Lauren Child: drawing on real life

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Lauren Child: drawing on real life

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/06/2008

Christopher Middleton meets Lauren Child, best-selling author of Charlie and Lola, and hears how she is working with Unesco to help street children around the world

At first sight, there don’t seem many similarities between Lauren Child and Pesky Rat, her fictional creation. She’s a smartly turned-out, internationally successful children’s author and illustrator, with a house in London’s Belsize Park; he’s the scrawny, faintly pongy hero of her newly republished story That Pesky Rat, address Dustbin Number 3, Grubby Alley.

  Lauren Child
‘For some reason I have never forgotten what it feels like to be a child’

There was a time, however, when the now best-seller author felt just as much of an outcast as her rodent friend.

"I was in my late 20s, getting nowhere in my career, and all of a sudden I had to move out of the room I was renting, because the woman who owned the house had to sell up," Child recalls. "From that point on, I was in a constant state of either house-sitting for friends or else sleeping on their floor. After a few months of that, my morale plummeted. You’re sitting there in your friends’ home, you hear their key in the door and you immediately leap up and start to make yourself busy tidying things away, or else try to make yourself as small as possible, so that they don’t feel you’re in the way. Which, of course, you are.

"Eventually, they start feeling guilty about wishing you weren’t there and you start to feel guilty about making them feel guilty. I know it’s not as dramatic as having to sleep out on the streets, but it is a sort of homelessness in its own way and it was a horrible time in my life. After all, I’d come out of art school fondly imagining I would be discovered and have my own studio in next to no time, yet here I was, years later, still no further on. And the worst thing is, when you’re in that kind of situation, always moving between friends’ houses, you’re unable even to think about the future – you’re just existing in the present."

It was this unhappy period in Child’s life that first inspired her to write That Pesky Rat, about an unloved and disregarded creature whose dream is to find a home and someone to look after him. And it was Pesky Rat, in turn, who led Child to the ramshackle back streets of Mexico City, and the extraordinary Renacimiento Children’s Shelter.


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Here, some 70 young orphans and runaways are introduced not just to reading, writing and breadmaking, but to love, care and a life away from the drug-ridden world outside.

"All the time we were there, we were told we shouldn’t walk out into the street on our own, not for one second," says Child, who recently went to the shelter to lead illustration classes with the children. "In the surrounding streets, there are all these tennis shoes hanging from wires, which is apparently the way drug-dealers leave signs for each other. The children who live at the shelter have all spent months, maybe years out on the street, where they get drawn into crime, drugs, prostitution – you name it. Most end up sniffing a revoltingly powerful solvent that kills them if they don’t stop.

"However, when they come into Renacimiento [Rebirth], they have to agree not to take or sell drugs, but to go to school each day and to take part in all the classes and activities at the shelter." One of those activities was a session with Child, in which she and the children spent several happy hours drawing characters from her TV cartoon, Charlie and Lola.

Though as English as you can get, this brother-and-sister double act is just as popular with impoverished street children in Mexico City as it is with well-to-do young boys and girls in Knightsbridge. The secret of its success is that the characters talk and sound like real children. Somehow their creator tunes in not only to the illogically logical thought patterns of a four-year-old girl (Lola loves swimming with whales in the bath), but also to their speech patterns ("I will not ever never eat a tomato").

"I don’t have children of my own," says Child, who is single, "but for some reason I have never forgotten what it feels like to be a child. I only have to get told off in a shop and I’m a seven-year-old girl again, powerless and mortified, absolutely not in control." Of course, it’s not everyday that the young Renacimiento residents get to work with famous foreign writers. Mostly, their instructors are tutors from the immediate neighbourhood, with a brief not so much to instil academic excellence as to pass on practical skills such as welding and baking, carpentry and computing.

  Lauren in Mexico
Lauren with children in Mexico

It was the non-traditional nature of the education at Renacimiento that caught the attention of Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Org
anisation), under whose banner Child visited the shelter. "Your conventional Victorian model of learning, with neat rows of desks, just doesn’t work with kids like the ones at Renacimiento, who have fled from violent, unhappy homes and had to fend for themselves out on the streets," says Unesco’s Ben Faccini, who accompanied Child to Mexico.

