Doing Better at Doing Good

Blind girl’s story can inspire change in NC

School started to help disabled improve their communities

May 26, 2012 

Our story begins with a German girl who lost her sight and went on to become a visionary.

Cast into a dark place at age 12, Sabriye Tenberken was told frequently what she could and couldn’t do. But by 14, she had a stark realization: Other peoples’ assumptions about her were their limitations, not hers.

And her story, which Christopher recently heard firsthand during a trip to India, has the power to inspire social change right here in North Carolina.

Told to study law because that was a known profession for the blind, Sabriye’s thirst for knowledge and adventure led her to study Central Asian Sciences at Bonn University, where she focused on the history and culture of the people of Tibet. Field research brought her to the Himalayas, where she discovered a harsh reality for others with impaired sight.

Blind children were seen as liabilities to their families and burdens to society. Moreover, no Braille language had been created, so the world of reading and writing was closed off. Sabriye’s response was to create what has now been adopted as Tibet’s official Braille language.

That was only the beginning of her ambitions. With Paul Kronenberg, a Dutch engineer with a knack for converting passion into action, she founded Braille Without Borders and created Braille Printing Press, a prep school for blind children and a farm to teach job skills. A bakery soon followed. Before long, they had a full-scale empowerment operation – providing a new lease on the future for children who had had very little reason to hope.

With their venture in Tibet operational, Sabriye and Paul started looking outward. How many other young people facing adversity in the world had big dreams but no one to help realize them? A powerful vision emerged of a global school designed to equip people to change the world – especially young people with disabilities from developing communities.

Armed with a dream, they looked for a home. Tibet was too remote for their “dream factory,” but they wanted to stay rooted in Asia. They ultimately alighted upon the state of Kerala in southern India. As Sabriye says, “If you look at the map in a certain way, Kerala is the center of the world – hanging perfectly between Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”

On a beautiful, clear lake outside the city of Trivandrum near the Arabian Sea, Sabriye and Paul have assembled a team to build Kanthari. Named for a small pepper that grows wild and extremely spicy, Kanthari symbolizes a single person’s ability to spark transformative change.

Today, the change-making campus features a farm irrigated through a bicycle pump system. It includes sustainable residences and classrooms with rain catchments and solar panels. The seven-month curriculum challenges students to sharpen their dreams for social change and get them ready for implementation. “Their ideas start small,” says Sabriye, “but they quickly get bigger and more real.”

Now in its third year, Kanthari graduates include Jayn Waitera, who was born in Kenya as an albino. She has created an advocacy organization that fights for albinos in a country where they are hunted and killed by witch doctors who collect their body parts as lucky charms.

Khom Raj Sharma, a blind Kanthari alum, is running a computer training center and a language school for blind and partially sighted adolescents in Pokhara, Nepal. And Yoshimi Horiuchi, also blind, runs a mobile library that promotes reading for people in rural areas of Thailand.

The rallying cry for Kanthari is “a sense of ownership, motivation, creativity, talent and passion to make the world a better place and the strength to be forces of good rather than victims of circumstance.”

No dream seems too small, no obstacle too big. We can benefit from this perspective in North Carolina.

Luckily, we have local examples cropping up including the Mycelium School slated to break ground next year in Asheville for aspiring social change agents. But we need more chili peppers reminding us of what is truly possible.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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