Concrete thoughts to jungle dreams

When I walk on the hot cement streets in the city, summer heat, I miss the  gorgeous sunsets atop the simple but beautiful orange-brown dirt roads lined with miles of forest and trees of all shades of green.

Whenever I smell food cooking, or something burning, I think of the distinct  smell of Ghanaian food being cooked in burning ovens.  I miss that smell.

Whenever I see kids playing on the street on hot, New York city summer days, it makes me miss the kids in Anwia, Salman and Nkroful who were able to turn anything into a game of endless play, and never complained of being bored or not having anything to do.

Whenever I listen to my Ipod, it brings me right back to a day in Nkroful when my class made their paper bag puppets and happily sang along to Jay-Z and Michael Jackson songs blasting from my Ipod speakers, without a care in the world.

If I hear a baby crying in a stroller or carriage, I think to myself if only they were in a cloth-sling that mothers use in Ghana; they’d be sleeping in no time!

Whenever I hear a drum in the subway, I’m brought right back to the play yard in Anwia where we spent endless afternoons dancing and singing to the beautiful, strong, loud beats of the drums, played with such joy, contagious energy and talent.

The honking of a NYC car, makes me (surprisingly) miss the crazy winding dirt roads of Ghana, with their unforgettable potholes, seemingly reckless but strategic drivers, and long bumpy car rides in our van.

When I said thank you to my bus driver this morning, it made me instantly smile and think of our driver who spent (almost) 24 hours a day with us..so unsure where to go and what to do, but always with a smile on his face.

Whenever I hear African languages on the bus or subway, I’m brought right back to being anywhere in Ghana; it makes me smile big every time.

Whenever I meet a cab driver, friend of a friend or stranger who is from Ghana, I immediately want to know as much as I can about them, and share with them that I was there, and experienced the beauty of their country.

Whenever I see a paper on the ground, I am quick to make use of it or ensure it goes in the recycling bin; I know that a child in Ghana would be so thankful to have even just that one piece of paper, and he/she would  make use of every inch of that paper in a second.

Seeing a child playing with a jump rope, makes me smile as I think of all the kids who were so thankful for all the jump ropes we donated to each of their schools.

Whenever I feel even the slightest bit of stress creeping in, I take a deep breath and think of the amazing Ghanaian mindset of finding a solution to every problem, and thinking positively that there truly is always a way….and suddenly I’m at peace again.

When I wake up some days a little on the sad side, missing Ghana, and the beautiful children I had the honor of working with, I look through my hundreds of pictures and without even realizing it, I’m already smiling.

Whenever I think of anything from my time in Ghana, I smile and say to myself, how thankful I am that I had the experience and how much I can’t wait to go back..and I feel so good knowing I will forever be in the hearts of the children I worked with..and that they too, will forever be in mine.

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.

A new perspective

In talking to a good friend today, I came to realize how much my perspective on life has changed, now that I am back home. I have only now really began the process of reflecting on my trip and how it has impacted me. More than ever before, I am realizing  that life is too short and that it’s so important to live to the fullest, because you only get one shot. I am such a believer that it’s possible to do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it. It’s a message that we often preach to children, but so often we as adults forget to take our own advice. I believe excuses can sometimes just be fear, disguised. In thinking about my own experience, I feel so lucky that this summer I was able to go to Ghana and live out my dream, and that with every day that passes, I am able to gain further perspective from my experience.

As some of you may know, at the age of 19 I lost a best friend to cancer, an experience that changed my life, as well as my perspective on life overall. There was so much Ali was not able to experience, and watching her lose her life at such a young age changed me as a person. I used to be somewhat shy, timid, afraid to try new things. When Ali passed it was one of the hardest, saddest times in my life-but it was also the moment I decided to take advantage of what life has to offer. As cliche as it sounds, I really understood that life is too short, and you really never know what lies ahead. From that moment on, I was determined to try new things and to live my life, and live the life Ali would have wanted to live herself. It’s what helped me gain courage in college to go abroad by myself, to try new things, and make new friends…and even in trying new things to this day.

