Children in the slums of Lima need Education. Leonie is making education happen.

Leonie and the children doing yoga

Leonie van Iersel is the founder of Con Pazion, a foundation that focuses on offering holistic education for children in the slums of Lima. This is the story about a Dutch woman finding her passion.

This blog is the English translation of an interview done by Ceciel Huls on De Wereldwijven, an online journal that shares inspiring stories of strong Dutch women living around the globe. View the original article here

I can perfectly recall our first meeting. She was standing in her small apartment, freshly off the plane. Jimmie, her Dutch cat that traveled to Peru with her, was scurrying around her legs. Her bags were already unpacked.  Leonie was ready to go start her new life in Lima teaching at a Dutch school. A year has passed since that day and she is still teaching, but not just at the Dutch school. Leonie van Iersel is the founder and director of Con Pazion, a non-profit organization that focuses on offering holistic-based education to the children in the slums of Lima. The non-profit is just a few months old, but it is rapidly growing and getting a lot of attention on social media. “It’s overwhelming,” Leonie will say several times throughout the interview.

A long cherished dream

Passion for education and making a difference in the lives of children brought Leonie here. It’s why she left everything she had in the Netherlands, including a great job as a vice principal at the Luzac College in Utrecht, family, and friends. What makes you cut ties like that? Two years ago Leonie went to Nicaragua for two months to reflect and take a critical look at her life. She had all she needed: a notebook, a yoga mat and a surf board. There in a country that---much like Peru---is still in development, she decided to put her dream in motion. She wanted to help children in vulnerable positions though her own two passions: education and yoga. Back in the Netherlands, she started putting this in motion at the Luzac. She integrated yoga into the school’s curriculum and helped the students trust and rely on their inner strength. But the, a herniated disc in her neck and the necessary surgery brought Leonie to a standstill. Again, she had time to reflect, “If I die now, is this the legacy I want to leave behind?”

Lima, a huge gap between rich and poor.

At that exact time, De Lama, the Dutch language and cultural school in Lima, was looking for a new teacher. Leonie found this job opening, wrote the email, and was hired. Four months later, fairly recovered from her herniated disc, she got on a plane. The first weeks in Lima were rough. The enormous contrast between rich and poor in this big city shocked her. She knew she had to do something. Leonie asked her neighbor, a very conscious and socially active woman, to take her along to the hills of Manchay. Manchay are the slums at the edge of the city. Her neighbor works there for a project that is helping children learn how to read, write and do math. “I never really left after that first visit,” Leonie states.

The Manchay slums

From the first day she set foot in Manchay, Leonie did what many are afraid to do: she left the main road and walked up the small paths, weaving through the area. She went inside the houses, and opened closed doors to the shacks where families live, most just a few square meters in size, where eight people, grown ups and children, share just two beds. Where there is no running water or electricity. Where mothers---most times the fathers have abandoned their families---have to fight so hard to live that they don’t have the energy to keep their homes clean and tidy. The children live among vermin. Their toilets are holes in the ground, without any shelter. The children show signs of neglect and malnutrition. Their bellies are swollen, their teeth are rotting, they have untreated skin infections and abrasions on their noses. These are the heartbreaking results of poverty.

the children in Manchay doing yoga

Yoga classes for the children in Manchay

Public education in Peru is often not up to our Western standards, so the only place to get a quality education is at one of the numerous expensive private schools in Lima. However, the impoverished children of Manchay cannot afford to pay for education, and the public education is, simply put, poor. On any given day, a child might come to school and do nothing more than fold paper because he or she does not own a pencil to write with, and the child’s teacher does nothing to improve the situation or raise the quality of teaching. While the children don’t receive actual education in school, they don’t receive stimulation or education from their home environments either. The divide between rich and poor will never disappear if the children in slums like Manchay aren’t given an actual chance. Leonie wants to offer them that chance.

She teaching English and yoga classes as a volunteer at two primary schools. The children loved the classes. They opened up to the love and attention Leonie offered them, looking for balance in the yoga poses. “There is nothing like the smile of a child that is treated with love and attention, that is growing and evolving!”

Con Pazion

Leonie’s goal is to empower children and create sustainable change. Con Pazion was founded with the goal of starting a primary school in Manchay based on holistic principles, with possibly more schools to follow. Schools where children will not only be taught how to read, write, and do math; they will also be educated about personal hygiene, about the world around them. Our teachers will teach with empathy. Yoga will be part of the curriculum to make children less vulnerable, both physically and mentally, and to help them be ready to make a positive contribution to their community as they grow. Leonie describes that as yoga both on and off the mat. Through Con Pazion’s website, Instagram, and Facebook, Leonie keeps her followers up-to-date with progress towards the goals.

Yoga with Adriene and Adidas

The well-known yoga teacher and inspirational figure Adriene (Yoga with Adriene), helped Leonie to reach hundreds of people, spread out over the globe. She also introduced Leonie to Adidas. A generous donation from this sports brand gave Con Pazion an amazing start. And, countless people have offered their help, people who are inspired by Leonie’s favorite affirmation, #bethechange.

Together with her yoga team, Leonie is bringing yoga to the children of Manchay. With her education team and the collaboration of a private schools, she is working on founding her first school.

Do you want to be part of the change? Consider donating to Con Pazion. Your donations fund our yoga programs and help us spread more love and awareness as we teach yoga and work towards opening our school.