In June 2010, three young beggars approached Yasmin Helal. Instead of doling out money, she gave them school bags that were supposed to be for a donation drive at her office. Then, a man came to her, proclaiming that he too needed bags for his daughters.
That incident set off a series of events that led Helal, a telecommunications engineer and professional basketball player, to found Educate-Me, an initiative based in Cairo that works with underprivileged children from ages six to 12, and the Taleeda Foundation, an incubator supporting social entrepreneurship. She has employed social media, corporate experience and inventive methods to execute her programming. Helal’s approach centers on what she deems as “dream-driven development,” with first asking children what they want. “What we found is that children know, much better than us, what they want and what they need and what they can actually relate to,” she says.
By indulging their interests and curiosities, she says children gain not just knowledge but also the tools to achieve their aspirations. As lofty or abstract as that might sound, she says she’s seen it in action. The approach also echoes Helal’s path, as she confronted her own purpose, questioning where she wanted to go, and ultimately learning along the way as she pursues her passion.
Helal is lean and long-limbed, her head nearly brushing Cairo cafe ceilings. At 28, she’s been playing basketball for almost that long. (“That’s a bit obvious,” she jokes, alluding to her height of 6 feet.) As a member of the Egyptian women’s national team and captain of her club team, she exudes the sharp, quick-on-your-feet thinking and dynamism needed on the court. Strategy is second-nature. When the man asked for school bags for his daughters, she told him she’d come back the next day. Upon her return, he remarked: “I dropped my daughters out of school, because I couldn’t pay fees.” Something clicked. For a while, she’d had thought to get involved in some type of social or development or educational work. Here was a “shove right to my face,” she says.
She accompanied the man to the school and learned that his daughters were not enrolled. She sponsored the kids and, in the process, calculated that to send one child to school for a whole year –factoring in expenses of uniforms and other supplies — costs 200 Egyptian pounds (US$29), an amount most people she knew could afford. “If that’s how much it costs to educate somebody, which is everybody’s right, then how about making an extra effort of trying to start a campaign that’s basically about shuffling resources as simple as possible,” she says.
Through word of mouth, she conveyed the story to others in the hopes that as many students as possible would be sponsored. She also made frequent visits to lower-income areas, such as Fustat in Cairo’s old city, speaking with residents and learning about the education system and other realities there. She approached an NGO that worked in the neighborhoods and identified 135 children who had dropped out of school. Then she created a Facebook page under the name Educate-Me. “I had no intention of this going big at all. It was just like a very little thing I was doing on the side,” she says. But friends told friends and the response was rapid. Money poured in from people she’d never met. In each case, Helal personally went to the schools to directly pay the children’s fees, rather than handing the money to the families.
The experience forced her to ask the visceral question: “What am I doing?” A Cairo University graduate who grew up in Giza, she had spent three years in an enviable engineering position at Alcatel-Lucent, the French communications technology firm. “What if I stop doing Educate-Me and what if I stop doing my job in Alcatel-Lucent — what’s going to happen? If I stop Alcatel-Lucent, they’ll hire somebody else… It’s not going to affect the company,” she told herself. “But if I stop doing Educate-Me, those kids won’t go to school. So impact was something I started looking into.” The concept of salary and paychecks weighed on her mind. She wasn’t getting paid for her Educate-Me efforts, but would be up at 6 a.m. and pumped to do the work. “I was like, ‘how many people at my age and coming from my social background, my level of education would be really willing to give that up and give up like their fancy careers, their business titles, their salaries and all that just to do something for the country,” she says. “I think I want to do something that’s more about the people.”
By the end of 2010, she had quit her job. Many were puzzled by her move, wondering why she would give up her engineering post for so-called charity work. However, some support came through. One of Helal’s colleagues from Alcatel-Lucent with a management and business background, as well as a well-networked business student with marketing experience joined Helal. They brought in business development and other expertise to the operation. They decided to create an incubator to serve as the legal umbrella NGO for social entrepreneurial enterprises, with Educate-Me as their benchmark firm. Out of that, came Taleeda. Helal says the organization provides business acumen, funds, training and additional services to up-and-coming initiatives. Starting an NGO in Egypt can be difficult, she notes. Her main responsibility remains running Educate-Me, whereas her partner heads Taleeda. Among the avenues they’re looking to for the foundation’s sustainability, includes offering consultancy in human resources and organizational development.
