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Sabrina Meder: Using art to give voice to street children

Layla Levy


Portrait photo of Sabrina Meder Born and raised in Mexico, Sabrina Meder studied at the Lycée Français of Mexico and went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in modern French literature in Paris, France.


Passionate about literature and the arts, Meder took an internship with René Jeanne, a master typographer and print-maker based in Paris. Thanks to a scholarship from the Société d’Encouragement aux Métiers de l’Art, she was able to produce numerous books, assembling lead-type works of both poetry and engraving.  At the end of her internship, she returned to Mexico, where she hoped to use the power of art, creativity and imagination to help street children by rendering them and their lives—particularly the extreme poverty that threatens to stunt their potential—more visible to the world.


Meder held creativity workshops at Casa Alianza, a transitional home for street children, and was stunned by the art produced by the residents: vivid and eloquent representations of each child’s tragic experience of social injustice and poverty. In 1999, she submitted a selection of the children’s writings and drawings to Mexico’s annual National Fund for Culture and the Arts competition—the selection ended up winning first prize.


"The rat, the thief" drawn by a child at Casa AlianzaIn 2000, Meder published the street children’s artwork in a book, La Vocacion de las Vocales (The Vocation of Vowels). Vowels, Meder says, are the only letters of the alphabet that do not cause an obstruction of the airway when pronounced. Likewise, her work is intended to help street children to express themselves freely, without obstruction. As readers pore over the book’s colorful pages, they become immersed in the symbolic art and the complex—and too often overlooked—perspectives of children who have been forced to seek refuge in the streets, living under harsh conditions, becoming excluded from the rest of society.


After working at Casa Alianza, Meder taught French in language centers at various Mexican universities, including Tecnológico de Monterrey and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). Meanwhile, she dedicated her free time to translating William Luret’s historical novel L’homme de Porquerolles for the Alejo Peralta Foundation, a Mexico-based NGO that promotes educational and cultural activities aimed at encouraging solidarity with marginalized groups throughout Mexico and ending their social exclusion.


Keen to develop her artistic skills further, Meder later returned to France, where she familiarized herself with the technique of mono-typing and held several exhibitions of her work (in partnership with a local art association) throughout the French municipality of Seine-et-Marne. During this time, she also kept a blog featuring her personal writings.


Today, still passionate about helping children, Meder works as an administrative assistant in an organization that offers art and music therapy to autistic children and children with Down’s syndrome.


Women’s WorldWide Web interviews Sabrina Meder and asks her about her inspiring efforts to empower street children, giving them a voice in society and helping them to exercise their human right to live in safety and dignity, earning the capacity to pursue happier and healthier lives.


W4: What inspired you to create a compilation of street children’s writings and drawings?


Casa Alianza logoSabrina Meder: It was when I returned to Mexico to study literature that an acquaintance talked to me about Casa Alianza, an NGO in Latin America providing care for underprivileged children. I was going through a low period in my life, suffering from depression, and working with the children at Casa Alianza helped give me back my passion for life. Here were people living in far worse situations than mine. It really helped me gain perspective. I grew fond of the children and I also felt useful—it was a deeply satisfying experience.


I spent three months with street children in the transitional home, conducting writing and drawing workshops with them when they weren’t at school. Their writing and artwork were extremely impressive! I was inspired to compile their work and submit it to a competition in the hope of earning enough money to publish a book.


W4: You say you spent time in a “transitional home” for children. Could you please explain the role of a transitional home?


Sabrina Meder: At Casa Alianza, there are three stages. The first stage is the recruitment phase, when we meet and talk with children to try to help them to leave the streets and move into the home. There tend to be 100 to 150 children in the recruitment phase at any given time.


