Jawaid is a four-year-old trash picker. He wants to be a tree when he grows up.
At least, that's what he tells his teacher during an art class sponsored by the LettuceBee Kids project in Islamabad, Pakistan.
"But you are not a tree," the teacher tells him. "If you don't like where you are, you can move."
That's the idea behind the LettuceBee initiative, which helps street kids like Jawaid move beyond a life of begging and trash picking, and re-integrate back into society through art, music, and mentorship.
The brainchild of Sarah Adeel, a Fulbright alumna and graduate of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the idea for LettuceBee Kids came about when she was in Pakistan in 2008 conducting research for her master's thesis on child welfare in South Asia.
"I was doing a comparative analysis between orphanages and foster-care homes, and these were some of the most abysmal places you could imagine," Adeel explains. "I spent hours getting to know the children. One day, I asked them to write letters to whomever they missed the most, and most of the letters were addressed to God. When I saw them having nobody but God to write to, I knew I wanted to help these kids who, by the luck of the draw, were born on the roadsides."
After graduating from RISD in 2009, Adeel returned to her native Pakistan to launch the LettuceBee Kids non-profit organization with fellow alums Jabbar Bangash, a Global UGRAD alum who earned his degree from Carleton University, Mohsin Ali Afzal, a Fulbright alum and graduate of UC Berkeley, and Zainab Feroz Kapadia, a Fulbright alum and graduate of Columbia University. The United States invests more in the Fulbright Program in Pakistan than in any other country in the world and supports numerous other exchange programs that together have resulted in a Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network of more than 12,000 registered members.
An estimated 1.2 million children are on the streets of Pakistan's major cities, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission. Many survive by scavenging at garbage dumps or taking on menial jobs. Others resort to stealing and prostitution. The team behind LettuceBee Kids wants to help these children find a better future.
With the aid of a $5,000 Alumni Small Grant from U.S. Embassy Islamabad in 2012, LettuceBee Kids piloted its art therapy program, "LettuceBee Design," offering regular art classes to the street kids of Islamabad. So far, seven classes have been held, at locations ranging from local parks to schools, and even the zoo. The Embassy's Alumni Small Grants program helps exchange program participants contribute to their communities on their return to Pakistan.
"The LettuceBee project is changing these children's lives and their community," says Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Laura Brown. "It's a great example of how a Small Alumni Grant can help make a big difference."
An art exhibit is slated for February 2013 in Islamabad, and the long term plan is to transform the children's artwork into a greeting card line, in order to generate revenue and make the program self-sustaining.
Next up for LettuceBee Kids are a community garden project, and the launch of the LettuceBee Band program, which offers music classes to the street kids.
Boston-based bluegrass group Della Mae, which is touring Central Asia with the State Department's American Music Abroad, was one of the first bands to offer a class for the LettuceBee kids during a tour stop in Islamabad last November.
"We played a few songs for them and then taught them how to sing 'This Little Light of Mine' in English," writes band member Courtney Hartman. "...I passed my guitar around to the girls, and to see their surprise and excitement as they strummed a guitar for the first time in their life was priceless."
For Adeel and the LettuceBee team, ultimately the goal is to help kids like Jawaid get off the street, find their light, and let it shine. We can't afford not to, she says, because these children are Pakistan's future.
"Pakistan has the potential to become an economic power in South Asia," Adeel concludes. "If nurtured, educated and trained properly, these children can be turned into a massive productive force and progressive citizens of Pakistan."