Creating With Community!

Reflections from Shahril Hassan on his experiences in co-creating the Butterfly Books together with our friends from the Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC), a nonprofit based in Kathmandu that rescues children from prisons across Nepal.

Day 1: Skip & Smile
I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal today to work on an Amber Enterprise project with the Early Childhood Education Centre (ECDC) , titled 'Butterfly Books'. I made my way to the home with Pushpa and was excitedly greeted by the children and older kids. It was great personally reconnecting and catching up with friends who were thousands of miles away. Spending the day immersing myself in the jovial atmosphere, my young friends reminded me of the joy and wonder of childhood. Despite the piercing cold later that evening, the fun and games never stopped. Given their circumstances, it was a poignant reminder for me to always skip and smile in work and in life, in good times or bad.

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Day 2: Come What May
Presenting the Butterfly Books Team (Biraj, Tez, Laxmi and Shristi)! We began the day exploring potential story ideas, recalling significant life events. As they shared their stories of struggle, sacrifice and courage, it was inspirational to see how the family environment at the Butterfly Home had instilled in them the confidence to pursue their dreams and passions. It was yet another reminder on the importance of family and close friends. And how with their love and support, all will be well, come what may.

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Day 3: Let It Flow
Today was dedicated to creativity. We kickstarted the day with a fun activity meant to emphasise the difficulty of staying focused in an uncomfortable setting. Indeed, it has been a painstaking process thus far. Having to delve deeper into their stories and probing further into their feelings and emotions, each day has been mentally exhausting. We then left the home to begin our treasure hunt. Once we were back at the home, we proceeded to write a creative story using the objects they found while describing in detail what they observed on their journey. It was definitely a fun and enjoyable day; a day to allow the authors to open up their minds and let it flow. 

Day 4: I Remember
We had a huge challenge ahead of us. Only 4 out of the 6 story ideas were finalised so far and we had to dig deep to think of the remaining two. So we did an activity called 'I Remember...' where each of us had to share a particular memory that was important or memorable. The sharing session was insightful to say the least. We laughed, we probed, we shared secrets. And we were all beginning to see the multifaceted personalities that each of us possessed. It was deeply encouraging to see the kids push themselves in this process even though it was their holidays and I knew they'd rather be playing outside with their younger brothers and sisters. What's certain is that I will definitely remember this experience and the determination these kids are displaying for a long time to come.

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Day 5: Letter To My Future Self
Today we did a reflective activity. The kids wrote a letter to their future selves; providing advice and a reminder to themselves for when they face difficulties in their lives. The common theme was of resilience. They spoke of remaining positive in undesirable circumstances. Of how, only they had the power to control the way they reacted. Below is a poem we worked on together, which sums up their take on Circumstances:

What happens in time to come
We never have full clarity
Acceptance is missing in some
Truth is, this is reality

When anything happens to us
There is no bad nor good
Shift our mindset we must
Our mind is the key to our mood

In the face of something negative
Reacting wrongly, we'll burn
But if we remain positive
Problems are opportunities to learn

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Day 6: Feel The Love
I took the morning to personally have conversations with each of the authors to better understand their motivations and experiences on a deeper level. Trying to gain some inspiration in the afternoon, the kids and I read a few children's stories too. We walked through every story and discussed the writing style of each book. Unfortunately by then, I started to feel queasy. Light headed at first, it escalated quickly. Soon, I had to excuse myself to go to the restroom on numerous occasions. I even puked that evening. However, throughout my little ordeal, the kids took such good care of me; preparing a special drink to keep me hydrated and ensuring that I was alright. Being far from home and in the cold of Kathmandu, I felt the warmth of their care and concern. More than friends, it felt like they were now family. I most definitely felt the love and am grateful that we've had this experience together. When the time comes, it's going to be difficult to part ways with my brothers and sisters.

Day 7: An Exercise In Positivity
The morning walks along rock paths, up and down steep slopes to the Butterfly Home were beginning to take its toll on my injuries. This morning especially, my knee felt sore and my feet were numb from the cold. Just then, Laxmi's story came to mind. She had taken a trip to her village a few years back. It was her first visit in a long, long time. As she had no transport, she walked for three days to her village and it was an arduous journey. In spite of the setbacks she encountered on her travels, she focused on the positives, enjoying the beauty nature had to offer. With this in mind, I did the same and began to enjoy the walk. The rising sun shining down on me, I breathed in the fresh, cool air, I heard the calming flow of the stream and I watched some children playing games and laughing. Thank you Laxmi, for the reminder. Not only did I get some physical exercise on my walk this morning, I also had an exercise in positivity.

Day 8: Discovering Dignity
This journey of Asset-Based Community Development has not been an easy one. Building together with the members of a community takes time, patience and a whole lot of effort. The final outcome of publishing the books is exciting in and of itself. But what I'm starting to see is the beauty of the process. Beyond the singing and dancing, the kids have learned so much. Shristi shared with me how she never imagined herself writing a book, let alone in English. Although she has struggled, she told me how proud she was of her story and was enthused at the fact that other people were going to read it. More importantly, she learned more about herself through the process. I'm so glad that this opportunity has served as a platform for them to express themselves; a platform that has allowed them to discover both their potential and dignity.

