Not long ago, I took a trip to El Salvador
for the first time in my life. It was a short trip, three nights and four days, but my time there was truly meaningful. Even eight years ago, I knew almost nothing about El Salvador. It was a small country between Mexico and Brazil, famous for producing coffee. Now, to me, El Salvador is another name for hope.
My connection with El Salvador goes back to 2011. In the summer of that year, Brain Education was introduced to El Salvador at a conference IBREA
held at the United Nations. At the time, El Salvador's former UN ambassador, who participated in the conference, took an interest in Brain Education and proposed that we do a pilot project in the schools in his country.
A four-month long pilot project
was begun, targeting students and teachers in the schools most exposed to violence in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The results were extremely successful, so the program expanded to four schools in other districts. With good results continuing, the program was officially adopted by El Salvador's Ministry of Education; now, eight years later, Brain Education is taught as part of the official curriculum at 1,350 Schools, 25% of public schools in El Salvador. Additionally, over 2,000 teachers are teaching students in schools, having passed an official Brain Education
The primary purpose of my visit was to commemorate the special award
given to me, the founder of IBREA, by the government of El Salvador and to meet with the country's president. A more important purpose was to see directly, with my own eyes, how Brain Education has changed El Salvador over the past eight years and to meet the instructors who are teaching it.
Instructors Who've Recovered the Courage to Teach
On the first day of my visit, I met with over 250 school principals
. The serious light in their eyes and their sharing spoke to me. For them, Brain Education was not merely an educational program; it was about survival, about an earnest desire to live a worthy life.
El Salvador has been suffering from a long civil war and gang violence. Of its population of 6.5 million, 500,000 are connected with gangs, and it has the highest murder rate in the world. According to Salvadoran Ministry of Education statistics, 12,000 students quit school because of violence in the first half of 2017 alone.
Teachers are in the same predicament—defenseless, exposed to public violence. Edis Margoth Cañas de Amaya, principal of Francisco Morazan School, had this to say about her experience, having escaped from depression and chronic anxiety about death.
"My sister was killed in my community. Three months later, her daughter died. At that time, every day, there were deaths, in my community. Every time I learned of a new death, I cried, and relived my sister's death over and over again.
I felt so sad. There came a point when every time I went out to the street, I felt I was going to be attacked from the back. I didn't want to go out of my house. As I did Brain Education sessions, I got better and better. By the end of the program, I truly healed. I removed all my anti-depressants, all my medicine. I could feel happy and fulfilled again."
Edis's story made me think of Principal Gloria Mueller
, who visited Korea in 2013. She was the principal of Joaquin Rodezno, one of the four schools involved in the Brain Education pilot project.
Her school was located in an area of severe violence, with many students taking drugs and belonging to local gangs. Fearing the students, teachers tried not to upset them. The previous principal was murdered by a gang
, and, not even a month after being appointed, Mueller suffered violence and confinement at the hands of students.
Principal Mueller says that the changes Brain Education brought to the school were close to miraculous.
"After implementing the IBREA program in the school curriculum, things started to change. The first change that we noticed was that academic performance improved among students. The use of drugs and violence decreased. But the thing that impressed me the most was the positive changes in their self-control and inter-personal relations among students and with teachers.
By participating in the program, one 17-year-old former student addicted to drugs—who had been expelled from his home and who only came to school to do drugs—was able to overcome his addiction and is now preparing to get promoted to the next grade."
She said that her heart pounded as she watched students who once had no expectations for the future talk about their goals. Seeing such changes in students was itself a great motivator for the teachers, giving them new hope for education.
Laura: What a Teenager Learned from Brain Education
The next day, I visited the Swimming Pool for Peace
, located at Distrito Italia, the first school to introduce Brain Education. The Pool for Peace was a community project carried out by IBREA after Brain Education showed clear results at this school. I heard a moving story about parents, whose kids belonged to rival gangs, picking up shovels to create a space at the school where the children could play freely—this at a facility without a playground. So I really wanted to visit the place.
When I arrived at the swimming pool, a young child handed me a bouquet of flowers, smiling shyly. They said he was the seven-year-old son of Laura, an IBREA lecturer who graduated from the school. Seven years ago, the 16-year-old Laura held a newborn babe her arms, her expression full of pain; now she is a proud, confident mother, and her baby is attending the school his mom once attended.
Laura shared her story at an IBREA youth conference held at the United Nations in 2017.
"Before receiving the Brain Education program, I couldn’t really relate with anyone in my school because I always felt they were going to judge me and talk behind my back. I closed myself up so much. But gradually, with the breathing, endurance exercises, and teamwork, I started to open up and trust myself and others. I also began to be more responsible.
What I enjoy the most is the visualization exercises
. We were told to close our eyes and imagine a screen and on that screen, we could put anything we wanted, how did we want our life to be and our future.
In the beginning, it was difficult to focus, but by the end of the program, after many practices, I projected myself in that screen and these visualization exercises where we were able to just project what we wanted, somehow brought out the courage in me to decide that I would continue studying, to improve my life, along with the life of my son and my family.
The most important element I want to share about my experience is that every problem that we face—no matter how hard it appears—has a solution. Even when you feel that the world is falling down, you have to trust that if you want to, you can find a solution. We have to keep that in mind, keep moving forward no matter what, instead of waiting for someone else to solve our problems or give us something. We have to go on and find the way of solving our own problems. Then, you can be the master of your future.
This year, after practicing the program for 6 years, I have been certified as a trainer in IBREA. And this fills my heart with joy and hope because I’m capable of helping others in El Salvador realize their great potential and their ability to change themselves and their communities, and create the future they wish for—just like me."
Those Who Have Hope Create Hope
The teachers and students I met in El Salvador made me realize once again what Brain Education is
. As its creator, I have conviction and confidence in the Brain Education program. What changed the schools of El Salvador, however, was not the Brain Education program itself. What created those changes were the people who came to have new hope through Brain Education. Their passion and spirit changed their lives and changed their schools.
Those who have hope create hope. Hope is fuel for the soul.
At the time of the pilot project, hope gave courage to the IBREA staff even in a brutal environment, with the sound of gunfire ringing in their ears, enabling them to teach Brain Education, smiling all the while. Hope instilled passion in the teachers of the pilot schools, who experienced the effects of Brain Education, causing them to actively introduce Brain Education to the Ministry of Education and other schools.
What Brain Education gave the teachers and students of El Salvador was "hope that each of us has the power to change ourselves and our world." I feel indescribable respect and gratitude for the people who have experienced Brain Education in El Salvador, people who are creating peace in their own lives, schools, and communities in a place that has long suffered from civil wars, in a nation wanting peace more earnestly than any other country. They are my heroes.
There is always bound to be a gap between dreams and reality. Reality always has a lot of problems. People usually try to fill the gap between dreams and reality by concentrating on the problems of the real world. Are problems solved by concentrating only on reality? No. We can't solve problems by concentrating solely on reality itself. Gaining strength from dreams and a vision, we can break through the practical obstacles confronting us. If we keep concentrating, without losing hope, our brains give us the gift of inspiration, ideas, and the ability to act on them, the power to fill the gap between dreams and reality. It's a blessing to have a brain that can dream of a better tomorrow and that can discover hope
no matter how difficult our circumstances. We can change ceaselessly, re-creating ourselves, because we have such a brain.