I felt compelled to write tonight, because of my newfound appreciation for the Ghanian mentality I observed, and the difficulty I am recently experiencing in  trying to have others around me understanding it . As I got to know the people and culture of Ghana during my stay I always saw such comrade, genuine compassion for others, and happiness all around. The school children may not have had  any toys to play with, a clean uniform, or maybe just enough money for  a small piece of bread for breakfast. The adults didn’t always have a pen or pencil to grade a test, or enough money to go to the college they wanted that year….but, they were all happy. They found happiness in the littlest things.

I started to take on that mindset while there-and it felt SO good. It’s not what we Americans are used to- especially in New York. Life moves fast. There’s high anxiety, a lot going on around us, people always on the go, places always to be- and in turn, a lot for us to worry and stress about. Then there’s extra drama that’s created by friends and people around us, adding even more “stuff” to our lives. It’s almost unnatural for us in our society to stop and find happiness from little things..to not sweat the small stuff..to look at the bigger picture. We live in a smartphone-obsessed, drama-frenzied culture. The next best thing. Bigger is better. Less is certainly not more. Facebook so actively a part of our lives. Drama constantly keeps us entertained, and clothes keep us stylin’.

In Nkroful, the small village in which I stayed, it just wasn’t like that at all. Adapting to this new mind-set at first honestly was a bit of a challenge. No blackberry and no internet at first was almost anxiety provoking. I felt naked. We are so used to talking to everyone, knowing who’s where and what is going on, that it’s like we lose focus of what’s really important..and right in front of us. You know what though? After 3 weeks of none of that, I LOVED it. It helped me really focus on what I was in Ghana to do. It helped me live in the moment, and not worry about silly little things I’d normally worry about at home. It made me feel more productive, and every morning I woke up with such a clear and positive mind. It was great! Every day I came home SO dirty from working with the kids. I gained weight from the carb-fest it was. My hair a fro, and quite knotty. I didn’t look at a mirror for days at a time, and sometimes, we weren’t able to shower every day-but when you work with people who are so less fortunate than you- you realize all those things don’t matter at ALL, and your priorities start to change.

I learned so much and gained such new perspectives on life, and feel so lucky to have  had the chance to do so.  I ‘ve had  a hard time coming back and adapting to New York, and work life . I don’t just miss Ghana but I also miss being around a culture who thinks so calmly and positively about everything. Because I won’t be able to go back to Ghana so quickly, I have been trying my best rather than being sad, to focus on the positive and realize how proud I am for the entire experience. I’m proud of myself for following my own mantra of living life to the fullest by taking a plunge and trying something new, living out a dream I’ve always had. I’m excited to share that I have applied for, and recently accepted the position of Team Leader for next year’s Ghana volunteer program! I couldn’t be happier knowing I will for sure be back to visit my new favorite place in summer 2012!!!  Though I miss it a lot, I am excited at the opportunities that lay ahead this year, in continuing my work with Ghana and it’s people.

Not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought or dreampt about one of the kids, or the teachers, or a place, or the food. Today I received a call from one of the teachers and it made my day! It’s such a nice feeling knowing I have made such special connections with both children and adults there; I have a feeling somehow, we will always stay connected.

I write this blog today to share with you how thankful and proud I feel to have been able to live my dream of going to Africa to help others-  but also  to encourage you to do the same. Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try something new (be it a rollercoaster, or frog’s legs!). Try a new language. Eat a new food. Take that zumba class. Do something alone for the first time. Apply for a new job. Go on a trip. Volunteer. Take a risk. Be fearless. As my mother always says,

“Life is not a dress rehearsal. You only go around once.” 🙂

I leave you all with this great song that is really popular in Ghana, but that also has such a positive life message about living in the moment:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6etQIK4Y2Rc

Homesick for Ghana

*I have returned this morning. Usually this blog would be the last, but I am going a little out of order; I feel compelled to write this one now because leaving Ghana was so hard, and is the only thing on my mind. Because of the lack of internet last week, I am behind on my blogs and plan on continuing them in the next few days, so this won’t be the last.

 

 

 

I’ve never felt so connected to a country like this before. It’s not just a connection to one or two children; it’s a connection to a whole culture-a set of people and their way of life, a whole school of children, a new set of friends. It’s a deep respect for the youth of Ghana, but also for their elders who are working so hard at teaching them such strong values.

