Help Shannon connect youth in the U.S. and Afghanistan

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Shannon

Shannon Mouillesseaux is from a town in upstate NY that has one traffic light, one gas station, one grocery store, and one bank. “It is a rural community that, when I was growing up, was primarily inhabited by farmers and blue collar workers,” she says.

With few opportunities for high school graduates, Shannon had a fleeting moment when she considered joining the military in high school after being repeatedly targeted by recruiters. While some of her classmates opted to don camo, she realized the military wasn’t for her.


Faced with increasing college costs and decreasing economic opportunities, more and more teens are considering military service after high school: Photo via Creative Commons (Flickr user Frank Juarez).

Wanting desperately to study anthropology, Shannon instead attended university and spent her junior year in Nepal. There, she was exposed to the trafficking of women and girls, an eye-opening experience that was the catalyst for her eventual work with refugees at the United Nations.

Her experiences with displaced communities around the world have exposed her to the plight of those most affected by war. Yet, back home, she was struck by the (mis) perception that violence is the only answer to violence. After 9/11, Shannon frequently heard variations of the phrase “Let’s blow them off the map” in her hometown. When she would suggest engaging in dialogue as an alternative response, she often felt inaccurately viewed as anti-American.

“The fear that has arisen within our culture, leaving many people afraid to experience other countries and cultures for fear of falling victim to a terrorist attack is, for me, worrying,” she says.

The intention

Her solution to alleviating some of that fear and violence? Pen pals for the digital age.

Specifically, Shannon envisions a two-fold project for youth in the U.S. and overseas who may not have the opportunity to travel. The first component, which she would pilot in her hometown and in Afghanistan, would connect “at-risk American students of all ages via video conference with displaced communities abroad” throughout the school year. The second would send high school students to safe, developing countries during thesummer to help out with humanitarian projects. Ideally, this would happen after the children have established relationships.

Sometimes her work takes her to IDP (internally displaced persons') camps like this one in Kabul, where she hopes to pilot the program. (Photo via Shannon Mouillesseaux.)

By creating a link between communities affected by war, Shannon hopes this type of cross-cultural exchange will help young people understand each other’s lives better and ultimately contribute to promoting peace on an individual level – even when governments are at odds.


Shannon is still refining her idea. Here are some challenges she has identified:

  1. Working in an office with other collaborators would be one thing. Going at it on her own is very different. Without support and a more formal infrastructure, Shannon is unsure how to take the next step to give the project momentum.
  2. Getting the language right is critical. She’s concerned that the project might be seen by some in the U.S. as anti-patriotic.
  3. She has lots of questions about how to incorporate this into a school curriculum and, separately, the implications and logistics of sending teens abroad.
  4. Like most projects out there, finding the right funders is a challenge.

How you can help

Shannon would love to see this idea grow and succeed. Can you offer her any advice?

  • Are there similar long-term projects or programs that appeal to students of all ages?
  • Do you know of any projects or programs that could offer insights, best practices, and/or lessons learned?
  • If you are a student, parent, teacher, and/or refugee, what aspects of these ideas appeal to you? What concerns come to mind?
  • Regarding sending teens abroad: Does the program need to be entirely separate from the school system, so that the school is not responsible legally? If so, how can Shannon ensure that both she and the project are protected?
  • Do you know of a rural community that might benefit from this type of project?
  • What other funding sources might want to help get a project like this off the ground?
  • If you’ve successfully launched a project, what piece of crucial advice would you share?
  • Would you like to help?

Leave a comment below or send her a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!


Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Comments (5)

  1. Bridget Mariano writes:
    July 3, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Your idea is inspiring, Shannon! I work with educational technology in a school division that prides itself on providing 21st century skills to the students. The global aspect of this fits right in.
    As for the travel abroad part, honestly here that seems to be done mostly via mission trips with local churches. (which I may have some helpful contacts with as well) The schools don’t seem to be involved in any travel abroad.

  2. Sharif writes:
    July 5, 2012 at 5:34 am

    This idea deserves respect and application. The waring parties don’t understand each other well and that has worsened lengthened the war. The teens needs to know one another and thus it will help be hopeful for the peace being existing in coming generation. In Kabul, an American old lady,Ana, is running Ana School for IDPs and has established contacts on the ground and said once she is ready to help in projects. I am Sharif an employee in an INGO and ready to volunteerly help you 2 days a week or late hours every day. I am the fan of this idea.

  3. Lisa writes:
    July 11, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Sounds wonderful, Shannon. There are two NGOs that I know of in NYC who are working on somewhat similar projects and may be able to help you out with some info/suggestions: GlobalPotential and Global Nomads Groups. It would likely be worth contacting them and seeing what advice they have! Good luck.

  4. Jacqueline Smith writes:
    July 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    I go to Purchase college and we had a meeting with a group that helps people find jobs and internships abroad. Actually my school is associated with schools abroad that we can study at for a semester or a year or whatever. But they charge a fee for this experience. I suspect that you could find some good funding for your project if you run a kickstarter project at or .com, I’m not sure which one. But many people have gone over their expectations in funding on certain projects, you need to write one up and come up with gifts for various levels of donations, then post it and see how it runs. They run between $15,000-$100.000 projects. So if you write a few of them you could build your income source. They are for artistic projects so you can get creative with it. Read what other people have done and get some good ideas. There’s also they are a place to put up a more straight forward funding plea, but it is also tricky to get funding. You have to send out your information to the right people in the right places if you know what I mean.

  5. Kat writes:
    July 12, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    This is a fantastic idea!! And, not anti-American, either – in fact, this is just what the US needs!

    Are there any exchange or study-abroad programs that exist already that might be able to support you or that you might be able to develop under? I’d say a good step would be to see if there are any organizations (private, non-profit, gov, anything) that have similar goals and see if there’s a match or if they’re willing to help you out, financially or otherwise. Collaborating, relationship building, and exploring potential alliances will not only help with your morale but also in finding potential contacts and spreading the word about your project.

    I can imagine that international schools might be pretty receptive to this idea since many of them will already share the value of multi- and intercultural exchange.

    If you’re worried about your project’s image, then there needs to be a way to be able to sell the project as being patriotic. One way to approach this would be to emphasis the United State’s role as role model and (current) super-power – as a powerful state, we have a responsibility to set an example and what better example than promoting a culture of respectful exchange? I’m just writing off the top of my head at the moment, but I’m sure there’s several ways to make this a patriotic project. (If the US government during WWII was able to sell the idea that vegetable gardens were patriotic, then there’s definitely a way to make this work.)

    Anyway. Those are my thoughts at the moment. I’m very interested in helping with this, so anything I can do to help, just let me know! All the best!

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