Empowering Children Through Music and Arts: The Olive Seeds Association’s Story

Olive Seeds Association (Zeytin Çekirdekleri Derneği), based in Balıkesir, is dedicated to ensuring children’s right to education and arts. The association received grant support from our Children’s Fund, launched in collaboration with the Support Foundation for Civil Society (Sivil Toplum için Destek Vakfı). With this grant support, the association organised four group activities, each spanning five days, in Ayvalık. These gatherings saw the participation of approximately 25 children in each group, including children who had arrived from earthquake-affected areas.

Read below our interview:

Our readers are already familiar with the Olive Seeds Association (Zeytin Çekirdekleri Derneği). Can you briefly tell us about the founding story and the activities of your association?

The Olive Seeds Social Responsibility Program is a social mobilisation and volunteer movement founded on the respect, love, and unity rooted in the centuries-old friendship between humans and olive trees. This movement is based on the idea that just like the enduring strength of an ancient olive tree, the foundation of social mobilisation and volunteerism lies in starting from scratch and contributing to the spirit of peace and equality symbolised by the olive tree. It’s about everyone participating in a voluntary effort, working together like a community, and believing that “a child’s development changes the world.”

Our journey began in May 2014 in the town of Ayvalık and we officially established the association in 2015, with a mission to reach 3,500 children over nine years. Since 2020, we’ve also been providing voluntary support and consultancy to the sister “Nar Çiçekleri Platform” in Gaziantep.

We believe in the right of all children to access education and the arts, particularly for those who are socio-economically disadvantaged and unable to access proper education and the arts. Our target group is children between the ages of 7 and 17. While music and other artistic activities are an important part of what we do, they serve as a means to an end.

Our primary goal is to strengthen children’s social development, create a sense of belonging, provide them with spaces to express themselves, enhance their cognitive development and self-esteem, and support them to become creative and productive individuals. Another crucial aim is to identify children with artistic talents early on within these groups and guide them towards the right environment at the right time based on their interests.

Our association’s activities this year involve around 350 children and can be summarised as follows:

  • Individual instrument lessons (violin, cello, piano, flute, mandolin, viola, clarinet, saxophone)
  • Olive Seeds Orchestra activities
  • Mandolin Orchestra
  • Olive Seeds Choir
  • Concerts in Ayvalık and across Türkiye (including Republic’s 100th Year Concerts)
  • The “Çekirdek Kumpanya” Theatre Workshops and Performances
  • Colourful Hours Workshops
  • Olive Seeds Sign Language Group
  • Virtual art exhibitions
  • Boğaziçi University Ayvalık Schools
  • Weekend workshops for children who were affected by the earthquake and arrived in Ayvalık

Our work is carried out in collaboration with Ayvalık District Governorship, Ayvalık Municipality, Ayvalık District Directorate of National Education, Boğaziçi University, Izmir State Opera and Ballet, as well as voluntary artists, academics, and trainers from both the area and other cities.

We know that your association is built on the El Sistema model. Can you explain this model and its implementation?

Our project draws inspiration from El Sistema, which originated in Venezuela and uses music education as a tool for social change. As Jose Abreu, the founder of the El Sistema model, put it: “The profound spiritual world generated by music and the eradication of material poverty go hand in hand. When a child thinks about playing an instrument, that child is no longer poor. They are on the path to becoming a full citizen, progressing toward a professional level. Music is the number one shield against fighting, violence, bad habits, and everything that can ruin a child’s life.”

Similarly, the Olive Seeds Social Responsibility Program focuses on music-centred activities. We diversify and strengthen our music programs with various artistic and social activities. While we embrace the philosophy of El Sistema, we also use simplified conservatory methods recommended by our supporting conservatory, symphony, and state opera and ballet artists.

In our various artistic activities, we aim to enhance children’s awareness by addressing social and environmental themes. For example, our concerts in April focused on Türkiye’s 100th Year, emphasising Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s commitment to art and children. It was a joint project dedicated to the 78 children and youth living in Ayvalık and the 22 artists from Izmir Opera, who performed together. Additionally, a 13-year-old student composed a piece related to earthquakes and performed it with the orchestra during the opening.

Can you tell us about the impact of your work on children? When you think about the children you’ve worked with in the past, how does music affect their well-being?

Imagine a world where children are supported, believed in, respected, and know that someone is there for them. A world where children wake up excited and eagerly await the day. A world where all children have full confidence in their ability to succeed, understanding that they might face difficulties, but they will ultimately succeed. Music, art, dance, and sports are keys to making this world a reality.

These activities help develop executive functions in the brain, such as focusing, thinking differently, seeing things from another person’s perspective, controlling impulsive reactions, resisting negative influences, critical thinking, and adapting to changing circumstances. 

As a result, developing executive functions leads to lifelong success, well-being, and an improved quality of life. For instance, playing in an orchestra is important because when children play an instrument, they leave behind the challenges they may face in their personal lives, homes, or schools. Playing in an orchestra teaches them discipline, hard work, respect for others, active listening, and the ability to overcome challenges. It shows them that when they can’t play well, the solution is to practice relentlessly, stay focused, and not fear failure. Their self-confidence increases, and they feel better about themselves. This prepares them for the challenges of life, making them stronger individuals. 

