Farewell Ghana, my dear friend

Written on the plane coming home, 8/7/2012, and recent

I’m on my way home, and wish more than anything else I  could rewind time and land back in Ghana.  I am not ready to go home, and face the craziness of it all. I can’t believe it’s over. I feel like the time flew by so fast. I have such a conflicting mix of bittersweet feelings… both really happy  it happened and went well, and sad that after all that planning it’s all over. (I wonder if it’s similar to what my newly married friends feel after all the planning of a wedding!)

One lost luggage for a week, 4 sick volunteers, 1 lost handbag…but we made it!!  I have to say I had such a great time. This experience only reassured to me that I love what I do, helping people and giving to others; it also showed me how much I enjoy working with communities and working in collaboration with leaders from other countries. Also, it really showed me how much I love to watch other adults share the same joy in the things I do; watching my volunteers work hard, grow and learn about themselves was something I really enjoyed being a part of. I feel SO grateful to have been welcomed so graciously into the lives of those I worked with, for a second year in a row. Words cannot express my gratitude!!

I always liked challenges, and this was perhaps one of the biggest ones I’ve faced in a while. We had some bumps in the road, but in the end, we came to Ghana to give to 3 communities, provide days filled with activity, fun and learning, and that’s exactly what we did. I am so proud of the volunteers for making it happen,  and for doing an amazing job! Happy as well that I was able to ensure the programs at each school ran smoothly. At the end of the day, we didn’t just meet our goal, we excelled it, and I think that’s an achievement for both myself and my team to celebrate. We had never worked with two of the communities before, and as with anything new, there’s always that chance of it not going as planned. Working in a team, also comes with it’s own challenges. You may come across personalities with whom you clash with, or have trouble getting along with. Though there’s always going to be differences, I have to say that I think my team did an excellent job trying their best to work together, and enjoying each other’s company. On this trip, as team leader, I learned not only  about myself, but also, about  teamwork and people in general as well. 

At times I had the volunteers come together to reflect on their experiences, to help them learn about themselves as well. We did one in the beginning, the middle and the end of our program. I think it’s always helpful to stop and think about what you are doing, how it makes you feel, especially for a team of adults working together. The girls did a great job really thinking about the program and how it was affecting their own personal feelings and growth, mostly in positive ways. I loved it most, when volunteers would share new things that they’ve learned about themselves. That’s the only real way to grow.  From my own last year, I know that an experience like this really makes you think, and in a way, forces you to learn more about yourself..what you enjoy working in a team, and what you don’t, how volunteering can impact you differently than it does to others, how it affects your own life back at home, what challenges are the hardest to face, and most of all, how powerful it is to try something new. I think reflecting through out the program was a great opportunity for the volunteers in so many ways;  If nothing else, it helps to remind ourselves what we were in Ghana for, and that we all had one common interest…helping and giving to others, working with kids, and trying something new (for some). I felt so proud hearing what some of the volunteers have shared. (Made me think back to some of my teachers, and thought ‘I bet this is how they feel when some of their students get really into class assignments’!) Overall, it was great. If you know me, you know I’m a thinker, a processor, and am always encouraging others to write, journal, and just take a minute to think about things going on around you, when life moves so fast. I can only hope that the volunteers found it as helpful as I intended it to be for them.

As a team leader, I have learned so much. I’m a planner. I usually have a busy week and know what day I’ll be doing what. That is my sense of calm. This summer, helped me to learn and stretch my boundaries of planning. As my role of team leader, I was constantly emailing, on the phone, coordinating all our services…our drivers, school work, the kid’s meals, our meals, our hotel stay, etc. etc. The list goes on! As many phone calls it took to make things work, things were always changing..and more phone calls had to be made. There were days I thought, ‘Ah hah! I got it nailed, it’s all planned and things will be perfect when we get there!’… and then we’d get to a school and everything was switched around! It felt wierd at first, it was frustrating at times.  There were so many things up in the air and shifting…breakfast and lunch times at the school were sometimes moved last minute, volunteers had to swap scheduled with someone else, dinner plans were delayed, and sometimes messages got mixed up and lost in translation due to  language miscommunications. Those were the best! But, in the end, I embraced this lifestyle, and  I learned from the Ghanaians that even when things aren’t planned, or unorganized, or delayed..it still always works out. As one of my friends from there always tells me, “There is always a way”. I hope to take some of this Ghanaian mindset with me into the next year, and wonder if I may grow at least a little bit more faith in that things will just work out in the end even amongst chaos. It makes me wonder if our overall definition of “chaos” in America, is just different from those in Ghana as well.

