Project Management Institute

Art + soul

An NGO takes a creative approach with a project to help traumatized children in India recover from their pasts.




—Mai Lai, Children's Art Village, Santa Monica, California, USA

Art and music have the power to heal—but for many youths, such therapeutic outlets can be limited.

Children's Art Village (CAV), a not-for-profit organization based in Santa Monica, California, USA, recognized this problem and decided to launch a project to create an arts and crafts program at an orphanage.

“Studies have proven that art enables children to express feelings that they're unable to communicate,” says Mai Lai, CAV‘s founder and executive director. “The act of expression is first and foremost in the beginning of the healing process.”

After wrapping up its first project in Ghana in 2007, CAV set its sights on India.

Although the project dealt with finger paints and clay, it wasn't all fun and games for Ms. Lai and her team of volunteers. They had to overcome cultural and geographic obstacles to set up an ongoing program to introduce music and color into the lives of children who had already endured far too much suffering.



First Ms. Lai had to select which orphanage would be the site of the project. In September 2009, she established a partnership with the Aadhi Arts Academy in Chennai, India, leveraging the organization's local knowledge. Aadhi compiled a list of five prospective orphanages that met the following criteria: Each had an affiliation with a school, guest quarters for teachers and an impeccable reputation. Sevalaya Orphanage in Kasuva, a remote village near Chennai, proved the best contender.

While narrowing down the list of candidates, Ms. Lai had to recruit a team of six people from the United States skilled in art and instruction. Ms. Lai found volunteers through Internet inquiries and referrals from CAV members, and has never had trouble building a team. “I‘ve had to turn away volunteers because there are more than we can take on,” she says—even with the added stipulation that the team members had to fund the trip on their own, from airfare to housing.

The Indian team members would receive a salary, but because Ms. Lai couldn't find or interview local teachers on her own, she depended upon the judgment of Sevalaya Murali, founder and managing trustee of the orphanage.

Once the project team was in place, Ms. Lai held meetings to establish each member's areas of expertise and studied Indian culture to develop the curriculum by November 2009.

With the program's May 2010 launch date looming, Ms. Lai set out to tackle the most challenging logistics: raising funds and transporting volunteers and supplies. Charities have been hit hard over the past two years, Ms. Lai says, and CAV budgeted US$25,000 for the summer program and its estimated 200 participants.

Budget concerns restricted the amount of art materials the team could bring to India. Ms. Lai spent US$13,500 on supplies and was forced to limit expenditures to only the most essential items. “I would have liked to bring more materials, including computers for graphic art classes,” Ms. Lai says. “However, this would have exceeded our budget.”

Airline weight restrictions led to a strategic packing plan. The project team could acquire some art materials abroad, including watercolor paints and handmade cloth paper, but it had to transport the bulk of the supplies. Passengers are limited to two 50-pound (22.7-kilogram) checked bags, which didn't leave much room for personal items. The team also used storage bins dedicated solely to art materials and musical instruments. The 36-gallon (159-liter) containers contained an array of supplies: tempura paints, digital and video cameras, papier-mâché materials, charcoal, tambourines and guitars.

different culture, different approach

Children's Art Village's first project to create an art and music program took place in august 2007 at the village of Hope, a school in Gomoa-Fetteh, Ghana.

When it came time to develop a plan for the India project, CAV founder and executive director Mai Lai looked for a similar infrastructure and tried to follow the same game plan.

She quickly learned, though, that regional culture has a significant effect on stakeholder buy-in.

After dealing with village of hope's uncooperative administration, Ms. Lai introduced a caveat to the school selection process: She would only work with an administration that supported her organization's mission and values.

The Sevalaya orphanage in Kasuva, India proclaims its commitment to the “all-around development” of its children— and that includes music and art. consequentially, Ms. Lai felt an instant rapport on her recent project.

For her project to succeed in Ghana, Ms. Lai had to tailor her curriculum to the local culture. CAV's dance program resonated with the African students, so the Ghana program instead emphasized African dance and drumming.

“In Ghana, I felt that I had to constantly persuade the administration to accept the art,” Ms. Lai says. “It wasn't as readily embraced as it was in India.”


To coordinate the transportation of the project team, which was dispersed all over the United States, Ms. Lai held conference calls to organize and prep the team members prior to departure. All had to organize their own visas, vaccinations, medical insurance and packing lists.

Half of the team, though, was a world away. Because India is 13.5 hours ahead of California, the end of Ms. Lai's workday corresponded with her partners’ early start hours. They depended on teleconferences and e-mails throughout the planning process.


Once on the ground in India, the project team ran a week-long camp for more than 200 orphans, beginning on 24 May 2010. Its goal was to prepare the local staff to continue running the arts and music classes upon project close.

Ms. Lai experienced resourcing issues from the start: One teacher arrived two days late, while another fell ill, forcing her to rearrange the schedule.


Despite the geographic separation and societal differences, CAV didn't have any conflicts with the orphanage over management methodologies. However, Ms. Lai immediately noticed differences in teaching style that didn't mesh with the project's vision: “The Indian teachers taught by having uniformity rather than fostering creativity,” she says.

At the end of the first day, the team met to discuss what was working and what was not. Ms. Lai decided to pair each American with an Indian team member to encourage more creativity in class. “I think both the American and the Indian teachers learned through this team-teaching experience,” Ms. Lai says.

Other conflicts weren't so easily managed. Ms. Lai had to mollify her American team members, who were frustrated about the two- to three-hour guest lectures that Sevalaya and Aadhi had arranged each day after camp. The teachers wanted more time to prepare lessons and to rest, but the local stakeholders didn't want to cancel any speakers, believing the lectures would provide valuable training about Indian culture.


Tension arose between the contingents until Ms. Lai devised a plan to ease her volunteers’ workload. Team members alternated attending lectures, making sure at least three showed up.

All of the project coordinators spoke English, so language wasn't an issue during the project's planning stages. But a communication barrier occurred once the team was onsite. CAV hired interpreters, but the team still had problems in the classroom. The American teachers ended up depending on hand gestures to communicate with students.


The final stage of the project was to hire one permanent faculty member from the local community to teach art and another to teach music. The teachers follow a curriculum developed in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu state board of education. To assure the program is sustainable, CAV will pay the teachers’ salaries and monitor the program, with Mr. Murali evaluating the teachers each quarter and writing annual progress reports. At the end of five years, the CAV board will meet to decide whether to renew their commitment for another five-year period.

For the orphans at Sevalaya, the art and music program developed during the CAV project is helping them move beyond hardship.

Ms. Lai is looking to launch another project to help other groups of disadvantaged kids.

“We've reached more than 2,000 children with our Ghana and India programs,” she says. “My hope is to eventually reach over 2 million.” PM

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