'There is no excuse not to make a difference'
Jas Singh (standing, right) with Zara (sitting)
Dubai - Jas became an integral part of the Special Families Support (SFS) Group and by age 12, started volunteering and organising summer camps with them
By Saman Haziq
Published: Mon 7 Aug 2017, 11:24 PM
Last updated: Tue 8 Aug 2017, 1:29 AM
Jas Singh, a 19-year-student at Columbia University in New York, was born and raised in the UAE.
She considers the UAE home and it is here that she created some beautiful experiences for her and for those around her. Jas is now spreading her special experiences to bond with people with special needs.
From organising trips and summer camps for students with disabilities, Jas says the experience has only been enriching. She credits her bond with people of determination to her bestie Zara, who has Dravet syndrome, a rare brain dysfuntion, and has not spoken a word since age three.
Zara is 20 now, and she and Jas have been fast friends since they were toddlers. Zara's disability never hindered their friendship or communication. "Because of this experience with Zara, people of determination have never been 'different' for me. So when I saw people staring at them or having a lack of understanding about such people, it moved me to follow the example of other great advocates in Dubai and spread awareness about these special ones," Jas said.
When she was just five, Jas began her volunteer work. "I started going to the Special Families Support (SFS) Group, formed so that families of children with special needs could connect with other such families, and share their hopes, strengths and challenges."
Jas became an integral part of the group and by age 12, started volunteering and organising summer camps with them.
"Organising summer camps was a huge task that involved reaching out to entities offering tourist attractions and hotels in Dubai, asking if they would give us space to hold the camp. We always asked for it free of charge, because it is important not to have a fee that would exclude anyone from attending - volunteers or families."
Talking about the role of summer camps, Jas said: "Summer camps make a huge difference in the lives of these families, because children are off from school and it's really impossible to do anything outside, so it's important that they have an outlet, which the SFS group provides. Children really love going to Wild Wadi, or Magic Planet or wherever it may be. Being there as a volunteer to help facilitate that is really rewarding."
Trips for beautiful people
When 'Mawaheb from Beautiful People,' an art studio for adults with special needs, opened in 2011 in Bastakiya, Jas started volunteering there. It showed her that those with disabilities can be as creative and as talented as anyone else, and as confident about their art.
"I soon moved to Singapore with my family after I got involved with Mawaheb, but those amazing artists made such an impression on me that I wanted to find ways to continue my work with them. Also, I felt that my peers in Singapore had not had any experiences with the disabled in the same way. Many people had been to special schools to volunteer, but it wasn't an environment where they could make a deep connection and actually get to know the students there beyond the one hour a week that they went there," Jas said.
Jas initiated a project to bring over six Mawaheb artists to her school, for a series of art workshops. "I pretty much single handedly organised the project, with the support of the school and teachers, of course. We raised $24,000 for the project through a pitch to the CEO of our school."
The artists interacted with Grade 8 students and talked to them about inclusion and bullying, explaining how they wanted to be treated and perceived, as people with special needs.
"I think what is so great about Mawaheb is that the artists there have been trained to be articulate. The students at my school heard about their experiences directly from them, which is so much more impactful than hearing anyone else speak about it."
Jas then arranged for Mawaheb artists to speak at an after-school event where she invited students, parents, and teachers to attend. "We also displayed a number of Mawaheb's artwork around the room. Once again, the stories they shared, the talent they displayed and their infectious enthusiasm was so touching - the whole atmosphere in the room just lifted."
For the Mawaheb artists, it was a fantastic opportunity to travel overseas, on a very purposeful trip at that. "They benefitted the experience of travelling without their families, leading workshops and practicing public speaking at my school," noted Jas. "These are the kind of experiences that break down barriers and bring people together."
Moving forward, Jas says that she would like to continue creating valuable experiences for herself and those around her - whether it be at an old age home, or reading to the blind, or educating a child. Back in the UAE for her summer holidays, she met Zara's mother Gulshan, founder of SFS. "She reminded me that 'there are so many ways to make a difference, so there's really no excuse not to', and that's my plan for the future!" said Jas.
Jas' message for the world is to give and receive unconditional love and acceptance. "I realised that by spending time with Zara and the people at SFS. Beyond that, it has taught me to be more considerate towards other people's experiences.
"Meet people who are differently abled, of different nationalities or socio-economic backgrounds. Give yourself experiences that widen your world view and give to others by sharing what you have learned."