I also learned how to be a successful leader (at least I hope so!).  I can now check off ‘lead a group of adults in a foreign country’ off my bucket list! I know I was always a natural leader in activities when I am with friends, or when I was younger, but I never had an opportunity to be one for adults. Well I did this summer, and am really happy to say, overall it went well. I’ve always been good at being calm when things are stressful for others, so that was one characteristic that played as a strength in my role as leader. We had a few stressful situations; one volunteers luggage was lost for a week! I was on the phone or texting to get updated every hour of the day, and ensured to update her whenever I heard news. I was SO excited for her when we found it, as I can imagine she was as well. I have to say she did an excellent job staying calm and being patient.(You rock girl!) Everyone was so generous in sharing their things with her as well! I also had a few sickies; I hate talking myself up, but one thing I’ve always been is giving to everyone around me. I gave the girls as many of my meds as I could, while trying to leave 1 or more to spare in case I got sick. So glad I ended up buying that cough syrup at the airport last minute! (Hope that cough is gone by now Soph!)  One of the other volunteers had to go to the clinic, but it was also a very smooth process and I made sure to wait with her every step of the way. She got better in no time! (Hope you are feeling better Steph). Another volunteer got sick and had to stay home one day..which killed me. I felt so bad. The show had to go on though, as her group was waiting for her, so I jumped in and worked with her group for the day. (MaryBeth, they didn’t stop asking about you!) I’m glad she stayed home though, the rest was definitely needed and helped her recooperate. There were also moments that the volunteers were frustrated with some of the program logistics, and this was definitely hard on me. But, I wanted to make sure they felt heard and held a group meeting to discuss the difficult topics, with the hopes of alleviating some of their frustration and other feelings. I wish I was able to do more to have made it a better experience for them, in those areas which they may not have been satisfied, but I at least feel happy knowing that most all of the volunteers felt a high level of satisfaction with the actual time they spent with the children in our camps.

This job required multi-tasking on a whole new level! I’ve also always been good at multi-tasking, but I even impressed myself with the amount of daily tasks I had this summer. I actually looked forward to each new task and embraced every new task with excitement. There were so many tasks on my to do list each day, and at first I thought it may be daunting…but in the end, I loved it, and it felt easy. I also learned that I can indeed get over my (silly) fear of talking to locals, being on my own, and that I actually really enjoy it. My trip was that much more special to me because of the fact that I got to work with so many different community members… they were all so interesting and I learned something from each and every one of the people that I had the honor to work with..the chiefs, the principals, amazing Adamus staff, etc. They were all so friendly and conversations were endless when it came to learning more about their own backgrounds and stories. As a team leader, I also learned that I can handle multitasking more than I ever thought was possible! I learned how to be firm with Ghanaians, when you need to be (because otherwise we’d still be sitting at breakfast waiting for our juice and fruit!) 🙂  After having one summer experience in Ghana under my belt, I finally mastered how to understand the local English as well as how to have the locals understand me the first time rather than the 4th or 5th 🙂 I learned how to constantly get used to changes, and work with things not going as planned- and still seeing positive results and learning to trust that everything will be ok. I learned that as a leader you are going to have people not like you, or listen to you, as much as you have said something over and over…and how not to take that stuff personally, because most often than not it’s not about you. I learned that sometimes you can’t please everyone but the best you can do it be yourself and know that you’ve tried your hardest. That perhaps was the hardest for me; I tend to be someone who likes to make people happy but I’ve learned to accept that with a large group of people, it’s just not realistic.  When there were some group frustrations, all I wanted to do was make everyone feel better and alleviate the upset feelings. If you know me well, I hate more than anything in the world, when people are upset and will try to do what I can to make them feel at least a little better. In this type of position, I learned sometimes no matter what you do may not help, and sometimes you have to let things be. Settle with the uncomfortable feeling that I can’t fix it all….it’s really hard for me to do that, even in my professional social work world. However, from this experience, more than ever before I’ve learned that it’s just going to happen that you can’t please everyone, realistically.  And, I’ve learned to settle with that feeling and accept it as it. I’ve also learned what it feels like to have pride in a team of hard working adults. Finally, I have learned what it’s like to feel a sense of pride to watch something you have put so much time and effort into, take off and be successful!

Ghanaians have this beautiful way of handling life that I continue to admire. I know I spoke of it a bit last year in my blog, but it’s just so inspiring to me. Ghanaians make the best out of everything and genuinely are happy and positive people; they deal with problems as they come, and never stress too much about anything. I spent time with so many different Ghanaians..some old, some young, some who spoke Twi, some who spoke Nzema, all from different places, and with different stories. Amongst them all, I noticed an inspiring sense of calmness. There was always a way, things were always worked out, nothing was too big of a problem or too much trouble for anyone. I found all the Ghanaians I worked with, to be so generous and always willing to help. I love that about the Ghanaian culture as a whole.

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I love that most places you visit in Ghana, are filled with the friendliness people. They say Ghana has a reputation for being one of the friendliest countries in Africa, and I completely see it. The ones I have come across, are just amazing people with warm hearts and sensitive souls.

