“In high school I was more of an idealist than a realist. I dreamed about things such as a better world and world peace. However, soon I realised things weren’t that simple. Despite my interest in history and anthropology I decided to start my university studies in Occupational & Organisational Psychology at the KU Leuven because I was looking for a bottom-up approach to change the world.
In 2004 my father bought two tickets for the release of “Diarios de Motocicleta”, a movie about the young Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara who was touched by the poverty he witnessed while travelling through Latin-America by motorcycle. Of course I was willing to accompany my dad to the movie. The images and the storyline touched me. One day later, I heard about a vacancy for an internship in Cuenca in Ecuador to study and facilitate organisational change in the South. An offer I couldn’t refuse!
Spending a year in Ecuador changed me a lot. I immersed in the local reality and started reading a lot on local history and culture. I conducted my first workshops on ‘teamwork’ in remote villages for groups of young people. The gap between rich and poor in the area was striking and forced me to think. I returned to Belgium with even more questions on my mind. That’s why I decided to continue my studies in Ghent with an additional master program in Conflict & Development and a teacher training. It was the ideal context for me to gain more insight in the world of international development.
Meanwhile local authorities in my hometown of Sint-Truiden were looking for youth workers who were interested to travel to the twin city of Nueva Guinea in Nicaragua for a youth exchange program. There I found inspiration for my thesis to establish youth work organisations in the South. My thesis eventually resulted in a three-month pilot project in Nueva Guinea where I offered training to local youngsters to reinforce their youth work. I joined them on a weekly basis to play and interact with children on the streets. In order to reinforce their capacities, I developed my first training on how to become a youth worker.
In the end, our Nicaraguan pilot project resulted in the foundation of Jopac (Jovenes para el cambio) which I founded together with my wife Hannelore. The main objective of Jopac was to accompany cities in Belgium that had twin cities in the South and wanted to implement and support youth work. For nine months we stayed in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua and investigated the local context of the youth, organised workshops and supported the establishment of local youth councils.
At the end of our project, I heard the organisation Mobile School was looking for a partnership coordinator, a role I was born to play. Still full of Latino-vibes, I started in 2009 at the former office in the Parkstraat, energized, motivated and strengthened by the support of founders Arnoud Raskin and Ann Van Hellemont
First moments on the streets with the mobile school
I still remember it well. After two months of preparation, my first Mobile School expedition brought me to Latin America for five weeks of Mobile School workshops in Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. I left Belgium with a lot of questions but full of energy to take up this challenge in the Far West. Soon it became clear how all projects used the mobile school in their own way. My first experience on the streets took place in the Colombian city of Cali, in ‘la Olla’, a neighbourhood where the Hermanas de la Providencia were doing incredible work with the mobile school.
The first walk with the mobile school on the streets of Cali was incredible. The streets were full of misery. Crack and coke were dealt and used everywhere around us. The smell of solvent, gasoline and other inhalants entered my nose. Some of the young guys were barely able to stand upright due to the drug use, young women were prostituting themselves and on one of the corners a fight was ongoing … But the magic surrounding the arrival of the mobile school gave the situation a different perspective. Smiling faces, hope in people’s eyes, the presence of survival skills in an extremely challenging environment… Drug deals were interrupted, drug users were putting their solvents aside and almost everyone took the time to listen to the songs of co-trainer Toña Pineda, to play a game with superhero-street worker Jessika Martinez or to talk about their personal situations. During the intervention I talked to a HIV-affected boy of 17 years old, started working with Sergio who was hiding his bottle of glue behind his T-shirt and tried some of the rotation discs with Miguel. Time flied and it felt strange to leave, but it was reassuring to know the mobile school would return to ‘la Olla’ a couple of days later.
The European context
My roots are in Sint-Truiden, but I surely found a second home in Latin-America. However, the more I travelled throughout different continents, the more I noticed that there are more similarities than differences on the streets. The challenges are the same, but the opportunities are too. Street culture often has a stronger impact on the child than the culture of the country where the child grows up. That’s the reason why we see similar situation in all countries we work in.
