“What an amazing opportunity and privilege to serve such precious people!” These sincere words of gratitude were voiced by countless young volunteers and celebrities who joined efforts with SKILD team this past week as we organized, in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation, a Night to Shine for 81 young women and men with special needs.
A few hours before the event, amidst all the excitement and the busyness of tending to the final details, and to our encouragement, we received a very touching email from a friend introducing our most recent LSESD partner, Gillian, a warm-hearted, thoughtful and generous 50-year old woman with learning difficulties from birth. Gillian saw on the news the plight of Syrian refugees affected by the snow storms in Lebanon, and decided that she needed to help. She gave from her heart, the widow’s mite, driven by a deep desire to stand by disadvantaged people she never met, in a country she’s never visited before.
“The deeds you do may be the only sermon some people will hear today.” These words of St. Francis of Assisi came to mind as I read the email. Thoughts of Gillian and her genuine act of love remained with me that day, and again in the evening as we cheered and crowned these 81 young women and men in celebration of who they are, as individuals created in God’s image. A reality that is often missed, and possibly intentionally ignored, as people like Gillian and our celebrated participants are often misunderstood and rejected by members of their families, as well as the wider community in Lebanon and the region.
The intensity of our journey of hope with special needs children (their parents, and the community at large) grew when we founded SKILD Center for Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences in 2011. It is essentially a journey towards changing a culture! At the time, people questioned our decision to give particular focus to special needs, failing to see how providing these children with the appropriate support, advocating their right to education, and working towards inclusive educational communities (& churches) aligns with LSESD’s mission. What they missed is that being the hands and feet of Jesus in the community is at the very heart of who we are as LSESD, and as members of the global Body of Christ.
Church leaders too questioned our desire to develop a tool to sensitize our churches on how they can identify and support children with special needs and their families. Their rationale was “we do not have such people in our churches”. Which, to us, was evidence enough that our special needs journey needed to include our churches too.
In The Cross of Christ, John Stott notes that “the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as with loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation itself”. So very true! Hand in hand with equipping and empowering the Church, LSESD is involved in addressing issues of poverty and vulnerability and the right to education for all as a practical reflection of God’s love for the vulnerable and the marginalized, that they may attain their full God-given potential. The impact of SKILD’s perseverance and hard work with educators and special needs children in public schools in Lebanon raised the attention to the prevalence of a high number of at risk children in our public schools. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s advocacy efforts led to the recent appointment of special educators in 30 public schools (out of 1255 public schools). Still, an important step forward towards inclusive educational communities in Lebanon.
Between SKILD Center and the Beirut Baptist School (BBS) we now have on board over 70 highly equipped professional therapists. In 2018, over and above our annual national level awareness campaign, SKILD provided more than 1300 assessments and specialized therapy sessions, trained 309 educators, 440 church leaders, and partnered with 17 schools. Not to mention the 74 special needs students enrolled at BBS, and supported by the School’s special needs division. This week’s Night to Shine event was yet another step towards raising awareness, preserving the dignity of special needs people in our country, and giving them back the joy that they offer so innocently and graciously to others. We are grateful to Tim Tebow’s vision and heart that extended across oceans to bring joy to our own people.
We celebrate today our circle of stakeholders that has increased to include more parents, churches, school administrators and educators, university and school students, media organizations and celebrities… working together step by step towards an inclusive nation. We also celebrate friends, prayer partners and supporters who have come alongside us, sharing our understanding of the Gospel as Word and deed, and of the Church as a change agent in the community.
Above all, we give glory and praise to God who paving the way ahead prompted us to follow in His footsteps, with not much in hand but trusting Him for the outcome.
Once again, thank you Tim Tebow that the love of Christ was able to shine through a Night to Shine.