Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Right to Laugh
Nikki Gamer: Hi everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. And welcome back to Behind the Story, a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history—the people we serve, our partners, our staff … and especially the supporters who make our work possible.
In our last episode, we spoke to Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo about the women who inspire us. And today we’ll be focusing on how we see the future … especially for the children and families in most urgent need.
We’ll be having a conversation with two remarkable women who have devoted themselves to this work…
Dr. Shannon Senefeld, our vice president of overseas operations. Dr. Senefeld is a champion of programming that ensures that children are raised in families so they can learn and grow to their greatest potential. And, she’s a mom of four children of her own.
And we’ll talk to Sister Pauline Acayo—one of the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate—who works for CRS in Kenya. Sister Pauline has devoted her life to helping families on the margins—of violence, hunger and disease—raise healthy children. And she’s been inspired by the results she’s seen.
Welcome to you both.
Nikki Gamer: So, as I understand it, one of the most critical times of a child’s life—early childhood—happens from birth to age 8. And sometimes it’s important to remember that the simplest things are the most important to children, right? Like love, and play, a nurturing environment. And so many times we take those things for granted, but for some of the people and some of the children that we work with, love and play is not given. So Dr. Senefeld, can you tell us about the role of play in a child’s early development? Why does a child need to laugh and play?
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: I think every child deserves the right to laugh, and what they need to be able to do that is love. They need to know that they’re cared for. They need to know that they’re safe. They need to know that there’s some stability in their lives, and they need to feel like they’re protected and in an environment where they can truly be themselves.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: Scientifically speaking, we know that children whose emotions and well-being have been neglected over their lives, that they have much poorer outcomes. As adults, they’re much less likely to get jobs. They’re much less likely to finish high school, and to have less personal achievement in their lives as well. So we know that the children really need to bond emotionally, and I think that for me is one of the most important things. It’s that one person loving them, knowing that that person’s always going to be there for them.
Nikki Gamer: Sister Pauline, do you want to share? What happens to a child when they don’t have the opportunity to play?
Sister Pauline Acayo: With many children I’ve interacted with, when a child has no opportunity to play, that child is not happy at all, cannot even smile. Always the child wants to be alone, and play helps the children to learn a lot, which means that child is missing a lot of learning.
Sister Pauline Acayo: Play helps a lot for them to develop cognitively. The child is not able to express his emotion. Children, they express their emotion more in play, so when a child miss that, he’s not going to express emotion in play. When the child plays with the mother, there is that bonding. With the father there’s that bonding. Play is together with communication. You can’t separate the two.
Nikki Gamer: Do you have a story of your work where you saw a child who—where play was just was missing?
Sister Pauline Acayo: Yes. I’ve interacted with a lot of those type of children. I would just give one example—a boy called Dennis. He’s now 4 years. In the center where we were working with the sisters, that boy would come to school, want to be at the corner, doesn’t want to mix with people, and then could not even smile to anybody.
Sister Pauline Acayo: You go to give them food, he’s hiding somewhere. So, you begin finding out what happened to this boy. We found the boy lost their mom, and then the caregivers who took care of him didn’t want him even to interact with others. So it affected him so much. As I talk today, the boy’s very healthy, although he missed something. But he’s very active, and he can laugh, jumps around. He’s beginning now to take the leadership, he’s socializing.
Nikki Gamer: Wow, there’s so much resilience I hear in that story. What about stress or trauma or depression for the child or the mother? What does that do to the way the child learns and grows?
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: Well, scientifically speaking, we know that especially if a primary caregiver—in most cases the mother—has some sort of a mental health condition that they’re less likely to spend time interacting with the children. Less likely to bond with them, less likely even from birth to look into their eyes to provide that early infant stimulation that children need.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: For moms who have their own hard things that they’re dealing with every single day, it’s hard for them to pay adequate attention to their children’s needs. Even though they may want to, they oftentimes just can’t do it. And unfortunately for those children, it alters their brains in the long run.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: They are less likely to develop as quickly, as normally, as their same-age peers. They’re less likely to achieve the same things they might have otherwise out of life. And so we know that we need to be responding to parents as well, so that the parents can respond to their children.
Nikki Gamer: Sister Pauline, have you seen any examples of this?
Sister Pauline Acayo: I give an example—parents we work with who are HIV/AIDS positive and so stressed and depressed. You look at a child, the child look so stressed and depressed at the same time, like the mother.
Sister Pauline Acayo: Because the child who is growing, especially those who are still under 2, they look at the face of the mother. When the mother cannot smile, the mother cannot even play with the child. That child is stressed, it does not know what is going on. But it stresses the child, and this make the child not to develop completely.
Nikki Gamer: What happens when a child isn’t getting that connection? What does it do to a child’s development when he or she is an adolescent or an adult?
