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.

Jocelyn Wiener
John Connell poses with his juggling students at a park in Cochabamba, a city of 600,000 in central Bolivia. He arrived in the country as a teenager to visit his girlfriend, who had been an exchange student at his high school. Children in his program are required to attend school.

Can the life of a child be transformed through juggling? John Connell is certain of it.

Since he was a teenager, Mr. Connell, now 24, has taught circus arts to hundreds of children who might otherwise be selling gum or wiping windshields on the streets of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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.

The couple broke up and Connell headed to Cochabamba, in central Bolivia, to meet a friend. He loved it. When the time came to leave, he called his mother.

"I'm not getting on the plane," he said.

She told him that meant he'd have to get a job – she couldn't support him.

One day, he spotted kids juggling lemons. "I can do that," he thought.

He made $3 his first hour. As he improved, he earned more. But it wasn't always easy: Some nights he slept on the street or went hungry.

The street children were bemused by this American who spoke broken Spanish. On good days, Connell shared his money with them. But he always understood the difference between him and them: "I could leave. And they can't."

Adalid Boris Coca Ardaya and his sister, Escarlet, lived with their parents and six siblings in a leaky, one-room shack. Over 18 months, Connell became close with them. He taught them to juggle.

Eventually, a knee injury led him back to the US for treatment. But before he left, he promised he would return.

"I didn't believe him," Mr. Ardaya says.

In New Mexico, Connell told his mother about his vision for a juggling program.

Write a project proposal, she advised.

The foundations he contacted sent back rejection letters. "Great idea," they all said, but no. Connell understood.

"I wouldn't give $10,000 to a 19-year-old kid to go down to Bolivia and teach street kids how to juggle," he says with a laugh.

Then one day he received a call from Tony Bellizzi, director of the New York-based Hope for the Children Foundation. Connell's mother had told Mr. Bellizzi about her son's idea. He loved it.

Bellizzi offered Connell $10,000. "When are you going?" Bellizzi asked.

Soon after, Connell got on a plane.

Juggling alone hasn't transformed the street children's personal finances as much as Connell hoped. For that, he created the bracelet-weaving program. Bellizzi sells the bracelets on their behalf in the US.

Performing Life also offers a daily meal to each child, a savings plan, and a special benefit – a yearly birthday cake. For many children it's the first they've ever had.

One of Connell's friends, Oscar Rivadeneira, records hip-hop albums with the children out of an improvised studio.

Ardaya, now 20, teaches a morning class to new jugglers. He and his three sisters have earned enough to build their family a three-bedroom house.

"He kept his word," Ardaya says. "He understood us."

• For more stories about people making a difference, go here.

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