When people ask me, ‘so how was it’, it’s the hardest thing to explain. The past 48 hours have been a rollercoaster of emotions, and leaving Ghana has affected me in a way I never thought it would. Though goodbyes are always hard, leaving the kids at the end of the day Friday had to have been my hardest goodbye yet. The whole day was difficult knowing I was leaving in a matter of hours. How could I just leave? I started feeling badly thinking about how I have come into the lives of the children and then just up and leaving. It was hard in the moment to think about how my work affected the kids, and I just felt really sad to leave them after being so close to them for 3 weeks. When I got to work on Friday, one of the boys in my class, Nathaniel who is always, ALWAYS smiling, laughing and goofing around, looked really down. He came over to me, I said good morning and we hugged. Then he looked up at me, right into my eyes and without saying a word, tears started to fall. I’ve never seen him sad the whole summer, so it seemed surprising..and absolutely killed me to see. Who knew the class clown, the one student who never showed anger, sadness or frustration, would be so affected? It was so touching and as much as I tried to held back, that was the start of my day of tears!

Sad Nathaniel

We had a great last day of camp filled with different whole camp games and activities, and ending with a big dance party. Through out the day, students would ask for my address, my phone number, and some just came over just to ask me to never forget them. Yesterday before my flight, I started to recieve phone calls from some of the students! I even recieved a text just a few hours ago from a student, asking if i have arrived in my hometown safely. Those kids are seriously awesome. During the last few days, I brought a notebook so the children could write messages to me if they wanted, and they wrote such heartfelt letters. One from a boy in my class named Solomon read,

“Dear Madam Alana, I am very glad to write you this leter. I will be sad of not seeing you again and I know I will see you again. I know you will remember me and also I will remember you too. I want you to tell your children at school that they should write a letter to me. I will be happy that your children will write a beutifull letter to me and I will be happy to see that. And I will remember you forever and I know you will remember me forever. I will be happy for you to help me in school. Lovely Madame Alana live forever. Regards, Solomon”

Another one wrote:

“Dear Madam Alana, I am with much pleasure to write you this letter. The reason why I am writing you this letter is that I want you to remember me when you have gone. When you go to NEW YORK I will be sad when you go there living me along. But Madam remember me when you go there. Wishes you all the best. Yours faithful, Micheal”

There are so many others that are so beautifully written.

One of the younger girls named Hannah, began writing her message, but after the first sentence just broke town in tears. It was so hard not to cry with her, but I tried my best to be strong. All day she would just come up to me, hug me, and just burst into tears.

Sad Hannah

At the school dance, other kids began coming up to me and Bea and hugging us, and that’s when the tears really began to flow. There was one girl in my class named Ahali, who was definitely a little different than the other girls…everyone made fun of her, no one paid her much attention. Every day, I made it a point to let her answer a question or to give her positive praise if she got the right answer and it always made her smile. About half an hour before I had to leave, I looked over and saw her sitting in the corner with her knees up and her head down, crying hysterically. I came over, sat down next to her, and without saying anything we sat there together with my arm around her shoulders. Some of the other girls came around and joined us…and you know how tears can be contagious with kids. Before I knew it, there were a whole group of girls sitting around me (and Bea) crying. Again, I tried so hard not to cry with them, but there’s only so much you can do when you feel just as sad as they do.I tried reminding them of the positive memories and the fun times we had, and reiterated over and over that I’ll never forget them. The hardest part for me, was knowing I may never see some of them again, or if I do, it won’t be for a whole year. It was the hardest afternoon, and when the van came to pick us up, it was even harder.

Sometimes people ask if 3 weeks helping children in need can really make a difference, and I have definitely also done the same. My answer, is that I believe it’s better to make a small difference than nothing at all. And, yes, I do truly believe that I made an impact. If I only touched the life of one child, that would be enough for me. Seeing the childrens’ reaction Friday when we had our last day of school though, and reading the heartfelt letters some of them have written me, makes me realize the impact is much larger than just one child. Sometimes when you work with kids, (and I know all my teacher and parent friends will probably be able to relate to this), you can be so wrapped up in how the experience is affecting you (either positively or negatively) that your ability to see how strongly it make be affecting children becomes clouded. All it can take is one small reminder though, and suddenly you sit back and realize how strong the impact you have made, really is.

