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When 12-year-old Jhon put a question to Harvard University professor Paola Uccelli, she was shocked. “Miss, what was the toughest test life has ever put before you?” Jhon asked. As Uccelli, a Peruvian expert on child education, says. “It was the deepest question anyone had ever asked me.”

Lying in his bed in the intensive care unit at the children’s hospital in Lima, Jhon already knows only too well about life’s tough tests. Five years ago, a drunk driver hit him when he chased a football across a road in a shanty neighbourhood in the northern corner of Peru’s capital.

The driver fled, leaving Jhon unconscious on the pavement, with a shattered backbone. He has been left paralysed from the neck down, an umbilical cord linking his trachea to a respirator.

But recently Jhon has developed a penchant for soap bubbles and the Greek god Zeus: interests that allow him to leave aside, for a couple of hours a day, the grim reality of his hospital confinement. “I love bubbles, my aim in life is to make a big, big one,” he says smiling, his head sandwiched between a SpongeBob pillow and a Power Rangers cushion. “That, and becoming an expert on Greek mythology.”

Standing next to him, a bubble-making stick in one hand and the other skimming through the pages of a handmade picture book featuring the whole array of Greek gods, stands Marta Cháves. She claims responsibility for Jhon’s smiles and his recently acquired tastes. “As you can see, we are here to play two roles: friend and teacher,” she says. Her green apron is emblazoned with “Aprendo Contigo”, or “Learning with You”.

Since 2000, this Lima-based organisation has provided education and distraction to children forced to spend long periods in hospital. In total, the programme has a team of about 200 volunteers who dedicate an average of four hours a day to children in this situation. They come from different ages, backgrounds and nationalities. “The children’s faces light up when they see their green aprons walking into the rooms,” says Prof Uccelli, who is familiar with the programme.

The educational assistants on duty gather every morning at 9 o’clock in a room crammed with puppets and children’s books to go over the day’s lecture notes and games. “What was the language of the Inca empire?” and “Who discovered America?” were two of the day’s questions. The questionnaires are followed by prizes, such as a handful of Lego blocks, regardless of whether the answers are correct. According to the assistants, the process stimulates the hospitalised children’s appetite for learning and playing.

“One of the most difficult things in education is making a child actually ask questions,” explains Cháves. “Jhon does it – he is a clear reflection of most of the children we assist in this hospital. They do not only ask questions, they question life itself.”

After working for years with HIV-infected children abandoned by their families, those questions are well known to her. “And that is beyond important. You won’t get that in any regular school.”

Cháves is the organisation’s educational co-ordinator at the children’s hospital, its largest operation. Aprendo Contigo also has a strong presence in the capital’s cancer institute, INEN, where the programme started, and the Hogar Clínica San Juan de Dios, a centre for orthopaedic and neurological diseases. “We have fun doing what we do, and the children sense that,” she says.

Their main goal is to create an environment of “normality” for the patient during hospitalisation or treatment. They offer access to well-crafted lesson plans and learning materials, as well as developing creative skills through various workshops and hobbies. On a daily basis, the programme assists approximately 350 hospitalised children, most of whom come from neglected areas in the capital and poor rural towns scattered over the Andean country.

Despite initial reluctance from some of the medical staff, the programme has grown in leaps and bounds. Since its inception 12 years ago, it has helped more than 3,500 in-patients and in excess of 20,000 outpatients. “I never imagined it was going to grow so much,” says one of its creators, Ana Fernández Dodds.

Aprendo Contigo was born out of the death of her one-year-old son, Fabrizio, from cancer. At the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he was being treated, she saw children and parents interacting with teachers. “It looked fun. And one day I stopped by and realised it was necessary,” explains Fernández Dodds.

“After Fabrizio died, I realised that was something desperately needed here in Peru, so I put my strength into making it happen.”

Each year, the children’s hospital in Lima treats 40,000 patients, from infants to adolescents. Nationwide, the number climbs to 150,000, with 30 per cent of them long stays, like Jhon. “Aprendo Contigo is filling a vacuum left by the Peruvian state,” explains Virginia Garaycochea, the children’s hospital’s dean of medicine. “And it is an example that should be replicated all over the country.”

However, with funding scarce and a budget of $120,000 a year, that will be difficult. “We sweat blood every year to make it work,” says Marisol Labarthe, the programme’s fundraiser. She blames that on Peru’s almost “non-existent culture” of giving.

Some large private companies and foundations provide contributions of, generally, $300-$500. The organisation offers a corporate volunteering programme that trains local executives, and every year it runs a Christmas campaign with cards and calendars using the drawings done by the children. “The state gives us nothing, not even teachers,” Labarthe says. “But the flipside is that this gives us a lot of freedom of action.”

That is echoed by some of the volunteers, such as Paulina Contreras, a teacher from the southern city of Arequipa. She decided to switch from the official school system to the less-corseted scheme of Aprendo Contigo. “It is fascinating not to be in a ‘formal’ education scheme,” she says. “I am not tied up to nonsensical rules any more. Here you can explore options and see what really works.”

Contreras stresses the importance of building a strong bond with the children, honestly answering every question they pose, listening to what they have to say. “Every sick child has a healthy side. That’s the side we focus on,” she explains, “I don’t care what illnesses they have. We never ask them that. I always start with a joke and that works.”

She recently received a handwritten letter from a 14-year-old girl who is convinced that she left the tuberculosis ward only because of the friendly company provided by Contreras. The letter reads: “I remember the day when that weird person, who was short and chubby, came forward and paid attention to me … since that day my life here changed.”

The author is Mical, who had travelled seven hours on a rickety bus from Chimbote when her mother thought she had throat cancer. “I was very weak, and my mother only had 50 Peruvian soles [$19] in her pocket. She had to sleep in the hospital’s corridors the first couple of nights,” she says.

When the doctors realised Mical had tuberculosis, she had to be kept in isolation, but Contreras walked in anyway. “I did not care,” she says. “ It was my duty to go in there and spend time with her.”

The programme’s original name was going to be Aprende Conmigo, or “learn with me’” but according to Contreras, the education process works both ways. “We are learning from each other, all of us, that’s the beauty of it.”

Back in the intensive care unit, while Jhon keeps blowing bubbles, the so-called “Three Princesses” lie in bed, all wearing pink pyjamas, under pink Hello Kitty blankets, and suffering from different spinal muscular atrophies. While Alexa moulds some red Play-Doh, Creysi is trying to thread a necklace of plastic balls, and Analí, the only one really able to talk, is identifying different animals. “That’s a zebra, and that’s an orang-utan,” she tells her volunteer teacher, Zayra.

For Aprendo Contigo the proof that the system works is the children’s affection. “I like it when Zayra and Marta are here; it’s the best part of my day,” nine-year-old Analí says with a shy smile, after kissing Cháves goodbye.

As the teacher leaves the hospital through the corridors adorned with Bambi tiles, she looks like a celebrity: children rush out of their wards to hug her, they call her name from almost every window as she passes by. “Formal education shuns life. They don’t use it to the child’s advantage,” Cháves says. “And we have to give children a chance.”

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