Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I am a fulltime street worker in Brussels and I also work as a Master Trainer at Mobile School. I’m happily married and have two wonderful kids.
How did you end up doing outreach work?
I did many different things before I started working as a street worker and Mobile School definitely played a part in that process.
I studied Electronics and worked for television for five years. I worked a lot of overtime and after five years, I decided to use it all – about 5 months in total – to go and learn Spanish in Quetzaltenango, in Guatamala.
When I was there, I got to know a few street children on the central square. I started talking with them and ended up going back the next days with a ball and other games, to be able to better connect with them. Then, I met one of the street educators working with the youngsters. I put my initial plan aside and decided to spend the rest of my time in Guatemala working as a volunteer street educator at his organisation.
Back in Belgium, I immediately went to my boss to tell him that I wanted to quit my job to become a street educator. It was he who recommended me to get in touch with an organisation in Leuven, working with street-connected children: Mobile School.
No less than 13 years ago, in 2004, I knocked on the Mobile School office door for the very first time. I feel like the team really supported me in my think and change process, which is why the organisation has been really important for me.
I decided to go back to school to study Intercultural Management, to have more connections with the social sector. After those studies, I really started growing as a street educator. I first worked as a social worker at ‘Klein Kasteeltje’ in Brussels for five years, after which I started working at the Boysproject in Antwerp. In 2012, I decided to really start working as a street educator at Diogenes in Brussels.
When did you first give a training for Mobile School?
During my studies of Intercultural Management, I had to do an internship of 4 weeks abroad. I decided to turn those 4 weeks into a year, because I really wanted to gain experience and I knew I wanted to pursue street education. In 2007, I travelled to Arusha in Tanzania and worked on the streets there, as part of the team of a local organisation. First without the mobile school and then with, because a mobile school was implemented there during my internship. That was the first training I co-facilitated for Mobile School.
What is the difference in street work with and without the mobile school?
The mobile school facilitates street work. It’s a tool which helps you build up a trusting relationship with youngsters and you can raise various topics with it.
In Arusha, there were many different groups of youngsters, spread out over the city. Street work was not easy there, because we weren’t always welcome in all the different groups and there were gang wars between them. When we arrived with the mobile school, however, you could see youngsters of different gangs standing next to each other peacefully. It was incredible to see how the mobile school really had a positive impact on the streets. You could also clearly see that the mobile school belonged to the children. They literally and figuratively pulled the cart.
Are there many differences between the streets of Tanzania and the streets of Belgium?
In Tanzania, there are a lot more street children. In Belgium, we mostly see adults on the streets.
The other big difference is that society here offers less opportunities. In Tanzania, people have more possibilities to really start up a street business and actually get to work with their talents and skills. Here, people constantly run into walls. There are thousands of restricting rules, which make it practically impossible to build something for yourself.
How would you describe the mobile school in a few words?
The mobile school is a colourful, wonderful, miraculous tool which can work wonders with very vulnerable youngsters.
Which workshop do you like the most?
Self-esteem! I think the self-esteem model is a very strong model and even more than a model, a strong philosophy to live by. I continuously apply the model myself: on the streets of Brussels, during Mobile School trainings and in my personal life.
Outreach work is demanding. Where do you get the energy to keep going?
My motor is the contact with people. Discovering new things and meeting new people are incredibly important for me. I also like to travel and street work is a bit like travelling every day. You leave each day, but you never know how you’re going to come home.
What also gives me energy is seeing that it is possible for people to get out and find their way.
Can you give an example of such a success story?
I worked with a lady sitting in a subway for a while. She experienced psychoses and was very difficult to approach.
What we do at Diogenes in situations like these is involving society. Our goal is social integration, integration in society. So, it makes sense that society plays a role in it, since we only see the people we work with twice a week. What this means, more concretely, is that we look for people in the context to give positive impulses. The lady working at the sandwich bar who sits down for a chat when she has the time, for example, or the cleaner who says “hello” every time he walks by. They are tiny details, but they are of utmost importance. All those details are positive, empowering messages.
If you approach people in that empowering way and reinforce them in their self-esteem, in their foundation, it works incredibly well. Only then, you can start talking and take further steps.
The entire process took about 4 years in this case. It’s a long-term process, but it works. The lady I’m talking about had been living on the streets for 6 years when I met her and everybody said “We’ll never be able to get her out”. When we had been working with her for a while, she was able to talk about her psychoses. She told us a djinn, an African evil spirit, cut off her legs and put them in a pan with boiling water. That’s why she was blocked and couldn’t move. A beautiful metaphor for the situation she was in, when you look at it.
Now she is just like you and I, she only needs medication. It was the power of the network around her that allowed us to help her.
So the self-esteem model really works. I’ve obtained positive results with it over the years. Last year, we won second place in a competition for innovate projects, a reward for our way of working. Nice, but it would be nicer still if the model wasn’t innovative anymore but just common sense. That people stop using the conviction model, trying to convince people to change things, and start working with the self-esteem model, based on the idea of self-esteem growth.
A typical job interview question to wrap up. Where do you see yourself in five years? What are your dreams for the future?
My current job fits me perfectly, so I would really love to continue on the same path. The combination of my regular job and my job as a trainer at Mobile School is very fruitful for me. While giving trainings, I think about concepts that are important for my regular job. Doing this together with people who have experience on the streets as well makes me a better street worker. On the other hand, my experience as a street worker enriches the trainings I give. Both jobs offer me the opportunity to keep developing and that is very important for me.