Tag Archives: Serve to Learn

‘An Unbelievable Blessing’ — Mirelle Botros Reflects on Serve to Learn

Mirelle Botros and one of her Serve to Learn classes, summer of 2014.
Mirelle Botros and her Serve to Learn participants, summer of 2014.

I wanted to let you know that the last day to apply for the Jan. 16-Feb. 7 Serve to Learn session is Nov. 15!

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, I’m glad you found this post. Keep reading to hear about Serve to Learn in an interview with Mirelle Botros. She was a volunteer this summer, and can tell you what it’s like first-hand. You can also check out earlier interviews with Ben, Kirollos, Mariam, and Alex.

But first, in a nutshell: Serve to Learn is a life-changing,  three-week trip that brings youth from all over the world to Egypt. There, these volunteers teach children basic English skills through fun activities. Arabic and a background in teaching are useful but not critical — just be ready for some hard work, lots of love, and to be forever changed!

Mirelle had these experiences to share:

Is there anything that you learned while in Egypt that you tried to replicate back home? What was that?

I feel like I’ve learned from the children more than I gave them. I realized in them that, even though they are lacking so much on this earthly world, the children have so much more in the heavenly world than we do. I learned not only how to serve the children and to love them, but I saw in them the deep appreciation of God. I learned from them how to thank Him in everything, to hold on to Him and to always maintain a strong and faithful relationship with Him in everything I do. I learned that you gain so much more by leading an extremely simple life and not taking things for granted.

Did anything you see while you were in Egypt help you better understand yourself or someone you know?

First thing I noticed while teaching in the classrooms was that EVERY one of my students had not only a cross tattooed on their wrists but also pictures of St. Mary, St. George, and many other saints. When one of my 7th graders asked why I didn’t have a cross on my wrist, I immediately looked down and questioned why I really didn’t have one, especially after talking to my students.

Likewise, I asked them why they all carried the symbol of the cross on their wrists and what it really meant to them. A few answers stood out to me. A student mentioned that it was a representation of their faith in Christ and that it was a symbol of unity among them.

I realized how much stronger these students were than myself and how they all had much more of a relationship with God than I did. A week later, we were at a monastery in Cairo and we saw a tattoo artist as soon as we walked in. I jumped on the opportunity and, despite all the limitations and risks, I made the decision to get one myself. As soon as I got back to school the following week, all my students noticed that I had gotten it.

Serve to Learn participants and Mirelle Botros display their tattoos of the cross.
Serve to Learn participants and Mirelle Botros display their tattoos of the cross.

The questions continued when I got back to the States. Many of my friends, shocked that I out of all people had gotten a tattoo, questioned me about the meaning behind this cross on my wrist. I explained to them what the word “Coptic” meant and about the meaning behind my faith. It became a source of evangelizing in a sense. The best part was when I walked into a Mediterranean restaurant on campus and immediately the cashier asked if I was Coptic. I nodded my head and he raised his arm out and showed me the cross on his wrist. He told me that he had just arrived in Austin a few weeks ago and that he was looking for a Coptic church around the area. As president of the Coptic organization on campus, and we reached out to him and welcomed him to our church. Just like my student said… a symbol of UNITY! All through the cross tattooed on my wrist!

When you tell your friends about your summer, what stories do you tell most? Can you tell us that story? 

What intrigued me most about the program was the home visits. Most of my stories revolve around the different experiences I had at the many houses I visited. My second and second to last home visits left a great impact on me.

During my second visit, I was out with Veronika Tadross and we visited eight-year-old twins. After playing some games with them, we asked them about their talents and George told us that he enjoyed writing poems. He decided to dedicate a poem to “Miss Veronika” who had also visited him in previous years. On the spot, he narrated the poem to us and I was immediately in tears. He basically said that every time Veronika comes back to Egypt, their hearts are filled with joy and every time she leaves, their hearts are vacant again. He ended the poem saying “benhebek ya Mama Veronika.” In fact, when I was asked to talk to Pope Tawadros about my experience at Serve to Learn so far, I couldn’t help but tell him that story.

