Living Angels

a Project HOPE Art in Haiti self-empowerment project

“Work it. Work it, Give it to me!”
I was yelling over to the kid standing in front of the broken down chalkboard. Then I remembered he didn’t speak English. Something in my tone incited the reaction I was looking for anyway, and the kid instinctively gave me the universal supermodel pose: Goldfish meets Ru Paul with sucked in cheekbones and pouty lips.
Everyone standing in line behind him, giggled.

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I began to mime that I was flying. It must have looked crazy because everyone in the room laughed. Some of the kids towards the front of the line started to practice their flying moves.
Just then the wind kicked in and a blanket of fine, white dust flew across the room raging across faces, surfaces and the ground.  We could have been standing in Black Rock City at Burning Man during a dust storm. But even Burning Man, a large camping festival in a desert, has more sophisticated systems and infrastructure. Instead we were standing in a four walled concrete bunker with a dirt floor in the poorest slum in the Western Hemisphere called Cite Soleil.

I was there with a translator friend, Aimee Gaines who lives in Cite Soleil and first brought me to the neighborhood the year before. Also in the room was Sylwia Jarosz a San Francisco producer and techie and Kathy Barbro a Los Angeles art teacher. The four of us represent a 12-member group called Project HOPE Art (PHA). Our sole purpose is to instigate joy, whimsy and wonder in forgotten corners of the world.

I turned back to the line of children snaking around the room. They were waiting patiently. Calmly. Something I rarely see when I work with children in the United States. If we hadn’t been in the room with these children, injecting art, music and laughter into their day I am unsure what activity they would be involved in. It almost certainly would not have incorporated creative thinking or free form expression.

The chalkboard behind me was propped up on two broken chairs and the top of it looked as if nuclear matter had melted it down. But it still worked. Which is how everything in Haiti looks:broken, but still functioning.

Kathy had expertly crafted angel wings onto the chalkboard, carefully leaving a space in between the wings, so a child could stand in front and pretend to be a living angel. I had the camera and was encouraging each kid to express him or herself. I had angels reading books, striking yoga poses, flying, laughing, sleeping and one girl decided to be photographed with the mascot of PHA (a rubber unicorn known in Kreyol as Pony Magique).

As we cycled through all the kids, I encouraged all the teachers at the school to participate. The children hooted with laughter when their principal posed in front of the angel wings.

Before we left for the day, through a translator, I reminded the children that the wings didn’t just live on the chalkboard. The wings belonged to them and would allow them to fly and rise up above their problems, environment and situations. They should use their wings not just to solve their own problems but those issues facing their communities at large.

Nothing can stop a large group of living angels.

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