May 4th 2018 marked an important moment in the story of drawchange. With only a few weeks left before Jennie and a group of volunteers were to depart for Ethiopia to continue the development of the program in Addis Ababa, Jennie, Founder/CEO, Cindy, Orlando Program Director, and Cindy’s husband, Francisco, took a flight to Puerto Rico to set up a new drawchange program in two orphanages as part of drawchange’s Art Beyond Borders commitment. The three split their time between the orphanages in Aguadilla and Mayaguez, bringing both art supplies and the know-how to train staff. Even after only one week, Jennie could see a marked improvement in the children’s morale and enthusiasm towards their work and the program as a whole. Cindy’s testimony sheds light on how much of an impact drawchange’s art therapy-based programming made for the children living in those orphanages.
How was your experience working with the children and staff in the orphanages at Puerto Rico?
Cindy: Working with the children in these orphanages was emotionally taxing, knowing that they did not leave the sessions to go back to their parents. It was a different experience. And it was incredibly necessary and meaningful.. Before arriving we worked very hard to make sure everything was ready for drawchange art sessions. The staff at both orphanages were amazing. I have never seen a staff so concerned with the well-being of their children. They do whatever they can for the children and make it work with the few resources they have.”
What did you learn that you can take back with you to your programs in Orlando?
Cindy: One thing that stood out to me the most was that the children were unaware of how to mix paint to make new colors. They were completely inexperienced with paint. For example, one child asked for orange so I said, “mix the colors!” This child, however, was completely confused. She didn’t only not know that “mixing colors’ was allowed, she did not know which primary colors make orange. This continued with several other children, who were asking for colors such as light blue or pink. The school system in Puerto Rico is similar to that of the mainland U.S. but somehow these youngsters were missing the basic knowledge. We found out that there is no art in their schools. Our session was one of their only opportunities.
What resonated with you the most to expand the drawchange program to Puerto Rico?
Cindy: In Puerto Rico, there are only 78 cities, or municipalities, but there are 131 orphanages on the island. We also discovered art and music classes were cut from every public school. In fact, there are a lot of public schools closing down. The only form of expression these children have now is through programs like drawchange. With that knowledge, our ultimate goal is to be able to reach all 131 orphanages in P.R. and try to make a difference in the lives of as many children that we can.
My first volunteer trip to Costa Rica with drawchange changed my life. For the longest time, I wanted to be a part of something much bigger than just my 9 to 5 job. I have been working in the corporate world for ten years and the first four years were terrible. I tried to find my niche in different corporate settings and still, I did not feel fulfilled. Part of me wanted to leave everything. The other part, the responsible part of me, thought about the bills that needed to be paid. When I was in my early 20s, I had a mentality of ‘all or nothing’. I either leave my corporate job and be a full time volunteer or I don’t. After much soul searching, I realized the most important mentality to have for myself is to be content in all seasons of my life. I CAN work and pay bills AND be a part of something big. From the beginning, I knew drawchange was different. Their leader, their transparency, their commitment, their consistency – in my perspective, drawchange is everything every nonprofit should be. Every week, I witness first-hand how drawchange impacts the children. When I see the children’s eyes light up when they are painting, when they proudly display their artwork and share their creativity with their peers, when I tell them how beautiful and strong they are and they smile or run away, when they recognize me and run to hug me… I KNOW this program works. I started out as an international volunteer for two years in a row, then sporadically I would visit Atlanta to volunteer throughout the years, started a pilot program in Brooklyn, NY and now, leading a program in Orlando for over a year now. I never thought I would be leading a program. All I can say is to start. If not drawchange, start somewhere. For me, I am incredibly grateful for drawchange because not only does it save children’s lives, drawchange saved mine.