For Deaf Students in Ethiopia, the First Day of School is a Major Milestone

Around the world, the extra cost to send children back to school is often an overwhelming amount for parents. Books, school supplies, shoes and uniforms all add up — and on top of already expensive school fees. However, for one special school in Ethiopia, you can help provide children with the supplies they need and ensure the first day of school is marked with joy and celebration.

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In 2009, Holt came to Shinshicho — first renovating a local clinic, and then partnering with the community to build a full maternal-child hospital to serve the region’s nearly 250,000 people. In recent years, Holt also developed programs to strengthen families at risk of separation from their children. Through our work in the community, Holt heard about the need for a school for deaf children and decided to help. A Shinshicho resident donated the land and space, and we worked with the community to build a school for deaf children. Anticipating only 50 students on the first day, we were shocked when more than 200 children showed up to learn. This year, more than 500 students will attend Yesus Mena School for deaf children.

There’s a universal kind of magic in the first day of school.

The potion is simple: mix one new outfit with two cups of optimism for what a new school year may hold — one from the child, one from the parent. Add a fresh-faced teacher and 50 sets of new notebooks and school bags. Blend it all together with a dose of excitement and a pinch of nerves. Add a new best friend and a handful of lunch-time giggles. Drink it up, knowing this school year will be the best one yet.

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Tigabu, pictured here, was one of more than 200 students who enrolled at the Yesus Mena deaf school the first year it opened. One of 9 children in his family, and one of three who is deaf, Tigabu’s family struggled to communicate with him. He grew introverted and sad, unable to express himself to anyone. Today, Tigabu is bubbly, happy and learning to speak sign language. Read more about Tigabu here: https://www.holtinternational.org/blog/2014/09/ethiopia-students-return-to-school-with-holts-support/

At the Holt-supported Yesus Mena School in Shinshicho, Ethiopia, the first day of school is truly a day of celebration and joy for children and families. For most children — even those in their teens — this year will be the third time they’ve ever felt the joy of the first day of school. For nearly a quarter of the 500 students, it will be their first. In this region of more than 250,000 people, there is only one school for deaf children. Despite the fact that deafness is especially prevalent here — and no one is sure why — three years ago, there wasn’t any place for deaf children to learn.

Instead, they were hidden away. Like all disabilities, deafness is heavily stigmatized in rural areas of Ethiopia. Because deafness is often misunderstood in more remote areas, children are frequently marginalized and bullied, often living in near constant isolation.

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Deafness affects an abnormally high number of people in the Shinshicho region of Ethiopia, and no one is sure why. Despite the elevated rate of deafness, many deaf children still face stigma, discrimination and even abuse — especially in rural areas. Before the Yesus Mena School opened, many deaf children were hidden away out of fear and shame. Today, the teachers, headmaster and social workers at Yesus Mena are working to educate the community about deafness.

When Holt first learned of the high number of children born deaf in this region, we were horrified by what we saw. Not only were they children completely excluded from educational opportunities, but resources and sign language courses were completely nonexistent, meaning deaf children couldn’t even communicate with their families.

Miruk Alemu, Holt Ethiopia’s sponsorship, adoption and communications director, says that many parents just gave up hope that they could ever communicate with their children.

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Miruk Alemu, Holt Ethiopia’s sponsorship, adoption and communications director.

“The families were very ashamed,” Miruk says. “Can you imagine if you could never talk to your children? There was no one to help them.” Seeing the tremendous need, Holt helped mix together a little magic of our own. We collaborated with local government and business leaders to find space for classrooms and trained sign language teachers. Local staff added an additional social worker and the community helped raise money for classroom supplies.

Then, it was the first day of school.

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In December 2014, a German nonprofit provided the funding to build a larger school to facilitate the ever-growing student population. Each year, Holt child sponsors and other compassionate individuals contribute to a special fund to buy school supplies, uniforms and shoes for children in all of Holt’s sponsorship programs around the world, since the cost of these items is often overwhelming to already struggling families. Here, children are seen eating lunch in their newly built classroom. Holt sponsors provide nutritional assistance to Yesus Mena, which ensures children from struggling families receive healthy meals each day.

Ready to open classroom doors to 50 students, Holt was shocked when more than 200 children and families showed up, eager to learn. Unwilling to turn any child away, Holt reached out to our dedicated supporters, who were excited to help grow the school. In the three years since, Yesus Mena has grown to include three more teachers, 400 more students, weekend sign language courses for parents, and a free lunch program for the many children who have to travel incredibly long distances to get to school and show up hungry each day.

In December 2014, a German nonprofit provided the funding to build a larger school — accommodating the ever-growing student population. Each year, Holt child sponsors and other compassionate individuals contribute to a special fund to buy school supplies, uniforms and shoes for children in all of Holt’s sponsorship programs around the world, since the cost of these items is often overwhelming to already struggling families.

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A classroom of children at Yesus Mena in 2012. The children have since received a new concrete school building. In the three years since opening its doors, Yesus Mena has grown to include five teachers, 500 students, weekend sign language courses for parents, and a free lunch program for the many children who have to travel incredibly long distances to get to school and show up hungry each day.

“For the children, this is their first opportunity to go to school,” Miruk says. “But it is also their first opportunity to interact with another child with a disability. It’s impressive, really. When we first met these children, they were shy and they would hide. Now, they are interactive, energetic and attentive.” Miruk visits children and families to prepare updates for sponsors, and she says the children like to show off what they’ve learned. The parents also like to show how they are learning to speak with their children for the first time.

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Parents of students who attend Yesus Mena showed up to meet Mike Noah, Holt’s interim director of programs in Ethiopia. Here, they stand in front of a newly constructed school house. Yesus Mena offers weekend sign language courses for parents, helping whole families communicate for the first time.

“By opening the school, the perspective of the parents has changed,” Miruk says. “Their children have worth. They are often in tears expressing their gratitude. They have hope that they can share something meaningful with their child now.”

The impact on the community has been tremendous, as well. The headmaster and school social worker educate the community about special needs, and overall, children are much more accepted. Miruk says the school has made a huge impression.

However, there is still more work to do.

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One student at Yesus Mena waits near a stack of school supplies and books.

The first day of school is September 11. Many deaf children in the community still need sponsors, and even though the school is at near capacity, the teachers hope that even more students will show up for the first day. Children will need uniforms and supplies. Their families will need support and encouragement. Right now, there is a beginner class, then classes for first through third grade. Each year, the school hopes to add another grade for classes so that children can continue to learn and grow in their education.

“When the children receive their school supplies and uniforms, they are so happy,” Miruk says. “It’s a big event when we distribute these things. Local authorities come to the school, and all the children and families come. They are excited and grateful. The children feel good in their uniforms.”

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Students at Yesus Mena receiving lunch at their newly constructed school house.

As the start of a new school year draws close, can you help ensure that children at the Yesus Mena School for deaf students — as well as thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children around the world — have all the school supplies, uniforms, books and shoes they will need to have a successful year? Just $17 provides one vulnerable student with all their back-to-school essentials, and puts the magic back into the first day of school.

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