My second to last visit was the most difficult. It was a 30-year old-woman who had lost her husband seven years ago. When I asked how she was doing, she said nothing more than that she was constantly ill and that she had spent the past seven years grieving over her husband, doing nothing but crying and sleeping. She gave her children absolutely no attention. After listening to her story, I felt like I just wanted to give her a hug and let her cry on my shoulders. Toni, another volunteer, knelt down on the ground and sat by her to comfort her. Struggling to let out words, her crying caused us all to cry as well. At the end of the visit, I asked her if we could all stand up and pray together for her well-being and for God to “look out for her children and to provide them with success”… her only request.

Another one of my stories is when I got sick and was forced to leave class one day. One of the children at school realized that I was gone and asked another volunteer to deliver a note to me. It said “Hope you feel better Miss Mirelle. I am going to miss you a lot when you leave. Never forget me and remember to look at the pictures we took on your phone. I want you to come back next year. Nabil.” I was so happy to see the impact we had on the children.

What advice do you have for us while we plan next year’s Serve to Learn trip? 

I absolutely loved everything about the program. I loved the hospitality of the representatives, the communal living, and the fact that we were all working towards one and the same goal… to love the children and learn how to serve them. The one thing I would say ya’ll could improve on is that the instructions we were given for the gifts and supplies we needed to bring were vague. I feel like the email was not very helpful and I had to figure everything out for myself when I got there.

What is the most powerful thing you would say to someone to convince them to sign up for Serve To Learn 2015?

I’ve been talking about Serve to Learn ever since I got back. Many of my friends who I talk to about my experience are like “Wow, now I really want to go.”

I would tell people that serving these children and touching their hearts is an unbelievable blessing. The joy that you realize you are bringing to the lives of so many people, who lead extremely simple lives, is amazing! Spending time with your students and just getting to know them and learning their names means the world to them. The relationships I’ve built with some of them is something that I would carry with me forever. The hardest thing we had to do while on the trip was say “bye” to the children on the last day. It was very emotional letting go. I would do anything to go back just for these children!

You can apply now for Serve to Learn; the November 15 deadline is practically here! Don’t forget that applications for the July 3-25 session are also out! If you still have questions, you can learn more by reading the Serve to Learn FAQ, or by writing to us directly at info@copticorphans.org.

Also, you can watch His Holiness encourage young people to serve the children in Egypt in this video made at one of Coptic Orphans’ recent 25th Anniversary Galas. (Don’t forget to go to the one in Australia on Nov. 9 — here’s your video invitation!) Lastly, you can check out  the “Top 5 Myths Why You Can’t Take Part in Serve to Learn Debunked.” 

PS  Please go to the top of this post and hit the “Like” button, then share the post, tweet it, email it to everyone you know, print it out and pass it out to 5 of your friends, and finally, stand in the middle of a busy intersection with a megaphone and shout it out!  

‘30,000 Children Empowered’? What Does That Even Mean?

Slogans: Fabulous for decorating, but too short for documenting 25 years of work.
Slogans: Fabulous for decorating, but too short for documenting 25 years of work.

Dear Friends,

The big day — the Coptic Orphans 25th Anniversary Gala in the U.S. — is just hours away! I hope to see you all in Reston, VA on Oct. 11! (Tickets are still available here.)

By now, you’ve probably seen the Gala’s slogan, “25th Anniversary, Celebrating 30,000 Children Empowered.” But if you’re like me, you may react to slogans something like this:

“Hmmm… ‘30,000 Children Empowered’ … 30,000? Exactly 30,000? Where’d they get that number? It sounds made-up. And ’empowered’ …what does that even mean?”

After all, who’s going to believe that Coptic Orphans went out and counted exactly 30,000 children? And “empowered” … you could define that lots of ways, right?

So if you’re like me,  you read that slogan and say, “You’d better be able to back that up.”

Fortunately, I love backing things up, especially with long (and my children would say, occasionally boring) explanations. So here and now, I’m going to explain exactly what “30,000 Children Empowered” means.

Why? Because slogans aren’t enough. They get a point across, but you always need the data to back them up. So below, I’m going to share the numbers that show how we got to 30,000.

And to give meaning to “empowered,” I’m going to use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition: “empower: verb \im-ˈpau̇(-ə)r\ to promote the self-actualization or influence of.”

