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Our Blog: Education
April 21, 2015
Safe Spaces for Children in Refugee Camps

This story was adapted from a recent report prepared by Mercy Corps staff

In 2014, Vibrant Village Foundation granted $103,961 to Mercy Corps for the construction of child-friendly spaces at the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan. Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, more than 600,000 refugees have entered into Jordan seeking safety. The Syrian families who have been displaced have had their lives and social structures substantially disrupted. They have often witnessed violence and disturbing events, and many are now far from their relatives and friends. Stress, fear and anxiety among children and parents can contribute to domestic violence, abuse and neglect, especially for women and children. 

In this context, it was crucial to establish child-friendly spaces in refugee camps to provide opportunities for kids to play, learn and receive social support in a safe and protective environment. 


In February, Mercy Corps completed the construction of four playgrounds in the child friendly spaces, with funding from Vibrant Village Foundation. These playgrounds provide safe places for up to 150 children each day, where they are protected from harm and can reinstate some sense of normalcy. 

The spaces also provide opportunity for children to play and socialize with other children and develop life skills. All spaces are open six days a week and staffed by Mercy Corps trained Syrian volunteers. These incredibly valuable team members provide a number of direct activities for the children including structured psychosocial activities such as arts and crafts projects and storytelling. Syrian volunteers also support community outreach within the camps, working directly with Mercy Corps Community Child Protection Committees. These committees are responsible for spreading awareness on child protection and available facilities and services.

Zayed (photographed left) is a twenty-two year old volunteer with the program. From his perspective, these child-friendly spaces are helping the children from “being lost”. As he explains, “After installing the play complex, the number of children is higher than before – it has become a part of motivation for them.” 

In the original program plan, the playgrounds were to have a sand ground cover. However, the sand requires continual maintenance and can blow away in the high summer winds. Mercy Corps is exploring artificial grass turf as a longer-lasting option. In addition to being more durable, the artificial turf adds much needed color to the barren, sandy landscape of the camp. The green on its own has a soothing and calming feeling, a bit of artificial nature in an otherwise desolate setting.              

Photos: Courtesy of Mercy Corps


November 24, 2014
PHAME inspires students to follow their artistic dreams

By Susan Goracke

PHAME’s Chamber Ensemble had been rehearsing the upbeat pop tune “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic for several minutes. When it was time for her solo, Priscilla Ah Yek burst in with her clear high soprano voice. It was Priscilla’s second solo in the nine months she has been with PHAME, a Portland nonprofit organization offering arts education as well as performance and socializing opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities.

On this Tuesday afternoon in October, the ensemble — PHAME’s elite performance-based class requiring an audition — was rehearsing a medley of songs to perform at the Sparkle Gala, PHAME’s annual fundraiser set in early November. After dissecting several sections of the piece with each of the three soloists, Music Director Matthew Gailey asked the group to go through the song again. This time Priscilla nailed her part and beamed.

It was clear from her focused attention on Gailey’s instructions that 18-year-old Priscilla takes music seriously. With her natural ability and enthusiasm for singing, music has been a major interest, as well as the fun factor, in Priscilla’s life since she began entertaining her family by singing nursery rhymes as a youngster. A few years later, she could sing all the lyrics to “My Favorite Things” from the “Sound of Music.” From eighth grade until she left high school last year, Priscilla sang in school choirs, a highlight of her days in the public school system.

Several years ago, Priscilla’s mother, Kristen Ah Yek, saw a video of a PHAME performance and immediately knew the program was perfect for Priscilla. But Ah Yek had to wait to sign up her daughter until January 2014, when Priscilla was old enough. Since then, Priscilla has thrived in the program. She auditioned for and was accepted into PHAME’s Chamber Ensemble, plus she takes an iPad-based class called Music in Motion.

“I like to sing,” Priscilla says hesitantly, overcoming her shyness in front of a stranger. “I’ve found out with PHAME, I like Rock ‘N Roll. It’s my favorite.” Priscilla, who lives at home in Vancouver, Wash., with her parents and four siblings, also enjoys singing with her father, Roy Ah Yek. He performed in a Polynesian musical revue in his native Samoa before moving to the United States.

