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Sabriye Tenberken trains people who want to change the world

Students at Sabriye Tenberken's 'kanthari institute' have come from 30 countries and already overcome personal hardships. Graduates, determined to make a positive difference, have started more than 45 projects in the developing world.

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Sabriye Tenberken (c. with red shirt) is surrounded by participants in her kanthari institute course for aspiring social innovators.

Charukesi Ramadurai

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Transformation is a word heard frequently on the campus of kanthari institute. At this institute for aspiring social entrepreneurs from all over the world, dreams, ideas, and personalities seem to get transformed.

According to its founders, Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg, kanthari (the word is not capitalized) acts as an incubator for the world-changing ideas of its participants and works to make them more grounded and focused. It's a process they call "transformation of concept."

Then there are the people who come to kanthari, located in the city of Trivandrum, near the southern tip of India.

"It was only when I came to kanthari that I learned to hold my head high and say, 'Yes, I am blind; so what?' " says Sristi KC, a 20-something woman from Nepal who lost her eyesight at the age of 16 and is a 2012 alumna of kanthari. "I discovered what I am capable of and learned to stand up and speak for myself."

So far, four batches of "kantharis," as the founders describe the participants – 77 people from 30 countries – have graduated and started more than 45 projects in the developing world. In December, the fifth batch of 21 kantharis completed their seven-month course and returned to their home countries with plans to make a positive difference.

Sabriye, who is from Germany, is herself blind, having progressively lost her eyesight before she reached her teens. At the time, she did not understand what was happening, since her parents did not tell her. She only knew that her teachers and fellow students did not treat her normally.

When a doctor finally pronounced her blind, Sabriye declared with relief, "So I am blind, not stupid." That was her own moment of transformation, when she decided to turn a handicap into a strength.

She attended an exhibition on Tibet when she was 14 and became interested in the country and its culture. As a young adult she went to Tibet, having learned the language. There, she met Paul, an engineer from the Netherlands. Together, they started the nonprofit organization Braille Without Borders.

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In a region where children may be ostracized for being blind and locked up in dark rooms, Sabriye and Paul worked to integrate them into regular schools and help them lead a normal life. Sabriye developed a Tibetan Braille script.

Braille Without Borders also set up projects in animal husbandry, cheesemaking, baking, knitting, carpet weaving, and in operating a printing press. All of its activities are now managed by the beneficiaries.

Sitting in the midst of a verdant three-acre campus on the banks of a lake in Trivandrum, Sabriye says, "Paul and I work together as a team, and we always think on similar lines. From working for the blind in Tibet to wanting to serve other marginalized communities from all over the world was a logical step forward for us."

And so kanthari was born.

When they started out in Tibet, Sabriye says, they did a few things right but also made a lot of mistakes. "We want others like us – people with the vision to create social change – to learn from our mistakes," she says.

Kanthari offers no traditional academic learning: The entire focus is on practical skills, such as public speaking, making business plans, dealing with government agencies, encountering the news media, and raising funds. By the end of the course, each kanthari also is connected to potential donor agencies.

The idea is to prepare these visionaries for the hurdles they will face in implementing and running their social project.

"Even now, some of our alumni write to us and say how useful some of these lessons were – they particularly remember the time we put them through a grueling press conference," says Sabriye with a smile.

Kanthari is the name of a chili plant that grows in this part of India, chosen by the founders to signify the fiery spirit they wish their participants to exemplify.

"Kanthari is not cultivated carefully but grows wild in the backyards," Sabriye says. "It is spicy and makes you sit up and take notice the moment you bite into it. We want our kantharis here to make that [kind of] difference in the world."

Sabriye and Paul say that those who wish to join kanthari need to have overcome adversity or been marginalized in some way. They believe that projects that have a root in the participants' own lives and struggles have the most potential to make a difference in the long run.

"We want to build fires that burn for a long time," Sabriye says. "We are not interested in candles that flicker for a short while...."

The kantharis include men who have lived through war in Africa and women who have escaped female circumcision rituals or run away from abusive husbands.

Beatriz Quispe, a blind woman from Peru, made the long journey here via North America, tackling the final leg by train from Mumbai, in order to take the course. She has since started a mobile blind school back in the Andes Mountains.

Stephen Ojungo Onyang from Kenya sold off his cows to pay for his ticket to India. He has just returned to his country and aims to start a project that will counsel and train HIV-positive individuals in business skills.

Some of the successful projects run by kanthari graduates include a mobile library for prisoners and the marginalized in Thailand, a mobile school on horseback for the blind in rural Nepal, the integration of albinos under threat of death in Kenya into their communities, an education program for the children of prisoners in south India, and a beekeeping project for the blind in Uganda.

Not all kanthari projects are so serious. Sristi, for instance, has started BLIND ROCKS, a project that empowers the visually impaired through dance "because I believe that dance sets you free.

"There was only opposition to my dream from everyone else – you are too young, you are a girl, you are blind," she says. "Sabriye was the one who gave me the strength to make it work."

Now Sristi conducts dance workshops for the blind in Nepal and India, and has been invited to visit Russia by its Ministry of Culture. She has been white-water rafting in Nepal and has plans to go paragliding soon.

Nathalie Thalberg Pederson, a business studies student from Sweden, wrote a dissertation on kanthari. She came back to volunteer and act as a catalyst, helping participants prepare for their final graduation speeches.

"Many people come with just a vague dream, and kanthari gives them the practical tools they can use to shape their visions," Ms. Pederson says. "Kanthari also fuels the fire to carry out their projects and change things in the society that they have left behind and will go back to."

Sabriye and Paul don't expect participants to be formally educated or have university degrees, Pederson adds, "yet they aim to turn them into successful social-change agents. I don't know how many places can claim to do that."

The biggest contribution made by kanthari is that each individual's project gets larger, more focused, and more interesting by the end of the course, Sabriye says. "I also learn from each of the participants. It is an emotionally enriching experience since I am surrounded by the world's problem solvers."

Sabriye has been awarded Time magazine Asia's HERO award for 2004 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Oprah Winfrey introduced Sabriye on her television show as a "phenomenal woman."

Although such international recognition has steadily poured in, Paul notes funding has not always been so easy to find.

But Sabriye and Paul keep moving forward. Their mission, they say, is simple:

"We want to 'kantharize' the world."


Help the visually impaired

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Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help the visually impaired:

Helen Keller International works to save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Project: Give to save sight and lives worldwide.

Child Family Health International offers community-based programs for health science students and schools. Project: Volunteer with the VENU Eye Institute and Research Centre in New Delhi.

Benetech creates innovative technology solutions and services that address unmet needs. Project: Support Bookshare, a digital library that offers books in Braille or large print, or as synthesized speech.

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