Who are we?
Performing Life is a nonprofit organization incorporated in the US that helps youth who are working and/or living on the streets of Cochabamba, Bolivia. We empower youth by teaching them performing and visual arts as productive skills for avoiding drugs and delinquency while improving their economic well-being through creative activities. Founded in 2005 by John Connell when he was 18, Performing Life is youth-led and managed.
With whom do we work?
With children and adolescents who work and/or live on the streets. Most are supporting themselves or contributing to the support of their families.
What do we do?
- We help participants without a home to find a safe place to live.
- We help provide basic necessities such as food, medical attention, education, housing, clothing, etc.
- We help youth get registered for school or skills classes and provide tutoring.
- We give free classes on performing arts, including juggling, diabolo, and poi, that the youth can use to increase their income and thereby have more time for school and studying.
- We teach youth how to make bracelets and send them to the United States to be sold, providing an extra source of income while learning business skills.
- We help youths save their money and develop personal goals for self-improvement.
- We design projects with the participants to invest their saved money in some type of small business that they can take over and manage.
- We help participants construct a future of hope for themselves as well as their families.
Background information on Bolivia, Cochabamba and Performing Life.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with a meager $45.13 billion GDP in 2009. Since 1985 economic challenges have led impoverished rural populations to migrate to Bolivia's city centers. Subsequently, in Cochabamba today, there are a large number of children and youth working and living in the streets. There are also those who are not homeless but destitute and struggling with similar challenges. Many youth are forced to support their family in any way possible as well as live in homes subject to overcrowding. They have poor sanitary conditions and little money for medical care. These factors are frequently exacerbated by alcoholism and violence.
To improve the lives of these people Performing Life was created. The organization began as a project to develop skills in street performance as a pro-social, sustainable way to earn an income. The project has evolved since its inception in 2005 and now provides other opportunities to youth through a music project as well as micro-enterprise initiatives for families.
Background on Cochabamba, Bolivia
Bolivia is widely acknowledged as the poorest country in the Americas. Despite centuries of oppression the indigenous people have remained independent and hard-working while struggling with the legacies of colonialism, dictatorship, corruption and international debt. Today it is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of the population has Amerindian ancestry with the remainder being of European descent. Within this indigenous majority the negative effects of poverty are magnified by alcoholism, drug abuse, and child labor.
In Cochabamba today the number of children and youth working and/or living in the streets is consistent with the number in other urban centers throughout Bolivia. Alarmingly the rate of homelessness has increased as the economy declines and even more peoples from rural communities are forced to move to the city. With this flow of migration the people who see these problems on a daily basis have become hardened and, worse, accustomed to them; they become a normal phenomenon in the "Cochabambino" society.
The Streets of Cochabamba Today
Today it is common to walk the streets of Cochabamba and see children who have left their homes and have begun taking part in drug use and delinquency. The most common drug used is called "clefa" (a glue used to repair shoes). This is an addictive stimulant and produces violent behavior. Also common is unrefined cocaine known as "pasta base" or simply "base."
In Cochabamba homeless youth live in large groups and while some work, most dedicate their time to the consumption of addictive substances and illegal activity that supports their addiction. These problems have been on the rise in the last few years and have caused the population of the city to feel insecure while in the streets.
Beyond homelessness there are also those who are "only" impoverished and struggling with similar challenges. Many are forced to support their family in any way possible and live in homes subject to overcrowding. They have poor sanitary conditions and little money for medical care. These factors are exacerbated by alcoholism and violence. This situation in turn frequently leads to dislocation of family and therefore reduced intra-familial support. The harsh living conditions also create decreased life expectancy. It is not uncommon for parents to die at an early age and therefore force a youth to live independently on the streets.
Performing Life and Their Approach to Impoverishment in Cochabamba
Despite these bleak conditions some youth are improving their lives through the opportunities available at Performing Life. Participants have begun to develop self-taught skills in street performance such as juggling, acrobatics, street theater, music, and many other types of performance art. This form of employment is successful with the youth population because it is a more appealing type of employment compared to menial labor; their only other (legal) form of employment.
The most successful performers are those who work to develop their own special routines. In addition to jugglers, there are many different types of street performers, including acrobatics and "poi" which is an indigenous art form from New Zealand. This form of work requires much concentration and commitment thus keeping youth occupied, off drugs, and helping to form supportive groups among fellow performers and leading to a safer working environment.
As well as providing skills training Performing Life has created a safe environment and community for its participants. Through working in the project youth have been able to connect with older more experienced performers who have often become their surrogate big brothers. Experienced performers in the project teach new skills and tricks, act as mentors and help kids stay off drugs.
Starting in 2009, older participants began taking charge of workshops, creating extra opportunities and workshops for youth who work and/or go to school in the afternoons. Currently there are various participants who are showing their maturity and dedication to the project by teaching youth working with the NGO a variety of circus skills.
In 2010 we had 2 classes each day with an average of 40 participants per week.
In 2011 we opened a new class in Quillacollo, an outlying city 12 kilometers west of Cochabamba. Currently we are running 3 classes each day, in different areas with a variety of schedules. We work with more than 50 youth per week now. All classes are run by older participating youth.
In 2012, we would like to open a satellite office in Quillacollo and towards the end of the year expand workshops to include Sacaba, a city 14 kilometers to the east of Cochabamba. By reaching out to the Sacaba Area as well, we would be able to offer arts and music opportunities to the entire urban area of Cochabamba.