Maria Simeone, as the creator of MusicMovestheBrain, maintains a commitment to bringing the joy of the arts to underserved populations outside the USA. She is particularly passionate to the plight of orphaned children in impoverished environments. This stems from her own parenting journey with her two children, adopted from Belarus and Kazakhstan. This life-changing experience opened her heart and mind to the developmental, emotional and spiritual challenges facing children who have lost their families and have suffered severe trauma. There are over 153 million orphans in the world today (Source: UNICEF). Certainly, serving the needs of orphaned children can be seen as an impossible task; however, it is Maria’s firm belief that touching an individual life through the beauty of the arts is an experience that can grow exponentially when done meaningfully and authentically. She sees it simply as a moral imperative and an honor to serve the needs of these children.
Programming focuses on providing tools and training in brain-based music and movement curriculum for early education teachers and staff. House mothers caring for infants and toddlers are trained in the areas of developmental floor time, music and infant massage. Primary school children receive MusicMovestheBrain classes and workshops. Special attention is also given to at-risk pre-adolescent and teen girls using music, dance, drumming and art therapy as a means of self-expression and female empowerment.
Additionally, Maria provides tools and training in support of adoptive and foster families. Brain-based music and movement that is targeted to the needs of children with trauma histories is a vital way for creating strong, loving bonds in the home. It is also vital in successful parenting and all areas of healing.
Currently, Maria Simeone provides 100% of her own funding for these outreach efforts. MusicMovestheBrain in Haiti serves Free the Kids/Project Hope in Les Cayes, Haiti annually. (www.freethekids.org).
For many years, I had harbored the desire to go to Haiti to work with Fr. Marc Boisvert’s non-profit “Free the Kids” (also known as Project Espwa – “Espwa” means “hope” in Creole).
I had heard so many wonderful things about the work he was doing, his dedication to the children, and his vision for improving their lives. I wanted to be a part of that. On January 3, 2015 I found myself on a plane to Port au Prince – eager and anxious for what experiences lay ahead.
In preparation for this trip, I had anticipated the inherent difficulties of traveling to a country weighed-down by extreme poverty. What I didn’t anticipate was just how deeply fulfilling my work at Espwa would be.
Sans 1 the usual distractions of technology, I was able to quickly set about meeting the children and facilitate the first MusicMovestheBrain classes. With 450 children, 50 of them girls, I decided to focus on the girls. I wanted to provide them with the chance to express themselves without the scrutiny of the boys!
It would also be an opportunity for cameraderie and the celebration of girlhood. I wanted to affirm their beauty through the music, despite all they’d already suffered in their young lives. Music and dance proved to be our common language and it didn’t take long before we were all dancing, singing, and laughing together. It was such a deep joy being with them! They were so eager, so open, so trusting.
Later in the day, I met with a group of older girls for some art therapy. We cranked up the Haitian pop tunes and began singing together while they created their “Dress N’ Express” dolls. These are felt dolls with interchangeable emotional faces, funky outfits and accessories designed for unlimited imaginations.
The girls dug in, exploring their emotions while creating a wide variety of crazy ensembles, only a teen could love! Fr. Marc popped in and remarked at how the boys at Espwa typically only express two basic emotions – happiness and sadness. And yet, somehow these girls were able to express a wide variety of emotions through their dolls – gratitude, grief, joy, playfulness… I should add, that they came to the art session after attending the funeral for the parents of one of their Espwa friends. Such a profound lesson in solidarity and grace – this is what these girls unexpectedly taught ME that day.
The following days, I facilitated more MusicMovestheBrain classes – new songs, dances, instrument and rhythm play to engage their eagerness. They loved moving and singing to strong syncopated rhythms! During one class, they spontaneously created a vocal ‘B Section’ to the song “Obwisana”. I harmonized a counter-melody while we all played our shakers and danced in a circle. It was a total “God moment!”
With our voices raised, the music within us drew us to a common-point of sisterhood. The girls took over leading the class and there I was, privileged enough to go along for the ride.
While at Espwa, I was also able to engage in another passion of mine – mother-baby wellness. I coached staff members and the ‘House Mom’ in the areas of baby massage, rhythmic vocals and movement, and tummy time. These are powerful activities for healing trauma and for brain rewiring. It was encouraging to observe the receptiveness of these babies, despite the extreme circumstances they’d already endured. I witnessed sweet little Job easing onto his tummy in the lap of his mother. I saw twin toddlers clapping in rhythm, increase trust, and initiate greater verbal expression. Edifying to take-in, considering that these toddlers were known for their difficult behavior and aggression.
My final two days at Espwa were spent training teachers in the early education program. After establishing a gentle rapport, I found them eager and open to learning some approaches that would integrate neuro-developmental music and movement into their lessons. I guided them in teaching conceptually, with ‘Hear, See, Say, Do’ as their motto.
Teachers and students at Espwa struggle with the same things we do – lack of student attention, focus, and self-regulation. Some things are universal.
After teacher observations and individual coachings, teachers re-convened for a teach back – teaching a sample lesson to one another incorporating the MusicMovestheBrain tools they’d learned. These teachers collectively made a shift that day – from teacher-centered to child-centered. They ran with the new ideas, creating lessons that were engaging, developmentally appropriate and playful! One of the teachers took a popular Haitian song (again, featuring those driving syncopated rhythms) and facilitated a partner dance teaching numeration.
By the end of my time at Espwa, this wonderful group of educators (as well as the school director, secretary and my translator) were laughing and applauding one another. The energy in the room was light and optimistic. They asked to end the in-service with prayer and thanksgiving. Wow.
In conclusion, it’s hard for me to summarize my Haiti experience. It’s as complex as its people. It’s easy to categorize Haiti as poor, impoverished and even desperate. While it can be any or all of these things, it’s also a place of great joy, of celebration, of “Espwa”.
I came to Haiti to share myself fully – to give, to teach, to connect. I knew they would teach me, but I was ill-prepared for how much I would grow to love them in such a short time and how much I miss them now! Seems that the real core of whatever was taught or learned was the love that was exchanged. These children and teachers touched my core.
The parting words of the school secretary were, “We love you, Maria” To which I awkwardly replied, “We, I mean, I love you too” What transformation there would be in all our schools if such an exchange were frequent and authentic! As I write, on my return home, I do so with a much wider lens and a much fuller heart. A heart that’s been filled by the hugs, laughter, and music of Espwa.