I never figured I would go to Bulgaria. I should think of other countries on the "never figured" list, like Malaysia or Greenland. Maybe I need to keep a more open mind or assume the least likely thing will happen.
For now, I know why I'm headed east and I'm very nervous-cited (nervous and excited!) about it. I'll be joining a group from The Flying Seagull Project as a verified Seagull (I'm trained!) to play with kids in refugee camps. I know, how amazing and unexpected to think there is an entire organization of humans dedicated purely to bringing fun to kids in tough situations? We don't bring snacks or wise words, we bring hula hoops, juggling balls, obstacle courses, magic shows, games of tag and duck-duck-goose and whatever else we can think of that's fun.
Why did no one think of this before? Well, I'm sure some folks did and it's pretty incredibly needed and appropriate if you think about children. They need to be wild, be free, and express their wackiest energy in, ideally, a safe space that allows for that. And, if they've suffered great losses or are in a highly unstable phase of their life, they might need a little extra encouragement to be silly by some well-trained adult weirdos, I mean, professional clowns.
In my case, I'll be very junior on the team and learning. I went to training in London in February to meet the great leader of all this silliness, Ash Perrin, and take in his multi-decade wisdom and knowledge. Things that are fascinating (to me) about what I learned are the following:
1. You gotta ignore the language barrier. These kids will be from, well, everywhere. I'm not sure where from, exactly. But, we can assume a mix of languages and, quite possibly, no or minimal English. So, how do you teach kids duck-duck-goose and lead them through it without being able to say, "Alright, let's start in a circle and you are going to tap people on the head and say..."? Good question! I began to learn to manage this task at training. You use big gestures, sounds, and minimal, repetitive, "sounds like what it is" words to teach. Ash shouts the Greek word for circle and draws a big circle with his hand, using his pointer finger to encourage the kids to circle up. It works!
2. Use call and response. We've all seen military people line up, march around, and get into formation while singing or calling back and forth with their commander. This is kinda what we clowns get the kids used to. Ash works it so well! He circles them up then quickly moves them through a silly, easy, repetitive, loud series of shouts and movements that get them synced up. It's like their learning a dance routine for a flash mob.
3. Go slow and repeat, as often as possible. With the kids in these camps and refugee settings, there will be some neurodivergence, various levels of hearing and sight, developmental differences, and just plain agitation and anxiety. The inclusive energy must be on high. Everything's working. Everyone is included. Everyone matters. You can watch if you want but please stay nearby and engaged. All of those messages must be repeated through our tone and eye contact and motions to keep the group together and involved however possible.
4. Be fun. "Energy! Energy! Energy!" Ash used to shout that at us during training until we were all shouting it, too, and clapping, and dancing around the room. The Flying Seagulls rarely walk into a room. They run. They trip and fall and get up to a round of giggles, and then take a bow. They ride in on Penny Farthing High-Wheeled Victorian bicycles or play the violin, guitar, and tambourine. If a situation is low-energy or tense, the Seagulls masterfully break up that vibe and elevate it as best they can. The kids respond to the energy by finding their own and giving it back. "It's time to play!" the Seagulls say, with everything they do. And, kids need that moment like a camel needs water in the desert. It may have been a while and it sure feels good.
5. Appreciate the kids. "Oh, that's good." "Well done!" "Did you just learn that?" "Bravo!" Think of any way to say good job and douse these kids with appreciation and you're getting the idea. Here they stand, all full of energy, creativity, natural skills and abilities coursing through them and we give them a chance to try something new. Tell them how well they're doing it, say the Seagulls. Be amazed! Help them see how they can do this and so much more. Help them feeeeel that by acknowledging and appreciating their great work.
I leave soon for my journey. I've packed almost completely. I imagine I will like my co-workers very much and that I'll want to adopt a good portion of the children that I meet. I don't expect to see life on earth in the same way by the time I return. I'll feel impassioned in ways I do not currently know and when I learn those ways, I will tell you - right here on this blog.