It seems the work I was a part of, has affected an entire community in such a positive way..ways that I am first now realizing and probably will over the next several weeks. Though I have been crying a lot (truthfully, more than I would have thought), I am trying my best to practice the one quote I often preach, which is,

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

It’s true that this is a lot easier said than done. I am now beginning my reflections, and am starting to feel a sense of accomplishment, and of fulfillment… like I never have before. I love helping people and always have; but going to Ghana reached a whole new level of ‘helping’ and has almost made me feel ‘whole’..like I have completed a void that needed to be filled. If you are thinking that just sounded really cheesy, I’d have to completely agree with you. It’s really strange, I’ve never really felt this way about something though. It’s crazy to think one trip has the power to do so.

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints in our hearts, and we are never ever the same.” -Unknown

The people of Ghana have left footprints, and memories that I will have with me forever. I can never forget…every one of the children that I worked with..the inspiring teachers I saw teach….the amazing culture all around me. The proprieter of the school wrote me a letter that was so reflective of how my work, along with the other volunteers, has made a positive impact on the school and the community. He wrote,

“I am flabagasted for your presence and performance at Rock of Ages Academy. Your presence and contributions has so much lifted the image of our school. You have really added colour to our school. You have genuinely contributed your quotea in developing our school. May the lord give you the strength to do more. May the favour of the Lord be with you. Stay blessed and have fun.”

After the last day of school, I told the proprietor to come by and pick up all the art supplies that I had bought for the school to use next year. When he saw the amount of stuff I had brought, immediately he teared up and continued to say ‘God bless you’. He continued to repeat that words could not express his gratitude, and speechless he was. It was very touching to see him tear up, and in that moment, I teared up as  well and gave him a big hug ; it’s the best feeling in the world to give to others, and I was filled with such a sense of joy and happiness for him, for his school, and knowing I may help add a little creativity to the school year next year when I am gone. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

I am so proud of the work we have all done, and I have a strong feeling this is just the beginning of my work in helping Ghana. One thing for sure, is that I know when I left yesterday, it wasn’t a goodbye, but more so, a ‘see you again’. I left knowing I will be back. I’m not entirely sure when but I know it’s something I need to do. I am so happy I went on this amazing trip and even more so am feeling so lucky to have been welcomed into such a beautiful culture and community. For now, my work with the Ghanian people is not done. While I am back home, I will be working on creating a website for the school I worked with. Once it’s up and running, the principal and I will continue working together to add pictures and find ways people can donate as well. I am also working with Allison, the director of Humanity Exchange, in finding ways I can continue to work with the Ghanian communities in the future. I have explained to her the strong impact my work with the Ghanian people has had on me, and the overwhelming sense of connection I have felt with Ghana. I can’t wait to see what future opportunities await me. For now, I will live in the amazing memories I have of all the children, as well as the friends I have made along the way. I may be leaving, but the impact I have had on the school, the children, the teachers and the community will remain in Nkroful for the next year, or more to come.

To the people of Ghana, you will always be in my heart. You have inspired me in so many ways.

“We only part to meet again.”

 

The orphanage

I have had the honor of spending time with some of the children from a local orphanage, in which The Humanity Exchange has partnered with. I also spent time with some of the children from Living Stone School, a school located right next to the orphanage. Sophie and Pippa, 2 of the volunteers, have worked there for the past few weeks (school is now over). Beatriz and I had the opportunity as well to visit both the school and orphanage children after many of our school days.

The orphanage is called Word Alive Orphanage, and was founded in January 2000 by Reverand Charles Nyane. Originally from Ghana, Rev. Nyane attended seminary in the United States, and shortly after returned to Ghana where he established the World Alive Mission in 1996. By January 2000, the mission quickly expanded, and included 2 schools, 1 orphanage and 10 churches. They are all located in the Western Region of Ghana.

The children in the orphanage live like one big family. There is a host mother who lives with them, and is sweet and kind.  The other volunteers and I have noticed that it seems to be the bond the children have amongst themselves that provide the strongest support system.  There are 21 children in the orphanage and they range in age, and sex. The orphanage consists of 2 bathrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, a space to eat and a playroom. There is also an outside play area they often use as well. 

One of the bedrooms. The children don't have beds that belong to them, they sleep wherever.

