Recently I was invited to give a workshop on storytelling skills at the Early childhood Conference at the Universiti Tun Abdul Razak in Kuala Lumpur. It was a wonderful conference and extremely interesting to learn about the education systems and the learning expectations that are place on the very young in Malaysia. As a results driven Asian nation it certainly holds many differences to Australia, some of the expectations set on the very young were quite shocking to this laid back Aussie. So it was an inspiration to encounter students and teachers willing to take on creativity as a valid method of learning and development. The teaching conference lasted for two days, the 7th and 8th of October and our warm and welcoming hosts dined and toured us visitors the entire stay of 4 days. I ate some incredible food and enjoyed touring modern and traditional architecture, markets and regions of Kuala Lumpur.
As recent work of mine, over the past few years has included refugee populations of Australia I decided that the link between Australian and Malaysian refugees is not something I can ignore. I made contact with the Harvest Centre (which became the Dignity for Children Foundation in 2010) and offered to volunteer. This was an incredibly rewarding experience. For one day I performed for a number of classrooms, I talked, learned and lunched with the staff and I taught storytelling skills in the afternoon to the teachers.
First let me briefly describe the Dignity for Children Foundation.
It started from a ground roots need to aid urban poor – those living in shanty towns with no water, broken families, extremely poor, undernourished, high exposure to drugs and crime in their community. Not surprisingly while these kids have the right to an education in Malaysia they do not have the support or ability to continue through. Living hungry, being malnourished throughout their developing years significantly impacts their cognitive ability and concentration levels. They are unable to buy the basic essentials needed for school – uniforms, stationary etc. They have no quiet place to complete homework or study as the family home is small, crowded and often noisy/exposed or the children have other duties to fulfil like babysitting whilst the one parent works or gathering water from great distances.
It took two people from the community centre, Petrina and her husband to recognise that something needs to be done to break this cycle of poverty.
Firstly they had the ability to recognise that these kids are stuck within a poverty cycle (ie its not their fault, they are not dumb). They will drop out of school due to all the difficulties, they will be unemployed, they will have children early, they will be tempted by drugs and a life of crime. Their children will also follow this path.
How to change it?
Offer education that focuses on the whole child. They offer schooling, meals, medical care, hygiene care and therapy when necessary. They offer a safe place for the family to be, to study, learn and share. The education includes opportunities to play sport and to engage with the arts.
The Dignity for Children Foundation also supports teacher training, sporting competitions, and education (Malaysian curriculum based) for children ranging from 1 year old to 20. There is also hospitality training for those not suited to the mainstream education structures.
When the infants school began a new need was quickly realised. Amongst the urban poor of Malaysia were a different kind of poor – refugees. A refugee in Malaysia does not have the right to an education. That is, currently 16,640 children in Malaysia cannot enter the education system. Their parents do not have a right to work/earn an income and the children cannot gain an education.
The dignity for Children Foundation offers education for all, refugee, urban poor and disabled.
The Harvest Centre (the school I visited) is currently at double the classroom capacity accepting the cases that arrive at their doorstep. The administrators, teachers and directors operate from a place of pure heart and love. I was proud to be there for a day and sad to leave so many people in the face of so much need.
In the words of one volunteer at the school – the arts gives these kids an opportunity to learn about people. To learn to trust and who not to trust. Its part of a complete education, its part of what they really need in life. We want to give them the best chance.
Overall I spent one day in my life sharing with these children. I shared stories, language, smiles, hugs, laughter and small details of our histories/our stories. I am in awe of the dedication of those that see a need and an injustice and work with their heart and soul to overcome it. Thank you Kuala Lumpur and the Dignity for Children Foundation for making me appreciate my Australian life and for igniting in me the flame that burns to help another.
If you would like to volunteer time or money please go to the website; www.dignityforchildren.org