Observing that 90% of street kids that go in a shelter drop out after 2 days, Arnoud is revolutionizing assistance to street kids to multiply their chances of successfully reintegrating into society. By reaching them in their environment - the street - and focusing on their positive skills to restore their self-esteem, he empowers them until they decide by themselves to move towards a better future. Catalyzed in the Mobile Schools tool, his work is now deployed in 20 countries in over 4 continents. Creating virtuous effects, Arnoud has also launched a for-profit company in Belgium to provide companies with “StreetwiZe” trainings, transform society’s perception of vulnerable people, build empathy towards them, and simultaneously create an economic model to sustain the growth of the Mobile School programs.
Arnoud is pioneering a new outreach strategy that shifts attitudes from assistance to empowerment, shedding light on the potential of street children and engaging a broad range of stakeholders in distilling knowledge and changemaking skills. He uses “mobile schools” and three hundred educational tools on the pavement to leverage street children’s many talents and skills to survive and work on the street. Arnoud’s efforts help children gain awareness of their strengths to build their self-esteem and self-confidence to eventually follow a reintegration process. Because leaving the street is a decision that must come from the children themselves, Arnoud’s mobile schools accompany, support, and prepare them to become actors for their own lives.
Arnoud is convinced that beyond empowering street kids, he must shift societal perceptions of and attitudes toward disadvantaged groups to reduce growing social inequalities. Inspired by street kids’ life experiences, he has developed awareness programs for schools in Belgium. With the strong desire to make his organization sustainable, he has also created Streetwise, a company which sells unique workshops to companies to help their employees develop four “street” skills: Positive focus, proactive creativity, agility, and the power of unity. The materials Arnoud uses illustrate leadership and success with stories and experiences of vulnerable people. While developing new role models for society, he applies the key principles of empowerment and autonomy to his organization, and creates a sustainable business model to scale up Mobile School.
Most programs targeted at street children focus on quick methods of social reintegration and removal from the street with little to no success. Various studies estimate the number of street children worldwide at 100 million. Living on the street is synonymous with exclusion, poverty and abuse, and causes many traumatic experiences. It is an environment that poses constant threats to physical safety, and personal development, while also damaging self-esteem. But often forgotten, the street is also the social, educational, and work environment of street kids. Here, they re-create models of inclusion, learn specific social codes, and build behavioral references and value systems. The street represents their comfort zone. It is what they know best and where they reveal and develop critical survival skills.
The crucial importance and role of street living is not sufficiently acknowledged by thousands of citizen organizations (COs) working with street children. These groups often focus on the problems—drugs, violence, labor—and how to quickly remove a child from the street. Unfortunately, they may not realize the risks of bringing unprepared children into the mainstream—a world whose rules they do not fully comprehend and their qualities are not valued. This change can be disruptive for children, which explains a high dropout rate among assistance programs: 90 percent of children escape the reintegration centers after one or two days (a survey conducted by Mobile School of over fifty shelters for former street kids located throughout Latin America).
Two reasons explain why most organizations, despite this high dropout rate, continue using the same methodology. First, street work requires specific expertise and methods that few have. Second, street work requires time, patience, and in-depth knowledge of the local context. COs are often dependent on international funders who are reluctant to make the long-term commitment effective street work requires. Expecting short-term, high quantitative results, they apply pressure on local partners who then feel pressured to focus on taking children off the streets, and often do not reach the most street-anchored children.
Another complicating factor in the historically poor performance of organizations to successfully reintegrate street children is the prevailing stereotype of street children as poor, pitiful, and powerless. They are often considered dependent on the rich to make something out of their lives. Their positive and unique qualities are neglected. This common image is strengthened by most international organizations communication campaigns. As a result, a vicious cycle begins; when people are treated as powerless victims, they will behave like victims. Changing this perspective is necessary for any empowerment process.
During years of observation and street work as a volunteer, Arnoud invented a new form of intervention that focuses on empowering children rather than assisting them. He launched Mobile School in 2002 as a sort of “box on wheels” that goes to children on the street with customizable content based on the local context. Arnoud steps into the children’s lives respectful of who they are and their value systems. His tools consist of a 6-meter blackboard that contains more than three hundred games and exercise that children can take ownership. This method teaches them how to read and write and the basics of health education through fun games, while also serving as a source of creative therapy. The goal is to help street kids become aware of and value their qualities, such as positivity, creativity, perseverance, and entrepreneurial skills. By increasing self-esteem, Arnoud empowers them at three levels: They build empathy and participate in humanizing their life on the streets (improved communication skills and decreased aggressiveness); they prevent feelings of complete social exclusion (children who work on the street do not fall into a whole life on the street); and, they can prepare for a successful reintegration into mainstream society. Today, about 40,000 street children take part in the 2,000 Mobile School sessions organized each year.