"You have to approach education from a completely different angle, teaching skills that are relevant to these children’s lives but at the same time just happen to involve an element of reading, writing or arithmetic." And does this sideways-on approach work? Most definitely, says 19-year-old Carlos Ramirez Gomez, who came into the shelter when he was 13. "I left home at the age of 10 and lived for two years at the bus station," he says. "I took drugs, but not so many as to destroy myself. At the shelter, they give us the tools to build a worthwhile future. Now I am in my second semester doing computer studies. I hope one day to open my own cyber café and have a big family."

Again, not the same sort of story as Child’s. Far from being damaged by a traumatic home life, she and her two sisters had a happy upbringing in Wiltshire (her father was a much-respected art teacher at Marlborough College). "Nothing really bad happened to me, but at the same time, I got to the age of 29 and felt that I’d failed at absolutely everything I’d set out to do," says Child, 41. "A friend once said you can’t tell people how to change their lives – first they have to go to hell in their own way. And I rather think I did.

"Eventually, after about 10 months of feeling very wobbly, I finally came to the decision that instead of holding out for the perfect job or the perfect place to live, I was just going to take what was offered and see what happened. So when friends asked if I’d like to rent their tiny box room, I didn’t turn my nose up, I said yes. And when another friend told me about a job that was going as an assistant in an art studio, I didn’t say: ‘Oh no, it’ll stop me doing my own work’, I just applied for it and got it.’" (The artist involved turned out to be Damien Hirst.)

"So when someone else suggested I write a children’s book, because childhood seemed to be a recurring theme in my illustrations and my thinking, I thought: ‘Yes, I’ll try that; I might get an agent out of it.’" She then wrote and illustrated Clarice Bean, That’s Me, which not only got her an agent but launched an award-winning literary career, in which so far she has sold three million books in 19 countries.

"I’d always had confidence in my ability, thanks mainly to my father, who was very good at getting people to achieve more than they think possible," says Child. "But at art school I’d gone into a downward spiral, which continued for some years until suddenly, with my book, people started to value something about me again." It’s this experience of her own renacimiento that has prompted Child to throw herself into her Unesco work, which officially starts on Wednesday with the launch of My Life is a Story, a website and campaign fronted by Child (see end of article for details).

Not only are she and her publishers, Hachette, donating profits on the re-released That Pesky Rat to Unesco’s Programme for the Education of Children in Need, but Child is now visiting other projects that the programme funds.

She recently went to Mongolia to see a scheme aimed at rehousing the street children who are rounded up by the overwhelmed police. And she has just come back from Vietnam, where she visited an orphanage that has been amalgamated with an old people’s home. "The children get comfort and love, and the old people get a new focus for their lives."

There’s more. Over the past decade, Unesco’s Education of Children In Need programme has helped fund 336 projects in 92 countries, working not just with street children but also with former child soldiers in Mozambique, with Aids orphans in China and with young rubbish-scavengers in Cairo, who have been trained in recycling and now run waste-saving workshops for the staff of smart Red Sea hotels.

Again, rather than overtly inculcating the three Rs, the project leaders get the children to develop those skills almost subliminally, through the disciplines inherent in the non-textbook subjects they do teach, such as ballet (in Brazil), basketball (Benin) and circus skills (Mexico).

"We only support projects that are already up and running and can supply us with properly audited financial accounts," says the Unesco programme’s director, Françoise Pinzon-Gil. "And although we pay the teachers for the teaching, we never pay the salaries of the administrative staff, because we want them to put in place a structure that will enable them to continue when our funding stops [three years is the maximum period].

"Of course, we are working all the time to commend these projects to the governments of the countries in which they are based. In Mongolia, for example, the state has taken up our distance learning scheme for children in the Gobi Desert and expanded it across the whole country.