After my trip to Ghana last year, I felt a life change. Slowly, I instilled this sense of calm into my life the past year and I noticed it made such a difference in all my interactions with the things and people around me..the way I’ve dealt with my own stress, and that of friends, the way I deal with friends’ drama or with arguments. I found myself at the end of this year, realizing that I have handled things a lot better than before I went to Ghana. I also changed so many of my priorities. Things like Facebook and shopping, lost it’s appeal after returning. Naturally, the new perspective I had when I returned wore down a little bit over time. So many people told me, it won’t last a whole year. My answer is that it lasts as long as you want it to last. Realistically, there are definitely things you just have to adjust to, living in a city as crazy as NY, but I definitely noticed a big change in my life over the past year; I hope to be able to do the same thing, after this trip. I hope to be able to pass this on to some of my friends and family at home as well. It makes me hate coming back to NY where things are moving so fast and everyone is on the go but if  I take the Ghanaian love for life and sense of calmness with me, I know that I will be able to practice that way of thinking no matter where I am.

I know for sure, that this summer with our Summer Camp Team, we made an impact that goes beyond the kids. We affected families, teachers, principals, Adamus workers, and so many kids. We made friends along the way, left some lessons behind, and walked away having learned ourselves. We taught kids things they never knew before, and gave teachers new ideas of alternative ways of learning. We enhanced lives. I’ve mentioned this before, and will again..people wonder what kind of impact you can make with such short time. I myself struggled with that idea this trip because we were only with the villages of Anwia and Nkroful for 3 days each. I went back and forth about whether it would be successful. Though I do think if we stayed longer it would have been even more powerful, I believe strongly that we still left something with those kids that they will hold on to forever.

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I loved Ghana after returning last year, and I think this trip only enhanced my attachment to it. The connection I feel is the type you may have with a friend who you don’t see that much, but think of often. Whenever you see them again, it’s like you never left eachother. It’s easy and effortless. There’s a sense of excitement yet also a sense of calmness. That is exactly how I feel. You know you’ll never have to worry about losing touch with that friend, because you know they’ll always be there. If there’s something you may ever need, they are suddenly right there by your side. You know even though you can’t see each other, you are both thinking about each other. Whenever you are with that person, life feels carefree and perfect. Cheesy, yup. But it’s how I feel. Ghana, is that friend to me. I feel so at home there. I’m always so genuinely happy when I am there. It’s comfort, happiness, excitement, and tranquility all at the same time. I honestly feel like some time in my future I would be perfectly happy staying there for a longer period of time. Some of the kids asked me if I’ll ever come back, if I’ll be back next year. I answered by saying I don’t know when, but I know I’ll be back. It’s true; I know it. I love it too much not to. It’s a part of who I am and always will be. Each and every person I had the honor to work with will forever be in my mind, and thoughts. I look forward to sharing all my pictures and stories with friends, because there are so many amazing memories!

Soon, my birthday is on it’s way. “The” birthday. As a single female in NYC, there is so much stress put on that number. Being in Ghana this summer, has helped me feel a lot more at ease, and ready for it to come. As I approach the dreaded 30, I am going to be positive and feel happy for all the amazing opportunities I have been fortunate to have in the 30 years of my life thus far.  I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity 2 years in a row; as with all my memories and experiences, it has made me who I am today and experiences like this continue to make me a better person. As I move on to this new period of my life, I am ready to embrace it and look forward to more exciting opportunities in my future. Before I left, I was really anxious about being 30, but after coming back from Ghana I realize…it’s only a number; kids in Ghana don’t even know their birthday. As I wrote in one blog, priority there is about health and happiness. And that is exactly what I am going to make as mine. Instead of dreading it, I am going to celebrate another amazing year of life, and instead of being bothered by it, will be happy I am healthy and alive. I miss Ghana and am still so sad, but I am ready to embrace the Ghanaian lifestyle as I take on this new chapter in my life, since it is a country that will always be close to my heart. I will continue to blog in the next week or so because I have so much to continue to share with you all! I hope if anything I have inspired some of you to pursue this dream that I have continued to live out for the past 2 summers. I know some people have shared with me that this was their dream too. Always remember, life is what you make of it, and anything is possible 🙂 To all my Ghanaian friends, you are in my thoughts every day, miss you SO much. I leave you with the quote that rings so much truth whenever I think of all the kids and adults I had the honor to work with in Ghana for 2 summers in a row..it’s a quote repeat from last year, but I don’t care..it puts exactly how I feel, into such perfect words..””Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.”

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Happy weekend everyone.

Madam, I love you

**Updated: Pictures are up!

Those were the last words I heard from the principal, as I hugged her and headed towards the van on our last day running camp in Salman. It was our first camp, and successful it was. It made me so proud to finally see all the work I’ve been a part of for so many months, in action. The experience was moving for everyone, including the principals and teachers. Let me tell you all about.

Our 1st camp

Our first camp, camp A, took place in a village called Salman (pronounced like Sal-mah). The school we worked in was a private school. It was chosen, because Adamus has directly affected it’s community. The entire village was relocated, in order for Adamus to use their land for mining. As I discussed in one of my previous blogs, when Adamus will relocate a village, they will give back to the community with money and houses. There are other things given as well, such as churches, schools, etc….basically any building that was previously in their village was built from scratch by Adamus, in a much newer revamped version. The school we worked at was one of these buildings.