I expected there to be a strong camaraderie among the children, but it’s even more moving  seeing it in person.   The older children take such sweet care of the younger ones; when one of the little ones may fall and cry, one of the older ones are there to pick them up.  Sophie and Pippa hung out with the children during the evening and were amazed at how involved the older children did in fact get. They helped cook, clean and prepare the little ones for bed.  Though it must feel normal for them now to play the adult role, it’s unfortunate that they don’t get a chance to really be a child.

The orphanage has been around for a handful of years, and most of the children have been there since it opened. These kids are so sweet and were such a pleasure to work with. When visiting the orphanage one most likely  has the image of a child sitting alone and crying, covered with flies-like they show in commercials, however it’s a lot different than pictures. Kids in the orphanage may cry, but mostly for the same reasons that our kids cry…maybe someone hit them, or took their toy. A lot of the times, almost all the kids are laughing and having fun all together, just like any other child. These kids are just a little bit different. Ownership of things and people mean more to them. Though they are  often happy, sometimes expression of feelings can be a little harder as well, and sometimes their moods will vary as they may have a hard time regulating them ; some are always happy and smiling, some are quiet and don’t say much. We have found that some of the children have a hard time showing some  emotions, most likely because they haven’t properly been taught. Even more so, some have trouble showing affection, sadly because they most likely haven’t received much all their life. The days we were able to break through to some of the quietest kids, have been the most rewarding! Many of these children have experienced difficult losses, but overall there really is such a warm, noticeable camaraderie among the orphanage children that seems to provide comfort to them all. Though from the outside the orphanage doesn’t look like much of a home, it has very much become a home to the kids who live there. They have been very lucky to spend time with Sophie and Pippa for the past 3 months, who are so warm and loving. Though my time with them was not as long, I too have created some bonds I will always remember as well.

There was one child in particular who was loved by all of us volunteers and is one we will always remember. Because I am leaving a little earlier than the other volunteers, I had to say goodbye to the children at the orphanage yesterday. It was so sad and so very hard. Savior in particular had a very hard time with it. When I visited the orphanage for my last day yesterday, he was being quiet and was acting less friendly than normal. I had a feeling it was because he was sad I/ all of us, were soon leaving, and turns out that was exactly right. When I heard he was sitting alone, crying in the other room, it really broke my heart. At the same time, I was happy he was able to allow himself to do so. He’s a 17 year old boy, but at the orphanage he’s a brother, a father, a role model, and a leader to all the younger boys and girls. It’s good for him to learn that it’s ok to let his feelings out sometimes. Him and I spent many afternoons talking about different things like what he would want for his birthday if he could choose anything (he choose a bible and a cellphone), questions he had for the kids I work with in Harlem, what life is like in the orphanage, his future plans, etc. He’s a great kid and I want to try my best to write him a letter. Him and I made a video that he asked to show the kids in Harlem Link, and I can’t wait to do so this fall. I am so glad I had the chance to meet him.

Here are some pictures of both the Livingstone school children, and the Word Mission Orphanage.

Savior

 

 

GMT (Ghana Maybe Time)

I have only been here for three days, though it feels so much longer. What an adventure it has been so far.

After 11 hours on a flight, Saturday morning our airplane landed in Accra, the capital of Ghana and all around me were cheers and claps. Me? I was smiling big. I was finally here and couldn’t believe it! After months of planning the day was finally in Ghana. It felt so surreal. When we arrived, large writing on the airport building greeted us with “Akwaaba”, meaning “welcome” in the local language. Going through customs didn’t take long, and once I recieved my luggage, I knew my adventure was about to begin. Walking through a long hallway, I looked up to a sea of signs & glaring faces searching for the names on their signs. As I went down the line, I was careful to read each one in search of my name. I did not know who was to pick me up, though I was told there’d be a sign with my name. I felt like I was in a movie. It was nerve-racking and exciting all at the same time- especially being by myself. Then there it was; I saw a white sign that said “Alana Shamah”, held by smiling older man named William. We introduced ourselves, and he was quick to take my bag and lead me to his car.

 Walking through the streets on our way to his car, I noticed that here the cars and people seem harmonious on the street; both cars and people moved very closely to each other. For example, as I walked along with my bag, a car drove by me, close enough to almost touch my elbow.

