March 2017

Casa de la Alegría offers classes that improve social and emotional skill

Casa de la Alegría is an organization in Cochabamba which helps children and teenagers to develop their social and emotional skills through theater, dance, music, and games. They want to make them aware of their talents and prepare them for a more confident and independent future. "Children improve their social and emotional skills without knowing it," according to Laurie IJzerman, the organization's founder.

By: Melanie Hazenberg
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Hilversum - Netherlands

Photos by: Melanie Hazenberg

The organization Casa de la Alegría started in 2011. Laurie IJzerman traveled in 2010 to Cochabamba to do her anthropology thesis. After graduating, she went back to Cochabamba in 2011 to ask what was really necessary. She stayed there because she realized kids need help dealing with their daily living situations. "I saw, for example, many mothers alone with children. Dads were not in the picture. Moms have no time to sit down with their children to drink a cup of tea, because they have to work and make money at La Cancha the entire day. Some of the parents do not even have the time to ask their child 'How are you?'"

That is why they do not learn to ask for help, but try to find it in other ways. For example: "Ask for the rubber. You do not have to hit the person you are trying to get it from." Laurie wanted to do something to help children who are dealing with situations like these, so she opened Casa de la Alegría. The teachers of Casa de la Alegría provide weekly creative therapy classes to children from ages 7 to 18. The projects they work with are mostly orphanages. They teach social and emotional development through music, dance, drawing, and other activities. The classes last two hours in groups of 10 to 12 kids. The children are split up into age groups of 7 to 12 and 13 to 18.

Some parents do not even ask their child, "How are you?"

The teachers of Casa de la Alegría provide weekly creative therapy classes to children from ages 7 to 18.
Photos by: Melanie Hazenberg

Dance, games, music, or drawing

"We offer dance, games, music, or art classes to children with ages ranging from 7 to 18. The most important thing for all the children is that they can let off steam at the beginning of a class. The first thing they really need to do is to scream or run. We have a lot of games for the children. Once they have let off steam, we can continue with the class. We work with varying themes. One week they will learn to say no and the next week they will learn that they cannot hit someone every time they want something. We also discuss topics like sex, sexual abuse, physical abuse, aggression, alcohol, and much more."

"We have many different games to approach such themes as these. After every class, we evaluate what has happened. For example, 'I saw that you were angry during drawing,' or 'You two worked very well together, but why not with the other children?' The goal of this evaluation is that children learn how to express themselves." Sometimes the teachers of Casa de la Alegría have to improvise because activities do not work well. This can be because the children are not motivated, they are distracted and there is no way they are going to listen. "We try to look at the children and what they really need. If they need to play games during the whole class, that is okay. If they need more immersion we give it to them. It depends on how they behave. We are careful with the immersion, because you have to be careful with sensitive topics."

Differences between boys and girls

You need to consider their situations with a slightly different perspective
Photos by: Melanie Hazenberg

"Girls and boys are mixed. I think that is important because the boys have to know the girls' stories and vice versa. Not only the girls have to be assertive, but the boys, too. However, a topic like sexual abuse is very sensitive, so we barely talk about that. At the moment, we are busy with other topics like physical abuse, aggression, and learning to say no. It is often a long process to see improvement. Seeing progress always takes a long time. You often see the most basic things improving in half a year. Once there was a boy who was really hyperactive. He was always very aggressive, screaming and never listening to the teacher. We have seen this boy change 100%! A year after we started working with him, we saw him getting annoyed until we heard him say, 'Teacher, I think I am angry now, I am going outside.' That was a great moment. Yet there are also children who do not seem to change. Then I think of my time in elementary school. Some things that the teachers said I recently understood at the age of sixteen. Every child has his own time. With some kids, you can see changes earlier. However, no two children are the same. Sometimes you see children finally flourish and then they have to move back home. Those situations are horrible. Then I think, 'This is awful! I know the family history and the violence, and now he has to go back."

Children learn how to express themselves


In Sipe Sipe (one of the projects where we offer classes), most of the children have psychological issues because of abuse they have experienced. This is an all-boys orphanage from ages 6 to 15. Some of them suffer for a long time from being abused. That is a reason why these boys can act strangely. Their behavior can be heavy and the progress is moving slowly. Therefore, this project is the only one which requires two teachers. You need to keep in mind that they experienced abuse abused; because you need to consider their situations with a slightly different perspective."

"Girls and boys are mixed. I think that is important because the boys have to know the girls' stories and vice versa".

The organization

Photos by: Melanie Hazenberg

Finding organizations that can help is very difficult. At the beginning, no organization believed Laurie's wish of offering long-term classes. "Organizations do not believe you when you are saying that you want to commit to providing long-term classes. At long last, there are organizations now starting to take our wishes seriously. We lost many due to unsustainability. When projects could not be sustained, we discontinued them."

"Finding good teachers was also difficult. Two and a half years after Casa de la Alegría began, the job description was more specific and better defined. There was a time when we had 8 different teachers in a short period of time when I thought, 'Do I need to keep going? Or does my vision of thinking long term not exist?' Luckily, I kept pushing ahead because now there are two permanent teacher. We would like to have a third one in the near future."

Look at yourself

To be able to provide the therapies and be able to understand the process of the children's social and emotional development, the teachers have to develop their own social and emotional skills and self-evaluate. What do you think of yourself and why? How can you solve that problem? Laurie knows that this is necessary and provides training for all her employees: "We are coaching our teachers every week. We act out situations from the classes. We learn through role play the right solutions. Sometimes we are climbing onto the curtains, screaming and throwing books. The other teacher has to solve the problem. When we are confident enough, we use the techniques in our classes. A job as creative as that of a therapist is very personal because you need to be in tune with yourself as much as possible. For example: Why is it so difficult for you to be confident? We really push our teachers. This encouragement is different from those from other organizations. Most organizations have good stories to share, but most of the time simply tutor. That is also good, but not what I wanted. One of the hardest things for me was to keep believing in what I am doing and asking for what I need. In the future, I just want to reach more children and if it is possible be more immersed."

One of the hardest things was to keep believing in what I am doing

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