On my way into Accra, a slogan under a billboard caught my eye: “Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do”. This trip started as a dream that would require me to “do” something. On my final and 63rd day in Ghana, I sat and reflected that the work we did here was above and beyond all of my original dreams and goals. In 63 days Kofi and I established 5 concrete programs at two junior high schools, one senior high school, one vocational school, and one children’s shelter; we finished a 9-week curriculum on reproductive and sexual health; we connected each of these 5 schools with a high school Vermont R.O.C. chapter; with Dr. Julie Spaniel’s help we provided dental care to over 800 men, women, and children; we interviewed 10 children who were rescued child slaves; and we developed partnerships with local NGO’s, and companies. I am humbled. And, I am in complete awe of all the incredible people I have met along this journey.
As our programs came to a close, I noticed the biggest change I had seen the entire trip, the students had become bolder and more inquisitive. No longer were they shy and holding back the answers to the questions that they knew were correct. They were standing up and speaking out about things that they had noticed or wanted to learn more about. On our final day at Have Junior High School we had our last Skype call with CVU R.O.C. A group of girls came up to my computer and said they had some questions for the Vermonters. The first question they asked was, “Abortion is illegal in Ghana, but do you think abortion is bad? Is it bad in the U.S.?” We had just finished one of our units on culture. I was so proud of this girl for asking this question, however awkward it may have been for the CVU R.O.C. student who answered it. The point was that a 15-year-old girl in Ghana (where she knows abortion is illegal) was able to stand up in front of her class (including her headmaster, Kofi, and I) and ask a question like that to a group of American teens. She was confident enough and curious enough to do this. This was our goal in action. We wanted to empower students to stand up and ask questions and facilitate discussions around sometimes uncomfortable topics and listen, with an open mind, to other opinions. This is the cultural exchange of knowledge we wanted to see happen, and it did, right there in a rural junior high school in Have, Ghana, and Hinesburg, Vermont.
I spent one of my last days visiting a school in Anloga where I had worked before through GLA three summers ago. I had stayed in touch with some of the students and they knew I was coming. Last time I was there, I taught English in a classroom for 3 weeks. When I arrived they were writing mock exams to graduate from Junior High School and I learned they would all be attending Senior High School next year. I sat down with them and we talked about what had been going on the last few years. We all seemed to have grown up so much! It was cool to see how the school I made bricks for has grown and flourished. The kids shared with me their plans for after graduation and their new future aspirations. Joseph, who was the main person I stayed in contact with over the years, plans to study politics and development and he wants to be President of Ghana one day. Kini became a well-known local artist and plans to go into graphic design. Abigail wants to be a doctor, and Faith wants to be a soldier. I remember a boy that was mentally challenged, but always tried his hardest and engaged in all of our activities. I still remember how we had asked students to write about world peace and the boy drew a heart on his paper. I remember almost crying with my teaching partner, Tres, as we picked up the papers and saw his. Well, I was able to see him again and watched how the other boys helped him and look out for him. Again, this filled me with happiness and he, too, will graduate from school this year.
The week before, Kofi and I had gone to Accra to the American Embassy to meet with the Mission Director of USAID. We did not expect to meet the entire development team as well as a representative from the US Embassy/State Department, but we did. Turns out the connection between Vermont and Ghana had already been well established, as the Mission Director of USAID is a Middlebury alumnus. He recommended that I try to meet Jon Isham, the Middlebury Professor who is living in Ghana on sabbatical with his family (whom I had already been in contact with).
The folks at the USAID meeting shared with us the names of other organizations doing similar work and how we ought to connect. One such organization is Oral Health Express, run by Dr. Richard Selormey, a dental surgeon in Kumasi and also a YALI fellow. I reached out to Richard right away asking to see if he would be available to meet in Accra on my last day in the country, and he said “Yes!” We met and talked about his successful dental program in rural communities in Ghana. It was an inspiring meeting. It reminded me of why we do this type of work. It is very satisfying to watch the positive impact on the communities we serve. As we move forward with planning future health programs I know that we have a team in Ghana ready to work with us to bring health care to everyone while we help educate and empower the students of Ghana.
If that wasn’t enough inspiration, we also arranged for a meeting with an investment manager who lived near the town of Have, one of the schools we worked at. Kofi and I wanted to meet with him to discuss any ideas he had for how to raise private funding for our cultural exchange program. He was enthusiastic about the idea and promised to provide financial support, personally, and to connect us with a network of other private individuals as well as companies who would be interested in funding the programs. While he has traveled the world, for some reason he had never come to America. In Ghana there is a saying that “the elder has to try something first before someone younger tries, to make sure it is okay”. I told our new partner that he had a complete and open invitation to come to Vermont to visit with us and meet everyone so he could see for himself where the students would be coming on the exchange program :)
Refugee Outreach Club Inc. has officially launched R.O.C. Inc. Ghana.