“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have” – Margaret Mead
In the summer of 2020, during a pandemic full of fear and quarantining, a group of strong willed and caring women of different ethnicities, religions, and organizations put their heads together and struck a light of hope in a dark world. Together, they embarked on a journey to launch the eight-week EmpowerAndHelp Remote Mentorship Program. The program helped two wonderful new immigrant Syrian families from Idlib and their children learn English ahead of the upcoming school year in their new home, America. It was an act of fate that the universe connected them all together and with hard work, kind hearts, and open minds, they all convened to create a program that changed the lives of all involved. It was a transformative journey, one of determination and learning but in the end the results were well worth it. Working together for a common cause is a thing of beauty and being able to look back at the fruits of your labor feels like magic because it not only shows you how the end result was successful but it also is a picture of your self-growth.
The organizations that collaborated on The EmpowerAndHelp Remote Mentorship Program were EmpowerAndHelp co-founded by Aditi Verma and Priti Bansal, Scholars for Syria founded by Gail Vignola, and The Book Smart Project founded by Natasha Toth. Each of the organizations and founders brought something different to the table, they each had a variety of charitable experiences leading up the creation of the Remote Mentorship Program and their combined expertise was what carried the program to success. Aishwarya Panchal, an independent professional with a background in Psychology and Organizational Behavior, worked with the team as a Senior Mentor and Educator on the Remote Mentorship Program. Priti and Aditi are close long-time friends who have been doing charity work both on a national and international level with the hopes of making education more accessible to everyone in the world, as they believe this is a human right. Their dedication to making the world a better place for all regardless of financial status, genealogy, and social status is awe-inspiring and something to aspire to. They launched a hardware drive to ask the local community for computers and iPads that would be donated to the Syrian families to allow them to participate in the program and be adequately set up for success should schools remain remote in the fall. They have a passion for spreading knowledge, awareness, mindfulness, and their main focus is on getting children involved and feeling empowered to change the world for the better. To name a few of their impressive accomplishments: they have collected and donated medical supplies that were sent directly to war-torn Idlib; they collected baby supplies that were sent to refugee camps in Syria, the effort was called #parceloflove; they launched Cards of Hope that were sent digitally around the world to thank essential workers during the COVID-19 lockdown; and they launched a program called The Global Awareness Challenge with the goal of getting children across the United States involved and learning about the pressing issues taking place in our world. They had 50 registrants between grades 6 -12 from all across the United States in their first year of launching the Global Awareness Challenge Program, and among those 50 participants were 23 ambassadors. The ambassador program requires a higher level of involvement, dedication, and direct action in the community to raise awareness and strive for change. The ambassadors did a number of notable projects, among them writing and publishing articles about global issues they are passionate about, conducting community drives for causes that are dear to their hearts, and participating in The EmpowerAndHelp Remote Mentorship Program.
Gail Vignola from the Scholars for Syria organization was the link that united all the organizations and inspired the remote mentorship program’s launching. Gail has dedicated herself to raising awareness, rallying, and educating others about Syria and the Syrian people. She is a well-respected English professor at Seton Hall University and has an affinity for the people of Syria, and her compassion is only surpassed by her kindness towards others. Her organization strives to help Syrians that are here in America achieve their educational goals and ensure their safety as well as supporting those who are still in Syria. Gail introduced Priti and Natasha to the two immigrant Syrian families. She had found Priti on Facebook and they connected instantly and began to think of how to best aid these families. Gail wanted to help these families; thus the remote mentorship program was born. She has been a constant supporter and friend to the families and has been loyal to the mission of helping them in any way she possibly can during the unprecedented times of COVID-19.