"In Laos, we created a portable bamboo school, which has 10 teachers and can be set up in remote areas, then dismantled after a few months and taken elsewhere. The government was so impresed it has now set up its own Department of Informal Education." Although it might seem a long way from the mountains of Laos and the back streets of Mexico City to the grassy lawns of Great Britain, Lauren Child believes that the distance is not as great as we might like to think. "What my experience in my 20s taught me is that so much of life is down to luck," she says.

"Through a not particularly dramatic or unlikely chain of events, I discovered the absence of the safety net that had always been there when I was a child.

"Luckily, I had friends who helped me, and who let me sleep on their floors. But I could all too easily see how, say, someone would go to London hoping to make it as a singer, say, and end up, just by lack of good luck, homeless and out on the streets.

‘In the past, I could never understand why people like that didn’t just do the logical thing and go back home to their parents. Then I found myself in that position. Yes, the logical move was for me to go back home to my parents in Wiltshire, yet I couldn’t even contemplate it: I was too old, too proud, it was a backward step, it was an admission of defeat – all that sort of thing.

"So I had a glimpse of what homelessness could be like, and I realised that, if it could happen to me, it could happen to any of us and any of our children, too." For a first-hand account of what life really does look like from the dustbin, who better to turn to than Pesky Rat himself?

"Sometimes," he says, "when I am tucked into my crisp packet, I look up at all the cosy windows and wonder what it would be like to live with creature comforts. To belong to somebody. To be an actual pet."

  • All profits of the special edition of That Pesky Rat by Lauren Child (Orchard Books, £5.99) will go to Unesco’s Programme for the Education of Children in Need and its My Life is a Story campaign. A special website,, will be launched by Child on Wednesday, giving children from all over the world a chance to tell the stories of their past and sketch out their dreams for the future.
  • From today until September 21
    , Manchester Art Gallery is staging a free exhibition of Lauren Child’s work, entitled Green Drops and Moonsquirters, in which children can explore Charlie and Lola’s home and visit Pesky Rat’s dustbin in Grubby Alley. The exhibition is open Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm at the gallery in Mosley Street, Manchester. For further information, call 0161 235 8888 or see
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    Independent Appeal: Bringing hope to abused children from the streets

    Independent Appeal: Bringing hope to abused children from the streets

    By Andrew Gumbel in Puebla, Mexico

    Published: 21 December 2007

    Independent Appeal: Bringing hope to abused children from the streets Street children get a new life with Juconi, supported by The Independent Christmas Appeal

    When the boy known as Pedro Jonathan was just eight years old, he ran away from the house he shared with his mother and stepfather in Mexico City. For a while he lived on the street, then he hopped on a bus in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere.

    Pedro Jonathan had been a victim of serial abandonments – first by his father, who never participated in his life at all, then by his mother, who took off with her new man and left him in the care of his grandmother in Acapulco, and finally by the grandmother, who found him a burden and sent him back to his mother in the big city.

    Pedro Jonathan doesn’t like to talk about what happened in the final few months before he ran away, but it clearly had to do with the overbearing authoritarianism of his stepfather and the sense that nobody really wanted him. Nobody took the trouble to send him to school regularly, and he never finished his first year of primary education.

    Soon after he hopped on that bus, to a small provincial town called Acatlan, his young life hit rock bottom. The family he hoped would take care of him couldn’t cope with him either. A government agency took him to a shelter in Puebla, south-east of Mexico City, where he soon became involved in a nasty fight and was sent to a juvenile detention centre.

    That was where he was found by Juconi, a charity specialising in rehabilitating street children which is funded by the International Children’s Trust and is one of the three charities being supported in this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal. They took him into their residential centre, gave him clothes and a bunk bed, and embarked on a painfully long process of education and therapy – essentially, taking on the multiple roles of educator, parent, psychologist and occupational therapist.

    Pedro Jonathan is now 16, and the "impulsive, explosive" child of a few years ago has become much calmer. Since the beginning of the year, he has been enrolled in a public secondary school, where he enjoys playing the trumpet and has every intention of graduating in two years. He still lives in a residence run by Juconi and maintains close contact with his educators.

