On edge of the Sahara Dunes, a few miles outside of the Moroccan town of Merzouga, a camel named Omalise seems to suspect something is up.

On her back is a bulky contraption — a tall fabric seat held in place by metal piping and tied down with a tangle of unfamiliar straps.

Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.


It doesn't hurt, but it's not her usual saddle, and it's definitely not heavy enough to be a rider. Unclear what the attentive crowd of rapidly chattering humans around her wants her to do, she tries to stand up.

Within milliseconds, three trainers hustle over to coax the confused camel back to the ground.

"Of course, right now, the camel is a bit uncomfortable with the situation, but she’ll get used to it," says Mbark, Omalise's handler, through a translator. Mbark has lived semi-nomadically around the pack animals his entire life. For the past 12 years, he's worked in the country's booming tourism industry, facilitating camel excursions for visitors who want an up-close-and-personal introduction to the desert.

Today, he's spending his evening preparing his impatient camel to give tourists with disabilities the opportunity to experience the type of Hollywood epic-worthy trek through the desert sands they imagine when they dream of his home country.

Riding a camel has long been out of reach for travelers who lack full mobility, but Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants (MAT) hopes to change that with the advent of a custom saddle that mimics the action of a wheelchair on the animal's back.

The seat is the brainchild of Erik Neufeld and Jeremy Schmidt, who purchased the tour company in 2016 with the goal of providing their disabled clients access to the country's full range of historic sites, restaurants, markets, and natural attractions.

Getting a client onto a camel and over the dunes (a "classic Morocco" experience, according to the pair) is a problem that has perplexed them from day one — and one they believe they're finally getting close to solving.

Omalise. Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.

"There were other parts of Morocco where we were like, 'Yeah, we can see how this will work accessibility-wise,' but the desert, that was constantly, 'How do we make this work?'" Neufeld explains.

In a few weeks, a colleague from Eastern Europe who studies the effects of equipment on a person's body is coming to test the saddle. To prepare for her visit, Neufeld volunteered to be the saddle's first human guinea pig.

In an effort to meet the deadline, Neufeld, an aircraft mechanic by training, is working furiously with Mbark, a local welder, and Schmidt, a physical therapist by training to make sure it can support a disabled rider without discomforting or harming accommodating animals like Omalise.

An early stage version of the seat. Photo by Erik Neufeld.

"We have Moroccans, Americans, Eastern Europeans all working together to make it possible for someone to experience the desert in a unique way," he says.

For the estimated 1 billion people worldwide living with a disability, traveling the globe is slowly becoming easier.

Beginning in 2014, the United Nations World Tourism Organization began holding conferences on accessible travel, establishing a set of guidelines and goals for nations to make their iconic sites more hospitable for disabled tourists.

In places like much of Morocco, where accessible infrastructure often coexists with ancient buildings, narrow streets, and impassable staircases, companies like MAT work to fill in the gaps.

"If we advertise something as accessible, people have certain expectations of what that is," Neufeld says. The company designs itineraries for its clients to maximize the amount they can accomplish independently — and organizes transportation and accommodation around their particular physical needs.

The camel chair is an ambitious step beyond MAT's usual expertise. The centerpiece of the device is an articulating seat that adjusts with the rider's body. Moveable armrests allowing for simplified transfer between wheelchair and seat, and a custom frame allows the rider to slide neatly into a traditional saddle.

Ultimately, Neufeld and Schmidt hope to make the chair available to Moroccan children with disabilities as well as their tourist clients, allowing many to experience the Sahara for the first time.

Still, it's a work in progress.

On a second try, Neufeld attempts to hoist himself into the saddle from a raised platform.

In a rush to climb aboard, the platform tips under his weight and Omalise, spooked by the activity, stands up again.

Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.

After wrestling her down, Mbark and his team work to calm the anxious camel, tying her at the knee to prevent further surprises.

"If [Neufeld] falls, no one cares, but if our client falls, that’s a bigger issue," Schmidt notes, wryly.

Before finding MAT, Jane Romm, a teacher from New York, was skeptical of taking any sort of organized tour of Morocco.

Like many independent travelers, she prefers setting her own schedule to traveling on a set guided itinerary.

Since her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she and her family have continued to travel the world, developing new strategies along the way.

"My sons and I, we’re like a well-oiled machine the way we handle the wheelchair," Still, her husband's declining mobility made exploring the North African country on their own a daunting thought.

Ultimately, having a trained physical therapist on staff at MAT, and a driver who refused to leave her husband in the van once, even spending an evening running from restaurant to restaurant attempting to locate an accessible restroom — confirmed the value of a trip designed around their specific needs.

Jane Romm (C) and family in Morocco. Photo by Jane Romm.

"We looked at each other and were like, 'Why didn’t we ever do this before?" she explains. "What’s wrong with us? Why are we trying to conquer the world ourselves?'"

On his third attempt to test the chair, Neufeld finally slides from the platform into the seat. The handlers release the ropes and Omalise stands on cue.

As she trots nonchalantly along the sand, Neufeld rocks back and forth in the seat, trying not to engage the muscles in his core — simulating the potential effect of the ride on a client who lacks upper body strength.

Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.

He sways unsteadily, like an exhausted club-goer who's had one too many, as Mbark and crew spot him from below. It's hard to watch. But he finishes the ride without falling.

For Neufeld, the test run was a "wild cocktail of exhilaration mixed with some anxiety" — a promising start, though a harrowing one.

"In many ways you could compare it to being on a roller coaster," he says.

Meanwhile, Mbark, observing from the ground, continued to noodle on prospective modifications.

"Because we have a new saddle here, it’s very common with new saddles that they don’t have good balance," he explains. "Once we figure out the balance issues, it will work great."

The crew hopes that adding more ballast to stabilize the seat, while making its metal frame less rigid and more adaptable to the fluid motion of the camel, will steady the chair.

After an exhausting hour of testing, Omalise sets off toward home on her own, as Mbark speeds off along a different route on his motorbike.

Neufeld, meanwhile, plans to make some modifications in the morning. Until then, he will continue risking his own body to make sure the project remains on schedule.

For those who live abroad, traveling to Morocco isn't an essential experience, and it's certainly not one available to everyone with a disability.

For those lucky enough to get the opportunity — Schmidt and Neufeld are working to provide far more than access ramps and bars on the toilet for travelers to a place they feel fortunate to call home.

"To go see the desert, to go see the ocean, to see the mountains [in the U.S.], you’re talking about multiple days and plane trips," Schmidt says. "Here you can do it all in the same week."

Riding a camel might not be something most people need to do. But life is more than things you need to do. So, yes, a few hours bopping around the desert is not necessarily going to make or break anyone's life. But for travelers with disabilities, a working accessible saddle could open the world just a little bit wider.

With a little luck, the camels will learn to see it that way too.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Here at Upworthy, we cherish our loved ones and although Valentine's is not all about gifts, if you are looking to buy a special gift for a special someone, then you came to the right place! We have curated a list of our personal favorites from our store, Upworthy Market, where you can feel good about your shopping because every dollar you spend directly supports local artisans who craft their own products. In this gift guide, you'll find all products have special thought, hand-made with love and they are all under $30 to help you stay within a budget.


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