I have been a Rotarian for many years now. My admiration for this group of people, their values, the mission and vision of the organization keep getting stronger every year; and so does my hope and conviction that we will make a difference in the lives of marginalized people in various regions of the world, especially in light of the current plans to develop the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) slogan into action. Rotarians will keep on serving people’s needs through genuine sustainable development.
I was glad to listen to my friend Nabil Costa at the recent conference organized by District 2452 in Beirut as he addressed the issue of inclusion of individuals with challenges and learning difficulties in Lebanon. Indeed, a lot has been achieved in the recent past, but also as he pointed out, there is still a long way to go before we are able to provide children, youth and adults with disorders and disabilities with all the infrastructure, institutions, as well as policies and laws they need to live a decent and enjoyable life. Rotarians are surely providing the support needed to keep walking the way.
Forty years ago, while visiting Rotarian friends in upstate New York, I was invited to tour Pathfinder Village (https://pathfindervillage.org/ ), “an internationally renowned open-access neighborhood where individuals with Down syndrome and developmental disabilities make lasting friendships, learn about community, and gain independence. It’s a gracious and pristine environment where your loved one will experience the joy of “belonging.” Each person (with a disability) has his/her own small house to live in a huge compound out of nowhere.
I invited the persons in charge to come to Lebanon and visit Sesobel. They did and then invited someone from Sesobel to go and stay one full year at Pathfinder Village on the account of Rotary International to learn how they operate. At the end of this one-year cultural exchange, the verdict came in. Pathfinder Village organizers find that the family in Lebanon is warmer and accepts easier to be in charge of the child with disability than the family in USA where both mother and father have to work to make ends meet and hence send their kid to a faraway place to learn to live on his own.
Indeed, in those times, circumstances in Lebanon were such as, a family took care of their child with special needs most likely parents and siblings of a challenged person lived to endure all kinds of marginalization with him or her. As we stepped into the 21st century, gradually we started hearing of opportunities for these children to be out in the community and to receive at least basic education. As we travelled into the second decade of this era special education in private and public schools became more or less readily available in Lebanon. More importantly, they are becoming more and more regulated, thanks to efforts of non-governmental organizations like SKILD Center.
Thanks to the initiative of IDEAL, a partnership between SKILD and Notre Dame University (Zouk Mosbeh, Keserwan), young girls and boys with special educational needs as well as other disabilities and disorders now have the chance to make the first step towards joining the labor market. They are equipped with essential knowledge and skills to interact with other people in the community and work place, as well as to become responsible for an income generating task.
In my opinion, in parallel to the developing the college program for challenged learners at IDEAL, and gradually at other institutions too in Lebanon, it is time to establish institutions similar to Pathfinder Village. This is where the hope is high for brothers and sisters Rotarians and similar influencers in our society to play a role to make what now seems a dream project, especially with the ongoing crisis in Lebanon.
In light of the increase in the number of learners with special educational needs and of inclusive educational institutions – especially at the college level (IDEAL) – in Lebanon, I believe that the country is ready to establish an open access neighborhood for young women and men with special needs. It is highly needed to fine tune their knowledge and abilities and to add new ones in places and environments where there is a strong sense of camaraderie without jeopardizing a resident’s interests and activities.
Imagine a day when Lebanon has its own version of Pathfinder Village (check their website) with a friendly community of financially sufficient and independent brothers and sisters with special needs … Inclusion, when closely implemented is a wonderful state of being! This dream is not far-fetched. It just needs to be endorsed by public and private authorities and donors who are aware of the rights and needs of challenges individuals in the 21st century.
I believe that the country is ready to establish a complex in Lebanon for young men and women with special needs to fine tune their knowledge and abilities and add new ones in an environment where they are able to building true friendships and feel a sense of belonging
To end, I invite you to think … Will values of families in Lebanon with challenged members remain in view of the major financial problems people are facing? Or will we become more like USA and send kids with difficulties to learn to live on their own without any orientation or capacity building?