    Ask him about any painful personal subject and his eyes will go just a little blank and his head will point down as he gives a perfunctory answer, but the happy fact is that he now has a shot at a functional sort of life where, eight years ago, he had next to none.

    Juconi – short for Junto con las niñas y los niños or Together with the girls and boys – has been helping children like Pedro Jonathan for the past 18 years and pioneering techniques for rehabilitating children from the worst, most abusive backgrounds. Juconi finds many with untreated second-degree burns, or whip marks where they were beaten with electrical cord, or evidence that they were trussed and caged like animals, or appalling histories of sexual abuse.

    Puebla takes in about 350 street children each year, many of whom have severed all ties with their closest relatives.

    Some, like Pedro Jonathan, were fending for themselves on the streets. Others might have had a meagre living washing car windows at traffic lights, or doing fire-eating acts on street corners. Less vulnerable children, who work in and around Puebla’s main food market where their mothers have jobs, go to a drop-in centre Juconi runs near the market, and sleep at home. What they have in common is not so much poverty – although that is a common theme – as long, inter-generational histories of family violence.

    At Juconi House, where Pedro Jonathan lived for close to five years, routine and order are the watchword. The children are responsible for keeping their clothes washed and tidy and spend the day shuttling between basic literacy and numeracy classes, therapy sessions, sports, practical activities and group meetings. Every child is given three sets of clothes and earn more as they gain the educators’ trust.

    The attractive house, a two-storey structure built around an internal courtyard with blue and white tiles and red brick, is spotlessly clean.

    Juconi’s Puebla operation’s director Alison Lane said: "We’ve deliberately created an organised, predictable environment, in contrast to the chaos of living in the streets."

    Juconi has developed ways for the children – and family members who want to be involved – to express their feelings. Everyone rates themselves on a "mood thermometer" where zero means perfect happiness and 10 means sad and angry enough to burst. Those who feel overwhelmed are encouraged to work on a punch bag, use a ball in the playground or listen to music. The content of individual therapy sessions is determined entirely by the children. At some point in the process, every child will rebel – usually the sign of a turning point as rebellion is seen as an important step towards full engagement. Juconi tracks its graduates for 10 years. Ms Lane said: "We have an 80 per cent success rate which means 80 per cent of kids are off the streets and have their family around them once more."

    LATIN AMERICA: Prizes for Communities Fighting Exclusion

    LATIN AMERICA: Prizes for Communities Fighting Exclusion
    By Darío Montero

    PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Dec 10 (IPS) – They work in the deep heartland of Brazil, or in urban slums. They all seek social inclusion, and their starting point is the bottom of the social ladder, with people who have a wide experience of life, contrasting with their short years.

    One of these programmes, "The Four-Leaf Clover", aims to reduce maternal, perinatal and infant morbidity and mortality in Sobral, a city of 183,000 people in the impoverished northeastern state of Ceará.

    This project was awarded the first prize, worth 30,000 dollars, at the Social Innovation Fair in Porto Alegre organised by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

    The jury made the selection from 12 finalists out of 900 projects that had entered the competition, and said that the programme, carried out by the Secretariat of Health and Social Action in Sobral, was "technically well-designed to make the most of the community’s social energy and intervene in this important problem of infant mortality."

    "The strategy was adopted in 2001 under a different government, and was appropriated by the community to such an extent that changes in the elected authorities, of whatever political persuasion, are incapable of thwarting it, even if they wanted to," the project’s first coordinator, nurse Julia Santos, told IPS.

    So strongly held is her conviction that Santos, who is today just another member of "The Four-Leafed Clover", has no interest in who is actually governing, and was unable to tell IPS what party or coalition is in charge of the local government in this city, where 36 percent of the residents are poor.

    "Not only has this project influenced the public agenda, it is sustainable and its impact can be measured. It also conveys an essential message about social organisation, and shows that concrete results are achievable," said Nohra Rey de Marulanda, former manager of the Department of Integration and Regional Programmes at the Inter-American Development Bank.

