Growing up in the United States comes with privileges most American children take for granted. Safe environments, clean water and various educational opportunities are considered a given. For most youngsters, things like extreme violence and poverty are seen only on television. Though Deena Neimat was raised in the states, she knew from a very young age how different life was like for children in other parts of the world.
The daughter of immigrant parents, Neimat didn’t have any relatives in the U.S., so she spent most summers traveling to visit family. It was during these trips that she was exposed to the civil war in Lebanon. Playing with her siblings on the streets among tanks and armed soldiers gave her a firsthand view of just how contrasting life is in other countries. Today, the Baltimore native and mother of three draws from these experiences when implementing her parenting practices.
“In raising my kids, I think about those experiences,” she says. “I knew about the luxuries we had in the U.S., and I knew it was something not to take advantage of – I knew to be grateful.” She adds that her husband is Syrian and has family in Syria. “I have an immense sense of guilt,” Neimat says. “Here I am, able to raise my kids in the U.S. How do I use this opportunity to engage the youth about what is happening outside of their bubble?”
Neimat’s desire to figure out how to talk to her own children about these issues led to her thinking about what would eventually turn into her own business. She knew the problem she wanted to solve, but she wasn’t quite sure how she was going to solve it. She knew that somehow, she’d hone in on the fact that there are so many young children around the world being raised amid conflict, yet their thoughts, words and feelings go unheard.
As soon as Neimat came up with the name, “Little Voices Are Loud,” she did what any aspiring business owner in the 21st century would do: She registered her domain name. Unfortunately, the Little Voices Are Loud web address remained just that for three years – a domain name, nothing more and nothing less.
Neimat says that she always had a vision for Little Voices Are Loud, but the amount of work frightened her a bit. A graphic designer and mother, she already had a lot going on and wasn’t certain she could dedicate enough time to her idea to make it successful. Fortunately, a fellow co-working-space user at WELD in Nashville took it upon herself to keep Neimat in check.
“It happened over lunch in the WELD kitchen about a year and a half ago, before we moved to Kentucky,” Neimat recalls. “I told Suzanna [Hendricks] about my idea and she said it was great and to let her know how it went.” Time kept passing by, but Neimat hadn’t gotten anywhere on her new project. “We are all pulled to something, but it’s so easy to silence things when they’re too difficult,” she says. Still, Hendricks inquired about it regularly, watering the seed she had planted months ago.
Finally, Hendricks got tired of asking about results but never actually seeing any, so she called Neimat’s bluff. “She told me she wasn’t going to let me say no,” Neimat explains. “She said that whatever it took, I was going to make it happen.”
The follow-up worked out for the best because this past September, co-founders Neimat and Hendricks launched Little Voices Are Loud. Their team also includes Lead Copywriter Meredith Kane, Operations Manager Lauren Ellis and Social/PR manager Gabby Watson. Neimat’s children have designated themselves as employees as well. “My kids love it,” she says. “My daughter actually did some illustrations for the box. She also drew the globe. She feels like this is her job too. She’s always checking on me and dropping little notes on my desk. My son runs up to me and says, ‘Did you know that we’re business partners?’”
With or without kiddie colleagues, Little Voices Are Loud won the coveted $15,000 Dream Fund grant from WELD, which provided it with a starting ground for Neimat to begin offering changemaker boxes on the website that was once nothing more than a domain name.
The boxes are now available in three themes: peace, environment and equality. The peace changemaker box encourages children to be intentional listeners while practicing mindfulness and showing respect to everyone. It’s full of cause-related materials to help them create peace among their family, friends and neighbors. It also discusses the topic of refugees and modern-day slavery. The environment changemaker box teaches little ones how to make small changes in their everyday habits to create a positive impact on Mother Earth. It is packed with materials to challenge children in making environmentally conscious choices. Lastly, the equality changemaker box helps children to understand the importance of basic human rights by encouraging them to use kind words, treat everyone equally, support people in need and volunteer to help others in their community.
Each box contains items made from recycled elements, including a t-shirt, button, canvas bag and most importantly, a changemaker map. Printed on waterproof material, each map engages children by providing easy ways they can save the world – without the help of their parents. Tips can be as simple as, “Give someone a compliment today.” What’s more, each theme has a nonprofit partner organization, so a portion of the proceeds from each box sold teaches children theme-specific lessons while emphasizing the importance of charitable giving. Each of the three organizations were so impressed with Neimat’s idea that they all signed on to be partners without even seeing the actual product.
The peace changemaker boxes support International Justice Mission, which is the world’s largest international anti-slavery organization. Its mission is to end slavery and other forms of violence in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Environment changemaker boxes help Charity Water bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. Equality boxes give back to the Malala Fund, which aims to help girls complete 12 years of safe, quality schooling so they can reach their potential as positive changemakers within their families and communities.
The idea behind the content of each box is to teach children what it means to feel strongly about something, and how those feelings can be used to make a positive change. Neimat describes the boxes as conversation-starters that a parent can purchase for their child to address serious issues. She is also working on expanded boxes for group settings, which will hopefully be used in school curricula. “Our kids hear about these things,” she says. “If we don’t address them, we’re indirectly telling them that their voices don’t matter.”
Neimat seems to have proven her methods of teaching and inspiring; her children are already forward-thinking citizens, using events such as their birthdays to support causes in their communities. Her 9-year-old daughter Cyra for example is an animal lover. So, instead of accepting presents for her birthday, she requested donations for the Kentucky Humane Society Wish List. Neimat’s 6-year-old son, Vaya, did something similar. Feeling motivated by the Little Voices Are Loud environment changemaker box, he raised more than $200 for Charity Water on his name day. Neimat notes that Charity Water is a great organization that makes it easy for kids to see how they’re making an impact; donors are notified about exactly how many people they are supplying with water and even receive coordinates of the well their donation helped to build. Though the littlest member of Neimat’s clan, Gibrian, is just 4 years old, it’s probably safe to say that he will eventually follow in his siblings’ footsteps.
“I don’t want them to just do good in school and make their beds and obey their parents,” she says. “What I want are independent thinkers that take action and believe that who they are can change the world.”
Neimat recalls an experience that seems to illustrate exactly the kind of children she wants to help raise – not just in her own home, but around the world: The Neimat family was dining out when the children noticed the restaurant manager asking a homeless man to leave – he stated that the tables were for customers only. Neimat’s then-7-year-old daughter asked if they could buy the man something to eat; that way, he would be a customer and wouldn’t get kicked out. She also suggested getting him some gift cards as well so he could come back and be a customer later too.
“As adults, sometimes we are so hardened we don’t see things as simple as they should be,” Neimat says. “We could all benefit from just acknowledging that we’re all lucky to have what we have.”
Little Voices Are Loud changemaker boxes are available for $35 each at littlevoicesareloud.com.