“Let’s do something meaningful for the children!!!”

Before the official launch of The Creative Kid Project, Evan and I were invited to, for the namesake of this program; let’s just call it SMF (Something Meaningful Festival). Our job for SMF was to train their facilitators on how to interact with children and give them some advice on the content.

“What is this? How exactly does going to underprivileged village northward of Hanoi for less than 3 hours help fueling the illiterate kids the love for SM? And what is the exact connection between reading, drawing and this environment awareness (?!) thing at the end?” — I impatiently told Evan upon reading their very abridge schedule, clearly didn’t seem so keen on the idea of accepting their offer.

Unlike me, he took their invitation much more seriously. “Why shouldn’t we go? This is our perfect opportunity to put brainstorming skill that we plan to teach the children into practice, only with much older people”. Evan enthusiastically responded, while pulling out some pen and paper to draw out the different steps of brainstorming (which later on becomes one of CKP’s most-favorite lessons). He explained to me his plan to go around asking all members of SMF to share with the group the reason why they were there, and then start group brainstorming. The idea was to connect their idea of what SMF’s about and the real purpose of SMF to come up with a more coherent and relevant program schedule.

“Fine. But I’m not willing to spend more than 1 hour on this.” I sighed, surrendering to his “let’s turn complaints into opportunities” attitude, which also later on becomes one of CKP’s most inspiring mottos.

And I’m glad we went, because going there reassured in me the belief in the power of idea and the importance of passion and reason.

In case you wonder, the “training” session failed big time. Out of the 50+ volunteers for SMF, about 15 showed up, half of them newbies who answered to our question with “I like this program for its meaningful intention (?!) for the poor, illiterate and unfortunate children”. Just like what we had anticipated, what clearly lack in that group is a straightforward reason to do what they do, and the real passion to do them. Most members seem to consider this a filler activity for their lazy summer.

Half way through the introduction round, the guy next to me stood up, clearly annoyed with the slow pace of the meeting, and perhaps with this random stranger and a white guy that obnoxiously were taking over their meeting “I don’t get it. What exactly is the purpose of wasting our time on this meaningless activity? Aren’t we all clear on why we are here; wasn’t it all written in our mission statement and press release? Wouldn’t it be much more helpful for us to just plan the f***ing schedule?”

At this point, I had to try very hard to control my frustration at this irresponsible and disrespectful guy, apart from the regret for having agreed to waste 1 hour of my time on what could be used to work on CKP stuff.

Judging the potential rising tension in the air, the SMF Content manager (also the one who invited us to this training session) explained: “I don’t think this activity is a waste of our time. Even I, as the content manager of the program for 2 months already, do not really understand the connection between the activities and our program’s purpose, let alone most newcomers here.”

The group continued after some awkward pauses, with conversation being dominated by and only by one guy, who seems to be the driver of the program. After politely accepting our offer to do our introduction round, he critiqued the schedule and put his idea on the table: “So this is what I think we should do…. I’m sure these poor illiterate children will like it”. And he went on, disregarding other members’ ideas to try our brainstorming thing, and our effort to engage everyone in the planning session.

As Evan and I exchanged a “oh well, this is quite hopeless” look and ready to leave, the girl who invited us quickly came over: “I’m so sorry for the attitude of some members of this group. It is just so hard to manage such a diverse, non-committed group. We have about 10 new volunteers each time, and the people who show up last meeting are not the same as those who show up the next. There are only 2 weeks left and we can’t even agree on what to include in our program.” — She apologetically explained, her voice a little bit shaky.

At this point, I could not help but pouring to her all these following words, which sounded something like “Oh dear, this program will continue to not go anywhere without a core group of SUPER committed people who really care for the program and for the CHILDREN who this program serves There are hundreds of programs that claim the nice status of “meaningful summer for children”, but how many of them actually care for the children and intend to leave some impact on them? If SMF were to mean anything at all, it certainly should not be about us privileged city kids willing to jot down 3 hours of our time “interacting” with illiterate children, hopefully fuel in them the love for something. It should be about the children and for the children, meaning focusing on what is this that the CHILDREN need, from their point of view. Not from some empty-sounding aspiration of jobless city kids wanting to make a nice little addition in their CV that shows “I want to do something meaningful this summer for those poor, illiterate children”.”

Evan looked at me (the very girl that told him that in Vietnam, because of the culture of subtlety, you say one thing but imply others), trying to hide his “I told you so” laugh.

To be honest, that was really a bit harsh on her, but I just could not help it. None of the people in that room even remotely touched on whether or not the kids would enjoy their planned activities, or what else they were capable of, apart from doing the assigned readings and being instructed on how the environment needs to be saved.

As we were leaving, Evan and I continued talking about how this connects to CKP mission and the CKP volunteers; and how we were so glad to know now the opposite of what we wish them to be. We planned right away on a session the day after on exactly the same thing. We would ask all our facilitators and volunteers to sit down and share with us why they want to join CKP and the personal stories (if any) they have.

And this is what we’ve got after that session, what I would say was the most memeorable discussion CKP Team has had before the Project.

And I will talk about how passion and the power of idea would turn out to be the central focus of the 6-day-long program, as well as what saved us from committing the same mistake SMF had, in my next (and probably last) entry. I’m proud to say that CKP at least did not end up to be just one of those “meaningful summer programs” that the kids are forced to join.

Originally published at www.globalconversation.org on August 24, 2012.