    Rey, the spokeswoman for the jury of the Experiences of Social Innovation contest, announced the results on Friday at the Fair organised by ECLAC in a central square of Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

    Among the achievements of the group is caring for 1,148 families last year, at a cost of 175 dollars each. Furthermore, since the project started in 2001, prenatal care indicators have improved, and the infant mortality rate has fallen from 29.7 per 1,000 live births to 16.5 per 1,000.

    Santos said the contribution of civil society through the participation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private corporations and volunteers managed to overcome one of the main hurdles, which was funding. When the project first got under way, the city government funded the entire budget, whereas now it contributes 74 percent.

    But there was more than one winner. Four other projects left Porto Alegre with cash prizes of 20,000, 15,000, 10,000 and 5,000 dollars, but all 12 finalists have earned the backing of ECLAC, which enhances their credibility and calls on national and local governments to pay more attention to these social innovation projects and the public policies they propose.

    The members of "Education with Street Children" (EDNICA), awarded a Special Mention at last week’s meeting, are particularly looking forward to this prestige. They work in Colonia Morelos, in the historic centre of Mexico City, and in a slum on the southside of the city.

    Their work even goes beyond their own title, because they look after youngsters ranging in age from a few months to 25.

    As a civil society organisation, EDNICA is independent of state bodies or political parties. "This independence has meant that we can work with whatever government is in office, whether it is rightwing, like the federal (national) government, or leftwing, as in the capital city," Rocío Morales, a young lawyer, told IPS.

    But recently, the hardline policy against crime adopted by Mexican President Felipe Calderón has caused the project to "be treated with suspicion" and it is under pressure from police officers who surround their centres, Morales said.

    "Street kids suffer social stigma. They are all viewed as drug dealers, and that’s not the case. Drug consumption has increased all over the country because of the sealing of the border with the United States, and street children have become the first victims in this fight against drug trafficking."

    The centres are staffed with social services personnel, volunteers, and especially people from the local community.

    The Morelos centre works with 80 children and young people who live on the streets, and another 150 who come in on a daily basis and receive specific support for their formal education studies, and efforts are made to convince their parents to take them out of the labour market, in return for a grant to compensate them for lost income.

    Meanwhile, the Children’s Education Centre in Colonia Ajusco, in the south of the city, only looks after working children, of whom there are already 230.

    EDNICA is part of the Child Rights Network, which is made up of 53 Mexican NGOs that had a good rapport with the government of former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006). But now, according to Morales, Calderón has sidelined them. On the other hand, cooperation with agencies of the local government of Mexico City continues to be positive, the activist said.

    "But even within the Mexico City government, proposals are being made to ‘clean up’ the historic centre and remove the street kids from the area, because it’s a tourist attraction and it should look nice," she complained. Such policies are often expressions of "social cleansing", and violate the children’s human rights, she said.

    Sofa Mart(R) and Furniture Row(R) Outlet Raise over $218,000 to Aid World Vision’s Mexico City Street Children Program

    Sofa Mart(R) and Furniture Row(R) Outlet Raise over $218,000 to Aid World Vision’s Mexico City Street Children Program

    Denver, CO–(HISPANIC PR WIRE – BUSINESS WIRE)–October 25, 2007–National furniture retailer Sofa Mart(R) and Furniture Row(R) Outlet, brands of Furniture Row(R) Companies, have donated over $218,000 to aid the estimated 2 million street children in Mexico City.

    The campaign, titled "Hope Is Always in Style," consisted of $20 for every sofa sold during the campaign to be donated to World Vision.

    All proceeds for the campaign will benefit World Vision’s "Ninos de las Calle" (street children) program. The program assists in the widespread problem of homeless children in Mexico City.

    Specifically designed to enable street children to become more self-sufficient and move into a stable environment, the program focuses on providing educational support, shelter, children’s homes, and family reintegration whenever possible.