Our summer camps provided lunch for  every child. Thanks to our amazing donors, I had over 700 dollars to bring to the camps and utilize as needed. I thought about what would be best for the program, and came to the decision that we’d use most of it to buy breakfast for all the kids in each of the camps we were going to run, since our program was unable to cover both meals a day. This couldn’t have been a better decision!! The kids and principals were so thankful, especially at this school!  All our schools were grateful for the breakfast we were able to provide for them, but so far the kids and teachers at Salman, seemed to be the most appreciative. With some of the 700  dollars we raised in NY, we were able to provide breakfast to about 400 kids. The cheers and smiles on the kids faces when they found out breakfast was provided every day, was priceless. (One group has even made a ‘thank you’ video for you guys!) If you donors didn’t already know, you ROCK.

When we got to the school on th first day the kids were so excited, and curious as to who we are and what we’d be doing. Because it was an Adamus school, it was much different than the school I worked in last year. The walls are all brick, and each classroom is really big. There are real doors with locks, and windows that shut! We walked around to get situated, and I was able to briefly meet with Rockson and the principal. We asked to have all the kids lined up in assembly, so we could introduce ourselves and tell them all about what the next few days will be like. I was so excited it was finally beginning. I went through each volunteer’s name, and got them pumped, and then off each group went with their “madame”.

The kids at assembly on our first day of camp

Once everyone was settled, I was able to meet with the principals, an older man and woman. I instantly thought to myself that they must be married, because I got two answers to every question I asked! Ha. (Turns out I was right!) Regardless of the occasional bicker, I grew to love the two of them rather quickly.  They were both very warm and welcoming, and seemed so excited about our program. They were very willing to help in any way they could too. A lot of their teachers were around, and as I requested, stayed with their regular classroom of kids. I wanted to include local staff in our summer camp program for 2 reasons. One, because they are really helpful with things like translating instructions, or managing any difficult behaviors. Two, because I think it’s important, and very much a part of this program, that we not only learn from the children and the culture, but that we also exchange ways of teaching and learning, with the local teachers as well. If we can at least leave the school staff, having learned at last 1 thing from our summer camp, I would be so happy. The teachers at this school turned out to be really great. They got so involved!

When all was settled that first day, I was able to visit the chief of the town for our 3rd camp, camp c. As I blogged previously, it was such a cool experience. On the ride home, I had a chance to talk with Rockson to learn more about education and children in Ghana. Rockson is from here, so is a great resource. Our conversation began when we were trying to estimate how many local kids would be joining our summer camp in Salman. In this village, there is a somewhat high rate of kids who don’t attend school. I learned from Rockson that some just drop out, and some just can’t go at all. The reason for not attending or for leaving school, are the same; the family most likely does not have enough money, and needs the student to work on their local farm, or to sell goods for their family. Because we knew the rate was high in Salman, we invited them to our school program. I was most excited to see what it was like working with these kids. I had expected that their English may not have been so strong, but some of them ended up not knowing English at all. A lot of the local kids who were invited choose to sit and watch, rather to engage. This was most likely because it was overwhelming, or because they just didn’t know what was going on. Nonetheless, it was really nice having them there; it was really great seeing some of the school kids working with the local kids. A lot of them knew each other, but some of them were just meeting for the first time, and still played so nicely together. There were definitely a few that were a bit roudy, and a few that were just too young to engage at all, but overall their presence really added to the experience.

I had thought that I would be sad not being able to work with my own group of kids, but in just the few days of working with Salman, I grew appreciation for my new role; instead of working with 1 group, I had the chance to work with them all.  Besides getting the chance to work with a whole new community of kids, I loved being able to watch all the volunteers do their thing. It helped me learn a little bit more about who they were, but I also got a chance to observe 6 different teaching styles. I love that. I noticed some of our volunteers would pair up with others through out different times of the day, and I really enjoyed watching their teamwork, each having had such a different background and age from the next. Some groups were a bit rowdy for the 1st day or so, but with just a little patience and practice, they volunteers working with them were able to have them back on track in no time!  I saw SO many creative games, and activities going on in each classroom..it made me feel like a proud mama! I watched one volunteer teaching her kids all about yoga and the importance of breathing when stressed. I watched another volunteer teach her kids new songs. Another, ran a whole dance circle with drums and everything… It was just awesome. Actually, sorry, I meant to say, it was fantasical. You read it right.