One of the most confronting situations I faced during my career was in Paris, in the suburbs in Longjumeau where I was doing a prospection with a project that was using a suitcase full of educational material to do street work. The organisation worked in a Roma settlement just off a busy highway. For a split second, we took the highway before we took a hidden path to enter a completely different world. This experience was one of the most touching events I ever encountered. The settlement was literally a mess. The French government had just decided to clean up the major Roma settlements. Bulldozers had destroyed the place and made it almost impossible for people to live there. But despite the rubbish, people persisted living there, while they were earning a living selling carpets and metal. The children were living in extreme poverty amid broken glass. I interacted with toddlers of 2 years old who were barely able to walk. The desperation was all over the place, and the contrast with Paris’ reputation as one of Europe’s most important capitals made it even more absurd. Which future was there for these people? How could they ever climb up the social ladder to create a better life for themselves? Wasn’t it the case that a street boy on a dumb site in Nairobi who started up his own business had more chance to success in an informal economy, than a Roma kid in Paris where every informal attempt to earn money was judged as a criminal act?
In November 2016 I implemented a mobile school in Patras in Greece to interact with refugees and unaccompanied minors. During one of the sessions we drove into a deserted and decayed factory close to the harbour. The youngsters I met were carrying a backpack full of traumatic experiences from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq and were trying desperately to make the sea crossing to Italy, risking their lives. The circumstances were extremely harsh. Amid the rubbish of hundreds of people new arrivals kept coming every single day. Some of them were already in the factory for more than four months. They tried to survive with old matrasses stuffed in little second-hand tents. And still there was positivity and hope that things would be better tomorrow.
Despite these harsh realities, I am always delighted to meet people who are going to these abandoned places and support these people in their aspirations. Whether you are in the slums in Colombia or in the Parisian suburbs, in the end there’s only one thing that really matters: a positive approach and an unconditional belief in the talents of people are the building blocks to transform a situation of crisis into an opportunity for the future.
Management Mobile School
In September 2014 my position in the organisation changed. Ann Van Hellemont - co-founder of Mobile School - decided to continue her studies in Psychology and took a job as psychologist to accompany refugees in Belgium. I took over the position of manager. At that exact moment, we got a huge opportunity offered by consultancy company Accenture. For three months they would coach us to establish a new strategic plan, which gave us the opportunity to evaluate our partnership model and look for possibilities to scale our impact. And we were ambitious: our social impact needed to be doubled by 2019.
Three years later I’m satisfied with our realisations. The number of projects we empower and the quality of our follow-up increased drastically over this period.
Future of Mobile School
The vision of Mobile School is more relevant than ever. Discrimination and stigmatisation of children and young people on the streets is still a daily reality. Climate change, poverty, abuse and war push people onto the streets. In times of radicalisation and extremism, it’s of utmost importance to create safe places where children and young people can develop a positive identity and a solid self-image. In a reality where everything is going quicker as ever and more people are excluded, a positive approach is essential.
As an organisation and as individuals, we need to take our responsibility. With limited financial means, we’re on the right track to double our social impact. But even then we’re just reaching some thousands of children, while there are millions on the streets. That’s the reason why our new strategy aims to expand our educational offer online. Currently we’re working hard to develop an online platform where street educators can download educational materials they can use to establish a positive relationship with children in their daily outreach work. Meanwhile we’re also investing in the development of a digital registration app to map the needs of street-connected children, to help street educators to monitor their objectives and to secure a high-quality follow-up of individual children. And indeed, there are still some great challenges ahead!
In earlier days I got motivated by travelling to unknown countries, learning more about different cultures and having an impact in far-away places. Over the years, these factors became less and less important. Right now, it’s more important for me to get to know like-minded people and coach them in their work, whether this is in Belgium, Greece, Mozambique, Colombia or Bangladesh.
The vision of Mobile School will always be my biggest motivation, just because positivity, opportunity-focus and boosting self-esteem are the only ways to counter the negativity and scaremongering we hear too often in mainstream media. This vision generates a feeling of responsibility. Empowering people, that’s the responsibility I want to dedicate myself to.
The combination of street work, conducting training sessions, coaching people and thinking about strategies to scale our model, still motivates me to do this job after 9 years. Thanks to a superb team of colleagues and volunteers who are putting a lot of effort in reaching the same objectives. Thanks to a team of Master Trainers and talented street educators who turn the streets in an even more magical environment, day after day.
Organisational Psychologist • Strategist & diplomat • Trainer & Coach • Idealist • Pragmatic optimist & realist • Musician and fantasy-fan • Perpetual student • Father & husband • Lucky guy