“These classes have given Priscilla her confidence,” her mom says.  “Working with other students with disabilities has encouraged her to be open. She makes me so proud.”

 30 years of serving the Portland community

Founded in 1984 as PHAME, an acronym for Portland Honored Artists and Musical Entertainers, the organization is celebrating its 30th year. Over three decades, as program offerings have expanded, PHAME has stayed true to its mission: to inspire Portland-area adults with developmental disabilities to lead full, creative lives through arts education and performance.

In addition to tackling fully staged Broadway musicals such as “My Fair Lady,” “Into the Woods,” “Les Miserables” and “Grease,” PHAME students have brought their high-energy vocal and instrumental performances to schools and community centers throughout Northwest Oregon, to Boise, Idaho, and to Brussels, Belgium. Two of the current 90 students have been with PHAME since its founding, and many others have been with the organization for five, 10 and 20 years.

“We’ve been deepening and broadening our curriculum, and our five-year goal is to have 160 students,” says Executive Director Stephen Beaudoin, who has been with PHAME since 2010. “But to do that, we’ll have to move to a larger space. We’ve had 17 locations in 30 years, mostly church basements.”

For the past four years, PHAME has called Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in inner Northeast Portland home. Beaudoin says the group is looking for a permanent home and plans to raise money toward that goal in the future.

Portland-based Vibrant Village Foundation has awarded PHAME three grants totaling $15,000 over the past three years.

“PHAME is a true gem in our community,” says Vibrant Village Program Manager Laura Koch. “The staff at PHAME are incredible at providing top-notch instruction and performing arts opportunities for an under-served and under-appreciated population, and for bringing together the broader community to support these talents.”

“We’ve been so grateful for Vibrant Village’s support,” Beaudoin adds. “They and our other donors allow our academy to operate and to offer our students a tuition well below what other programs charge.” While students are charged $80-225 per class for a 13-week term, students who can’t afford the entire tuition are given a discount. “Last year we granted about $17,000 in tuition assistance.”

PHAME students rise to teachers’ expectations 

Back at the hour-and-a-half-long Chamber Ensemble class, Gailey patiently went over musical phrasing, harmonies and solos with students. His expectations were high, and students responded with concentration.

“I find pop and rock [songs] work for this group really well, but I do modify some of the more difficult material when needed,” explains Gailey, who has been with PHAME for three years. During that time he has introduced students to a variety of difficult music, from Broadway tunes to classical selections and complicated art songs.

“I want to challenge them, to not make this class just a social time,” he adds. “I’ve had feedback from students who say ‘Thank you for stretching us.’ That’s part of what PHAME offers: mutual respect. I’ve never had a group that was so gratifying to be in front of [directing].” 

Gailey notes that a few students read music, but most learn it by ear by practicing with recordings he gives them to take home.

“Our students have a range of innate artistic ability and we want to prepare some of them to have a shot at working with Portland theaters, music groups and artists,” he says. “Our students have performed with groups like Pink Martini, Storm Large, Laura Gibson and The Portland Cello Project. We'd like to help facilitate those types of collaborations in the future. I'd also eventually like to see a collaborative community choir.”

Gailey has an impressive background in both music education and performance, and most PHAME instructors are working professionals in their chosen field, whether it is art, music, dance or theater. But they also have a passion for sharing their knowledge with our students, says PHAME Artistic Director Jessica Dart, who has been with PHAME since 2009.

“The program has evolved so much since I started here,” Dart adds. “We were offering about 10 classes then, and now we’re offering 22.” The current curriculum includes classes such as Playwriting, Musical Theater, Costume Design, Acting, Dance, Dance Fitness, Yoga, Music in Motion, Rhythm and Drumming, Songwriting, Choir, Chamber Ensemble, and a class called From Bach to Tupac: Mind Blowing Sounds! There is even a newspaper publication class. 

“I think we have a good balance of the rigor and the fun,” says Dart, who works with teachers to design the classes. “Our expectations and standards are really high.”