Having demonstrated the impact of his approach through hands-on implementation, Arnoud works with existing grassroots organizations to spread his model. Relying on the on-the-ground capacity of his partners and their knowledge of local contexts, he shares his vision and engages them to use Mobile School to reinforce their social impact. To ensure that local partners adopt the core principles and methodology, share on-the-ground experiences and participate in improving his tool, Arnoud invests in a thorough process of selecting the right organizations, training them, and following-up as they begin implementation. Today thirty-one organizations in twenty countries are long-term, committed partners of Mobile School and are fully dedicated to implementing the model in their countries. Thus, Arnoud reaches a growing number of children each year while ensuring applications are adapted to each social and cultural context.
Additionally, Arnoud has designed evaluation and knowledge management systems to continuously improve the model and its social impact. In collaboration with academic partners such as Leuven University, he has created a rigorous methodology that includes feedback from site-visits by internal and external auditors, questionnaires for street children and street educators, as well as cases studies. Most attention goes to understanding the context and to identifying critical elements that make it possible to raise self-esteem. Recent studies highlight that 95 percent of participants feel they are treated with respect during the sessions, that street work is an overall positive experience, and a that high level of trust is achieved.
Confronted with misconceptions of the reality of street kids since he went back to Belgium, Arnoud has seen a great need in shifting societal perception toward vulnerable groups. With the aim to develop empathy and respect, he has created awareness-raising workshops for schools and personal development trainings for companies. Executed by the CO, the workshops are delivered to one hundred schools a year and reach about 50,000 children of all ages—they engage them in fundraising within their communities, which generates €250,000 (US$330,000) a year, 50 percent of Arnoud’s organizational budget.
In 2008, after spending a €1.3 million (US$1.7) donation he received from a venture philanthropist, Arnoud built a sustainable economic model rather than look for new donors. He launched StreetwiZe, a business venture dedicated to reaching out to companies and all profits are channeled to the social mission of Mobile School. Targeting executives and employees, StreetwiZe offers a large range of trainings which allow participants to derive inspiration from and learn the core competencies of street children. Indeed, Arnoud made an important parallel between the street and the business worlds, where people deal daily with crisis, high-risk, constant change, and competition. His trainings enable business executives to become as “StreetwiZe” as the kids to survive in these environments, primarily developing their leadership, creativity, and positivity.
Two years after its launch, StreetwiZe had built a portfolio of thirty clients (including Deloitte & Touche, Ikea, DHL, and Nike), earned a score of 100 percent for satisfaction by an independent international norm on training evaluation, and contributed to 27 percent of Mobile School’s budget. In 2016, StreetwiZe delivered high quality trainings and leadership development programs to over 100 multinational clients and succeeded in transforming a non-profit charity organization into a self-sustainable hybrid social business. In 2017, StreetwiZe • Mobile School is getting geared up to develop some technological products to scale their social impact on street children.
Arnoud grew up in a family where commitment, respect, and empathy are core values. His father, a well-respected judge, died at a young age from cancer, which was traumatic for Arnoud and made him realize that life must be lived as fully as possible. Arnoud developed by learning how to move on from difficult circumstances and to focus on love and respect to overcome challenges.
Arnoud has always been a creative and entrepreneurial person. In his youth, these qualities were reflected in a strong commitment to the local branch of Chiro, an important youth movement in Belgium. Driven by his creative talent, Arnoud studied industrial design. The Mobile School adventure began in 1996 when he sought a CO for his mother to volunteer, as well as thinking about the industrial product he had to develop to graduate. Coming across a Colombia-based organization working with street children was a moment of revelation: He designed a poncho-shelter backpack for kids and quickly realized it was totally inadequate since they sold it as soon as they got it. Arnoud understood the crucial need to improve their daily lives. He went to Colombia to volunteer as a street educator for six months. Back in Belgium in 1997 he designed the first prototype of Mobile School.
Passionate and driven by the potential impact of his idea, it has since become his life’s project. Arnoud pursued post-graduate studies to know more about international development cooperation and then moved to South America to analyze street kid’s situations and revise his prototype to make it applicable everywhere. He was then able to embark upon mass-production. Two years of tests with local organizations in Guatemala and Bolivia led Arnoud to create his own organization in 2002. Since then, he has built a strategy to change the lives of street children and sustain his organization, devoting all his time to empowering people around him and creating bridges between those privileged and the most vulnerable.