Twelve-year-old Dasha Slezko has had one incredible month, living in the dorms at UCLA with a dozen kids from Los Angeles and another dozen from South Africa.
The North Hollywood girl said she has learned a lot about her new friends, namely that young people from opposite ends of the world share many of the same concerns.
This week, as the four-week program ends, the children shared things they've discovered about each other while under the wing of 13 mentors from the United States and South Africa.
Through monologues, rapping, dance and art, the students addressed topics ranging from AIDS to divorce, and in the process asserted their newly discovered sense of empowerment.
The program ends with performances in which the children tell a story using their talents, said Mike de la Rocha, 23, the program's managing director. It begins, he said, with "This is who I am, and it's difficult to be me because of. . . . But I have the power to change."
Dasha said she has "learned I can believe in myself and I have the power to change what I do."
The program is unusual because it combines an international cultural exchange with a residential performance arts workshop, said Michael Skolnik, the program's co-founder and executive director.
UCLA students founded the sponsoring organization, Equal Opportunity Productions, in 1997. Skolnik and his friend William W. O'Neill, a film and music producer, established a foundation in 1999 in the latter's name to help finance the program. More money was raised this year from private donors and grants. Each summer program costs about $200,000, Skolnik said.
Since the children arrived on July 1, Skolnik said, he has noticed a difference in their self-esteem. One shy South African girl is now dancing and singing at the front of the stage, he said.
The children, whose fees are all covered by the program, are also raising their self-confidence and self-reliance, he said, by doing their own laundry, budgeting their money and eating in the UCLA dining halls with students twice their age. Some who had not thought college was possible are now asking if they could study some day at UCLA, he said.
While the program works to help children learn to tackle issues, Skolnik said he doesn't want the kids to get the impression they can change the world overnight. He suggests that they start with small projects and work up from there.
"Do something you can get a 'yes' answer for immediately. You will continue to get 'yes' answers if you tackle it one problem at a time," said Skolnik, 22, who graduated from UCLA last year as a theater major.
As a result, one Los Angeles student wants to start a food drive to help the homeless. A South African child would like to publish a newspaper to give youth a voice.
Dasha is one of five returning students who went to Cuba last summer in the program's first cultural exchange. Next summer Los Angeles participants will go to South Africa for the exchange.
For now, though, everyone's attention is focused on performances at UCLA and on Saturday at the 1,500-seat Apollo Theater in New York, where the California and South African children will fly today. After the show and some sightseeing, the California delegation will return Monday and the South Africans will fly home.