When You Give a Kid A Camera

She’s probably going to be ecstatic.

I really couldn’t have imagined the scale Kids with Cameras would grow to–how much energy I would put into it, how incredible the photos would be, how proud the kids would be to share their work, how appreciative the parents would become. Truthfully, Kids with Cameras is what kept me going the last two months in Ecuador.

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I anticipated the educational standards I was accustomed to in the States–letters get sent home with parents, parents send their kids to and support educational events (field trip money, getting to school on time, parent-teacher conferences–you get the picture). Despite the multiple letters I wrote, the calls to families who have phones, and the excitement the kids had for the project, I spent many afternoons trekking through Ibarra’s rainy streets hunting down my students–“Looking for Colombians, Part Two,” if you will.

The thing about the refugees I work with is that all the families know each other. There are three distinct neighborhoods they live in–all of them are on my walk to work. A typical afternoon spent searching looks something like this:

Lady Sinistera’s papi, Jose, doesn’t have a cell phone, and as many times as I reminded his new wife about the meetings when she came to pick up Lady’s brothers, Lady’s new mama is a 21 year old, VERY pregnant woman taking care of a ten year old girl and two three year old boys. I was on my own. So I walked down to the barber shop where the husband of Lady’s mama’s best friend works. He wasn’t there, but a friend sent me to the auto repair shop a few blocks down. He was there and called his wife, but she hadn’t seen any of the the Sinisteria family. She said that Jose was probably at work though–so I hopped on the Aduana Caranqui bus to the Merced. No luck. Usually he sells DVDs by the hotel in front of Parque de la Merced, but wasn’t there. However, the hotel next to the stand said that I could leave a letter for him with the woman in the internet cafe next door. Apparently, Jose was in a baking class for a future job at a panaderia (bread store). But I left the letter with the neighbor and sure enough, Lady was at the next meeting.

The reality of these kids’ lives is that their parents often work two or more jobs. Some spend their afternoons caring for younger siblings, cooking lunch, and attempting to complete homework assignments single handedley. When the parents are that caught up with simply surviving, their primary concern isn’t necessarily getting their children to Pastoral. But when they did show up, it was amazing.

Yes, the kids took incredible photos, as I’m sure you can tell. They had a fun after school activity. But what mattered to me the most were the days they’d show up at the office because they “thought they had a workshop.” When I saw the same handful was showing up at the same time everyday, I realized that the reality was that they just wanted to hang out. Most don’t have a safe space–their houses are stressful, and the xenophobia they face on the daily is unimaginable. So, to come into the Pastoral office and play with my camera and ipod, listen to Daddy Yankee, steal from the prize bag, and ask advice about dealing with their ten-year-old girlfriends, was an amazing outlet. Knowing they had someone to turn to, and a place to unwind and feel secure, was the best part about the experience.

But after all the lessons and hunting and brilliant photos, we decided to do something more. These kids were so proud of what they were doing, and I was proud of them. We decided to have a presentation of sorts–half presentation and half celebration. On my last Monday in Ecuador, after decorating picture frames and invitations and practicing, practicing, practicing, every student chose three photos to present to the Pastoral Migratoria team and their families. Several also gave mini speeches about how the program worked and what the experience was like for them. I bought a cake for them that said “Felicidades Chicos con Cameras!” (Congratulations Kids with Cameras!) and we had a little fiesta to commend their hard work.

I hardly slept Sunday night because I kept waking up with bad dreams about the presentation. Someone once told me the more nervous we are for something, the more we respect it. I must have had a lot of respect for these kids. But I called all the families and it was confirmed everyone would be there.

It was truly magic. The kids were vibrant and articulate. Parents and students came with little gifts for me–a home made Colombian sweet, a tiny beaded bracelet, a painting of Darwin and me on a beach in Ecuador (my favorite gift by far). One mother, Anna Milena, cried through the entire presentation. Afterward she told me that her son, Sebastian, actually changed during the past month. I met Sebastian’s mom about ten days after they fled from Colombia. His day with the camera was the day they moved from a hotel into their apartment. Anna Milena told me that Sebastian became animated during this program–he had something to look forward to and something he talked about. She said it helped lift him out of the depression he fell into after immigrating.

The Montoyas’ dad said that he watched his four children in the program bond over the project–taking “artistic” photos and posing for each other, exploring Ibarra as they documented their lives. He and his wife work from dawn until dark and the kids have to cook for themselves and do their own homework, so he was so appreciative that they had some place to go after school, someone who cared about them and looked out for them.

I didn’t realize what a camera could unleash. I thought I’d give kids cameras and get some sweet pictures, maybe empowering a few along the way. In reality, the cameras helped families bond, emboldened every student, created a safe, calm space in chaotic, unstable lives, introduced me to Colombians I never would have met if I didn’t have to trek all over Ibarra, and helped me to bond across several cultures and languages, learning lessons I never anticipated from the most unlikely of people.

When you give a kid a camera….well, you complete the sentence.