Turning Bolivian street beggars into proud performers
John Connell teaches skills from the circus, like juggling, to street kids in Bolivia. They earn money and go to school more.
Can the life of a child be transformed through juggling? John Connell is certain of it.Skip to next paragraph
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Every afternoon, Connell holds practices at a local park. His students cluster in groups on the grass, practicing juggling and riding unicycles.
"Mr. John!" a boy in a Spider-Man sweat shirt calls out in Spanish, as he juggles three balls. "Is this OK?"
"John!" shouts another boy. "We practiced!"
Connell teaches one child to clap while juggling and helps another climb onto a five-foot-high unicycle.
"Show me," he replies to 11-year-old Wilder Choque Rodriguez, the boy in the Spider-Man sweat shirt.
Wilder's face lights up. And he does.
Since arriving in Bolivia fresh out of high school in the United States, Connell has undergone an extraordinary personal journey. Five years ago, while still a teenager, he founded Performing Life.
The idea: Mastering juggling and unicycling allows street children to earn money faster, freeing them to go to school.
The program has accomplished much more. Every child is required to attend school. But now, by weaving bracelets for sale in the US, many of them are also saving to start small businesses, and buying land and even houses for their families.
It has transformed the street children, often despised by society. Before, they were seen as beggars. Now, they are artists.
"People are impressed," says Wilder's 14-year-old sister, Rocio. "Not just anyone can do this."
"Instead of giving street kids what adults think they need," says Kurt Shaw, executive director of Shine a Light, a nonprofit group that links organizations serving marginalized children, Connell "gave them what they want."
Connell grew up in a trailer home in New Mexico's vast Gila Wilderness. He left to attend Scattergood Friends School, a prep school in West Branch, Iowa, on a scholarship. By his senior year, he considered dropping out to travel.
Graduate, his mom said, and I'll buy you a plane ticket to anywhere in the world.
His girlfriend was a Bolivian exchange student. He decided to visit her in La Paz.
At that point, his life turned surreal. His girlfriend was the granddaughter of Bolivia's then-president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Connell was given his own bodyguard and driver. He lunched in the presidential mansion. He was miserable.