We are always proud to witness and experience the remarkable growth in our children. Their transformations are truly incredible.

Economic and social crises have made vulnerable groups even more fragile. How has this situation affected the children and families? Can you tell us about the changes in the needs of the groups you work with?

The economic crisis, the rising cost of living, two major earthquakes centred in Kahramanmaras on February 6, and other health issues like influenza outbreaks caused by viruses (not to mention COVID-19), have significantly impacted both the children and their families in Ayvalık, who were already socio-economically disadvantaged.

Due to flu outbreaks, we experienced occasional reductions in the number of students we were able to reach, and there were times when our teachers fell ill and couldn’t continue. Therefore, we rescheduled the activities that couldn’t take place for other dates. 

However, the economic crisis has affected not only the children and their families but also our organisation negatively. Our expenses have exceeded our budget significantly, and it’s challenging to predict our budget against continuously rising prices. Unfortunately, at this rate, we may have to limit our services. Fundraising is difficult, we provide education support and food supplies to 350 children. With such a high number in mind, we can foresee that our association will face difficult times in the future.

Just like everywhere in Türkiye, there were families among our students and teachers who lost their relatives in the earthquakes. We are trying to overcome this period with solidarity, support, and unity, both within our organisation and with the families who arrived in Ayvalık after the earthquakes. We can say that the earthquakes have significantly strengthened social solidarity. A 13-year-old student from the Olive Seeds choir, who had never experienced an earthquake, composed a song about the earthquakes. He chose to express his own feelings in this way. This can be an example of how this disaster affected the children in Ayvalık, who are from outside the earthquake zone but could see it through the eyes of the children in the affected region.

To give a brief overview, after the earthquakes, approximately 1,500 people were affected and came to Ayvalık, including 300 children. The arriving families were accommodated in various hotels and camps. As a child-focused organisation, we planned various activities to support these children and quickly obtained the necessary permits from the Ministry of National Education and the District Governorship.

As a result of our call, we now have nine volunteers, consisting of retired and currently working teachers. We are supporting the children, under the guidance of our volunteer teachers, with music, art, handicrafts, games, and reading activities at three different locations where those affected by the earthquake are staying. Additionally, even though our budget is limited, we employ a music teacher, who has lost her home and job due to the earthquakes, for two days a week to provide solfeggio and violin lessons to the students. 

You have launched the new phase of the “Colourful Hours” project with the grant support of our Children’s Fund. Can you tell us about the project’s activities?

The “Colourful Hours” project involves workshop activities with children from families living in areas we consider socio-economically and socio-culturally disadvantaged, who have difficulty accessing or are unable to access education and art. The aim is to introduce these children to a love of early reading and libraries, as well as engage them in artistic activities like music, painting, and sports activities such as children’s yoga.

The goal is to contribute to the positive development of their social identity and personalities and to reflect this in society. Our aim is to make a contribution to modern Türkiye. Economic conditions are becoming increasingly challenging. Poverty is deepening day by day, and this situation affects the families we work with the most. Consequently, there are almost no opportunities left for children to access proper education.

Our project began in November 2022, and we had a total of four groups. We conducted the activities of the 1st group on Saturdays between November 5 and December 3, 2022. Here’s a breakdown of our activity program:

First, we focused on identifying children who cannot read and write or need more support in this regard. We concentrated on activities such as reading, creating stories, understanding and explaining what they read, and self-expression. Then, our volunteer music teacher helped children learn new songs, become familiar with musical instruments, maintain rhythm, and engage in musical games. Later, we conducted activities such as painting, crafts, and library introductions.

During the final event, the children painted canvas bags, which displayed what the children had done during the five weeks, including their favourite activities. Additionally, the children received participation certificates and were given a book as a gift.

The activities for the 2nd group took place on Saturdays between December 2022 and January 2023, following the same program as the 1st group. For the 2nd group, we had the support of Banu Kanıbelli, a musician, educator, children’s song composer, and producer of children’s song albums. Kanıbelli, based on the story she shared with the children, had the children write lyrics about protecting the environment and nature. She composed a small part of the song with the children and performed it together. This allowed our children to have a song that they created themselves. Additionally, thanks to the yoga mats we obtained through this grant support, we had a volunteer children’s yoga teacher join us and conduct children’s yoga.

At the end of the 1st and 2nd group activities, we identified six children who could not read and write properly. We formed a new reading and writing support group with them. We conducted this activity concurrently with the 3rd group. The 3rd group activities took place between February and April, with the same format.

The activities for the 4th group started in April. These activities were conducted with children affected by the earthquakes. Although our grant application stated that we would carry out this group with children from the surrounding villages of Ayvalık, we had to revise the activities due to the unexpected disaster, resulting in the arrival of nearly 300 children from the earthquake region in Ayvalık. We conducted activities in parallel with the previous group activities, as suggested by child psychologists.

About Olive Seeds Association

Olive Seeds Association, based in Balıkesir, is dedicated to ensuring children’s right to education and arts. The association has been providing crucial support to children aged 7-11 who face socioeconomic challenges and struggle to access quality education.