I am from The Book Smart Project and have devoted many years to collecting and donating kids’ books to local teachers and low-income school districts across America. My main focus is in New Jersey but have also donated books internationally to parts of the Caribbean, India, and Bangladesh. In preparation for the remote mentorship program I collected books and school supplies for the students to ensure they are set up for success when we started the program. I am of Middle Eastern descent and am fluent in Arabic and was a key part to the remote mentorship program. I utilized my love for education and knowledge of children’s books to spearhead the program and offer support to the ambassadors and families directly. I was able to bridge the language gap between the ambassadors and the families. I, alongside Priti, attended every Zoom meeting to offer guidance and translations to further help the ambassadors and students get their messages across to each. I was the main point of contact between the families, fellow founders, and the ambassadors. In addition to helping the mentors and students, I also volunteered to do one-on-one classes with the Syrian parents to teach them English and help prepare for their citizenship exams. This experience was absolutely amazing for me and I have seen myself grow over the weeks of the program. I have found a group of kind-hearted women with a similar goal as mine and have learned endless lessons and virtues from them. This summer will forever be ingrained in my mind and heart, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with such a dedicated team.
From top left to bottom right: Aishwarya Panchal, Priti Bansal, Aditi Verma, Gail Vignola, and Natasha Toth
The ambassadors were the true heroes and all-stars of the remote mentorship program as without their hard work, enthusiasm, and innovation the program would not have been as successful and influential as it was. The ambassadors’ ages ranged from 12 – 17 years old and they all brought something very special with them to the program and set the standard very high with their impressive work ethic. They were tasked with building curricula and meeting on a weekly basis via Zoom to give lessons in a variety of subjects including STEM, coding, and pronunciation. There were a total of nine Syrian students and they each were assigned a team of ambassadors who would tailor the lessons to their levels, their strengths, and introduce them to new skills. The program saw the students and ambassadors both growing immensely, both sides of the computer screen proved to be part of the learning process. The students were making noticeable progress in their reading, writing, and speaking skills. They were being taught coding which was something they had never learned before and they were able to see how entertaining and applicable it is in our everyday life. The pronunciation lessons proved to be very valuable because the students were practicing reading and speaking at the same time. The ambassadors were drawing on their school experiences and their past assignments to further teach their students. They learned a new level of adaptability and flexibility as their students grew through the assignments and Zoom classes. The ambassadors and students both exercised their people skills, patience as they gained valuable lessons about extending help to others, and they learned about themselves and people from a completely different world and culture than their own.
The most rewarding part of all was when we had the final meetings with the parents of the ambassadors and the students. The testimonials from the ambassadors’ parents were about how they were beaming with pride from how far their children had come since the start of the program, how they had seen a shift for the better in their children in regards to their people and communication skills, and how their children had become more driven and dedicated to helping within their community. The testimonials from the students’ families were truly heartwarming and touching as well. They spoke about how they felt so grateful that their children had become more comfortable and confident in their reading, speaking, and writing skills over the summer months. The students had lost years of education whilst living in refugee camps before finally settling in America. It was wonderful to hear that the students were speaking better, looking forward to reading more, and all feeling ready for the upcoming school year and it was something that put tears of joy in our eyes. One of the Syrian families includes a pair of twins who were only five years old and did not know how to speak or know the basics of the English language. At the end of the program, they knew their alphabet, colors, numbers, and shapes. The mother shared that the twins were excited to have more knowledge. She said there was a wall and our ambassadors broke it by teaching her children all of these valuable lessons. The benefits were not solely academic but also the soft skills that both the students and ambassadors learned through their participation in the program was something none of us had anticipated. For example, the students learned how to use Google Classroom and Zoom more proficiently and that is an important skill now more than ever since schools are going remote for the 2020-2021 school year due to the pandemic. The ambassadors all grew as people and were happy to have experienced this program from the perspective of a teacher and the joys of teaching a new skill to a student.
These testimonials and this experience were filled with priceless lessons that the founding members cherished being able to witness; it was a beautiful collaboration from start to finish. Mother Theresa once said “none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can do small things with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” That has rung very true in this collaboration that started as a project to help Syrian families but turned into friendships and life long memories that are unforgettable for everyone involved.
Written by Natasha Toth – Founder of TheBookSmartProject.
If you would like to learn more and pre-register your children for EmpowerAndHelp Global Awareness Challenge and/or Ambassador Program.