The non-word word wall

In all our fun teaching the kids at Salman, we had a few moments that stand out. Kids in general can be really funny…but some of the kids we worked with walked around saying some words we had never heard before and weren’t so sure they were actually even words… Fantastical was one of them. They say it about everything! And, they say it like it’s a word that’s completely normal. An example of how they may use it….”Madame, look at my drawing. It is fantaaaastical.” Say it outloud to yourself. It’s kind of catchy. We adults have not stopped using it. There are 2 other words that have us crying, we laugh so hard  whenever we think about them. I’ll save the best for last. The next, is “Sasabosom”. One day I was reading through some of the stories a group of kids had been working on, when I came across the word “Sasabosom”. Clearly, I lost my cool and keeled over laughing. It took everything in me to calm down and ask one of the kids what on earth this word was. Sharon and I, one of the volunteers, weren’t able to find out that day, so we came home and in our stupid over tired laughing fit that was, we looked the word up online. All I hear is “Alana, I found it!”.. I came over to the computer. “I got it! Here look. It says it’s a hairy vampire that lives in the forest and sometimes can be seen, but isn’t often. It’s something scary.” I looked up at the computer..”Sharon, umm you are getting that information from a site alled Monstapedia… I’m not so sure that definition is real.” And the laughing fits continued for the night. We finally were able to ask a child the next day what it meant; we learned it is the term that kids refer to when speaking about the Devil. Oh, and we also learned that it is really called “Sasabonsom”. But let’s face it, Sasabosom is so much more amazing. I’d say we use that one about once a day, the least. It’s a great word.

The last amazing word we heard at this school, was called…(drum roll please)…”insosophysicalmentality”. (Hear it in your head with an African accent).  I first learned about this word when I happen to walk into Sharon’s room again one day, and the class was playing hangman. One boy was filling out the letters for a really long word. He was so serious, and focused on what he was doing. (I am already laughing as I type this). I learned he was filling out the words because as excited as he was to have his class guess this word, they all knew he would pick this word because it’s apparently his favorite. When I saw it on the board I had to stop myself from bursting out in laughter because it is NOT a word. Our little friend Solomon (who turned out to be one of our favorites) fought and fought that it is in fact a word, and even went so far as to say it’s in the dictionary. His friends were all laughing at hime, but he even had some supporting him shouting out that it was a word. One kid furiously pulled out the dictionary to even try and support his friend! I suggested we settle the debate by asking their teacher. So, we marched up to the teacher, asked him to get a pen, and little Solomon began spelling his word, letter by letter. I suggested the teacher write each letter out as well, to see if he would recognize it better on paper. With a very serious face, Solomon began to spell out the word for his teacher. “I-N-S-O-S-O..”. As the teacher was writing, and the word began to get longer and longer, you could tell that the teacher was realizing that this was in fact a madeup word by the smile that began to creep up on his face. Poor Solomon just stood there with the most serious face, reading it over and over, until his teacher stopped him and told him it was not a real word. It was like Solomon’s world was crushed. I felt bad but it was really a great moment. From that day on we haven’t stopped joking about the word. Sharon and I even went so far as looking up the word on the computer to try and help him out a little..or at least to see if “insoso” has a meaning. Well, we found nothing, but even though it may not be a real world, it is a word in our books, and is one we will never forget. All these words are currently hanging in my room on the “Non-word Word Wall” we created..who knows what else will be added as this trip continues!

 

The End

Leaving this camp was definitely difficult; me and the volunteers felt a special connection to this group. It was clear that the principals of this school felt the same way. At the end of the program, there was a lady that came by to sell cloth. I knew that one of my volunteers has been very interested in shopping locally whenever she had the chance, so I called her over and together we excitedly looked through this basket of beautiful materials. There were so many different colors and textures. The principal came by and asked which ones we liked, helped us translate prices, etc. When we picked out the ones we liked, she tapped us on the shoulder, and said  “I will buy”. Words can’t express how much this meant to me/us. I get chills thinking about it now. Here is this woman, who has less than me, who is so busy running this school. Here we are to help them, give to them, provide…and she is giving me a gift? My instinct said, don’t take it, this isn’t right. I felt wrong somehow taking something from someone in a village where so much was taken from them..where I was supposed to be giving to them. I looked into the principal’s eyes, and heard her say “I want to buy for you. A gift”, and continued to kindly turn down the offer..but then,  something about the smile in her eyes, the sincerity in her offer, made me realize it’s something I had to do. I really honestly was struggling with whether or not I should take it. When I realized how much it would mean to her to take it, I decided to give in and accept. She was so overjoyed and I gave her such a big hug. It’s a moment I truly will never forget.

As I’ve been doing at all my schools, I also had the chance to meet with the principals and interview them at the end, about the camp, their thoughts on Adamus and what they have learned from us volunteers. I love knowing that we can come and help, but even more so I find it much more rewarding knowing we can leave a piece of our work behind. If the schools can learn from even 1 thing we did and keep it as part of their school culture, that makes me so beyond happy. Part of the interviews I conduct with each principal at the end of each camp, is to find out exactly that. Something about the interview I conducted with these 2 principals, really stood out to me. I asked both of them to join me at a table, and showed them the questions I had for them. Together, we read them outloud word per word. Something about their dynamic as a married couple I think, made it such a unique experience, rather than working with the typical principal. It was also really interesting to get a female perspective, as so many of the dominant roles here in Ghana are male dominant. So, I was really excited to see what they both had to say.