Within a minute or two William and I began talking, and one of his first questions was whether I was engaged and why not- apparently this is a common question here in Ghana. (Who knew Ghanians and Jewish moms think so much alike.) William shared with me that he was born and raised in Ghana, and has never been to the US. Ghanians have a reputation for being really friendly and I was able to learn this quick firsthand. We discussed a variety of things, one being the weather; I learned that it’s still rainy season in Ghana, and will be until mid-August. William explained that sometimes the rain may be light and last an hour, though other times it may be very heavy and last from morning to night.

A few moments later, we arrived at the guest house. I was able to finally meet Allison, who runs The Humanity Exchange. It was so nice to finally be able to put a face to the name, after talking with her for so many months! I had just enough time to shower and freshen up, and then a driver dropped me back off at the airport; I had a 3:00 flight to a village called Tacoradi. My driver was also from Ghana, and when he heard I was from the US, right away spewed some questions about Obama. He was surprised this was my first time to Ghana and told me he wished he had more time to show me around the village- so nice! He left me at the airport, where I waited for my flight to board. The airport was quite bare. Looking around, it made me think that though it’s bare, they have what they need and thought back to the I-Pad and Cafe clad Delta gate I sat in at JFK. It made me question why we need so much? It’s almost embarrassing in a way and makes me realize why US so quickly can get a bad reputation. I waited in the airport, excited to get on this new small plane…3:30 rolls around, and then 4:00..I’m looking around and not one person seems the least bit bothered that there is a delay. Coming from NY where by now people would be freaking out, I found it more fascinating than frustrating. Ahh, my first glimpse of “Africa time”. Allison later used the phrase “GMT”, Ghana maybe time, and I thought it was great. So GMT it was…Now it’s 5:00, the plane has been delayed 2 hours, and finally people started to show signs of agitation. There were only about 20 people at the airport. I started making friends with some of the people around me- one man was from Texas, and explained he frequently visits Tacoradi because he works in the mining industry. Another lady I spoke to was Ghanian and was going to her best friend’s post-wedding dinner. Together me and my new friends waited, and waited, with no explanation from the airport staff as to what was going on. When asked, they nonchalantly just said “It’ll be here”. I watched so many of the staff members sitting around, some joking with others, and some even leaving to go home as the hours passed by. I knew something was up if the staff were going home! Such a difference from America, where one hour delay and everyone would be going up to the counter asking what can be done for them. It’s just a totally different mind set here. Finally, after 3 hours of waiting, they announced the flight had been cancelled! I used someone’s phone to call Allison, who quickly came to pick me up knowing I was starving. We went back to the guesthouse in Accra, ate some pizza and chatted. Although I was completely exhausted, I was (easily) persuaded to go out to a party. There I tried my first taste of Ghanian food- spices are very popular here. I tried spiced fried plantains, and they were just as delicious as they sounded. I also had some Malibu with fresh coconut juice- so much better than the flavored rum we have in the US! At the party there was also pizza- I was told in Accra it’s fairly popular. That, and Chinese food. I also learned that many Ghanians who are Christian do not drink. Ghana is roughly 80% Christian and Sunday church is an integral part of many here.  In fact, often many times when meeting someone, a Ghanian may ask what church you attend.

The next morning I was moved to a 6:30 flight. So, with 3 hours of sleep, I was awakened by the sound of a rooster and quickly got ready and went downstairs where I was told the security guard would have a cab. When I walked outside he saw me and said he’d be right back. Like the others, he was on Ghana-Maybe-Time as well, and 30 minutes later he came back with a cab. Off we went, back to the airport. Sure enough, when I got there they informed me that we won’t be leaving until 9am-threeeee more hours. I saw some of my friends from the night before and then curled up on the chairs and got another hour of sleep. Eventually I woke up to find out it was boarding time. Finally! The plane held about 15 of us, and the ride was only about 45 minutes. Once I landed, I had yet another hour wait until the driver arrived. This airport was simply a building with a lobby. I made friends with the 1 staff member who worked there. Within minutes he was asking me if I have facebook and if I would add him. Even my driver asked the same thing. When I asked about it, he shared with me that FB is as popular in the main cities of Africa. I thought that was pretty cool..who knew! Our drive from Tacoradi to Nkroful, the village I am in now was about an hour and a half. It was beautiful. We passed many small villages, kids selling things on the street with their family, goats and dogs just strolling along the road, and kids playing in the dirt. As we drove through a toll a child came up to my window with a basket of candy on her head. She looked into my eyes and I so desperately wanted to roll down my window and learn more about her. 

