We commenced sending young people on the HOPE You Can Paint programme in 2014 and have had three groups travel to Kolkata to work with HOPE since that time. A new departure for us it has developed into a pivotal part of our school year and the programmes and opportunities we deliver to young people. At the very core of what we do is a focus not just on the academic but the social and personal development of young people and indeed the staff that work with them. Another key part of our ethos is the idea that we all have something to learn, that students can and often do become teachers and that the key to learning is working together. For this reason, the work of HOPE and the programme they provide is a unique fit for us as an organisation.
While it is difficult to convey in writing the impact of travelling to Kolkata to work with HOPE we will attempt to do so under a number of headings below which sum up the results and consequences we have had the pleasure to witness in our young people. This has been made possible by the work of HOPE and the exemplary programme they provide to young people. Neither would the extraordinary journeys been possible without the financial support of Tomar Trust who have offered us the opportunity to take part in the programme.
Trust and Confidence
Many if not most of the young people we work with have little experience of praise, of achieving, of being recognised prior to attending with us. We take every opportunity possible to encourage and celebrate the success and achievements of our young people little and large. The programme provided by HOPE however has provided a very specific and unique opportunity to demonstrate to our young people that they are trusted, that they matter, that they are worthy of opportunities. We select the young people to travel on the basis not of being ‘perfect students’ but of being willing to push and stretch themselves outside their comfort zone and of the contribution they make in different ways to the community at the Cork Life Centre. The impact of being chosen to travel to Kolkata has had on young people is quite extraordinary and has given all the confidence to realise they have a lot to contribute not just in our small community but beyond. The example set by these young people prior to, during and following their experience also has a hugely positive peer influence on other students of the centre.
Some of the young people we have sent to Kolkata had not been on a plane or travelled any significant distance from home prior to taking part in the HOPE You Can Paint programme. The safety provided by the organisation of the programme has allowed these young people to do things they never dreamed possible. Key to this safety and security is the fact that young people and staff leaders are travelling to an organisation like HOPE who are not working with but among and together with the people of India and have made it their home. Not only are young people supported seamlessly by the HOPE Foundation but being able to send our own staff has really allowed young people to face challenges and get the maximum benefits from the programme. We have seen a clear growth in confidence, in social skills, in ability to handle new and stressful situations following the experience. Young people learn through the experience that there is little they can’t tackle together from the group visit to receive vaccinations(often one of the biggest terrors), to the long journey, to the culture shock of witnessing dire poverty. The experience cements already positive relationships and allows young people an opportunity to grow as a team and to realise they can work as part of a group. When young people have been isolated as described above due to illness and at other times due to their own challenging behaviour they have not had opportunities to develop these skills.
Young people have also had the opportunity to practice their public speaking and presentation skills as they meet with students as well as our management committee on their return in relation to their experiences in Kolkata. One of our students has also spoken on local radio in relation to her passion for Kolkata and the work of HOPE.
The Life Centre is a community not a school. Any work that we do that links young people to this community also keeps them linked in with their education. Being chosen to travel with the centre to Kolkata has for the young people involved further strengthened their relationships with us and therefore with their education. We have seen how young people returning have a stronger sense of the importance of community and of linking in and contributing at home and abroad.
Promoting Positive Messages
A vital part of our work is promoting positive messages about young people and what they have to offer. This aligns perfectly with the ethos and outlook of HOPE. In all our activities we are seeking to lift the stigma surrounding ‘early school leavers’ who are often portrayed as a problematic group of young people who lack motivation and are problematic in their communities and for society. The opportunities young people have had to travel to Kolkata and act as ambassadors for their own communities and for the Cork Life Centre has been a key part of challenging these assumptions and stereotypes around young people who leave the mainstream system. When travelling with HOPE our young people are being given the same opportunities and taking on the same responsibilities as students in secondary schools across Cork and have proven themselves more than capable of doing so.
Becoming Helpers/Role Models
The young people we work with can be seen as a marginalised or ‘looked after’ group. This can often be disempowering and limiting for young people. Being involved in the HOPE You Can Paint programme turns the table and allows young people to see their own potential to help and support others, to recognise that while their situations might be difficult, they are not insurmountable as they witness those in the most dire poverty and diversity communicate their positivity around life and education. Time and time again young people have communicated their wonder at the resilience of the children they meet in India, their positivity in the face of desperate situations and their passion around being educated. The work the young people take part in demonstrates to them that adversity need not decide your future and often makes them appreciate the opportunities they have been afforded themselves. We have been impressed by how eloquently young people can communicate the similarities and differences they identify between poverty and disadvantage at home and abroad.
