Chasing stars
05 October 2009
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There are lives that are hanging by a thread and are just about to succumb to the strains of reality. School, parents, social politics, nothing seems enough to restore the shine of those fallen stars. Preventing social exclusion amongst young individuals and acting in this area can be an overwhelming task. Furthermore, it is very often a frustrating mission with outcomes that are extremely difficult to measure and quantify.

Simon Richey, the Director of the Educational Services of the UK Branch of the Gulbenkian Foundation, has an in-depth knowledge of that reality which has reached worrying levels in the UK. The official statistics are cause for concern: 8 680 students were permanently excluded from school in 2006-07 alone. It is with these children that Simon has been developing his intervention work through art. This work is the inspiration behind the project that is currently being developed by the ALERT Foundation (legally being established) and involves children from the Crescer Ser association.

Cristina Meireles, the Foundation's director saw Simon Richey's visit to Portugal as an opportunity to invite him to come to Porto and share his vast experience. Several representatives from institutions such as the Serralves Foundation, Crescer Ser and PELE (cultural and educational association) associations were invited to attend the session. Also present were pedopsychiatrists, psychologists and artists, such as Kerstin Thomas, a German artist who has fallen in love with the Lousã countryside, and Elisabete Bompastor, a psychologist and art therapist. Both Kerstin and Elisabete collaborate with the ALERT Foundation in the project involving young people from the Crescer Ser association.

The intention was to introduce and discuss the main ideas and conclusions behind the three-week long intensive project that led to the documentary "Everything Stopped". Supervised by Simon Richey, this project consisted of gathering a group of young people, who had been excluded from the English school system on a permanent basis, and a dance company and together prepare a show for parents and teachers.

After watching the video, Cristina Meireles gave a brief presentation on the project currently being developed by the ALERT Foundation. As part of her talk, we heard testimonials by Elisabete Bompastor and Kerstin Thomas regarding the work done with the children.

Everyone showed a keen willingness to learn and share experiences. Linguistic barriers were appropriately dealt with and the session flowed with a share of very emotional moments. With an open and generous attitude, Simon described his wide experience in detail and spoke about his project. Cristina, the session's hostess, mediated the discussion that followed after the documentary had been watched.

There were plenty of questions being asked, all of which were relevant, although concrete and established answers were sometimes difficult to come to. The problems in evaluating these experiences and also their continuity were highlighted because of the level of difficulty they present. There is no magical formula to solve these problems and that was not the aim of this session. However, the atmosphere of sharing was visible in every participant who did not seem to be in a rush to end the session.

Creating opportunities and awakening hope in young people who have always felt excluded from a society which does not understand them is not an easy task. People who work hard to improve the social reality on a daily basis often have to find motivation in small and barely visible victories and to not feel dismayed by the endless barriers they face. Fortunately, there are people who, despite everything, refuse to give up and fight to keep these lives afloat for the benefit of those young people and of human values in general.

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