 As we continued getting closer to my village we saw an increased number of kids with baskets of an assortment of goods they were selling, on their heads. It was amazing to see how they carried such heavy weight with ease. My driver was telling me that they learn how to do so early, as it’s very much part of the Ghanian culture for children to help sell goods for their family on the weekends. Something that I saw that also stood out to me was a young boy, maybe 7 or 8 carrying a very long branch on his head! And when I asked the driver, he non-chalantly said he was probably just bringing it home.. to play with. Fascinating.

Today  I made my first visit to the school..and it blew my mind away. I will write more soon about this amazing experience, as well as where  I am staying and the other volunteers I am working with. More to come soon!

Expect the unexpected

A few months ago, our school linked with our neighboring school in order to create a Peer Mentor program between our 4th grade & their students with Autism. This has been a very exciting program and every week it brings me such joy to watch our kids learn, grow, and challenge themselves. They aren’t even aware of how much they will truly gain from this experience. I have a feeling it will be one that they’re always going to remember. In our last meeting, we explored some of the challenges they have experienced while working with the students from the other school. We discussed how sometimes, children with Autism may have a difficult time; they may shut down, or have an unexpected reaction to something. Our students were learning that sometimes challenges arise with new experiences, things you may not be prepared for. They were learning that sometimes you have to expect the unexpected, one of life’s most valuable lessons to learn – and now, so am I.

Around a month ago, I was informed that there’s a high demand for teachers during the time I will be visiting Ghana. I had originally requested I work with children in the orphanage, but when I heard of the need for American staff in schools, I quickly suggested I help by providing counseling/art/play therapy to small groups of students. A few days ago I heard back. I was told that art therapy is a foreign concept to the teachers in Ghana, and it was suggested that instead I teach art-with the idea that whatever therapy comes out of it will be additionally beneficial to the students. Not only did the Ghanian staff like this idea,  3 schools and 1 orphanage have indicated that they would like me to run sessions with them! When I heard this, I felt a few different ways..happy, excited and then slowly nervous and uncertain. I’ve never written a curriculum, taught art, or any class at all for that matter. I started to panic.

As I allowed more time to process this information, I realized a few things. Not only is going to Ghana going to be a new experience for me, but the whole process will be a valuable learning experience as well. The truth is, I am a planner.  I like to be able to plan things in advance. I know I am going to grow through this entire volunteering experience, because I have already started to. I am learning to be open to new ideas even further than I have been before. I’m learning how to better go with the flow without being able to prepare so much for something. It’s good sometimes to have expectations, but it’s even better to have an open mind and learn things as you go- and that’s exactly what I am learning now. It’s easier said than done! Being a “teacher” for several classes is something I’ve never done before, and is not what I expected to be doing. However, I’m starting to see the positives and get more comfortable and excited about this new role. New experiences must be looked at as new opportunities to learn about yourself and most importantly, to grow. Though I am a planner, I am also an individual who thrives on challenges and this will be one challenge I am excited to take on. I’m sure the role will continue to evolve and change over time and it probably will even while I am there. I am lucky to have such a great clinical supervisor, teacher & social worker friends who are going to help me put some material together. Soon, I’ll be able to learn more about the role, like what ages I’ll be working with, the frequency and duration of the classes as well.

My passion is helping children grow and learn about themselves, and every day at work I bring that dedication to each of my counseling sessions.  I need to remind myself that I always put 100% of myself in everything I do, and will be able to do just that with this program. I can’t wait to help these kids express themselves through art. I may not get it completely right. I may mess up-but that’s ok; ‘ll learn along the way. I have to also remind myself that no matter what I end up doing, it will  make an impact in the lives of the Ghanian children as I have successfully done for 5 years with students at Harlem Link. In the end, underneath the anxiety of the unknown, is the realization that time spent with the  Ghanian children will be amazing no matter what my role is. I’m looking forward to helping them explore their artistic talents and learn ways to express themselves through drawing, imagery, music and journaling. Who knows where it will go. What I do know is I am going to continue thinking in this new mindset because when you stay open-minded, sometimes the most amazing things can happen when you least expect it.