We began by talking about the impact Adamus has had on them. I asked them how they felt when they were asked to relocate, and they said at first they were scared of the unkown. They didn’t know what it would be like. I can only imagine what it would be like to leave the only place they knew all their live…where they cooked every day, where they had babies…that land is so much more than land, it’s their home. Interestingly enough, when talking to them they seemed so happy about the move once they got to the new village. I guess it makes sense, because it was SUCH an upgrade to them. They said they didn’t miss their old village at all. Now they had bigger houses, and a nice school, and they were so happy about the facilities they were given. Because of this, they really had nothing but positive things to say about Adamus. It helps for me to have these types of stories, because I have such conflicted feelings about Adamus and their work here. It’s comforting to know that some people are really happy with what they have recieved, rather than sad for what they have lost.

I then was able to talk to the principals specifically about the camp program. They couldn’t thank me more, and continued to say ‘God bless you’ to me through out the week, but especially through out that meeting.  It seemed both husband and wife were really genuinely pleased with the program. The best was asking them to rate on a scale of 1-10 how happy they were with the camp. The husband said 7…and then I heard a bunch of bickering in Twi, the local language. A few minutes later when the husband stepped out, the wife told me she thought it was a 10! Ha. Gotta love married couples. Especially married principal couples 🙂 (Steve and Margaret, I told them about you and they loved that we shared something in common!) I delved a little deeper and asked them what they liked most about the camp. They said they liked that the kids have a chance to use their brain in new and creative ways. The husband said that their school is so focused on academic, there was no time for too much play or fun (Reminded me of the charter school world a little..). The wife said that she never saw the kids so excited to come to school and was amazed and so thankful to see the school in full attendance every day of our summer camp! She was emotional and all she continued to do was thank me and said what a good person I am/we all are. She also added that it’s good for the children to see people from outside, from other countries come and work with them. I was so happy to hear this all, and I too got a bit teary eyed. For a moment, one of the teachers stopped by and we asked him the same questions. He gave me a ’10’ and said that he loved the camp!  I asked him if there was anything he saw that he learned and wanted to do when we are gone, and he said definitely the running and jumping activities. He said that his kids don’t get enough chances to be active, and pointed out that some kids who may be really low academically may be really talented in sports, or music. Such a great point! I felt so accomplished when I heard this, that we’ve opened the door to a whole new range of activities and ways of learning. Just to note, this one teacher at one point had his jeans rolled up and got so into the relays that he was doing them along with the kids! As always, kids anywhere in the world love nothing more than to see their teachers be silly, and show that they too can be fun, so the kids went ballistic when this guy hopped on one leg, or skipped. It was so great to get to talk to him and hear that he would love to carry on some of the things we did in camp.

As much as we prepared, it was so hard to say goodbye. The night before camp, I had a talk with volunteers about endings, and goodbyes. I thought it would be helpful to pass along what I have learned from both my counseling experiences in NY, and my experiences of saying goodbye to the kids in 2011. Last year, our goodbye was so emotional and was just too much. I wanted to avoid making that same mistake again. I told the volunteers that we want to try our best not to cry in front of the kids, because it will set the tone for the kids and they will all follow. I spoke about the importance of leaving on a positive note, but reminded them it’s ok to tell them you will miss them and that it’s sad. Goodbyes are sad, period. They just are. So, it’s definitely important to acknowledge that. It’s also important to leave this kids with a happy, positive feeling. It’s really hard, i know it because last year I couldn’t help but to cry with the kids and now it’s just a really sad memory in my mind. I told the volunteers that it’s important to let these kids know you will always remember them, and that they too can always remember you. I also suggested they tell the children not to be sad, but to happy because we’ve spent so many good times together. I also was really honest with them and told them pointblank, tomorrow is going to suck. It’s not going to be easy. You may be more sad than you think. You may not be sad at all. That is ok, everyone copes differently. I asked if they could just wait until we get in the van to cry, so the kids don’t see it.

In the end, the goodbye went as good as it can go. Some kids were crying. Some didn’t understand. The volunteers did a fantasic(al) job and in the end, I think it went very smoothly. I was really proud of them all for handling it so well. Surprisingly, I was ok, but I think because I have experienced it once before, I was more mentally prepared to handle it and somehow put up some sort of wall. Funny, I realized that last day  I took a lot less pictures…probably as a way to close myself off a little bit. Whatever it takes, to each his own really. I told the volunteers it’s ok if they cry, and I would be there for them through the night, because it’s a lot to process. I know for me, it was particularly hard to leave both the set of twins (from the pic I posted on facebook) and the female principal. When it was time to leave, the two girls just looked at me with tears in their eyes. They just stared, with that I-cant-believe-you-are-leaving-me face. It was awful. I gave them one last hug, and just had to walk away. Everyone knows I am really emotional and sensitive when it comes to this stuff, but I knew if I sat with them, I too would fall apart. Before I left, I went over to the principal and gave her a big hug. I thanked her for the cloth, and said I will always remember her. Ah, getting teary just thinking about it now. I think I’ve sort of blocked the ending out of my mind as to not get sad and be a role model for the volunteers, so it’s good  I get a chance to reflect on it now. Anyway, the principal hugged me tight, then looked at me, grabbed my arm, and said “Madam, I love you”. Just another moment I will never forget. As we piled in the van, we tried to each go in 1 by 1 in order to prevent the kids from crowding the car and making it more emotional. While we did this though, the principal had all the kids gather on the grass to watch our car drive away…which was exactly what we were trying to avoid! Nonetheless, there they were all staring, some smiling, some crying, some just trying to get their last wave. I had sang “Boom Chicka Boom” with the kids through out each camp day and boy did they love it….so right then and there, I thought what better way then to leave the kids with something positive and a smile…I rolled down my window and just started singing with them. I sang it out my window, and they sang back, until we were too far to hear them anymore.