Sister Pauline Acayo: With the children I’ve interacted with, when they undergo that, you find that their development is very slow in all ways. Socially, the child doesn’t want to interact with anybody.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: Just to add to what Sister said, we also know that when moms actually look their babies in the eye, the baby’s heart rate actually increases. It actually makes them perk up. And so, if a mom is not providing that eye contact, we know babies eat less, they’re less likely to breastfeed, they’re less likely to have positive nutrition overall.
Nikki Gamer: I want to hear about the work we’re doing to support children and families. What do we do to nurture them and make sure that children have a chance to laugh and play, and learn and grow to their full potential?
Sister Pauline Acayo: Okay, the project that we are implementing is called Strengthening Capacity of Women Religious in Early Childhood Development. We try our best to make sure that those children—conception to 2 years—they attain age-appropriate developmental milestones. And we work with Catholic sisters who are working in the community. The community respects them. When they talk, people listen to them. Working with the community leaders—they’re the ones who mobilize the community and they know where the children are based, especially those who are the needy.
Sister Pauline Acayo: And we have sisters who are trained as master trainers, and they’re working with community health volunteers and the mothers—on positive parenting, exclusive breastfeeding, and then stimulation. We train them on clean environment, clean water and sanitation to help the children. The sisters and caregivers make home visits every month at the household. And through that also they continue with mentoring and accompanying those who are not doing well so that they’re able to catch up and do the same to the children. Nutrition is paramount to our project.
Nikki Gamer: So, what we’re talking about here, really, is about a child’s survival, right? So Dr. Senefeld, what’s different about the way CRS looks at child survival?
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: We’re really working on making sure that children have the environment that they need to grow and not just to survive. I think there’s been a lot of attention placed on child survival over the years to really make sure that kids live. We really need to make sure that they thrive and not to waste any of their potential.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: In the U.S., my kids, when I take them in for their doctor’s visits, they ask about their social development, their cognitive development, how they’re doing, what we do for discipline, etc. And I think that’s the sort of message that we also want within our programs— that we have to have a comprehensive view of children and their development.
Nikki Gamer: All right, so you’ve both been talking about CRS’ SCORE and THRIVE early childhood development programs, which focus more on helping very young children. But I understand you’re also toymakers, using local items like bags or wood?
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: The homemade toys.
Sister Pauline Acayo: Oh, the homemade toys. That’s I would say our most important thing in our project. The toys are connected to the play we have talked of and are connected to communication. Because we have seen—for sustainability—we need to use the local things that we have and the parents are able to make it. When they make it themselves, they’re going to take care of the toys. And the children, they love the local toys—like the ball, like the baby. They have made their baby using maybe banana fiber or a piece of cloth.
Sister Pauline Acayo: All those local toys are helping the children really to be stimulated or to grow—cognitively, social, emotional, physical. And … must be colorful! So you color them, you know. And sometimes you involve them in coloring. It’s part of the development.
Nikki Gamer: So, what about storytelling? Do you encourage parents to read to their kids?
Sister Pauline Acayo: So, we are trying to tell parents to use more stories in the evening or read a story book to the child or tell a story. Let the child count, using maybe stakes or the beans, rather than a child being on the television and watching what is beyond their age.
Nikki Gamer: All right, Sister Pauline. Many years ago, as a religious sister, you were asked to help CRS in its work with children. But I understand it, your work with children started long before coming to CRS and is related to your early life.
Sister Pauline Acayo: I grew up in northern Uganda where there was a lot of war, there was a lot of poverty, a lot of destruction. Infrastructures were mostly destroyed, the schools, the health facilities, the roads. You couldn’t move freely. Even before I became a teacher, people used to bring their children in the convent at night, and for them they go and spend in the bush, meaning under the grass. And working with those children, it impacted a lot of interest for me to work for children, especially the vulnerable ones.
Sister Pauline Acayo: And then one time as we were sisters already, we ran away from the house and we all went to the chapel. And the rebels, when they come, whether you have a gate very strong, they will cut the gate even for 3 hours until they enter. And you are behind the tabernacle, so they are shooting and telling you to come out. And when we came out, we are lined up in the compound, and then they are telling us, “We are going to abduct you,” and then they were choosing us. “Get up, get up, we are going with you.”
Sister Pauline Acayo: And all that they have looted, they put on your head and they tell you to run with it. And we were running with the things heavy on our head. And then, thanks to God that we went far away. For me, I was afraid because I thought today is my last day. They can chop you into pieces. So we ran, and then they told us, leave the things and you go, and run without looking behind. I was so afraid I thought we are not going to come back. So that’s the life I grew in, and I started working with CRS. I had that experience so it made me to help the community even better.
Sister Pauline Acayo: As a leader in the community, they are all looking at you. And then being a sister, they’re all looking at you, they’re confiding in you, even those who are so much traumatized—they don’t want to share their stories with other religious leaders who are men or traditional leaders. They are coming all to you.
