It all started with a camp.
In the spring of 2011, ETI’s Founder and CEO, Sara Minkara, was a math and economics major at Wellesley College, planning to apply to graduate school in one of those fields. Sara’s friend Maysa, also a Wellesley student of Lebanese descent, came up with the idea for the camp. Maysa came from an education background, whereas Sara’s passion aligned with disability rights and inclusion. “She wanted to do something in Lebanon and I wanted to do something about blindness and inclusion. So we put our heads together and came up with the idea of a summer camp. We then applied for the Clinton Foundation grant and other Wellesley grants, which we got, and put on the camp,” says Sara.
Pretty simple, right? Just form an idea, implement it, and watch as it becomes a success. Well, not so much. A lot of planning and hard work by dedicated staff and volunteers goes into making ETI’s programs a reality. This summer, as we celebrate ETI’s sixth summer of programs for youth in Lebanon, we reflect on the reasons behind the design of our programs, as well as what it takes to empower our participants.
A Holistic Approach
“I never knew that it would be a successful project creating huge impact. So I knew then and there that I wanted to continue on that path. I put together a team and by my senior year in college I had registered ETI as a nonprofit. I never thought that ETI would become my life—I was planning on pursuing a PhD in Economics—but I realized that ETI is what ignites my passion and it is what is needed in this world. So I switched paths.”
Following Camp Rafiqi’s success its first summer, Sara and her team realized that, in order to continue, ETI needed to offer more programs beyond the camp. Since there is no such program in Lebanon besides ETI’s Life Skill Program that teaches basic life skills to youth with visual impairment, many of the kids with visual impairment who come to Camp Rafiqi have never been taught these essential skills. In order to better participate in all the activities Camp Rafiqi has to offer, the kids with visual impairment would need to learn some of these basic skills before arriving at the camp.
This is how the Life Skill Program came to be. The Life Skill Program is a two-part training that occurs before ETI’s summer camp and throughout the year. In this program, children with visual impairment learn orientation and mobility, independent life skills (such as choosing an outfit and preparing simple meals), and technology. The Life Skill program has been designed to build confidence in the children with visual impairment, so that they can go on to participate in Camp Rafiqi (and later on, the Social Project Program).
All of ETI’s programs take this holistic approach—planting the seed of confidence during one program, and then allowing it to continue growing throughout the next program, and then in the one after that. The cyclical nature of our programming is important because we want our kids to continuously learn and become more confident as time goes on, without interruptions or major setbacks. In other words, we want our participants with visual impairment to progress as the capable, constantly-learning young individuals that their peers are. Our expectations of what they are able to achieve are similar to those of any other kid, and we support them every step of the way as they grow and evolve.
Why a Summer Camp?
Every summer, children across the world get excited about going to summer camp. There is so much to do at camp—make new friends, learn new activities, and just be a kid. For youth with visual impairment in developing countries, however, the option to go to summer camp—much like participating in other activities—does not exist.
“We wanted to create an environment where kids with visual impairment would be integrated with sighted kids, and one that is typical for children, so that they could just play together and have fun—the way kids are supposed to,” says Sara. “Having both populations of kids come together revolutionizes their mindsets. It shows the kids with visual impairment that they have a right to exist in society, and it shows the sighted kids that their peers with visual impairment aren’t so different from them.”
It is important for us to show the kids with visual impairment that they belong, just by having them come to camp. We do not patronize them. We do not pity them. They have a seat at the table just like the sighted kids. They’re given the opportunity to learn about music, art, and theater just like everyone else, and they get to play soccer with other young people. Having visual impairment does not mean that you can’t enjoy all the fun things childhood has to offer.
“Working for ETI’s summer programs in 2016 was a rewarding experience on so many levels,” says Ziad Azar, ETI’s Tripoli Program Manager. “I met positive and hardworking people from different backgrounds who shared the love of community service and doing good deeds for society as a whole. Taking part in the programs made me realize how needed and important integration and inclusion are in any society, and witnessing beautiful friendships between two participants who were complete strangers at the beginning of camp is a memory I will cherish forever. Finally, participants with visual impairment taught me how beautiful life can be even with loss of sight.”
When people of different backgrounds and interests come together with a common goal, we learn, without even meaning to, that they are not so different than us. ETI does this by purposefully integrating blind and sighted youth, but we take it a step further by also integrating other supposed differences: Palestinian and Syrian refugees with Lebanese youth, as well as Muslim and Christian children integrated together.
“We want to clearly demonstrate to the kids that everyone has value and that inclusion is important,” says Sara. “Everyone has different abilities, and everyone has something beautiful to bring to the table. It’s a loss on society if we don’t integrate everyone. This camp allows the visually impaired kids to gain independence, and second, for every single kid to learn that they have abilities and potential to contribute.”
We’re confident that each kid in our programs will gain confidence this month, and we look forward to watching it blossom in every participant. Stay tuned with us as we explore the impact we are creating this summer through the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi, in this blog series, Empowering Lebanon’s Youth, and let us know in the comment section what you think.