A counselor’s role is to help the children to leave life on the streets. It has to be each child’s choice to join the home. In many cases, children prefer to remain on the streets, fearing that life in a care home will be too restrictive. Drug use, for example, is prohibited at Casa Alianza. For many street children, life on the streets is synonymous with freedom. As street educators and counselors, our role is to go into the streets to meet and talk with the children and admit new children into the home. We go in pairs to areas frequented by street children. We also go to bus stops, particularly looking for rural children who are new to the city, so that we can talk with them before they start using drugs. Many children are victims of violence and end up in hospital, so we also look for children in hospitals. Tragically, there are occasions when we find deceased children, for whom we organize funerals.


"The cat, the dog and the mouse" drawn by a child at Casa AlianzaWhen a child engages with us and expresses a wish to leave the streets, we enter the second phase. We select 20-25 children who will be given shelter in a transitional home and will be reintroduced to school.


In the home, each child is cared for by a live-in counselor, a social worker and a psychologist. There are usually two or three counselors per home. Where I was working, there were three counselors and a director. Personnel at the home have five hours off each day. In total, the counselors have approximately 24 hours off a week.


The home is very well-maintained—clean and well-organized. The rooms are spacious: each room accommodates three or four children. The children help with the household tasks; they do their laundry, either in the washing machine or by hand. We have a cook, and the general atmosphere is very pleasant. There are lots of activities: we play football, we draw, read, tell stories. The objective is to provide a nurturing and stimulating environment for the children and give them a sense of belonging.


The home offers a structured daily rhythm: when I was working in the home, the children would wake up at 6am on weekdays to take their showers and get dressed. Then some of the children would make the beds while others helped to set the breakfast table or do some household chores. We would all have breakfast together and afterwards we’d give travel money to the children who had to take the bus to school. The children who didn’t leave for school would help finish the housework and then there would be activities, such as football or drawing or homework time. In the evening, after dinner, we would watch TV for a while and then the children would retire to read in their beds before going to sleep quite early. The weekends would be full of activities. From time to time, there were volunteers who would take the children to see movies. Each counselor had a diary in which he or she would write down what the children did in the home, with whom, and what his or her goals and dreams were, as well as what needed to be done to fulfill those goals and dreams. 


The home’s overarching goal is to offer a healthy, safe environment and to foster the children’s self-esteem, trust and sense of responsibility.


Once each child becomes more responsible, we allow him or her more autonomy. But if a child gets involved in drugs again, that child has to leave the center.


W4: You say the child educators or counselors go into the streets to find the children and persuade them to join the home, but is there some choice made beforehand? Does any child who wishes to leave a life on the streets have access to Casa Alianza?


"The pig, the rat and the coyote" drawn by a child at Casa AlianzaSabrina Meder: Any child can enter the home; there’s no selection or choice made ahead of time. A child first comes to Casa Alianza with the help of the counselors and educators, but the rest happens thanks to his or her own efforts and progress (which is monitored by counselors). In my case, I tried to show the children that they had real alternatives to their old lives. The children who spend time at Casa Alianza often come from difficult family situations. For example, the father might be an alcoholic, the mother might be a prostitute, or there might be a family background of incest. Their childhood contexts can be extremely tough. I tried to explain to the children that they had options, that there were other genuine and viable possibilities in life. That’s how we managed to convince them to come to the home and at least try out the experience of living there.


Once, I went down to the railways where there was a tiny, makeshift dwelling. I found a child there. I can’t remember his exact age, but he was a very little boy, maybe three or four years old. He knew how to walk. His parents had totally neglected him–I remember that the child’s knee was badly injured, but the parents hadn’t done anything about it, they were completely drugged up. I felt powerless because, of course, we can’t simply take a child away from his or her parents. But I tried to speak with the child, to comfort him, and I tried to advise and help the parents.


W4: During your stay at one of these transitional homes, you developed a couple of artistic workshops to entertain the children and encourage them to express themselves. How did these workshops go? And why do you prioritize art workshops specifically?


Sabrina Meder: I studied literature and I really love art, so artistic workshops were a natural choice for me. During my workshops, I would read a story to the children and ask them to use the story as inspiration to create something of their own. Those children who knew how to write and enjoyed writing would write something and the other children would draw.  The results were surprising and impressive.


