Given the state of our seriously messed-up world, there's one quality that could make a major difference: empathy. It means identifying with your fellow inhabitants of Earth instead of caring about no one but yourself.
A new program dedicated to teaching this crucial skill, Everyday Humane, is making its way into select South Florida schools. Founded by former teacher and philanthropist Magaly Madrid, the idea is to improve children's empathy skills by offering tools and education to help them align their values with their choices. The curriculum includes lessons on captive animals, domestic pets, animal-free eating, and other related subjects.
A dedicated animal advocate, Madrid forayed into animal protection 18 years ago with her beloved cat, Daisy. "Having her in my life inspired kindness toward companion animals, and I began to actively volunteer as a feeder to local cat colonies and animal shelters. As I became more involved in animal protection and welfare, I learned more about the farm industry and reflected." Soon after, she became vegan.
Madrid was inspired to start her empathy education work after traveling through South America and witnessing the connection between human rights issues and animal protection issues. She launched the Empathy Project (the parent organization of Everyday Humane), and it became successful overseas. From there, she decided to begin working in the States.
"I'm at a few local schools here in South Florida. I offer presentations for older children as well as for adults. I'm also in the process of putting together a few other programs that focus on compassion," she says.
"My job as a humane educator is to inspire and empower my students and other individuals to see that they are co-creators of the world we live in, and together we can create a compassionate and kinder world for all beings," she explains.
For those wondering about the educational value of empathy, it isn't just a warm, fuzzy concept. Research has shown that empathy affects almost everything. It reduces prejudice, racism, and bullying; fights inequality; is good for health care; and improves life at the office. It's basically a magical cure-all for society's many ills.
To help boost these skills, Madrid's program offers nonjudgmental, fact-based lessons. Children are encouraged to learn about the plights of animals – but they're never told what to do. Instead, they're left to make their own decisions based on the facts at hand.
None of the materials Madrid provides are graphic or inappropriate. With younger children, the lessons tend to revolve around storytelling and art, she says. With older kids, the classes involve more videos and writing exercises.
"The curriculum is very comprehensive and meets state standards," Madrid says. After experiencing a recent segment about circus animals, many children went home and told their parents they no longer wanted to attend the circus, she adds.
"They were telling me: 'I wanted to go to the circus because I thought it was fun, but when you showed us that, I told my mom that I don’t want to go because they abuse animals.' They got the message, and nowhere in my presentation did I tell them: 'Do not go to the circus.'"
As far as food, Madrid introduces them to healthy, plant-based options. It shows children that animal-free eating is not only possible but also enjoyable.
"I believe being vegan is a not a diet but a path of choosing compassion and nonviolence in all our daily actions whenever possible. It is love and caring in action," Madrid says. "Clarify your values. Who and what do you care about? Now bring your actions in alignment with your values. It will change your life!"
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Opening children' eyes to the experiences of animals is Madrid's way of sharing the love, respect, and appreciation she learned from her cat, Daisy, and other animals with which she has connected.
"That's the power of humane education – seeing how their hearts have opened up even more. It motivates me to continue this work."
You can learn more about the program at EverydayHumane.org.