Over the past 25 years, I have worked in international development in more than 40 countries and have witnessed the many barriers that keep people from reaching their potential. In remote Liberian communities, favelas in Brazil, townships in South Africa, villages throughout Haiti and refugee camps across the West Bank and Gaza, access to quality, affordable education is the most significant challenge facing youth today. The long-term effects of limited or no access to education are profound and impact all dimensions of an individual's well-being and life path. Illiterate and undereducated individuals have difficulty accessing health services, engaging in civil society and securing steady employment. They are exponentially more at risk of living in poverty and suffering human rights abuses.
Without the opportunity to learn, people -- especially youth -- are less likely to feel secure, hopeful for the future or invested in their community. Statistics reported in the Millennium Development Goals Report 2014 issued by the United Nations, demonstrate that access to education is a significant global challenge:
- Worldwide, 781 million adults and 126 million youth do not have basic literacy skills
- In the sub-Saharan countries of Africa, only 23 percent of girls in rural areas complete their primary school education
- There were more than 58 million children out of school in 2012
Educational access and equity is not a localized issue. Our world is rapidly becoming smaller and the strength and stability of faraway communities can be as influential in our lives as that of the town next door. By collectively helping more people to obtain the tools and resources to earn a living, escape poverty and reach their fullest potential as productive members of society, we are strengthening communities worldwide.
Working with marginalized communities through YMCA World Service over the years, I have seen firsthand how access to education can change a person's life path. In Liberia for example, an entire generation of young people missed out on an education when an extended civil war closed schools and thousands of young boys and teens were forced to fight in the conflict. This "lost generation" ended up illiterate, unskilled and in the case of the former child soldiers, conditioned by violence. We recently built a secondary school in a rural area that will serve youth from 22 villages. This is significant because the closest high school is 90 minutes away down a degraded dirt road with potholes the size of elephants. Even if students could travel the distance, their families cannot afford to send them. Now, thousands of youth will have easy, affordable access to an education for the first time since the civil war. The entire community turned out to see the new school. I will never forget the excitement in the eyes of the teenagers we met when they saw their new school being built. For these kids, the school will change the trajectory of their lives. For the community, the school is much more than a place for learning. It is a symbol of hope because education paves the way to peace and stability.
In Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, education became even more critical for the thousands of orphans and youth who suffered devastating injuries. We built earthquake-proof community centers out of iron shipping containers in some of the most impoverished areas of the country. They are simple but impactful as each center gives underserved youth the opportunity to learn how to read and write. During my last visit it was a particularly hot day but the students did not seem to notice. They were learning to read in French and Creole and were hanging on their teacher's every word. There was such pride and an excitement for learning. They know that they need an education to escape poverty and help rebuild their country. Bernadine, a teenager who lost both parents in the earthquake, feels fortunate to attend school on a Y scholarship when so many people her age do not have the opportunity. She is hopeful for the future and studies hard so that she can give back to her community.
I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to discover who they are and what they can achieve. In the spirit of Giving Tuesday, consider how you can give the gift of education and help more people worldwide realize a better, more secure future.
This post is part of a series produced in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2014) on December 2. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. The Huffington Post will feature posts on #GivingTuesday all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.
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