Philanthropy beat: Plymouth native's autism project to serve West Bank city

  • Article by: LYDIA COUTRÉ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2013 - 9:46 PM

The stigma associated with autism in the Middle East’s West Bank can leave parents and families feeling isolated.

Melissa Diamond, a Plymouth native who is studying peace and conflict at the University of Richmond in Virginia, decided to tackle the issue with The Jenin Autism Project, named for a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank.

“Anyone can be born with autism,” Diamond, 20, said in an e-mail. “People cannot control their race, ethnicity or the location where they are born, and none of these factors should determine their ability to access services.”

The Jenin Autism Project — the first initiative of Diamond’s organization, A Global Voice for Autism — will train mothers of children with autism in Jenin in Applied Behavior Analysis, a therapy technique for children with autism. The mothers will serve as therapists to one another’s children to generalize their knowledge, Diamond said. A weekly support group will offer the chance to discuss progress and challenges at home.

“I hope that … families with and without children with autism will have an understanding of the condition,” Diamond said.

She won $9,000 in seed funding for her project from the Resolution Project in April — one day before her personal deadline to put the project on hold for a year if she couldn’t find the funds to begin. The Resolution Project is a nonprofit that identifies young social entrepreneurs through the Social Venture Challenge and empowers them to make a positive impact.

Diamond is in Jenin right now, promoting the program and getting to know the needs of families who will participate. When it launches in January 2014, Diamond will take a semester off to lead the program there.

Jenin is just the beginning. Diamond hopes to continue this message in other underserved populations.

“My goal in this project is to empower the Jenin community to support children with autism so that when our therapist team leaves the city, there is a sustainable and affordable autism program that will continue in the future,” Diamond said.

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