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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008



Singing for Their Supper

The brainstorm of a New Mexico teenager, Performing Life teaches art and performance skills to poor Bolivian youths, as a way off the streets and into a better life.

By Donna Clayton Lawder

In the lighthearted 1939 film Babes in Arms, a teenaged Mickey Rooney calls out that classic line, "Hey, kids! Let's put on a show!" With much dancing, singing and slapstick hijinks, Rooney and his chipper comrade-in-tap-shoes, Judy Garland, pull together a fundraiser in a Long Island barn so their struggling families won't have to go to the poorhouse.

Performing Life
Performing Life founder John Connell teaches 11-year-old Tania a trick with the diabolo.

For an untold number of youths in Cochabamba, Bolivia, "the show" is a daily event, and the stakes are anything but frivolous. Working the intersections and street corners — juggling bowling pins between red lights, performing tricks on unicycles, throwing flaming torches to each other at night — these children, some as young as kindergarten age, are literally earning their daily bread.

And these are the lucky ones — the kids with skills to make a living, often not only feeding themselves but supporting family members as well. Other youngsters lead more desperate lives, begging or turning toward prostitution. They may live in the streets, banding together and seeking shelter under bridges, often becoming involved with drugs.

John Connell, a 22-year-old who grew up in the Gila Hot Springs community, is reaching out to these children. Connell founded and directs Performing Life, a New Mexico-based nonprofit organization that offers free classes in juggling, diabolo and other arts to poor Bolivian kids, to help them earn a living. Performing Life also helps youngsters without a home find a safe place to live and register for school or skills classes.

Participants who attend the program's arts and performance classes at least four days per week get a hot meal at the end of the session — sometimes their only real meal that day, Connell says. After progressing from the entry level to a more advanced program, they are eligible for dental and health assistance, receiving medical care from volunteer doctors and reduced cost medicine and supplies.

This month, Connell will bring a troupe of his Performing Life kids to the US, on a mission of outreach, fundraising and goodwill. The group will participate in "Performing the World 2008" in New York City, joining presenters from 20 states and 37 countries.

Locally, the group also has planned a string of performance and outreach events Oct. 8-14, including on Oct. 11 a juggling street performance at Bullard Street and Broadway, and a fire twirling performance at dusk that same day at Silver City's Hub Plaza; an appearance at the Good Samaritan Crafts Faire in Las Cruces, Oct. 12, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; and an educational and performance presentation at the Silco Theater Oct. 14, 6:30 p.m. Presentations also are planned at the Aldo Leopold High School and Western New Mexico University, also in Silver City. Presentations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque also are on the drawing board. "The basic idea of the tour is to reach out to more people in the states, spreading the word about the work we do in Bolivia," Connell says. "We will be showing videos the kids have made, music they have been recording and lots of photos of the situations they live in and of the work we do with them."

"The basic idea of the tour is to reach out to more people in the states, spreading the word about the work we do in Bolivia," Connell says. "We will be showing videos the kids have made, music they have been recording and lots of photos of the situations they live in and of the work we do with them."

Connell graduated from Scattergood Friends School in Iowa in 2003, went to La Paz, Bolivia, and stayed with a classmate who is a Bolivian national. By that August, he moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, and began living on his own. While looking for a job, he saw some young people juggling.

"They seemed to be doing fairly well," he recalls. "Since I had learned to juggle in school, I decided to try it, starting off with some oranges. Eventually, I was able to purchase regular juggling equipment and made my own set of fire clubs. As my skills increased, so did my income."

From that first summer into the fall of 2004, at the tender age of 17, Connell supported himself solely by juggling. During that time, he met many youths, some only three and four years old, who were on the streets either performing or simply begging.

"I observed that the more accomplished performers earned the most money," he says. "As I became more skilled and learned more distinctive tricks, I was able to work approximately three hours per day and earn about $250 US each month, which was sufficient for me to rent a room, buy food, and provide for daily necessities. Of course, when something happened, such as when I was injured and could not stand up to perform, I went hungry and had to depend on my friends for food."

Upon returning to the States, Connell says he reflected on his experiences in Bolivia and came up with the core idea for Performing Life — that by developing or improving their performing arts skills, impoverished Bolivian youth could make more money in less time. That would lead to less time on the streets, more time with their families, and a generally improved standard of living, helping them to regain their childhood while staying away from drugs and delinquency.

Why use the arts to tackle such serious problems as poverty, drug abuse and homelessness?

"In Bolivia, street performance is looked upon favorably by local citizens who appreciate excellence and enjoy the entertainment, for which they offer monetary tips," Connell says. "Also, there is a lot more to build on with the arts than, let's say, shining shoes. For example, a kid could work for eight hours a day shining shoes making the same amount a kid can make juggling in one hour. Also, the shoe shiner might be able to improve his time shining each shoe, or save on materials, but in the end there's not much room for improvement, whereas a juggler can start with three balls, move on to juggling three clubs, and then perhaps be juggling clubs on a unicycle. From there, the sky's the limit."

Enthused by the idea, Connell wrote up a basic grant proposal and sent it to a variety of foundations. After months of trying, he'd received a few encouraging comments but no funding.


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