A knock-on effect we have seen is the development of a social conscience in young people. We have noted the majority of the young people who have taken part in the HOPE You Can Paint experience have gone on to volunteer in their own communities, of particular note virtually all of the participants have taken part in a summer camp held in conjunction with the Cork Life Centre where they take on the role of mentoring younger children who are struggling in school, at home and in their communities. The programme has also motivated and inspired young people to do very meaningful work in relation to the SDG’s(Social Development Goals) In doing so they are privileged in that they are not talking about what they have seen on the internet or on television but what they have experienced first-hand.
We hope the above has communicated the huge and diverse benefits taking part in the HOPE You Can Paint programme has provided to our young people. It is something we would highly recommend to anyone working with young people particularly those who are seeking to discover not just about the world but about themselves and their potential to make a positive impact in their world. We will close with testimonials by staff who have travelled with the young people to Kolkata.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of our involvement with HOPE. This last October for the second year running a group of our students with staff travelled to Kolkata for Hope You Can Paint. For the participants the experience is once in a lifetime. Experiencing the rich culture of India first-hand along with the unfortunate disparities in wealth and living standards and extreme poverty turns young people’s world upside down for all the right reasons. For our young people who even in Ireland find themselves on the margins educationally as well as in other ways it is extraordinary to witness the resilience of children in India and to witness that in spite of dire circumstances childhood is universal and involves joy, and hope, and playfulness. The key word is HOPE and in spite of witnessing hardship and unimaginable poverty that is what young people return to Ireland fired up with-Hope, and joy and love for the children of Kolkata. Travelling with HOPE who under the direction of Maureen Forrest have done such an extraordinary work and built such a reputation students are afforded a passport and visa like no other, they are privileged to really experience life in Kolkata rather than just being tourists. From the outset HOPE work tirelessly to prepare young people for the journey and as a school or organisation are on hand every step of the way-no question or query is too big or too small, kindness and experience abounds. It is always a joy to work with people who so clearly have a passion for what they do both in Kolkata and in raising awareness and offering extraordinary opportunities to youth here at home to be a part of their work. We hope our relationship with HOPE continues into the future. We also wish to acknowledge the huge role Tomar Trust have had in introducing us to HOPE, financing our students trips. It is a testament to their commitment to providing opportunities to young people to learn and to grow.
Though I only spent a week in Kolkata with the Hope You Can Paint project, that week has stayed in my mind ever since. Coming from an educational background, the importance of schooling has never been lost on me, and this was particularly apparent in the Nabudisha we visited, where 40 homeless children attend each day in order to try and get an education. HOPE gives these young people, and all their young people, an education while also allowing their talents to shine through; the depth and beauty evident in their artwork, or the intricate dance skills choreographed by themselves.
I was particularly taken by HOPE’s work trying to register those living in slums. Being able to get a birth cert, something most of us would take for granted, will give these people recognition, and allow them access to education. It is so common for society to ignore the less fortunate, and through HOPE’s efforts, these people are no longer invisible. HOPE is creating lives for these people. We often talk about the poverty and housing problems that exist in Ireland, but this cannot compare to seeing scores of children, some only babies, sleeping on footpaths and under bridges each night. Or children as young as 4 recovering from substance abuse issues, while others, just as young, have lost limbs through accidents when living on the streets.
It is very easy to see the impact that HOPE has made on these young peoples’ life; housing and educating them; teaching them life skills and creating employment opportunities. Hearing people open up about their lives, it is apparent that some of them would not be here today without HOPE’s intervention. Though I was shocked at the poverty I witnessed, what struck me even more was the positivity; the happiness; the sense of community. In each organisation we visited, the group and I were welcomed with open arms and made feel part of the family. The young people’s energy and vigour infected everyone. They taught us games and dances, and every time we left somewhere after a visit, our group was in high spirits. Each of our group members wanted to return a second time to these places, in no small part to the atmosphere the young people created and the connections they formed while there. It is very obvious to me that HOPE is the best name for this organisation, because hope is exactly what it creates. HOPE brings these young people into a community and gives them a chance to change their path in life.