I first connected with GRACE Association in 2007 through the UN Online Volunteering Program. At the time, GRACE was seeking help writing a proposal for Early Childhood Development programming in Skardu. Through this opportunity, I learned about the community of Skardu and the surrounding areas. When Mr. Khadim Hussain first asked me to visit in 2008, I was concerned about the security situation there, because the American news media was reporting only on the violent episodes. However, through talking with people like Khadim Hussain, and through researching education in Pakistan while working at the Brookings Institution, a different picture began to emerge. I saw a country where education was highly valued and human resources were needed to further the momentum toward education in the communities.
In January 2011, I decided it was time to start planning my trip to Pakistan and Skardu. Khadim enlisted the help of Mr. Shamshad Hussain of GRACE to assist with my visa application. The U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory against any non-essential travel to Pakistan for American citizens. However, the work that GRACE is doing is so essential to improving the lives of the children and families in Pakistan, that I decided this was an essential trip. I also took steps to blend into Pakistani culture, including wearing shalwar qameez and covering my head with a dupatta.
My background is in Early Childhood Development, and the primary purpose of my visit was to develop the capacity of the teachers at Grace Public School Skardu. I spent the first day observing the teachers, and I found that the relationships between students and teachers, and among students, are very strong. The next day I facilitated a workshop on enriching learning experiences. We talked about providing learning experiences that incorporated a variety of learning styles. During this workshop, the Grace Public School Skardu teachers, Principal Mr. Raza, and Khadim developed a vision for high-quality primary education, and we discussed the pathways to achieving that vision. Next, we planned a series of activities for small groups of children in the Nursery and Prep classrooms (children ages 3-5 years), taught by Ms. Fatima, Ms. Samreen, and Ms. Naznin. We incorporated teacher-developed materials such as letter and picture cards, and recycled materials such as bottle caps for learning counting, sorting, and patterning.On Thursday, we launched the new activities, and teachers noted that the children were very interested in learning and that they were "learning through playing".
While in Skardu, I also had the opportunity to deliver a presentation to the English Access Microscholarship Program Students. This program is an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of State and coordinating by Shamshad. My presentation was titled, "Career Counseling and Opportunities for Higher Education in the USA", and I spoke about the higher education system in general and my own experiences. The students were a very bright and motivated group and all had ambitious career aspirations. They saw English as an important step in meeting their career goals, as many opportunities for higher education in Pakistan are taught in the English medium.
I also had the pleasure of visiting Kwardu Valley and Muntzarabad, the home of the GRACE founder and the birthplace of the powerful grassroots movement that began here in 1992. There I had the opportunity to visit several schools and sample traditional Balti foods in the home of Khadim and his family. Overall, my visit to Baltistan was incredible. While I had known that the Balti people were recognized for their hospitality, I was unprepared for what that really meant. Throughout my visit, I was invited into people's homes for tea after just meeting them; provided with handmade gifts from students; received daily text messages with inspiring words from my new friends; and most importantly, formed lifelong friendships. The students and citizens of this region are full of hope and ambition for their futures, but are in need of technical support and resources to help them achieve this vision of excellence.
I am already planning my next trip to Skardu for spring 2012, Inshallah. In the meantime, Mr. Khadim and I are planning several efforts to sustain this work while I am back in the USA. First, I will be conducting live trainings for the Grace Public School Skardu teachers and leadership via skype, which will be projected onto a screen in the school. We are also considering establishing grassroots global foundation a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in the United States to replicate the successful behavioral change communication and grassroots community empowerment model worldwide.
GRACE endeavours to empower and improve the quality of life of the marginalized and vulnerable communities in the least developed parts of Pakistan through welfare, participatory research and development, capacity building, promotion of best practices and partnership building, advocacy, and by launching sustainable and replicable innovative projects.