Repurpose Our Purpose

February 9, 2017 Of India, from Vancouver


Inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, Child Haven International was founded in 1985, by Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino, a superhero couple who built this organization after raising their own 21 children (19 adopted) into adulthood.  Their non-profit has built nine healthy, sustainable homes for almost 2,000 children and women in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Tibet.   And each of these “havens” provides food, shelter, clothing, health care, educational and moral support for their residents.  Most children go on to pursue post-secondary education, and Child Haven even funds their university tuition.  The homes are fully run and staffed by locals, along with a handful of volunteers from abroad (largely Canadians).  And Gandhi’s principles of gender equality, no caste (or class) recognition, non-violence and vegetarianism, simple living, as well as respect for all religions and cultures breed a positive, life-affirming energy that I felt during every moment I spent at their homes in both Kathmandu (for a 2015 arts project) and Kaliyampoondi.  This fertile ground provided the ideal environment for our arts engagements. So, it is no wonder they resulted in, perhaps, the most impactful project for Instruments of Change, to date.


Amidst cicada and frog song, morning starts at Child Haven with the children’s 5 am wake-up bell which elicits an occasional bark from Puppy, the resident dog.  As the children are meticulous about cleanliness, they proceed to pridefully brill cream and braid their hair, wash their bodies, and press their uniforms to perfection.  These thorough ablutions are followed by meditation, non-denominational chanting, and a jog around the large grounds of the home.  Then, they queue up for their daily protein, a sweet, warm cup of soy milk, made from soybeans that are crushed, right there on the property, by the machine they affectionately call the “soy cow”.  They form similar lines to receive breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner, and this 300+ person dance proceeds with remarkable order.


In fact, observing these young people choreograph their shared space, day in and day out, was perhaps the most moving part of my experience there.  In the spirit of simple living, each child’s entire worldly possessions (clothes, shoes, jewelry, toys, toiletries, photos) fit into one small metal suitcase. Consequently, there is little sense of “mine, mine, mine”, just like we witnessed in the Nepal home. Throughout our project, the children cooperatively shared supplies, decorations, and tools without incident. They were equally gracious about returning things promptly, in good condition and exactly where they found them.  Our limited stock of erasers presented the only sharing challenge, as they took the same pristine approach with their work as they take with their appearance.  Of course, we are always careful to dispel notions about “right or wrong”/”good or bad” art in our projects.  But habits run deep.  So, there was nothing left of our 10 inches of rubber erasers by the end of our two puppet-designing sketch sessions.  However, their diligence certainly paid off, as seen by these fanciful characters that they created.


During our project, entitled Repurpose Our Purpose, we asked kids to express their feelings about their own unique value and purpose (or, in other words, their superpowers), through story and song.  At the same time, they harnessed the value of everyday objects and trash by repurposing these materials to make puppets and instruments for a final original theatre piece.  And finally, we introduced a variety of interdisciplinary collaborative activities designed to cultivate an appreciation for the power of a collective sum that is greater than its parts.  The first of these exercises asked students to identify with certain Jungian archetypal personality types (IE. Jester, Creator, Explorer, Sage, Leader, Caregiver, Innocent, Hero, or Rebel).  Then, we organized them according to their chosen type, and these became their working groups for the duration of the project.  Subsequently, they performed physical gestures that represented their Archetype’s character, demonstrated by our Boy Jesters, with their thumbs to their noses.


They also collectively brainstormed a vocabulary of words related to the assets of their chosen superhero characters.  And while we relied heavily on the excellent translation provided by 4 helpful staff members, Ganesh, William, Johnson, and Poppy, this activity revealed that the students had a stronger command of English than we had realized earlier in our project.  Below are their own words, placed anatomically correctly, on the Body of a Superhero that they chalked on their playground.


Ultimately, each archetype group chose the most resonant word to describe their character’s superhero, and the first letter of this word became the body shape for their puppet design (IE. M for Meditation as the Sage’s superpower, and D for Dance as the Creator’s superpower).  Then, they brought these creatures to life using reclaimed cardboard, bicycle tires, scrap paper, styrofoam and newspaper waste.  Predictably, their creations were full of saturated color and ingenuity, as is everything in India.

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And the designs did not divide along typical gender lines, as the sweetness of this Caregiver Boys’ heart-balloon covered puppet illustrates. These resourceful children also took the upcycling aspect of our project to a whole new level as they proceeded to cut scrap gold metallic paper into hundreds of tiny bits to make their own glitter!

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To further develop narratives for their characters, we presented the children with a scenario (much like a videogame simulation), where each puppet (1 per archetype group) had to collectively pass through a series of obstacles.  However, we set the rule that each challenge could only be solved using one of the puppet’s superpowers, (referencing the idea that the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts).  So, each archetype group invented both an appropriate problem and a solution with which their superhero could “save” the day for all their peers.  The girls and boys created separate narratives, each with their own host of diverse characters.  And some of their most memorable storylines were when the Boy Sage taught everyone to meditate so they could levitate over a cold, impenetrable river; and when the Girl Creator drank a magical chocolate soy power drink after all the puppets became immobilized by the scorching sun.  Then, she led them all in a dance that revitalized their energy.  These are both, interestingly, very Indian solutions.  I was also thrilled to learn that the Boy Hero group chose Music as their super power. In their creative storyline, after the whole puppet group gets trapped in a house, set ablaze by fire, the singing hero puppet plays his guitar and the musical notes that emanate from it magically transform into water that puts out the flames. Additionally, to develop their dramatic skills, Kaeridwyn led the kids in found object animation activities.  Below, they are enacting a “fart” scene (or “susu” in Tamil).  It was, of course, heart-warming to see that adolescent poop jokes transcend cultural boundaries.  And clearly, our young-at-heart translator, Johnson, thought so too.


