December 2016

Performing Life Through Arts on the Street

2016 is a special year for the organization Performing Life International because of its 10th anniversary. Performing Life is an organization that helps children who are working and/or living on the streets to improve their daily lives and create better futures for themselves and their families through arts. This project started in 2006, three years after founder John Connell traveled to Cochabamba. Since 2006, Performing Life has grown and became a means of survival for the children. John Connell tells the story of Performing Life.

By: Melanie Hazenberg
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Hilversum - Netherlands

Photos by: Laura Crowell

"I came to Bolivia in 2003. I was travelling around and ended up in the streets. I foolishly decided to stay and not get on the plane to go home; so, with little knowledge of Spanish and no money, I had to search for gainful employment. I needed to do something to earn money, but I did not speak any Spanish. After observing some young chaps "juggling" two lemons and thinking, 'Hey, I can do that!' I decided to start juggling at stoplights. After spending a couple of months working alongside street kids washing windshields for pennies, I realized they could earn more money in less time by juggling and entertaining their audience. I started teaching them basic juggling, which then evolved this idea called Performing Life, Inc. In 2006, I started to teach arts with the idea of music and arts for youth living and/ or working on the streets. They can find positive ways to express themselves and potential pathways to a brighter economic future. The circus project is something original, creative and a jolly good fun for the children."

Photos by: Laura Crowell

Circus project

"There are currently two circus centers: one in Montenegro (close to Sipe Sipe) and one in the community of Alto Buena Vista (Zona Sud behind the airport). We have around fifteen young chaps in the morning in both centers and another twenty-five in the afternoon who are attending the circus classes. The ages are all mixed; varying between eight and eighteen years old. The ideal situation would naturally be to have more groups of kids but we simply do not have the staff. We have seven full-time staff who are leading the organization and luckily many volunteers every year. They help teach the children how to perform on the streets; how to use the diablo, the trapeze, how to dance, act like a clown, and much more. During the circus classes, we divide the children up. One part is practicing at the circus program while the other part is doing 'normal' school activities. We swap the groups halfway through. Once they learn how to perform, the next step is doing it on the streets to earn money. We organize shows once a month where the children can show their families and the other kids what they learned. We are also approached by schools and others to do shows. Performing Life gets a small percentage of the earned money; the rest is for the children. We had a large event at the beginning of March because of our 10th anniversary. We put on a big show with all the kids of Performing Life. Unfortunately, it did not turn out very well because there was another event at the same time."

The Children's Situation

Children who work on the streets have to earn money because they sometimes do not have any family or their family does not have enough money to take care of them. Circumstances, such as parents in prison or without a job, cause the children to have to work on the streets. More than 50% of the young chaps who are in the circus program are working on the streets to earn money for their families. In reality, 25% to 35% of all of Cochabamba's children work on the streets (2011). There are also boys in the circus class who come from a boys' home. In this place, all the boys have been abandoned. These kinds of situations sometimes put them at risk. Performing Life is an organization that helps them change their lives, together with their family and communities.

The circus project is something original, creative and much fun

The Goal of the Circus Project

"We want to minimize the amount of kids that are on the street. We want to help them get off the streets and return home. The first step is to teach them arts so they can earn more money in less time. The next step is improving the economic situation of their parents, so it is not necessary to work on the streets anymore. The following step is joining the scholarship program at Performing Life when they become teenagers. In this program, we discuss their plans for the future and what kind of opportunities there are. If they are around the age of fourteen, we also ask if they want to help with teaching the younger ones. We are always developing new potential instructors. Aside from the main instructor, there are mostly between one and three 'helpers.'"

In the future we would love to have a mobile truck for our circus project

Scholarship and Educational Program

"When the children reach the age of fourteen, we see how dedicated they are and what they want to do in the future. If they want help, we sign a contract and with the family search for possible opportunities. We have a database full of studies. For example; there is currently one girl studying in the United States; another one will probably study economics next year. There are also two girls who are learning to become police women. All the girls studying have completed the circus classes before. When the teenagers are in school, we follow their grades to ensure they are performing satisfactorily."

Sponsors and Keep the Foundation Going

"We need a substantial amount of money to work on the circus classes and offer the scholarships at this level. The most sustainable way of funding is to nurture long-term relationships. You have to build up on these kinds of relationships. For example; our oldest sponsor, Hope of the Children Foundation, stops by our office every year to see what we are doing. It is crucial to build up a relationship with a sponsor for years and years. We are recently sponsored by Cirque de Soleil through ticketsale. When people buy a ticket at ticketsale, all the money is goes to our foundation. In the long term we want to be self-sustainable, but we need plenty of funding. We are working on it and have many new plans for the future."

The Future of Performing Life

"This year we set up a professional recording studio for the music project, which allows us to start financing the entire music program for the kids. The new recording studio is located in our new office; I have just signed the contract! In the future, we also would love to have a mobile truck for the circus project. The truck would have the stage, music, lights – everything that we need. We will then be able to perform wherever and whenever we want and we will always have a stage. It would be perfect! We also get many new opportunities through ticketsales, which is helping us a lot. At the other office, I hope that we can purchase some land in a few years to open up an arts, music, and community center. This way we can be close to the community and offer great workshops (free and paid). I hope that our project can keep going. There are many plans that need to be accomplished in the future."

We want to minimize the amount of kids that are on the street

How Beyond Beanie is Changing Lives
Beyond Beanie is an up- and coming lifestyle and fashion company that sells ponchos, bags, beanies, and bracelets. These products are proudly made by Bolivian artisans. By helping these artisans selling their products, Beyond Beanie can create sustainable local jobs. Therefore, they no longer have to work on the streets. Ninet Meija is one of the artisans who is making fashion products for Beyond Beanie.
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