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Pointe with purpose

Misty Copeland gives kids in Rwanda a leg up

By Jennifer Perry on December 4, 2015

In a small studio in Rwanda, Misty Copeland greeted and hugged several local children. They talked, danced, and each received a container packed with a dance uniform, shoes, toothbrush, soap, and a towel—simple essentials for the children of Kigali, Rwanda’s largest city. The meeting took place during the launch of MindLeap’s girls program, one of several programs the non-profit group organizes to rehabilitate street children in post-conflict countries.

Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre, spent five days with the boys and girls of MindLeaps as well as learning about the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in the east African state. “To see what the country has gone through is very intense,” said Copeland in a video blog taped during her trip. “As many documentaries that you see, it doesn’t become as real until you’re actually here and witness it,” said the dancer, holding back tears. More than 20 years later, instability and poverty have made it hard for family units to stay together. “Some kids are complete orphans,” said Rebecca Davis, the founder and executive director of the program. Others face a multitude of obstacles—stealing to survive, dabbling in drugs, or losing their mothers to HIV.

Founded in 2010, MindLeaps uses dance as the first part of a three-phase process that provides vocational IT training—a valuable skill within the country—and sponsorship for boarding school, allowing children to land internships and work-study positions. “If we were offering English classes, street kids who have never gone to school before and don’t think that they can learn English would never come,” said Davis. But offering dance, in a community where dance is a central part of the culture, builds confidence. “[They] understand that they’re worth something,” she said. “They can learn how to learn and then transfer those skills to a more productive life path.” The program has already served hundreds of boys between the ages of 9 and 18 since it’s inception, but with the launch of the new program, 15 girls began dance classes and will participate in English classes and IT training in January. The new program provides the same services as the boys’ program, but girls receive additional supplies for menstruation and participate in counseling.

Eric (center) has been involved with the MindLeaps program since 2011 and is now attending boarding school.
Eric (center) has been involved with the MindLeaps program since 2011 and is now attending boarding school. (Photo courtesy of MindLeaps)

The effects of the program are evident when it comes to orphans like Eric, who came to the program in 2011 after being picked up by police and placed in a holding center. According to Davis, one of his earliest memories is returning home to see animals feeding off his mother’s corpse. After landing in the dance program, Davis says he told teachers there was no point in working hard because he wasn’t going ‘to live for very long anyway.’ “That’s the mindset that’s typical of our kids,” said Davis. “There’s no understanding that life exists past tomorrow.” Today, he’s earned himself sponsorship to a boarding school.

As seen in Copeland’s video blogs, the experience can be just as transforming for the professional performers who visit. “They’re so surprised to see an innate passion for their art form in kids who’ve never had access to it,” said Davis. “They’ve never seen a ballet before, they’ve never seen dance shoes before and they have the passion of a professional with zero resources,” she said.

Local staff run the programs located in Rwanda, Guinea, and Bosnia-Herzegovina using word-of-mouth as the primary means of recruitment. According the MindLeaps website, nearly 700 children have been served in 2014, with 90 percent of the funding for the program being donation-based.