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Into the Light

Santa Fean Kurt Shaw helps Latin America’s most overlooked children step out of the shadows

September 29, 2010, 1:00 am

In a sprawling neighborhood in the south of Bogotá, among the unfinished brick homes of tens of thousands of Colombia’s poorest, 15 teenagers lounge on the floor of a brightly painted room. Electronic music chugs from a laptop in the corner while they work quietly, sketching flowers and trees on oversized paper. 

After some time, a therapist asks them to share what they have drawn. There is the usual teenage delay, and then Daniel, oval face shadowed by a baseball cap, holds up his sketch.

“I drew a rose,” he explains in rapid Spanish. “It’s dry—you can see that. But even when roses are not flowering, even when they look dead, the plant is alive.”

He pauses.

“That’s what my fear is like,” he says. “It’s always there, even when I don’t show it. It can return at any minute.”

The others nod. For these kids, as for millions of teenagers in Latin America, the awkward wonder years of adolescence are not about first kisses and chemistry exams—they’re about survival.

The young men and women in this room are extreme examples: As former child soldiers, they have already experienced types of violence that cripple the most callous of adults. But no less troublesome are the plights of the chicle-hawking street kids in Mexico City, the impoverished Aymara youth wandering down from the shantytowns of La Paz or any of Latin America’s children in poverty, a population that UNICEF estimates is approximately 50 million—enough to out-populate the entire nation of Spain. 

Noelia Benitez was one of the first students of the film school for street and indigenous kids that Shine a Light created in collaboration with the Paraguayan government.
Credits: Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva

The importance of reaching out to these children is obvious, more so in countries where urban gangs and armed militias are actively recruiting. A child who turns to the street, or accepts a gun, enters a world at once miserable and enticing, a world of real abuse and illusory power, of fleeting access to drugs, sex and snatches of money. With each passing day, re-entering the “regular” world of school and family becomes less and less of an option. Government shelters feel too constraining; foster care too shameful. Taking the kid off the street is one thing, but taking the street—or the war—out of the kid is quite another.

Enter Kurt Shaw. His international nonprofit organization, Shine a Light, has worked to help millions of children make the psychological shift to get off the margin, step into the mainstream and stay. Borrowing ideas from the best programs in Latin America, he’s developed a model so successful that dozens of organizations, not to mention the entire country of Paraguay, are using it to reach children from Argentina to Mexico, to right here in Santa Fe—where his groundbreaking work first began.

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