Sister Pauline Acayo: So you need to have a lot of courage, a lot of faith, and you have to give hope to that person coming. The Church has an obligation as the leader, leading the people on behalf of Christ to talk on behalf of the voiceless. And then to take care of the flock, without any discrimination. And without any segregation. And that, I think, that was the backbone of the courage that I got.
Nikki Gamer: Wow! Sister Pauline, I get goosebumps listening to you. Dr. Senefeld, you’re a mom who works with children. When you look at your own children, what do you see?
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: I think for me, I see the future, I see all the possibilities. I hope that they will go on to make the world a better place. I hope they remember how blessed and privileged they are. And that they take that real calling to give back with them in whatever they do in the world. But just like I want my child to be happy, you know, I want that for all children. That magical laughter, you know, that, that …
Nikki Gamer: It’s intoxicating.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: It’s so … right? It just gets you in your belly. Like you hear them start giggling, you know when you’re tickling them and you’re playing with them and you scare them when you’re playing peek-a-boo. And that, just, giggle, that, just, belly laugh like that. And I think every child should have that in their lives.
Nikki Gamer: All right, so for each of you, what is your best day? Can you share a moment or a story or an instance where you said, Wow, we are making such a difference? I am making a difference.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: We’d been doing a whole series, a whole project around changing the way the world cares for kids living in orphanages. A lot of these are started by well-meaning individuals from the U.S. and Europe, who really have seen and believe in the plight of the children like we’re talking about today. And so they’ve started giving money, building orphanages to help. The reality is that about 80 to 90% of children living in orphanages have a living parent. The parent can’t take care of them or feels they can’t take care of them. The number one reason for that is poverty.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: So the parent oftentimes can’t pay for the school fees or the health care fees or the other basic needs for their child, and they put them into an orphanage thinking that it will be a short-term solution. Unfortunately, over time they’re never able to get up to the same economic level of stability that an externally funded orphanage can provide.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: The research has demonstrated severe negative effects on children, both in the short term and the long term. Certain parts of their brains don’t activate as much as others because of a lack of stimulation. They’re more likely to be incarcerated as they become adults. They’re more likely to enter into sex work. They’re more likely to be trafficked when they leave the institutions.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: We are working very hard to support children to remain in their families so that they don’t get placed in institutions. And we were competing for a really large grant for $100 million. We weren’t the winner, but we were runner up and we got $15 million to implement the program.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: And that was wonderful. But I was feeling very sad that we weren’t the winner. I came to work one day, and there was a card sitting on my desk and it was from one of our colleagues. He’d written a note and he said his 7-year-old son had earned the money inside from raking leaves in the fall, and it was in coins and $1 bills. And he said his son was so moved by our project that he wanted to give the money to us so that we could help to make a difference for all the kids in the orphanages overseas. And I thought, we are making a difference if we’re reaching a child here in the U.S. to give up his leaf-raking money, to help children overseas.
Nikki Gamer: Wow. Sister Pauline, how do you even follow that? But I think you can.
Sister Pauline Acayo: One time I was in a bus. I was picking money to pay. Somebody say, “I’m paying for Sister.” Turning, I don’t know this person. Working with many people in the community and they have grown, you may not know. Said, “I was a rebel. I came back, I was to be killed. And you stood, you talked…” We used to organize a joint meeting where we bring religious leaders, traditional leaders, government representatives. And I’m there among them, talking.
Sister Pauline Acayo: For that one child, he has grown. He is no longer a child. I am very happy. And then community saying, what you people have done … what you have taught us and what we ambassadors of change in the community is very sustainable.
Nikki Gamer: Well thank you both. You’re both incredibly amazing women. That’s an amazing story. Wow.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: But it’s a normal story, right? Where around the world we hear these stories about how the community actually steps up on behalf of CRS and says they’re doing good work here, so we’re going to make sure they’re protected. And it’s not just in the Catholic communities—it’s in all the communities around the world.
Nikki Gamer: All right, in your big crystal ball when you look ahead to the next 25 years and see thriving children and families, why are they thriving?
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: I think that one of the most important things that people can have is hope. It’s the ability to imagine something different for yourself. Especially if all you’ve ever known is what you’ve seen, the idea that you’re actually pushing yourself beyond that and hoping for something is huge.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: So I think if we’re talking about children thriving 25 years from now, I think that these children will have hope. I think that they will have laughter. I think that they will have love, and I think they’ll be looking for ways that they can give back themselves.
Nikki Gamer: That’s a beautiful picture you paint. Thank you so much.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld: Thank you, my pleasure.
Sister Pauline Acayo: Thank you.
Nikki Gamer: Join us next month as we continue our focus on children—this time, children facing some of the most challenging emergencies of our times—and how we are giving them places to learn and play … and heal. But until then, thanks for listening. And, if you want to find out more, check us out online at 75.crs.org. And, don’t forget to subscribe!