blood, because her daughter wasn’t following instructions. She was almost skiting when she told us.

Nico’s reading and writing levels are well below that of other children of the same age. Even though he is nine years old, he is much happier and calmer when he is in a class with children of 5, 6 and 7 years olds. We believe that feeling comfortable within the learning environment is paramount, so we don’t have a problem with putting him in the class with the younger children.

It has been a roller coaster ride for us and for Nico over the last two years. We have tried many different strategies to assist him, some successful and others not so. We can’t control the environment of which he lives but we can control the environment of Food for Thought where he spends twelve and a half hours per week. We have attempted to provide an environment where he is loved, listened to, and respected.

In the last month we have seen some big changes in Nico. About three weeks ago after pushing over another child while playing outside of the venue, he sat down on a chair, upset, with his head in his hands. I asked him if he was upset with the girl that he pushed over, he said no, I asked him if he was upset with me, he said no, I asked him if he was upset with himself, he said yes. He told me that he was upset that he pushed the girl over because he did it without thinking and he had no control over it. He said that he was upset because this kind of thing happened a lot.

This was the first time that I had been able to talk to a non-medicated Nico, face to face about his actions. For the first time in his life he was consciously expressing his emotions to us. I began to consistently see a relaxed, happy Nico on our walks from his house to Food for Thought. Three weeks ago Nico stopped wetting his bed for the first time in his life.

I don’t know if something specific has changed in his home life. I don’t know if Nico had a different energy or was excited because he had a part playing percussion in the band for our production of Little Red Riding Hood. I don’t know if Nico’s behaviour had changed because of his two years within our project. What I do know is that we are seeing a new Nico. A Nico who is beginning to listen, empathise and communicate with us and other children.

We can’t claim all of the responsibility for the behaviour change in Nico, but I can definitely say that we have been a factor, maybe even the catalyst, in his change. To see a change like this in just one child makes all of the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears, yes many tears, worth while! I’m realistic, we’re not going to change the world with this project, but I think we can make a profound difference in the lives of about 30 children in this small community and possibly start a new cycle. This is a repeat of the quote that I used last year: Robert F Kennedy

“Each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation… Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others… He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep the mightiest of walls of resistance.” –

I’m really excited to see what will come of 2016. We have a new venue with heaps of space for a garden and large classrooms for all of our activities. We are sharing the space with a foundation whom we will eventually collaborate with. We also just received news that the Australian Embassy in Argentina is going to support us in building a new kitchen for Food for Thought. This is a huge game changer for us. We will soon have the ability to do cooking and baking workshops with the kids and parents of the community. We are going to start the construction in February. I can’t wait to be back here, in this spot, in a year’s time to inform you all of what Food for Thought has achieved in 2016. So thank you for being here tonight to make 2016 possible for us.

I say that we have learnt so much so far on this journey. Not only about the education of children but also how we can grow as individuals. There are words that in my native tongue I don’t use a lot. Here are two of them – Love and Fear. For some reason these words are used a lot in the Spanish language of Argentina. I am learning to not be afraid of these words and am beginning to use them more.

Here is the message that we are teaching the children in Monte Chingolo. This message is not just for them, but for us grown ups too. Love and fear are the two emotions that direct every decision that we make. Let’s connect with what we love and what we fear and not be afraid to express these feelings. Let’s start conversations! Let’s learn from each other! Let’s share all of our ideas, no matter how crazy! Let’s not compete. Let’s collaborate! Let’s love, and use all that we have fear of to find love. Not just love for a partner, but love for your passions, love for your friends and family, love for coexisting on this beautiful planet that we share. Let’s love…

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