Placing all the stakeholders of the education system on the table, Helal and her team examined where they could further make their mark. They noticed shortcomings in public education and saw that merely sending children to school wasn’t enough. They sought an approach that would develop children more holistically, teaching them about character-building and leadership, skills that would prepare them to live life on their own terms. In this vein, they created “learning interventions” and “learning events” based on author Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Working with the same children whom they had sponsored, they designed sessions to teach the kids about the seven habits through arts, music, agriculture and other fields. Volunteers came through their Facebook page, which has garnered more than 10,000 “likes,” where they posted a questionnaire. They filtered responses, created a volunteer database and trained their recruits. Donations helped cover some costs and a company aided in developing some activities and sponsoring a couple of events.
As Helal and her team became better acquainted with the children, they pondered the relevancy of their programs in reference to the children: “What if that’s not what they want? What if they’re interested in something else? What if what we think is right for them is not what they believe is what they need at this point?” Their line of thinking contradicted the conventional, adults-know-best mantra. “One day, we’re like, ‘OK, why don’t we ask them?'” Helal says. They gathered a group of 10 children for their pilot research, telling them, “We’ve been actually assuming all the time that that’s what’s interesting for you, but we think that was not the right way of going about things. So what would you guys like to learn about?” And then what came out of that session, Helal says, was unbelievable. Swimming, ballet, karate, English learning, art. The children’s interests ran the gamut, demonstrating to Helal that even the most open-minded individual could never estimate what a child truly wants. “At that point, we’re like, ‘If that’s what they want and that’s what’s relevant for them, why don’t we build our whole model on that?'” she says. Thus, the “Ask the children” approach formed. “We developed a model that we called dream-driven development, which basically starts with asking the children what they want and then helping them figure out what they need in order to get there.”
Helal serves as a facilitator, but don’t expect her to spoon feed the children in pursuing their happiness, which Educate-Me considers a universal desire. In living this out, the 10 children from the pilot project narrowed their aim to learn swimming. Then, the adults asked them what they would need to achieve that objective, in this case, a bathing suit, goggles, a place to swim. The children found a club housing a pool near their locality and spoke with the coach, and learned the cost of the lessons plus equipment came out to US$25. Helal and others then asked them to think of ways to pay for it. A couple days later, the kids returned to their next session with a list they had compiled of items they could make, from jewelry to bags to origami Japanese paper shapes. Eventually, the children showed up with the products with material they found around their homes. To get higher quality material, they auctioned some of those earlier items, calculating they needed an initial investment of some US$9. They assigned a money keeper and then went themselves to buy the better material and then made their objects. “We did not interfere whatsoever. We really wanted everything to be coming out of their own curiosity. We didn’t want to put all those limits to their minds,” Helal says.
They decided to hold an exhibition to sell their stuff. A friend of Helal’s donated gallery space in the upper-class area of Zamalek for the November 2011 event. The youth priced their objects and then assigned roles to themselves, such as a door attendant and guides. Eighty people showed up, despite news that there would be a protest that day. They were aiming to raise about 1,800 pounds (US$265). At the end of the day, they racked in 3,300 pounds (US$485) and another 2,100 pounds (US$308) was sitting in a donation box. “They overachieved by far. And we were very impressed,” Helal says. Shortly after, Educate-Me enrolled the children in the swimming courses.
The learning doesn’t end there. Helal’s group looks to secondary learning, essentially teachable moments that build on the children’s curiosity as they pursue their interests. (For example, Helal says they can teach chemistry through swimming, when the kids ask questions about pool water.) In addition, other areas they are looking to develop include expanding children’s exposure and learning skills such as digital literacy, writing and reading through mentors. Yet at the core exists the child-centered learning model. “We’re very open to learning from the children and we actually know, for a fact, that they teach us a lot. So Educate-Me, it’s a two-way learning model. We have something to give them and they have a lot to give us,” she says. “We base a lot of our validation and our feedback and everything, comes from the kids themselves.” As their model matures, Helal hopes to extend Educate-Me on a wider scale because she says there’s nothing else like it in the market.
Educate-Me’s work was put on standby briefly during the Egyptian revolution, but they resumed with even more energy, thanks to the fervor people had developed for their nation. “We’re trying to nurture in the kids from a very early age — just live life the way you want because it’s yours in the end,” she says. It’s a goal that Helal herself has chosen to embody, even as some might have considered her a “lunatic” for her choices. Just as the students must devise ways to achieve their aspirations, she must come up with ways to buoy her own pursuit. “I really hope that maybe after the revolution or maybe as more people are willing to start doing more of this, that the perspective would actually change,” she says, such as toward “social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship in general, like even understanding the word risk, the definition of the word risk… like living the life that society [says you] should live or just living life on your own terms.”