There’s not much more to say, than what an amazing journey this has been. The pride I have after seeing something I have put my heart and soul into for so long, is a feeling like no other. I am proud of it all..myself, the volunteers, and the school for making it all happen and making it go SO well! It’s true that we have to enjoy the moments in our lives and appreciate each and every one of them, and where I am right here, right now, I couldn’t be happier.

Reflecting

A quick thought that came to me today…

Some of the kids here don’t know their birthday. Some babies walk around barefoot without pants. Some adults wear the same shirt day after day. It may sound sad; I know at first I felt somewhat saddened when I asked a child, “what’s your birthday”, and heard back, “I don’t know. I’ll ask my mom if she knows and will tell you tomorrow.”Naturally I also felt sad when I saw babies in a local town walking without shoes or pants. We’re so used to diapers, shoes and clothes, it’s off putting at first. But then, I thought about it, and realized it’s only sad because we come from a society where those things are SO important….even to adults, birthdays are a big deal in the US. And here is a child, who didn’t even seem to be bothered that she didn’t know her birthday. I realized, it’s just not important.  More so, what’s important is what’s essential for survival…and knowing  a birthday isn’t one of them. Or, wearing pants for a baby, isn’t either. Instead he can just walk around bottomless because it’s easier for him to go to the bathroom without soiling another piece of clothing to wash. Instead the child’s life can be celebrated all the time…for being here and healthy. It makes me disgusted in a way that we have such priority for birthdays and such when there are places in this world that it’s just not even a part of the culture, simply because there are more important things to know, care about, and deal with.

Those things…clothing, birthdays..things we put such emphasis on in the US..they just aren’t a priority here. And I love it. Here, priority is 2 things in order to survive: health and happiness. That’s it. And really, that’s all you need.

 

Reunited

*From Wednesday, July 18th, 2012  (Sorry, really poor internet where we are!)

Today was one of those days I know I will never forget for the rest of my life. I know have said this before about my previous experiences here in Ghana, but today was just so special and will always stand out in my memory. I was able to visit my kids from last year, in the town of Nkroful and the school “Rock of Ages”. The principal and I have been communicating these past few weeks. Just last week  we confirmed the summer camp dates for this village, as well as my own personal days I will be visiting. During this email exchange, the principal said he will be sure to pass along the dates I will be arriving, as well as the camp dates, to the staff and kids. The very next day, while still in NYC, I received a call from one of the girls who I taught, Esther. She told me she heard I was coming July 19th and 20th and was excited for my return. They may not have email to spread the word, but they still have a pretty quick and efficient word of mouth system 🙂 I thought this was awesome. I have received calls from Rock of Ages students, all year round, but this one exemplified to me just how excited and ready they were for my arrival- and it made me 10 x more excited than I was already, to just get there and be with them!

I’ll never forget the butterflies of excitement I had in my stomach driving up the very familiar road to the school, this morning. It’s a bit of a hill, so when we got close to the top, all I could see were kids jumping and hands in the air waving. I could tell they were yelling, but couldn’t hear what-but as we got closer, the yelling got louder and louder. I realized then, they weren’t just yelling. They were chanting. They were chanting my name, “Madame Alana”, over and over again. Tears welled up in my eyes; I couldn’t believe it. I was so overwhelmed with emotion (and have been all afternoon just trying to process it all). Kids began banging on my window and trying to open my door. When I confirmed with my driver when I will need to return, I opened the door and suddenly I felt like I was in a movie. A sea of children, well over 100, surrounded me..chanting, yelling, laughing with excitement. As I looked around, I realized just how special this arrival was to them; there wasn’t just smiling faces all around me, but as I began to look around me, I noticed the signs. 1, 2, 3, then 4, 5 large signs, some painted, some handwritten.  One said “Akwaaba madame Alana”, and another, “We missed you very much.” Again, I was simply overwhelmed with emotion.

 

I also saw that all the kids in the class I worked with made individual signs they were each holding up, with similar messages. It was so beautiful, and I was really moved. The kids put SO much time and thought preparing just for my arrival. It was such a good feeling looking out and seeing so many familiar faces. It was also cool seeing new kids who didn’t know me but seemed just as excited. (I wondered what the kids told them about me…Madame Alana is this white girl from New York who taught us how to Chicken Dance and talk about our feelings..ha).