W4: Why surprising?


Sabrina Meder: The writing was stunningly symptomatic of the children’s experiences. You could immediately tell that the stories were written by street children. For example, one child wrote, “You shouldn’t be a thief, because it causes a lot of pain”. The drawings and stories revealed the children’s experiences and the impact of their experiences on their perception of the world – and that was fascinating. 


I remember one story by a young boy whose mother had died and whose father totally neglected him. His story demonstrated how conscious he was of how his background and circumstances had limited his opportunities in life. It was astonishing to see a 15-year-old with such an acute awareness of social problems and how such problems could limit the capabilities of children.


"The tree in love" drawn by a child at Casa AlianzaThere were a couple of children who had lived in the sewers. One of them wrote a tale about a duck that never left the river because it was its home. Then the duck met a lion who never left its den. The duck asked the lion why it never left its den. The lion responded that it was because it was afraid of being caught by hunters. The hunter represented the potential harm in life in the outside world. It’s noticeable that, whereas most children generally believe they are good, street children have a dual self-perception: both positive and painfully negative, owing to the suffering they have endured.


The children’s drawings were also very revealing. For example, they tended to depict sad faces rather than the bright, smiling faces that children usually produce. Or the children would draw crooked trees and a moon or a gray sun surrounded by lots of ominous clouds. Their drawings were elaborately symbolic, representing problems and threats, an unclear landscape, with colors depicting a melancholy, sad atmosphere.


When I saw what the children produced, I wanted to compile their stories and drawings in order to give them a voice and let them express themselves to society. In general, these children come from extremely underprivileged backgrounds, with no say in their lives and little voice in the world.


W4: In order to publish the work, you had to participate in a competition to gain funding, which you won. Were people immediately interested in your project? What was your goal in publishing the book?


Sabrina Meder: Yes, people expressed interest in the book; they found the idea original. A thousand copies were printed and they all sold out. I gave many public talks and presentations about the book, for example, at La Casa del Poeta (The Poet’s House) in Mexico, and also among my university students.


"Life is a Dream" drawn by a child at Casa AlianzaA foundation gave me around 36,000 pesos in order to publish the book and I sold each copy for 20 pesos, which wasn’t expensive at all. In order to make a profit, I would have had to sell the book for 90 to 120 pesos, but my goal wasn’t to make money – I wanted the book to draw attention to street children’s experiences and perspectives. To this end, I would sometimes give the book away for free or donate copies to libraries.


In Mexico, many people are so accustomed to poverty that, after a while, they don’t even see it. I wanted to break this cycle of apathy and help to render street children visible to society. It was hard at times because the street children didn’t find it easy to trust people and often had difficulty opening up and expressing what they thought or felt. But, looking back, I do feel that I’ve achieved my goal. Since the book’s publication, many articles on street children have been published in various newspapers and I’ve been able to raise awareness among my own groups of students. Ultimately, I wanted these street children to be able to express themselves – and they’ve been able to do that.



For an excellent and unforgettable film treatment of the issue of Mexico’s street children,  W4 recommends Eva Aridjis’s prize-winning documentary, Ninos de la Calle (Children of the Street), which was made just over 50 years after the release of Luis Bunuel’s searing 1951 masterpiece, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, also known as The Young and the Damned).  Readers may also be interested in the powerful photographs of Kent Klich and in David Lida’s panoramic depiction of contemporary life in Mexico City, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century (2009), which includes a short, vivid chapter on Mexico’s street children.



© Women’s WorldWide Web 2012

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Meet the editor-in-chief

Andrea Ashworth

Andrea is an author, journalist and academic. She has studied, taught or held fellowships at Oxford, Yale and Princeton. Andrea has written fiction and non-fiction for numerous publications, including Vogue, Granta, The Times, The TLS and The Guardian. She is the author of the award-winning and internationally bestselling memoir "Once in a House on Fire". Andrea works to raise awareness about domestic violence and to promote literacy and education.