National Press Club

School for disabled children will embolden Afghans, founder says

April 12, 2011 | By Keith Hill | khill@bna.com

Debbie Smith, founder, Operation Execptional Children/Afghanistan

Debbie Smith, founder, Operation Execptional Children/Afghanistan

Photo/Image: Susan Bainbridge

The state-of-the-art school that Operation Exceptional Child/Afghanistan plans to build for disabled children in that country will "embolden Afghans to stand up against insurgents," said Debbie Smith, founder of the organization that will undertake this mission.

Smith spoke at a April 11 Newsmaker event.

Smith is also executive director of PATHS (Parents and Teachers Helping Students), a 501(c)(3) organization that advocates on behalf of students with physical/cognitive disabilities.

Smith said she started PATHS because of frustration with her daughter's experiences in the public school system. Her daughter, who was enrolled in special education programs since pre-school, is now in college, she said.

There are more than 200,000 children in Afghanistan who suffer with cognitive and physical disabilities, Smith said. This suffering has existed for decades and has resulted in an unstable situation for both the country and U.S. troops. Because no one is addressing their needs, they can be exploited by Al-Queda, Smith added.

The school Operation Exceptional Child/Afghanistan plans to build will offer hope to these children, Smith said, adding that "any child with disabilities can achieve great things."

Smith also hopes that this school will win over the local population.

If this school can help alleviate human suffering, provide greater awareness of the needs of disabled children, and allow the Afghans to stand up against insurgents, then U.S. troops can finally come home, Smith said.

The school, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, will open with 50 children to test the concept, Smith told the audience. It will be staffed by Afghans and will not carry Smith's name or the name of the organization.

Most important, Smith said, the school will be in compliance with the dictates of Islam.

Smith defined "state-of-the-art" for the audience by saying that the school will have, for example, laptops with modified keyboards and modified desks for students.

There will be a pre-school program included that will identify those children with disabilities, Smith said. The school will be open to boys and girls in grades K through 12.

Children in the lower grades will focus on academics, while those in the upper grades will focus on vocational training, she said.

Smith expects to open the school approximately 12 months after groundbreaking and hopes to find an existing structure that the school can move into. There will be security provided for the school. Smith is currently looking for start-up funding of $350,000.