By Melissa Diamond, ’15

In May 2012, I went on the Pilgrimage: Israel multifaith trip with the Office of the Chaplaincy. We visited an organization called the Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children.

That is a moment I identify as when my world changed.

We walked through the center and saw children — primarily Palestinians — in classrooms at the center receiving help for their disabilities. Some of the programs they had seemed good; others seemed like they were about five to 10 years behind the latest research and programs that we had in the U.S. It struck me how different the opportunities for children with disabilities are depending on where they were born.

From that moment, for me, the trip changed. It was no longer about the politics, but about the people who were living in this conflict.

I started talking to one of the mothers and she asked if I could help her find a scholarship for her daughter to get autism services in U.S. I stayed in touch with this family; however, in the U.S., there’s a very high rate of autism and it’s difficult for all of the American children to get help. I also saw that it wasn’t a sustainable solution — that even if this family could come to the U.S. for services, there were other families living this experience, and isolated in their homes due to the stigma of autism.

I came up with the idea to start a program to train parents how to work with their children, and then form cooperatives where they could work with each other’s children. The mothers would be empowered to serve their children and would also have another community of families to break that isolation.

I started crowdfunding for the project and a British psychologist reached out to me. He knew a community in the West Bank, Jenin, that could benefit from this program. He connected me to the director of the community center and I was able to make plans to launch the program.

But we still had no funding. As I was reaching out to people and organizations, I was met with a constant issue: they did not want to take on the legal liability of funding a project that was taking place in the West Bank.

During this time, I got distracted from school because I was so invested in finding ways to make this project a reality. I said to myself, “if I don’t find this funding by April 7, 2013, I need to drop this project for a while, and come back to it at a later point in my life.”

On April 6, I won The Resolution Project’s Social Venture Challenge through the Clinton Global Initiative and won $9,000 to implement the project in Jenin.

That summer, I traveled to Jenin and met with the organization that I’d be partnering with and some families in the community to learn about their needs. I worked with my team to develop a curriculum. On Jan. 1, 2014, we began our project in Jenin.

We trained 14 families in the basics of applied behavior analysis (ABA) in two rounds. After the first families went through the training, we brought in the second group of families, whom the first group of mothers then helped teach. This allowed the first group to clarify any questions they had from training, but also empowered them to become teachers.

We also gave lectures at the local university, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Work, and other government organizations, about autism. What most struck me from these lectures was that people would walk in wondering and asking, “Why should we help children with autism?” At every lecture, those same people walked out saying, “How can we help?”

I flew back to the U.S. on April 1, and on April 2, gave a speech at the United Nations for World Autism Day, presenting the program as a model for future work in autism.

At the same time, I found a social entrepreneurship program called Watson University, and that’s where I am now. We have 14 scholars from 11 different countries around the world, and everybody is working on a project that aims to make the world a better place. We take some classes with professionals. We have master courses with Nobel Prize winners, leaders in the field of alternative education, and people like Phil McKinney, the former chief technology officer of Hewlett Packard.

After I graduate, my plan is to move to Jordan in August and live there for the next year. I’m currently fundraising to launch three projects. The first is in the Somali community in Minneapolis that, due to language, cultural, and financial barriers, struggles to access autism resources. The second is in Jordan where we’re going to launch three cooperatives — one for Syrian refugees, one for Palestinian refugees, and one for Jordanians. We’re going to work with a research organization to see how the model works across these different cultural groups to hopefully show the efficacy. The third program is for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families in Jerusalem, and will be held in partnership with a Jerusalem-based applied behavior analysis center.

I’ve realized that this is what I’m passionate about and I want to be able to put every moment of my time into this work. Interacting with these families, learning their stories, learning how they deal with these experiences, and helping them find ways to help them cope with those experiences — I’ve learned more than I can explain living in this community that’s so different from anywhere I’d ever imagined I would live.

Photo: Melissa Diamond, '15, speaks at the United Nations for World Autism Day on April 2, 2014.