    Advancement Area Director for World Vision Rowin Floth comments on the donation: "On behalf of the children of Mexico City being blessed by this gift, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Sofa Mart(R) and Furniture Row Outlet(R)."

    Furniture Row(R) Companies is one of largest family-owned specialty home furnishings and bedding retailer in the U.S. The company is comprised of five specialty store brands including: Oak Express(R), Sofa Mart(R), Bedroom Expressions(R), Denver Mattress Company(R) and Furniture Row Outlet(R). Furniture Row operates more than 330 stores in 31 states. For more information on the company visit

    About World Vision

    World Vision is a Christian relief and development organization dedicated to helping children and their communities worldwide reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty. For more information, please visit

    Aiming high to help street kids

    Aiming high to help street kids

    MORE than 80 people will try to climb 10 peaks in 10 hours to raise money for street children in Mexico.

    Around 20 teams of four to six people hope to raise £10,000 in sponsorship for the challenge around Buttermere on June 30.

    The money will be used to help fund the Oasis Street Kids Project in Guadalajara, Mexico, which was set up to feed and help the homeless children at night.

    The challenge is being organised by people in Kings Church, Cockermouth, which has links with a number of churches in Mexico.

    Those taking part will attempt to climb Dodd, Red Pike, High Stile, High Crag, Seat, Haystacks, Dale Head, Hindscarth, Robinson and High Snockrigg.

    Challenge co-ordinator Nick Reynolds, 48, said: “The project was started in Guadalajara, Mexico 10 years ago by an English woman called Gail Robins.

    “They go out and feed and help street kids at night, but also have a house where they provide a family environment.

    “Some of the boys live in the house as their home and are helped to come off drugs and with medical and social needs and helped with literacy. The project works closely with the local social services in Guadalajara.”

    For more information or to donate money, visit or phone 01900 825982.

    Roanoke-based group helps street children

    Roanoke-based group helps street children

    A $250 donation covers the cost of one child’s uniforms, books, supplies and shoes for the school year.

    Retired Circuit Court Judge Diane Strickland knew there was more she could do to help her daughter, Danielle, help Mexico’s street kids.

    Strickland travels regularly to Guadalajara, where she and her lawyer-husband, Art, tutor children in Danielle’s program.

    Earlier this year, she helped launch AHALA, a Roanoke-based nonprofit group that stands for American Hands Aiding Latin American Youth.

    Through the organization’s Web site, contributors can make donations to Mexican children’s education. A $250 donation covers the cost of one child’s uniforms, books, supplies and shoes for the school year. A small portion of each donation covers gifts.

    "Many of these children have never received a birthday or Christmas present," Diane Strickland said. So far, AHALA has sponsored 11 children in the program.

    In September, January and shortly after the child’s birthday, sponsors receive a card or letter from the child, thanking them and telling them how the donation was applied, as well as a picture.

    Donors can read online biographies of participants and choose a child to sponsor. They can also correspond with them if they wish. Donations can be made via credit card or PayPal online at

    For more information, call (540) 982-7787.

    Woman turns author in a bid to help poor street kids

    FROM Ossett to Mexico and back – that’s all it took for an Ossett business woman to become an author and found a charity.
    Formerly known as Anita Wicks, the 50-year-old now goes by her author name of Anna McKann and is preparing for the launch of her first book, with all the profits going to her new charity Rainbow Childcare International (RCCI), named after her 20-year-old Ossett nursery business on Wakefield Road.

    Ms McKann’s new work of fiction based on fact, Chavos: The Kids of Distrito, follows the life of nine-year-old Dolita, bringing to light issues ranging from poverty to glue sniffing on the streets of Mexico City.

    She now hopes that her book will not only raise awareness of the issues the street children face, but also raise enough money to actually help them.

    It all began when the Wakefield author was doing research on poverty in Latin American countries for a Spanish class project and stumbled across websites full of information on the street children of Mexico.

    She explained: “I discovered that 40 million children were living on the streets in Latin America and my heart just broke and suddenly I’m thinking what can I do to help?

