Last week I had the opportunity to hear a friend, Patricia Lopez, speak about her work with Psicoballet, a methodology that combines ballet and therapy for children with disabilities such as autism, Down Syndrome, and severe physical and mental disabilities. “I used the word ‘disabled,’ she says, “because the children are held back by their differences— they are cut off from the world. They need help to realize and cultivate their special abilities so that they have self-esteem, hope, and can reintegrate into society.”
According to Patricia, 12% of the population of Nicaragua lives with disabilities. In addition to those born with disabilities, the figure also includes people wounded in accidents or during the Contra War of the 80s. The government provides little support for people with disabilities. The one government hospital that provides rehabilitation for the wounded does not provide ongoing care. Most people seek help through local non-profit organizations, their churches, or beg for money on the street. It is not uncommon in Managua to drive past a man wheeling his brother with cerebral palsy up and down the lines of cars at a red light asking for spare change all day in temperatures of over 100 degrees.
Because of the lack of government support, high rates of poverty, and societal rejection the disabled children in Nicaragua are especially vulnerable. As in the U.S., many families in Nicaragua regard having disabled children as a disgrace and a great burden. With so much poverty, all members of the family are expected to contribute economically, and children that will never be able to live on their own or work are considered “good for nothing.” In the majority of families with disabled children, the fathers end up leaving, not wanting to handle the disgrace or the extra financial burden. Mothers are left alone to struggle to support all of their children. Households headed by single mothers represent over 40% of homes in Nicaragua, with rates much higher among families with disabled children.
Even in households where both parents are present, the reality of disabled children often does not improve. They suffer high rates of physical and sexual abuse. Some, locked away in back rooms, never leave their households. Some (perhaps the luckier ones) are abandoned at one of the two homes for disabled children in Nicaragua, Pajarito Azul, where Patricia works.
The children that come to Patricia’s psicoballet classes then, suffer not only from severe mental and physical disabilities, but from the deeply-rooted trauma suffered by abandonment, rejection, and physical and sexual abuse. Psicoballet allows children an opportunity to transform their suffering. For the first time, they learn to interact in a group of friends that loves and accepts them. For children who spend all of their time alone in a bed or wheel chair, to be able to roll on the floor and move their bodies around the room allows them a chance not only work on motor skills and strengthen muscles, but allows them a freedom of movement and creative expression that is liberating.
I am grateful for Patricia’s example. She is a woman who, like Jesus, reaches out to and loves those society says are worthless. She is an example of someone who lives out her passion not in order make money or become famous, but to aid in the transformation of injustice through art. I am grateful to live in a community with people like Patricia, Nineth, and Gerardo—all artists who use their skills in dance, music, and painting to give hope to young people and transform situations of violence and discrimination.
Patricia, originally born in Columbia, was trained in modern dance and ballet. She was recently received training in psicoballet in Cuba, where the methodology was first developed. The title the first performance of psicoballet Patricia directed while working with a group of children at a group home in Cuba was called “Fantasy Fair: Where Love and Acceptance Triumph.” After months of group work, the students in brightly-colored costumes, performed ballet on stage at the Astral Theater of Havana in March, 2007 in front of 1,500 people.
With only six months left in Nicaragua, I hope to take the opportunity to learn as much as I can here through friendships with people in the community like Patricia. I am looking forward to being home the first week in August to share with family and friends what my experience here has been like.
This week Christine and I started our second English class with a group of 16 adults ranging from university students, single moms, and a 70-year-old man. From the first day we had them greeting each other– “it’s nice to meet you!” –and spelling their names. Christine and I look forward to teaching the class and also learning about each of our students along the way. We are also in the final stages of selecting two more volunteers to come to Nicaragua to accompany the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte for another 2 years!