All that said, here’s how the 30,000 figure adds up, and here are the details of how the children have been empowered:

30K 1 NAPNot Alone Program

Total children empowered: 18,862

Nearly 10,000 kids were enrolled in our flagship program, Not Alone, in 2013 alone. And the program’s been going since 1992. The reality is, if you walk into any Coptic community from Assiut to Alexandria, the odds are good you’ll meet fatherless children and widows who have benefitted from Not Alone.

Our beloved sponsors and donors can tell you how Not Alone works. Over 400 Church-based community leaders, the “Reps,” serve as advocates and mentors to our children. The Reps come recommended by their own bishops and priests, and our staff in Egypt offers them regular trainings in how to support and protect the children. Day in and day out, year after year, each Rep builds a long-term relationship with the children they serve, connecting with each child through home visits, life-skills workshops, and community activities. They work to achieve Not Alone‘s goal of increasing each child’s academic achievement, building a well-rounded personality, and nurturing their sense of volunteerism as future leaders of Egyptian society.  By connecting the children with these building blocks for a successful life, Not Alone helps prepare them to break the cycle of poverty. In the Not Alone Program, that’s what we call “empowered.”

30K 4 NAPValuable Girl Project

Total children empowered: 3,796

The Valuable Girl Project aims to promote the academic retention, education, and literacy tutorship of girls and young women in high-poverty areas of Egypt.  To achieve these goals, the project supports young women in their efforts to stay in school and gain dignity at home, in the classroom, and in the community.  The project, which has been running for 12 years and peaked at 15 sites around Egypt, uses a model of one-on-one mentorship. Through it, young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” become role models for girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.” Local coordinators based in partner organizations oversee these mentorship programs.

The Valuable Girl Project has a unique twist, in that it serves both Christian and Muslim young women ages 7-22. The Big Sister-Little Sister relationships formed through the project offer a bridge to understanding among Christian and Muslim community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. In fact, one of the sentiments expressed by project participants is simply that they had no idea what the others’ lives were about, much less that they could be “nice.”

In this way, Coptic Orphans aims to do more than simply stand with disadvantaged girls as they attempt to break the cycle of poverty. Through the Valuable Girl Project, we boost these young women’s life chances,  but just as importantly, we increase the overall level of Christian-Muslim tolerance and understanding in Egyptian society. Through the project, participants become self-actualized, and influence social change in their communities. For young women in a tough society like Egypt, that’s “empowered.”

30K 2 NAPServe to Learn

Total children empowered: 5,810

Serve to Learn is a program through which young Copts living abroad can benefit Egypt’s communities by volunteering in Egypt, while becoming more strongly tied to their Coptic faith and cultural heritage. Nearly 190 volunteers have served over the program’s 11 years of existence, teaching more than 5,800 young Egyptians basic English skills. This year’s team was even blessed to meet with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, and to receive a spiritual orientation from Abouna Dawood Lamey.

The volunteers report that the trips have ignited their love for Egypt, stirred their spirit of service, and deepened their dedication to their cultural roots. Most importantly, the children come away having learned English skills from native speakers — no small thing in rural Egypt. Knowledge is power, and English has become a global language with applications in everything from the local tourism industry to multinational corporations. By sharing this knowledge, Serve to Learn is empowering the children.

30K 3 NAPTAMKEEN

Total children empowered: 2,995

The two-year-old TAMKEEN project aims to build the capacity of community development associations that support girls and young women in Upper Egypt through work with 40 community development associations in Assuit, Minya, and Sohag. TAMKEEN, whose name actually means “empowerment” in Arabic, mobilizes 15- to 23-year-old women to become active in their communities. These activities range from discussion seminars to youth parliaments. Many of the activities expose participants to the value of volunteerism. One key objective is to nurture new and often unheard voices, especially in remote villages.  In such areas, poverty is rampant, and young women are at a particular disadvantage. So the activities carried out through the USAID-funded TAMKEEN, and the skills learned through them, are vital to empowering these young woman.

When you add up all the numbers, the real total of children is actually 31,463. That’s how we got the 30,000 figure — by rounding down.

