By Pauline Nasri

“I am very excited to be at NDU. I will definitely do well on my first semester… Whatever [tests] Mrs. Lama gives me, I will do my best to get a perfect score… I will do public speaking just like the TED Talks, so I am super excited to be at this university.”

These are the words George A., a 21-year-old music lover with special needs, sent as an email to his family. George A. was born and raised in Lebanon, but he moved to the U.S. to attend a special needs transitional program prior to college. However, for George A. and his parents, the U.S. wasn’t the ultimate solution as they thought. He was left with a bad experience at the program, so his personal request was to return to Lebanon. Now he will be attending the IDEAL program for students with learning difficulties starting in September.

The IDEAL Program is a two-year certificate program, designed by Notre Dame University – Louaize (NDU) in collaboration with Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences (SKILD). It helps students who are unable to be part of a regular undergraduate university program to achieve academic goals and develop life and social skills. This is a dream 10 years in the making, as SKILD has been active in K-12 schools in Lebanon since 2011. When the children we’ve supported through the years prepared to finish their high school level education, the next natural frontier was to ensure a continuum of care.

Patricia, George A’s mother, felt that the system in the U.S. was not diverse enough, and George A. didn’t receive the care and attention he needed. When visiting the IDEAL program, George A. was introduced to Lama Badaoui, the director of IDEAL and the head of the Learning Accommodation Service at NDU. He was filled with excitement and kept asking his mother whether he was enrolled or not.

George and his mother - SKILD

Patricia said when visiting IDEAL, she found more care offered, “The Lebanese way always keeps something emotional mixed with the professional and on a one-on-one basis — knowing the person, reaching out to family. You feel it is like a small family, but extended to where he is enrolled.”

IDEAL made Patricia realize that people have evolved in understanding the increasing need in Lebanon for special needs. What she likes the most about IDEAL is that it’s a new program.  

“When a program is new, to be successful in the program and to be successful with such kids, you have to put in a lot of effort and personal touch,” said Patricia. 

To finish the year off, 10 IDEAL students and several staff came together for a two-night camp at the Theopolis Church Camp Center. The camp was called “IDEAL and Beyond” to encourage independent living. According to Badaoui, the purpose of the camp was to bring the students together and implement what they have learned throughout the year, ranging from independent living skills, to career interests, to social and life skills. In addition to having time to express their artwork and talents, students got to cook together, wash the dishes, learn to prepare their bedroom, and more. 

Another one of the camp attendees is George H., a Syrian student who is studying with IDEAL this summer. George H’s family left Syria and came to Lebanon, so that he could be part of IDEAL. He is known for his interest in making chocolate and his love for music.

George H. and his family will be immigrating to Canada soon, but the family’s main concern is if they will ever find a program in Canada as helpful as IDEAL.

Kinda, George H’s mother, said that what makes IDEAL special compared to other programs is that the team encourages the students’ various interests, whether communications, theatre, music, or robotics.

George cooking - SKILD and IDEAL

“We’re so blessed and lucky to be doing this. And to be able to help in any way to change the lives of these families, highlighting specific things that they didn’t know their kids were capable of,” said Badaoui. 

The parents were invited to the last night of camp where students performed short plays, music, and storytelling. 

“It was amazing, they revealed the students’ strengths and gave them confidence. They showed where each student excels, and it was successful,” said Kinda.

Kinda hopes that IDEAL will spread and become worldwide. She was considering staying in Lebanon so that George H. can continue at IDEAL. 

When asked about George H. leaving, Badaoui mentioned how emotional the question made her. She said that since the moment the family visited IDEAL, it felt like the right place for George H. “The minute he came, we felt like he was there all year long,” said Badaoui.

George H. said that what he will miss the most from IDEAL is his friends Andrew and Christina.

IDEAL students smiling

The IDEAL program has proved its success in Lebanon and among many Arabs around the world. Most importantly, the team at IDEAL is the key for its success and impact in the lives of the families and students. Not only that, but the change is revealed between communities and in Lebanon as a whole.

Badaoui is looking forward to the graduation next year but is preparing herself emotionally as it will not be easy to say goodbye to the students who became family to her.

“We all do it with love, and this is what makes the difference…” said Badaoui. “We want to see them grow. We want to see them succeed, and we are so proud of them and in what they have achieved in one year.”

Higher Education for Students with Learning Differences

The IDEAL Program, implemented by SKILD Center and NDU, is a two-year university program that leads to a certificate, under the supervision of LIPSCOMB university. It is intended to empower students with intellectual and/or developmental challenges in Lebanon and the Arab region.

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