Beaudoin adds, “We want to create the kind of life our students want to have, whatever their goals or dreams may be. For some, it’s to build a social network, and for others, it’s to pursue their goals in a professional setting. We want to help them go where they want to go.”

Chamber Ensemble shines at Sparkle Gala

A couple of days following PHAME’s 2014 Sparkle Gala, held Nov. 2 at the Sentinel Hotel in downtown Portland, Beaudoin was still exhilarated. With just over 360 in attendance, the event had raised about $208,000 for next year’s operating expenses.

“It was a fantastic success, an unforgettable night,” he reports. “The students just absolutely shined, and the event went beautifully.” In attendance were a cross-section of the broader PHAME community, including board members and parents of students, business leaders and elected officials.

“We used the $5,000 Vibrant Village grant to inspire other large donations, and we got five gifts at that level, Beaudoin adds. “It was a great night at the gala, but we still have a lot more to raise. I was proud of the students. They stepped up their game and gave a great performance, and the crowd showed their appreciation.”

For Priscilla Ah Yek and her mother, the night was equally exciting.

“I was a little bit nervous when I got to the mic,” Priscilla admits, thinking back to her “Counting Stars” solo.

“The response was just amazing,” adds her mom, who attended the gala with her husband. “They gave her a standing ovation. The woman next to me had tears in her eyes. I was proud of Priscilla, and I was proud of all the students. They worked so hard at rehearsals. PHAME is such an excellent program.”

For more information about PHAME and its upcoming PHAME @ 30 Holiday Finale on Dec. 13, go to www.phamepdx.org.

September 2, 2014
Dinah, an Enhanced Learning Volunteer
by Charlie Wright, Kenya Education & Training Coordinator


Job opportunities and work experience are hard to come by in rural Kenya – and it is no surprise that around 35% of 20-year-olds in Kenya are unemployed. 

Single mother and local Esabalu resident, Dinah, is no different. After completing high school in 2011, Dinah lacked the funds and opportunities to pursue a career as a social worker. Instead, like many young Kenyans, she has been staying at home and struggling to provide for her 2-year-old son.

Since June 2014, Dinah has been working with Vibrant Village as part of the Enhanced Learning Volunteer Program. 

The program runs in a local primary school where the seven Enhanced Learning Volunteers (ELVs), including Dinah, work with approximately 40 students who the school has identified as struggling with classwork.  The ELVs work with students four mornings a week and focus on core skills such as literacy, numeracy and English. As Dinah explains:

“We usually arrive at school at 8 AM and start with a reading session. After that, we do classroom assistance, which involves helping our students when they are stuck and correcting mistakes so they gain confidence in class. Then we teach literacy lessons where we teach students how to use phonics and make words. Before lunch, we do 1-1 in math and English where we use flash cards and writing activities.” 

Vibrant Village has equipped each Volunteer with an Enhanced Learning Kit – a mobile classroom, containing all the resources they’ll need to conduct each session including story-books, mini-whiteboards, flash cards and games. The ELVs also undertook a 2-week training program with Vibrant Village prior to starting with their students. 

“I feel good working with students as I love kids and using my energy to help others,” Dinah says. “The kits are fun and the teachers are always interested to see what new games we are doing with the students.” 

Dinah has also noticed a big change in her group, stating, “There is a big difference with my Class 1 students! They didn’t even know any letters before and now they can read all the sounds and some can make syllables and words!”

For the Volunteer Program, which runs for 6 months, Vibrant Village recruited high-school graduates who hope to work with children in the future and need to gain some experience before advancing their careers. 

To support the volunteers with career development, Vibrant Village runs a weekly workshop where the volunteers work through their Enhanced Learning Packs. These contain a series of individualized professional development activities and records of their work in school, which they will be able to keep as evidence after their placement. 

Dinah now feels positive about her future. She shares, “I am now building the foundations for my career.” In December, Dinah will leave the program with new computer skills, a strong letter of recommendation, teaching experience and a clear plan for her career.