    “I have a strong Christian faith and it led me to book a flight to Mexico.

    “Even though everyone thought I was crazy, I knew I had to go.”

    That was in 2003 and since then, Ms McKann has been back a further four times and after hitting the streets and visiting children’s hospitals and homes, she now has a network of connections to call on including some in government.

    “I saw what happened first hand when children live on the street and what happened when these children were rescued,” she added.

    “Because I work with children, I feel I have a heart for them and want to do what I can to help.

    “And I know that some people may ask why I’m helping overseas children when there are kids here in need, but we haven’t got the same needs here than they have in third world countries.

    “I’m also hoping that in the future, the charity I’m founding can help children anywhere in the world, but you have to have a primary focus and start somewhere and have to go with your heart.”

    The main aim of RCCI is to rescue abandoned, abused and neglected children by setting up rescue centres and employing the local population to help as workers.

    Her new book, which has already received favourable reviews, will officially be launched on Friday, November 10 and Ms McKann added: “I hope that this book will impact on the children who read it and deter them from taking drugs after seeing what happens to these kids.

    “And as regards to seeing it actually on the shelves, I don’t know how I’ll feel until it happens but it will certainly be a weird experience.”

    Mexico City Street Children

     Mexico City Street Children

    (Blog entry) 

    February 27, 2002
    A good flight down to Mexico City. The project director met me at the airport, conveniently located at the very edge of the city and I was introduced to the city’s superb subway system. The days since have been full of new sights and sounds. Mexico City is fabulous – incredible contrasts of wealth and poverty, juxtapositions of ancient and modern rare in the Americas and a rich and thriving contemporary culture. And 20 million people.

    One day I visited the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square and the largest such square in the Americas. The remains of ancient Aztec pyramids lie beside an enormous cathedral and the imposing Presidential Palace, both built of stone looted from the pyramids. There is also a McDonalds although it is hard pressed to compete with the delicious French Fries made by nearby street vendors.

    Beside the cathedral, twenty dancers of a grupo folklorico spun and twirled to the beat of drums in the bright morning sunlight. Decorated with ancient patterned costumes glistening with gold and silver and crowned with fantastic feather head dresses with golden jaguar and eagle heads, the dancers, both genders and all ages, were like a vision from a past as beautiful, mysterious and complex as Egypt´s Tutankhamen era. But this was no ceremony from the past; it was a living religious ceremony – ancient ritual married to Catholicism.

    While I watched this sparkling pageant my attention was attracted to my left about a hundred meters down alongside the cathedral. Away from the crowd of spectators caroused a group of street kids, some holding yellow aerosol cans of solvent, maybe twenty kids in all. As I focused in more closely, the jumble of bags and ragged cloths they staggered amongst indicated that this part of the Zocalo was their home. Almost every kid held one hand closed to his face in the classic solvent sniffer pose. They stumbled and leaned against each other, drunk and hopeless in the shadow of the great cathedral, impervious alike to its giant tolling bells and the beat of the drums.

    Later, in the subway on my return, two street kids were squatting on the floor of the subway car, fists to their mouths and eyes glazed. The younger, a boy about 11, let his hand fall limply to his lap after a big whiff and revealed a mouth encircled with sores and scabs from the solvent. The people on the train who noticed them shook their heads in disgust and sadness.

    March 4, 2002

    You know when the banks are closed but there is that little area they leave open so you can use the cash machine? This morning on the way to this cybercafe I passed one of these and one of the boys from the streetkid banda we are working with was asleep on the floor, curled up in a corner. I had earlier seen another one asleep on a bench at a bus stop.

    I have met some of these kids now. Here are two: Mouse, about 11, looks about 9. His mother died shortly after he was born and his father died a few years later. He was given into the care of an uncle and aunt who used to tie him to a chair and beat him. He escaped to the streets when he was 8. When he’s not drunk he just looks confused and worried. Another is Pinocchio – so-called because of his big nose. It’s only a little bit bigger than most. He’s about 13. In all the pictures taken of the banda that I had earlier seen, Pinocchio stood out because of the genuinely good-humored grin and the twinkle in his eyes. When I met him I was disappointed. The grin was not to be seen and the twinkle was gone. I’m told he was raped by a taxi driver on New Year’s day and has not been the same since.