All the teachers let the kids from all classes come out of their classrooms, so there were just literally hundreds of kids roaming around, some coming up to hug me, others looking at me from far with a smile. I tried as best as I can to go around giving as many hugs, holding as many hands, and saying hi to as many kids as I could. I wanted to savor every second of this moment, because I didn’t want it to end!

It felt so good to be back spending time with all my kids from last year. Monister, Solomon, Beatrice, Daniel, Michael, Nathaniel. They definitely got bigger, and some were totally trying to play the whole I’m an adolescent boy so I don’t get excited to see people-thing. Nathaniel, the class clown but deep down softy from last year, tried to keep this up for a while, but broke down and starting being silly and talkative with me eventually! It was just so great spending time with them again. The youngest kids were super shy and seemed almost overwhelmed at first, but then they came around! Blessing, one of my favorite cuties, got SO big! I couldn’t believe it.

Once the excitement settled down, we hung out in the classroom. The kids were so excited still and more silly than ever before. To provide some consistency for them, I did some of our old favorite games. First request, was that we do the under water morning greeting- they can’t get enough of this one! (Thanks again to my Harlem Link teachers who helped me out with this one last year- the best!) Then we played Simon Says, and Indian Chief, two other games they could play for hours. They asked for Hangman, so we did that as well. I even went around and had each one tell me how they feel 🙂 It was just an overall AWESOME time.

I had some time to talk to the teachers. It felt like sitting down and catching up with old friends. They were just as happy to see me, and asked me all about my trip, my kids in new york and my family. I told them that our kids in Harlem were able to write them letters back, and they were so excited about this idea. I asked them also about the beautiful signs, especially the big one that looked professionally done. One of the teachers from last year who was one of the best teachers, told me he had the class that I work with, make individual signs for me, because he thought I would like it. I LOVED it and thanked him a bunch! Then I asked about the big sign. They told me that a group of children brought in money and together they were able to pay to have a local artist make it for me. WOW. I couldn’t believe it. What made it even cooler is that they tied it in with something we did in camp last year. (This made me laugh!) Last year, at the end of every camp day, we had  all campers competing against each other.  For lack of creativity, one afternoon, in the spur of the moment when we couldn’t think of team names, we thought of “Team Alana”, “Team Pippa”, “Team Sophie”, and so on. Apparently the teachers are this school have been so psyched about summer camp beginning, they have already broken the school up into groups, and gave them these names! Each group has a banner like mine made. Can’t wait to see them. I also noticed a picture hanging in the office, that was from the end of the year celebration where me and Bea dressed up last year. That meant so much to me..it’s like they really consider us a part of their school community.

When people ask if I feel I can really make a difference in such a short amount of time, today couldn’t be more evident that the answer is yes. It shows how strong a human connection can be. It’s the gift of just being present and giving your time to others, that really stands out in people’s memory. It shows that spending time with someone, doing a mitzvah as they say in Judaism, can truly be more powerful than any expensive gift or tangible thing. It’s really just incredible how they welcomed me, how much it meant to them. So many things about it was just so moving to me- the time spent on each sign, the way the teachers were just as excited, the picture hanging in the main office of all the school staff from last year- that included myself and Beatrice. It all meant so much to me, words really just can’t fully describe.

The teachers told me that they even stopped hitting the children as discipline in school a week before my arrival, as a way to celebrate (in that case I should tell them I am coming every week!). It’s just incredible, and is a day I really will never be able to forget. At the end of the week the principal came over to where I was staying so we can talk further about camp details. He also said he came over to thank me. For what I asked? And then he said, ‘I want to thank you for boosting our school moral, our school name. Because of your presence, children from all different villages registered with us. You have given our school a good name and is somewhere kids want to be.” I was speechless. If that is not a sign of an impact, I don’t know what is!

As well as seeing differences in the children, it was really such a great feeling to see how the school has changed and advance in a positive way. For example, in the main office, there was a radio! I looked up and saw they had a whole new electricity system in the school. That’s so great. They also had garbage cans, which showed they were starting to make an effort to take better care of their community. Last year when I showed the teachers what hand sanitizer was, they rubbed it all over their face and arms, because they were so curious about this thing which they had never seen. Now, there’s a bottle sitting in the main office of antibacterial, that one of the parents donated. It was great to see overall how things have really evolved. The principal was so excited to share with me that he got his first modum and now his emails are fast. He even got a printer! It’s a great feeling to see a place change for the better. I was so happy for them. I was so happy the entire day; I had a permanent smile on. Unfortunately my time was cut short around 1:00 when it was time for me to go meet the chief of one of the villages. Though I was really looking forward to this new experience, the little kid in me was laying on the floor throwing a tantrum at the thought of leaving-but, nonetheless, I said goodbye and told the kids I will return tomorrow. I look forward to spending another day with them and then having more camp time at their school later in a week!