Day 9: Push On
Finally! We completed the six stories! But our joy and elation didn't last long as it dawned on us, the monumental task we now had. A new challenge awaits. We only have several days left to complete all the illustrations. I could sense their concern. I could see their worry. But I assured them that together, we would be able to accomplish this task. I knew that they were fully committed. We worked through the day tirelessly and by the time I left at night, we managed to finish the illustrations for a couple of the books. Though we still have a long way to go, their positivity and determination will no doubt give us the best possible chance of success as we push on.

Day 10: Commitment and Sacrifice
Biraj's story is one of sacrifice; a story of how he had to sacrifice something he's passionate about at this juncture in his life to pursue a dream. The way he spoke of his passion, I knew it was a tough decision on his part. But his iron will and perseverance has kept him on track thus far. And those qualities have shone through in this Butterfly Books project as well. Last night, he stayed up till 4 in the morning working on the illustrations knowing that he had to be up at 5 to fulfil his responsibilities at the home. Laxmi has also put in her share of work despite her hectic schedule in university as her finals looms near. Shristi and Tez have missed Taekwondo trainings to work on the project, making it up by running in the morning at 6am. Their dedication to this project while juggling their personal responsibilities is truly admirable. And they go about their business with joy; with no hint of resentment whatsoever. These wonderful friends of mine have shown me the true meaning of commitment and sacrifice.

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Day 11: Speed Bump Ahead!
It was my last full day with the authors and we still had lots to do. The kids were feeling the pressure and so was I. Seeing how much effort they had put into this project, I wanted them to be satisfied with the final product and not rush it. So I made the call to extend my stay and after searching for a few hours, fortunately I found a suitable flight out. We had now four more days to complete the work! When I broke the news to the kids, the tension fizzled out and we gave each other high fives. To lighten the mood further, we took a little break, joked around, sang songs and danced a little. One big thing I've learned in my time together with them is to embrace struggles and celebrate the little things. Being appreciative and grateful certainly adds joy to undesirable situations.

Day 12: Showered With Kindness
I've been treated so well throughout my stay here in Kathmandu. When we did the activity where the kids wrote a letter to their future selves, Tez spoke of how he would like to live his life with integrity. To always treat others well and never to cheat anyone. He felt that if he could do this, he would have lived a happy and good life. More than what he wrote and shared with me, he and the other kids have showered me with kindness. From preparing warm tea, to waiting for me at every meal time (I'm sorry I always made you guys wait!), their little, yet constant acts of kindness has left a huge impression on me. And today as I walked the streets of Thamel, I decided to pass on the graciousness that I've been shown by getting a couple packets of powdered milk for a guy and his younger brother and sister. The lessons I'm learning from my younger friends are never ending! Tej, Biraj, Shristi and Laxmi, continue to stay awesome and don't forget the advice you've given yourselves when you're older!

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Day 13 & 14: Community and Family
It was a gruelling two days but... WE FINALLY COMPLETED THE BUTTERFLY BOOKS PROJECT! We spent the past couple of days reviewing the illustrations, adding the final touches and even redrawing quite a number of illustrations. I'm so so so proud of the kids. It has taken a tremendous effort to accomplish everything that we've done. And this journey has illuminated the strength and determination my friends possess within themselves. We have come a really long way from when I first arrived. From disbelief and despair, they've embraced the challenge, worked 10-12 hours on the project each day, and overcome the odds. They shared of how working as a team was vital to their success. It was this strong sense of community and togetherness that made the work so much more enjoyable. Now that we have completed what we set out to do, it dawned on me that I only have a day left tomorrow. I wish I could stay on. It's going to be really tough to leave my new family behind.

Day 15: The Beginning 
The day started out glum. I couldn't believe that it was already my last day in Nepal. I deliberately took my time this morning, trying to soak in every moment, hoping that time would stand still. On my final stroll and ascend to the Butterfly Home, I stood there in the cold, crisp air taking in the sights and sounds. The thought of having to leave my Nepalese family was getting to me. But when I reached the home this morning, my day completely turned. I was greeted with a huge surprise! The kids were waiting silently behind the door, holding up a 'Happy Birthday' banner, with chocolate cake, and a whole lot of smiles. They made me birthday cards and were so excited to show them to me before leaving for school. That evening, we basked in the sunset, taking photos and videos, just having fun together. For dinner, we celebrated with delicious chicken burgers and cake! It was a wonderful birthday and it's been an amazing time these last couple of weeks. I've learned so much from all my friends here, from Pushpa and the authors, to the younger children. They're all legends in my eyes. I was initially feeling really sad about having to leave. But somehow their show of love today was a reminder that this was not the end. My trip may be over, but our friendship will remain and our journey is just beginning. Thank you (especially Laxmi, Biraj, Shristi and Tez) for making this such a memorable and meaningful experience. Although I'm leaving, this isn't goodbye. Till the next time my friends!