Here I am listening intently to the Boy Leader’s plan out their scene.


And this is Kaeridwyn directing the whole crew of boy puppeteers in their opening scene.


Over two weeks, we were allotted one hour per day with each gender group. However, the children were so invested in our project that they went over and above the call of duty, spending several additional hours writing their stories, practicing their actions, and fabricating their puppets.  This is exactly the ownership we always strive to cultivate in our work.

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We also put in our fair share of extra time, administering puppet triage and other vital work, graciously helped by Jackie, (in the back of the photo below). It was incredibly fortuitous that she and her husband, Andy (in the bike photo from Feb. 8th’s entry) happened to be volunteering during our visit, because they are, respectively, a retired music and English/drama teacher.  They supported nearly all of our sessions with their expertise and cheery presence, and Kaeridwyn and I could not believe our good fortune to have their help.

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For the music component of our piece, the kids brainstormed about qualities essential for good team work.  Then, we analyzed the musicality of this language by breaking the words into rhythmic syllabic categories, according to spoken stresses (IE. Re-spect; Leading, Sharing, Kindness; Unity, Confidence, Discipline; Following; Concentration; Cooperation). These evolved into both chants and drum beats that they performed with their voices and found object instruments.  To warm-up these budding percussionists, we used stray firewood for sticks and turned their playground into a drum kit.  And for their instrument scavenging, which I’ve previously led in Vancouver alleys and Kathmandu streets, we had to go no further than the grounds of the home itself, for they had a plethora of sonorities right on the premises (10-gallon water jugs for drums, empty 10-litre bottles and beans for shakers, damaged tin plates and cups for cymbals, and giant 5-foot rice barrels for bass drums).

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A most boisterous time was certainly had by all.  And we’ve received reports that the children have continued to chant the lyrics around the home, since we left two weeks ago. Another legacy of our project has been the re-mount of their puppet show for Bonnie, when she visited just one week after our departure. Their sports director, William, had so skillfully translated for us, that he was able to hold up the fort by himself, rehearsing and directing their repeat performances.  Jackie sent me this photo of all the kids’ animated faces while they sat through the entire hour-long show for the second time.


Excitingly, the children may even get a chance to “take it on the road” if Kaeridwyn succeeds in securing them a showcase at Auroville’s Upcycling Festival in mid-March. It is this kind of sustainability that we aspire to achieve in all of our work.  But the nature of two-week arts engagements run the risk of merely serving as “hit and run” projects, particularly with communities who have little additional exposure to artistic activity, like in Kaliyampoondi where their schools’ rigorous academic expectations emphasize a STEM rather than a STEAM (Science, Technology, English, Arts, and Math) curriculum.   In fact, on top of their 6-hour school day, Child Haven kids diligently study at least 3 more hours per day.  We even witnessed those approaching state-wide exams (Grades 10 & 12), downing chai until the wee hours of the night to pack in a few extra hours of study. Academics aside, there was at least one artistic discipline with which the kids had lots of experience – dance.  That’s because they are treated to a Tollywood (Tamil Nadu’s version of Bollywood) film every Saturday night, and they’ve memorized the moves from all of their favorite scenes. So, we knew we had to end each of their puppet shows with a dance number.


What we never could have counted on, though, was the spontaneous eruption of all 250 kids in the audience, when they began to dance along, after the boys’ last piece.  The enthusiastic Director of Child Haven, Ganesh, consistently voiced how impressed he was by the efficacy of this type of arts-infused learning.  In fact, he was the one who made the final call to keep the Tollywood music blaring after the show, lending itself to what we learned was the first ever time that Child Haven boys and girls danced together in one room, at the home.

In addition to the meaningful encounters that I had throughout our engagements with the children who participated in our program, there are so many moments I keep returning to, now that I am home.  Showers of hugs and nose kisses from kids young and old, never too-cool-for-school to demonstrate their appreciation, as many adolescents at home would be.  Afternoons, sitting with the other volunteers, on the kitchen’s dirt floor, thumb wrestling, hair braiding, bean cutting, and playing paddy-cakes with the kids.  And 7 am theatre games with the irresistibly adorable littlest ones who were too young to participate in our main project.

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But what remains deep in my bones, after my time in Child Haven, is the profound sense that there are potent ties which bind us all on this fractured, complex planet.  This is not to glibly say that we are all one, or that our similarities outweigh our differences.  Certainly, there are gaping distinctions, for example, between the realities of the children that I work with in Canada versus those in Kaliyampoondi.  However, I cannot escape my roots, which grounded me to see connection rather than division.  I am the daughter of a Russian Jew and an Italian Catholic.  And I was fortunate to be raised in a Unitarian church, where we were exposed to the wisdom of a multitude of global belief systems, and where social justice was preached instead of religious dogma. Understandably, this inclusive approach focused my lenses to look for common ground.  Not surprisingly, a number of volunteers that have come through Child Haven over the years have also been Unitarian.  And Fred Cappuccino even spent his career as a UU minister.   The remarkable organization that he and Bonnie have built clearly responds to the basic human truth that we all need to be loved and feel safe.  And I now believe, more than ever, that the role of the artist activist is to respond to a different basic human truth – that we all want to be heard.  That we all want to express what moves us, and we want to do so beautifully.  That no matter how different our life experiences, we want to find those deepest knowing parts of ourselves that can empathize and relate to our fellow humans and then, put them into words, or dances, or pictures, or songs.  In other words, we want to connect to our inner spark, give it wings and let it take flight.