And in terms of what it means to empower the children, I would suggest that what each of these initiatives accomplishes is very much within Webster’s definition of promoting “the self-actualization or influence of” the children.

So that’s it. I’m not big on slogans. I much prefer the long answer, backed up by data. But if you have to summarize what Coptic Orphans has accomplished, by the grace of God, in a quarter-century of work — as I’m often asked to do — then “25 years, 30,000 children empowered” pretty much says it all.

Hope to see you on Oct. 11 at the Gala in Reston!

To learn more details about the Coptic Orphans 25th Anniversary Gala in Reston, Virginia on Oct. 11, and to obtain tickets, please visit our Gala web page. There, you can also view a video of His Holiness at our Gala in Canada, including his remark: “Bravo for your service. And I’m not sure who’s happier — you, or the children you serve.” Details about the Nov. 9 Australia Gala are also available there!

Do You Know About This Tremendous Opportunity?

Service trips to Egypt like Serve to Learn connect young people to their Coptic roots through personal experiences.
Service trips connect young people to their Coptic roots through personal experiences.

I’m writing because at this moment, a huge opportunity lies before the Coptic community — one that each of us can have a role in seizing.

What, exactly, is this opportunity? Service trips to Egypt. They’re one of the most positive experiences the Coptic community can offer young people, and they represent a powerful means of connecting our families with the Church and Coptic traditions.

We know that some 530,000 Copts are living in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. With natural growth, as well as geopolitical and social events that have increased pressure on Copts in Egypt, this number is growing.

With all that change, many of us are grappling with this issue: First-generation Coptic immigrants are much more likely to maintain their affinity and connections to Egypt, yet the same cannot be said for their children and grandchildren.

Let’s face it: For many young people, their new country begins to take on a greater influence in their formation. As a consequence, their commitment to their local congregation and the Church in Egypt may be weakened. This could mean that their support to the homeland may be reduced significantly.

That’s ironic, because at this very moment,  more skills and talents are developing both in Egypt and abroad. The potential benefits of sharing these abilities make it in all of our interests to strengthen ties of mutual support that will improve the lives of Copts, bolster the Church, and benefit all Egyptians.

With so much at stake, how do we ensure that young diaspora Copts’ roots become stronger, tying more young people even more tightly to the Church and Egypt?

Here’s how I see it. Organizing trips for young diaspora Copts to serve in Egypt has proved hugely beneficial in terms of connecting them to the Church, Egypt, and the Coptic community. Such trips allow them to experience life in Egypt, learn about Egyptian culture, understand the roots of their faith, and gain new respect and appreciation for the sacrifices being made by our brothers and sisters in Egypt.

A related opportunity exists: promoting June 1 as a special cause for yearly celebration in the diaspora community, so that young people understand the rich significance, for Christians, of walking in the Holy Family’s footprints. This annual commemoration offers potentially powerful parallels between our Savior’s life and the life choices of each young person in the Church. Through June 1, the appeal to “come serve in Egypt” can become particularly resonant and connected to Jesus Christ’s own experiences.

In fact, the movement of young Copts serving in Egypt is gathering speed. If you spend any time on this blog, you’re probably familiar with Coptic Orphans’ Serve to Learn program.

Through Serve to Learn, to date, 188 volunteers have traveled to Egypt, conducting activities in English with more than 5,800 Egyptian children and visiting their families. This year’s team was even blessed to meet with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, and to receive a spiritual orientation from Abouna Dawood Lamey. The volunteers report that the trips have ignited their love for Egypt, stirred their spirit of service, and deepened their dedication to their cultural roots.

So a huge opportunity awaits us in the form of service trips to Egypt. Are we going to seize it with both hands?

Here’s how we’re trying to do our part, here at Coptic Orphans. In 2015, we’re expanding Serve to Learn to two sessions, one Jan. 16-Feb. 7, and one July 3-25. If you’re interested in learning more, please write info@copticorphans.org or visit the Serve to Learn page for details.

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you and your family will be part of this growing movement. It’s an opportunity that’s too great to let slip by!

PS By the grace of God, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary with the honored presence of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II! We’re also growing and hiring — please share our job postings with all the skilled, passionate professionals you know!