    It is not going to be easy to restore these kids’ faith in humanity. They no longer think about tomorrow. They only think as far ahead as the next whiff of solvent and the momentary relief from a reality without hope that it brings. This project is embarking on an ambitious plan with several parts: First, isolate the kids from the influences of the streets to make it easier for them to kick the solvent habit – a ranch outside Mexico City will be the location for this. After several months on the ranch the kids will return to the city to a house for group living and to take some training and education to prepare them for their successful entry into normal society. To organize and finance all this infrastructure is a lot of work but the hardest task of all is to restore hope. Philosophically, these kids have retreated to the safest place to stand, a place where there is no hope, no better tomorrow, no point in doing anything. That way you don’t get hurt.

    March 12, 2002

    He’s about 13, with shaggy black hair sticking out in all directions. I see him every morning when I go out to a nearby cyber café for coffee and to touch base with the world. Monday morning he was curled up asleep in a corner of the automatic teller enclosure. The lineup of people waiting to use the ATM curved around him. Tuesday he was asleep on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese restaurant. This morning he is sleeping on the broad steps of the Cosmo Cinema entrance.

    He’s wearing Nike sport shoes but only the uppers are intact. The soles are mostly gone and his toes and heels are visible, covered with grime. He looks like he hasn’t bathed for a long time. His face and hands are nearly black with dirt. In sleep his face is placid, the unlined face of childhood, but as the morning sun strikes the Cosmo Cinema steps and a siren screams above the roar of the six lanes of traffic racing past, he shouts in his sleep and his face is twisted in anger. For him, unconsciousness, blessed sleep, must be bliss. I have a donut in a bag from the coffee shop. I prop it against his shoulder, careful not to wake him, and walk away.

    April 1, 2002

    Now this kid has got a good gig. He looks to be about 10 or 11, skinny as a rail. A shock of black hair, a tattered t-shirt and a pair of combat pants about 4 sizes too large. He doffs his t-shirt at the busy intersection, waits till the light turns red and halts traffic, then runs out into the crosswalk and puts a cloth-wrapped bundle down on the ground, He unfolds the bundle to reveal a bunch of broken bottle glass. He fills both hands with these glittering shards and holds them high for motorists to see. Then he spreads them out on the cloth, lies down on top of them and wriggles around with his hands and feet in the air and his belly pressed onto the broken glass. Then he turns over and does his back, maintaining a grimace of pain all the while. This boy must have skin like leather. Then, before the light turns green, he leaps up, gathers up his bundle of glass and canvases the nearby drivers for one peso – which he indicates by holding up one finger. Most drivers just ignore him but one or two every red light give him some change. When the light changes he slides between the whizzing lanes of cars with the relaxed grace of a matador.

    I sit down on the curb and wait until he decides to take a break. His name is Fernando. He’s twelve, he tells me, and he’s from Mexico City. He lives over there, he says, pointing to a tarp spread over a few ornamental shrubs in the nearby park.

    I open his bundle to look at the glass and carefully pick up one piece and feel the edges. They´ve been honed flat. You couldn´t cut yourself with this glass if you tried. I check the other pieces. They´re all the same. Fernando is grinning. He breaks a piece of glass on the curb and then demonstrates how to take the sharp edge off by grinding it on the paving stones. In a few minutes he has rendered the new pieces as harmless as the others. He shakes his finger at me not to tell.

    I give him five pesos for sharing the s
    ecret and watch while he jumps out into the crosswalk again. But when he rolls on the glass and grimaces, he catches my eye and I have to laugh, and so does he, spoiling the effect completely. Nobody gives him anything but when he comes back to the curb I donate another peso for ruining the show.

    (If you wish to find out more about street children in Mexico, visit Mexican Street Children.)