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Palestinian deaf school finds support in Gainesville community

American children and young adults are reared on the notion that an education is the key to achieving success in life. In our American society, the belief that an adolescent will naturally move from elementary school, to middle school, to high school and eventually to college or some other form of higher education is common. Our society and government supports the advancement of education through countless financial assistance programs and providing equal opportunity to obtain a quality education.

In today’s fast paced, here-and-now society, however, it’s easy to lose sight of the abundance of resources available, taking for granted the encouraging way our society views opportunity and equality of individuals, particularly that of people with physical differences.

Although this is the reality for those living on American soil, it is not the reality for many people living in foreign or third world countries. In Palestine, for instance, the deaf are never given the opportunity to dream of attending high school, let alone college, due to the lack of educational opportunities tailored to their specific learning needs.

While this is not a subject we hear about on the nightly news, students and faculty at Oak Hall School along with members of the community – more than 6,500 miles away – are talking about it, working to help improve the lives of Palestinian youth with hearing impairments through aiding in the advancement of educational opportunities.

Local attorney Steve Kalishman is the founder of the Sister City Program of Gainesville, an affiliate of Sister Cities International, which focuses on providing diverse cultural groups with the opportunity to learn about one another through first hand interaction. Through this unique program, which has been in existence for over 58 years, Gainesville has connected with numerous cities abroad in countries such as Haiti, Poland, Russia, Nicaragua and Iraq. Currently, Gainesville is engaged in a unique three-way connection with Kfar Saba, Israel and Qalqilya, Palestine.

In 2011, a delegation from Gainesville, which included Jason Stahl, Oak Hall School Director of Music, and Robert Ponzio, Oak Hall School Fine Arts Department Chair, visited the only Deaf school in Palestine on behalf of the Sister Cities International program as part of their itinerary. During their visit, they discovered that out of 43,000 deaf citizens in Palestine, only 700 attend school and receive formal education. Based on our research, deafness is viewed as a stigma in Palestine, which can cause feelings of shame to the families of deaf children. In some cases, this unfortunate reality keeps deaf children out of the public eye, and prevents them from ever attaining any education.

The delegation also found that the education system in the West Bank only goes to the 9th grade for deaf students. The school shared its plans for expanding their facility, and explained the need to raise $350,000 in order to make it happen. Realizing that there was a crucial need to improve the educational system in Palestine, the delegation, some of the students and faculty at Oak Hall School decided that they needed to do something about this critical issue.

Cynthia DuPont, the American Sign Language teacher at Oak Hall School, was excited about the opportunity to help, but shocked by the severity of the situation. She explained, “In all of my 35 years of being an interpreter, I had never come to the realization at any point in my career that there were deaf children who didn’t have an opportunity to complete high school, go on to higher education and have opportunities for earning real income, and it just snowballed after that.”

After hearing that two of her advisees, Tripp Lentz and Jacob Goldberger, were skilled in writing and web design, she asked for their assistance in spearheading the creation of a website aimed at raising money towards the Palestinian school’s goal.

The boys were eager to help, and after researching the issue, they realized the impact their work could have, not only on a population, but also an entire country. “If I was in their shoes, I just couldn’t even imagine not having the possibly of continuing education, so I wanted to give them the same opportunities that are present for many other children,”
Lentz said.

After the website was created with some help from the American Sign Language students at Oak Hall School, word spread about the efforts being made in Gainesville to raise money for the school in Palestine. It wasn’t until after the website was up and running that the students and faculty at Oak Hall School became aware of deeper, more complex issues surrounding the Deaf school and the Palestinian government. The government had failed to pay the staff at the Deaf school for over four months, which resulted in teachers and deaf students organizing a protest in West Bank to gain the attention of powerful lawmakers and evoke change in regulations regarding the Deaf. Once the Welfare and Education Ministries understood that there was an extreme need for an expanded school for the Deaf, saw the website that Lentz and Goldberger created and realized that they had so much support from a community on the other side of the world, they offered an additional $700,000 if the $350,000 is raised by mid January of 2015.

The increase in funds would mean that not only could the current school expand, but it would also be able to create an entirely new, state of the art facility. “If we raise this $350,000, then they’re going to have a brand new building in the shape of an ear, which will not only serve their deaf kids in Qalqilya, but all of the Deaf kids in Palestine,” Kalishman explained.

With the promise of an additional $700,000, plus the donation of land and infrastructure by the city government, the current focus is on reaching the original goal of $350,000 within the next six months. In addition to traditional fundraising events, a grassroots approach will be utilized to help reach the community and gain support. Although there is still a long way to go and much of the planning is still in place, everyone involved is dedicated to turning this once distant idea into a very foreseeable reality.

Since becoming connected through Sister Cities, many of the students at Oak Hall School, including Cynthia DuPont’s American Sign Language students, have developed close friendships with the students in Palestine using Skype video calling, where the students are able to communicate using sign language. In April of 2014, a delegation of students and teachers from Qalqilya visited Gainesville, where they finally met their ‘old’ friends at Oak Hall School in person. While in town, the two groups of students painted the 34th Street Wall, took an exciting trip to Disney World and experienced St. Augustine Beach, which was something completely foreign to the Palestinian delegation who, despite living only 10 miles away from the Mediterranean Sea, had never actually seen a beach.

Many people have been touched by the story of the students in Palestine, and through learning about their situation have been inspired to become a part of this powerful movement. Throughout this journey, the one unifying thread that has woven these two diverse groups together is simply the
human connection.

“Even though the cultures are so different, the people are still people and you can connect with them just the same as anyone else,” Lentz commented. Ponzio also added, “The beautiful thing about this is, once you meet somebody and talk to them and have a friendly conversation, they’re no longer a stereotype. In our media, especially with the Israelis and Palestinians, there are huge amounts of stereotypes going on, and they’re not stereotypes when they’re your friend, they’re just people.”

The harmonious union of Sister Cities Gainesville’s involvement and Oak Hall School’s efforts has aided in redirecting a dismal outlook for Deaf Palestinian adolescents into one of hope and prosperity. While the path has been set, and the journey that lies ahead will be long, eventually they will change the lives of many.

For more information about the school for the Deaf, plans for the construction, or to make a donation, visit www.buildaDeafschool.org.

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