A helpline through the arts

Lavanya (centre) makes Bharatanatyam interesting for the underprivillaged children as she trains them to perform in front of audiences with the basic steps they have learnt. The children look forward to performing and it increases their self-esteem.

All children deserve the best experiences and opportunities to excel in life. While not all may excel in academics, given the opportunity, some will find their niche in the world of arts.

Any form of art be it dance, painting, playing music or even acting can help build character and bring positivity.

StarMetro speaks to three groups of volunteers who are focused on helping children with disciplinary problems or are from poor families, using the arts.

The volunteers noticed the children’s overall behaviour changed for the better with their intervention through arts, citing increase in confidence level, critical thinking skills and improvement in academics.

Indian classical dance

A psychology lecturer and an engineer teamed up in volunteering to teach Indian classical dance to some 40 children.

The students are from welfare homes and People’s Housing Projects (PPR).

Lavanya Selvaratnam, 36, is a full-time lecturer who is pursuing her PHD. Despite her commitments, she embarked on this voluntary endeavour because she does not want the youths to get derailed.

She said youthful energy had to be channelled correctly and youths needed inspiration and guidance.

Lavanya says some of the school principals discourage volunteers from teaching these children dance, citing exams as an excuse.

The lack of extra-curricular activities and too much time spent in front of the computers or TV may not be ideal for children, she said.

Some four years ago, Lavanya and her friend Saisuetha Satchithanathan formed LS Creation and taught bharatanatyam to the underprivileged.

Lavanya said some of the children came from broken homes and needed inspiration as well as a boost in self-esteem.

“Dance can provide therapy through music and movement as well as instil discipline.

“It can also help them focus on their studies better,” she said.

Lavanya said bharatanatyam was a structured form of dance but she made it interesting for the beginners. The children train to perform in front of audiences with the basic steps they have learnt.

“The children look forward to performing on stage and it increases their self-esteem,” she said.

She said sometimes the teenagers showed up for class tired out as they had a lot of chores at home, and the class was also a place for them to share about what’s going on in their lives.

The biggest challenge, she said, was convincing the parents and some school principals to allow the children to attend dance lessons.

“The parents want the children to help them do housework. Sometimes they cite excuses such as exams.

“Even some of the school principals discourage volunteers from teaching these children dance, citing exams as an excuse.

“Extra-curricular activities are vital as it is a form of therapy. Arts can be in any form including martial arts,” she added.

Lavanya said her students were dedicated as well as passionate, and that was a motivation for her.

“These children can someday become an expert in this dance form and teach others. They can give back to others,” she said.

She hopes more professionals from the arts industry will do more charity work to change the lives of children who will otherwise never get the opportunity.

Arts, crafts and puppetry

Khairul Hizam Harun, 32, is a full-time art teacher at a private school. His free time is spent teaching art for free to 40 underprivileged children at welfare homes.

Khairul said he had seen the children from these homes grow by leaps and bound after he started teaching them arts.

He formed Karya and taught painting, handicraft and puppetry.

The children’s English also improved.

Children from the shelter homes pick up critical thinking skills and the English language through the free art lesson by Karya.

“Learning art has helped them with science, mathematics, language, computers and thinking skills,” he said.

“We teach them thinking skills. They do not necessarily have to become artists but they have developed thinking skills through the course. They are encouraged to ask a lot of questions and through this, they learn,” he added.

Khairul hopes the marginalised community can make a living through arts.

He has taught the children upcycling, which is a form of recycling used items into something new.

He also hopes to engage more volunteers and spread the arts knowledge to refugee children.

“Exposing the underprivileged to art goes a long way. I hope more volunteers will come forward and provide such opportunity to less fortunate youths,” he said.

Performing arts

Knowing that youths with disciplinary problems are unreceptive to advice from people, teacher and school counsellor K. Nadarajah has been reaching out to such students and turning their lives around through performing arts for the past 15 years.

In 2014, with the help of several volunteers, he formed GoodKids, a social enterprise for high-risk youths.

Growing up in Petaling Jaya, Nadarajah said he and his friends had good family support and were ambitious.

GoodKid volunteer, Koggelavani Muniandy (standing) coaching the children with their stompbox percussion instruments.

However he received a rude awakening when he became a teacher at a school in Selangor.

“The students hated me and the changes I wanted to implement. Every Deepavali without fail, some of the students would throw eggs into my house and on my car. They harassed me and my family badly,” he said.

The breakthrough came when he witnessed a group of boys about to hit a fellow student when another boy approached them and shouted to them not to harm the victim as they played football together.

“The group just dispersed,” said Nadarajah, who took the cue, understanding that children needed to be involved in fun group activities.

He decided to organise a performing arts session for troubled youths where they learn dancing, stomping and acting.

They were compelled to join as they preferred it over the other two options which were calling their parents to school or being suspended from school.

Bala says they have witnessed children crying after the performance because they had never felt that appreciated before.

“They would drag themselves to attend the activity initially. Some children would not speak and participate for several weeks.

“There were those who would literally shut their ears with their hands and refuse to listen.

“But slowly we start to see changes. It starts with just passing a remark or two, then they will participate and start sharing ideas,” he said.

Volunteer and rehabilitation counselling psychologist Bala Subramaniam Somasundaram said a pat on the back was a powerful encouragement for anyone.

He said the performing arts helped the children reflect on their behaviour and change.

He said the biggest fear among the high-risk youths was failure.

“They are hesitant to try something because they fear being laughed at,” he said.

Nadarajah has rehabilitated hundreds of students through performing arts for the past 15 years.

“These children need a lot of support, kindness and encouraging words.

“Some have been told their entire life that they are good for nothing. They would have not heard any word of encouragement. There would be a lot of negativity at home and surrounding. They lack social skills and positive role models,” he added.

In the performing arts classes, the teenagers stage performances, which are considered a graduation ceremony.

“We had children who would cry after the performance because they never felt so appreciated before,” said Bala.

Nadarajah said some of the students had grown up to become successful and returned as volunteers.

He said there was a misconception that providing physical infrastructure would do wonders for the children.

“New classrooms or buildings are not a priority. We need the human element.

“We need people who can teach these children social skills and it can be achieved through arts,” said Nadarajah, adding that importance must be given to building of social skills among youths.

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