In 2014, in an effort to escape my own demons, I decided to volunteer at an orphanage in Costa Rica. That week of feeding little girls, playing with them, talking to them, dancing with them to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and picking mangoes with them changed my life forever. When I saw parents visiting some of the girls, I was incensed with anger. I had been deceived to believe that this was an orphanage. I complained and spoke rudely with the person who had organized this volunteer visit. Then she explained to me that these girls were not orphans, they were wards of the State because they had undergone unspeakable physical and sexual abuse at home. My heart sank. An unfamiliar pain grabbed me. I could not understand why my two daughters had a world of opportunities in front of them and why these ninety-five girls had only a bleak chance that they will escape the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, sexual-trafficking and even suicide. That moment changed everything.
At a meeting in January 2017 we reviewed the measurable outcomes and progress of Uno A La Vez. The results that the team in Costa Rica had achieved were beyond my wildest imagination. Not only had we increased the number of scholarships awarded for private schools from 11 in 2014 to 93 in 2016, over 800% increase, but the children had grabbed the opportunity and hit the ball out of the ballpark. The dropout rate plummeted, pass rates in Math, Science and Spanish soared, advancement to next grade level based on age improved drastically, and over 150 children were learning English after school - the energy in the three SOS Children's Villages had started to shift positively. The results were especially promising among children below the age of twelve. I found that very intriguing and not surprising since we are all familiar with the learning capacity of young children.
A Two-Pronged Approach to Reducing and Reversing the Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
I believe that the negative sociological and psychological impact created by ACEs needs to be addressed in two ways. First, we need to rehabilitate those who have already suffered this traumatic stress. We can accomplish this goal through holistic, compassionate and nurturing practices based on the science behind Positive Psychology so that these children can potentially reverse or, at least, better manage their lives into adulthood. Uno a La Vez or One at a Time is such a program that has been operating since January 2015 in a strategic partnership with the SOS Children's Villages, Costa Rica, (Aldeas Infantiles SOS in Spanish) serving about 300 children.
Second, we need to focus our efforts on preventing abuse and neglect in the very early years of child's development since as much as 80% of the brain development occurs by age six. For this effort to be successful, we not only have to provide an early childhood education program that focuses on positive brain development based on available and proven science; but also, we have to engage the parents and caretakers in at-risk communities so they may care for their children in a healthy and appropriate manner. We are addressing this goal through the establishment of a financially and intellectually sustainable Early Childhood Education Social Enterprise. We are in the early stages of launching this initiative in Costa Rica with a goal of growing it to other parts of the world. Through this initiative we plan to expand the Reggio Emilia inspired pedagogical program for children in pre-school and elementary education in at-risk communities.
Strangely, I could relate to the pain that these girls had experienced. Memories of my own sexual abuse had flooded my mind when I was thirty-nine. But they had it worse. They were also enduring the worst form of poverty - paucity of relationships. Our souls had been fractured in similar ways. There had to be a solution, I thought. Even if I couldn’t change the world, I could certainly do my best to change the world of a few of them, one at a time. That week, Uno A La Vez or One At A Time was born. This initiative, inspired by Sir Ken Robinson's book The Element , is an effort to help build a sustainable path for about three hundred abused and abandoned children in an orphanage called SOS Children’s Villages in Costa Rica (Aldeas Infantiles SOS, in Spanish). The program celebrates the unique passion and talent of each child and offers private scholarships and other holistic support to help nourish their natural gifts whether they be academic, creative or vocational. Since 2014, it continues to thrive bringing hope and possibilities to children who have suffered unspeakable physical or sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment. The results in three short years have been nothing short of astonishing. It's amazing how a seed can sprout and grow into an amazing new plant if given the right soil, nourishment, and care. We look forward to providing ongoing measurable outcomes so you can also share in the success of these deserving children.
Being a nerd, I wanted to know more. It did not take me long to find out that 80% of a child's brain develops before she reaches six years of age. Having studied the concepts of positive psychology like GRIT, that Angela Duckworth at UPenn's Character Lab has researched extensively, and other psychological constructs during my Clinical Psychology education at Columbia University, I wondered if we could change how children mentally processed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Could we build resilience and shift the paradigm of learned helplessness that Martin Seligman of UPenn discovered over five decades ago, I wondered. He had recently published cutting edge new research with his colleague Steven Maier arguing that they got the whole concept of learned helplessness backwards. This understanding came through their study over two decades of the neural circuitry. In short, human beings don't learn helplessness (the concept of "no matter what I do, I cannot change my situation, so why try?") but the effects of prolonged adverse experiences, especially during childhood, block the natural response of fight or flight. In effect, we unlearn our natural ability of fight or flight because of how the neural circuity is impacted by chronic trauma.
This was exciting news. It opened up the possibility that we could help build neural circuitry in the early years that could potentially help shield or, at least, minimize the effects of ACE. I, therefore, started looking for early childhood education programs that focused on brain development and not just on building educational capacity in children. If we could couple it with parental education on caring for the child, then this development would continue from school to home and back, I reasoned. We could, potentially, prevent abuse at the source before it begins. At worst, we could reduce its impact. As if by divine intervention, my search led me to Reggio Emilia, a program created after World War II in a municipality of the same name in Italy by an inspiring psychologist named Loris Malaguzzi.
We are now engaged in the development and execution of an Early Childhood Education social enterprise model with complete financial and intellectual sustainability. This is the most exciting development that could eventually impact thousands of children across Latin America first and then across the globe. This is not a far-fetched reality - it is already happening in other parts of the world. We are simply joining the movement. And we hope that you will join it too.
Uno a La Vez (One at a Time)
A Strategic Partnership with SOS Children's Villages | San Jose, Costa Rica
Early Childhood Education
A Social Enterprise Initiative | San Jose, Costa Rica