Local Rotarians help connect Afghan students to rest of world via technology

For more than a decade, local Rotarians have helped build a bridge between Afghans and Americans.

Launched by La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club, Afghan Youth Connect brings students from both countries together through technology.

“It breaks down barriers,” said Del Mar resident and local Rotarian Steve Brown. “This is fighting the War on Terror through humanitarian and educational programs.”

A longtime member of La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club, Brown helped spearhead the program with the support of fellow Rotarian Fary Moini and other Rotarians. One of the dozens of Rotary-sponsored programs in Afghanistan, Afghan Youth Connect came about after the club’s foundation funded the Rotary School of Jalalabad.

Opened in April 2004, the school was funded in part by a grant from the Rotary Foundation, the charitable arm of Rotary International, a service organization of approximately 1.2 million people in 34,000 clubs around the world. A portion of the funds furnished and equipped a 10-station computer lab at the school.

Rotarian Cynthia Villis helped secure grants from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, so the club, in 2008, could cover the cost of Internet installation, Internet service and instructor salaries. The additional funding also helped the program expand from one computer lab to five computer labs.

“The program became so successful, as we applied for additional grants, we proposed to add other schools,” Brown explained. “We kept adding schools and adding schools.”

After the first major attack by the terrorist group ISIS, took place in Afghanistan earlier this year, Brown wanted to do more. The April suicide bombing killed at least 33 people and injured another 100 in the east Afghan city of Jalalabad.

La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club had previously brought the program to all but three public schools in Jalalabad. After the attack, Brown decided to personally fund the program at the remaining three schools, totaling about $34,000 annually.

“We can now say we have all the public schools in this program,” said Brown, a retired attorney who has lived in Del Mar for more than 35 years. A Rotarian since 1986, he has served as vice chair and trustee of the Rotary Foundation.

“It’s my personal response to ISIS,” Brown added. “ISIS wins hearts and minds through lack of education, lack of information. We’ve got all the public schools covered, so we’re doing what we can.”

Launched in 2008, Afghan Youth Connect aims to engage students in Afghanistan with students around the world. The program also helps Afghan students develop information technology skills and promoted good citizenship skills.

Although five high schools were originally selected for the program, at the request of the Afghan government and as additional funds became available, all 20 public high schools in Jalalabad have since become part of the program. Participating schools are equipped with fully furnished computer labs, which includes a habitable classroom, 10 to 20 computers, professional trainer, electricity, Internet connectivity, desks and chairs, supplies, software and security bars.

Students learn basic word processing, spreadsheet and digital presentation skills. They practice Internet-based searches and use email and social media. They also learn English as part of the curriculum.

Students use a closed, moderated Facebook group and Ning.com to communicate with each other, with students in other Jalalabad high schools and with students in other countries.

Skype conference calls between students in Jalalabad and students in other countries have fostered discussion on a variety of student-selected topics, including academic issues, gender-related issues, civic responsibilities, current events and more. Afghan Youth Connect students have Skyped with students in the U.S., Canada, India and Pakistan.

“By far, the most satisfying part of the program is the engagement with the Afghan people,” said Brown. He and Moini have made a combined 35 project oversight trips to Jalalabad in the last 10 years.

“Some of these people are the most thoughtful, caring people you could ever know.”

The program also promotes civic responsibility by involving students in community projects. Funded by small grants, the projects range from beautifying school grounds to distributing food to families in need.

“It’s a student-centric program,” he said. “Other students in their school see what these students are doing and they want to become part of something like that as well.”

Since its inception, Afghan Youth Connect has directly engaged a total of 11,523 Afghan students, including 6,255 males and 5,268 females, as well as an additional 9,030 observers.

More than 2,000 students directly participate in the program. At the request of Jalalabad educational authorities, Brown said an additional 4,500 Afghan students visit the classrooms each year to observe instruction and lab activities.

Now in its eighth year, it costs $175,000 annually to operate Afghan Youth Connect. Brown hopes the program continues for many years to come, but funding is needed. Although public grants were readily available at the start of the program, it has been funded by a private donor for two years.

There is only enough funding to continue the program through the end of this school year.

“Afghanistan is in a serious state of transition,” Brown said. “The last thing we want to do is shut down a program that’s providing students access to the outside world and the ability to connect with U.S. students.

“We know what we get for it,” Brown added. “We have documented results.”

For more about the program or to donate, visit www.ljgtrotaryclubfoundation.org.

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