Ghana, West Africa, is thousands of miles from Indiana and a world apart culturally from the life of a typical Fort Wayne teen.
Yet for the second year in a row, teens from Fort Wayne will travel to the small village of Busua on the Ghana coast to participate in the Teach on the Beach program. A fundraiser Saturday will raise money for the trip.
Through the nonprofit Teach on the Beach program, volunteers from all over the world travel to Ghana to teach in the village school, run an after-school program and help youths operate an evening program called NewsHour.
Last summer Alexandria Clinger, a freshman at Ball State, spent three weeks in Ghana as a volunteer for Teach on the Beach. She enjoyed the experience so much she's going back this summer. “I loved being a part of something much bigger than myself,” she said.
Clinger was a student at Bishop Luers High School last year and learned about Teach on the Beach through a Luers teacher, Meg Ryan, who got involved with program in 2010 when she was living in Ghana. She was teaching second grade there in a school run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross when she met two of the founders of Teach on the Beach.
“We started talking and things just snowballed,” Ryan said. She joined the organization's board of directors in 2011.
Ryan introduced NewsHour to Luers students. High school students from Teach on the Beach in Ghana and Luers students would watch and discuss current events and talk about them with each other, using Facebook and Skype.
Those NewsHour sessions were what sparked Clinger and others to volunteer.
Some Luers students went to Ryan asking if she would take them with her when she went back to Ghana in summer 2012. “We dreamed big and made it happen,” Ryan said.
In June 12 volunteers from Luers and South Side High School went to Ghana for three weeks, along with another Luers teacher and Ryan, who stayed 2 1/2 months.
Clinger said she fell in love with the culture. Her days consisted of teaching mostly kindergarten and first-grade students during the day and running an after-school program at the beach house where the volunteers stay. Teaching was a challenge because of language barriers. English is the official language of Ghana, but many of the children speak Twi or Fante. In addition, the younger children really didn't understand proper classroom behavior. “So you really had to engage the students in order for them to learn,” Clinger said.
Usually two volunteers would team up to teach in a classroom.
Weekends were free time for the volunteers. Clinger said they'd usually relax on the beach, but one weekend they traveled to the mountains and saw a waterfall, “which was absolutely fabulous.”
Their living quarters had running water, beds and ceiling fans, but no air conditioning. Electricity was on and off, so they couldn't always rely on the fans, but Clinger said the breeze off the ocean coming in through the windows helped.
Most meals were white rice with a spicy stew on top, Clinger said. Breakfast was usually rice water, which she described as similar to grits or oatmeal. She didn't miss American food as much as she thought she would, but said by the end of three weeks, she was looking forward to eating cereal and a cheeseburger.
Clinger had such a good experience she's going back this summer. She said the hospitality of the people of Ghana was “beyond my comprehension.”
Asked what she took away from the experience last year, she said, “humility. I'm very grateful for everything I have here in America. … You realize you're very blessed. You just want to help these children so much.”
A new volunteer
Kelsey Kinniry, 16, a sophomore at Bishop Dwenger, is going on the Teach on the Beach trip this summer, one of 15 volunteers from Bishop Luers and Bishop Dwenger. They will go in two groups. Ryan is going with the first group, which leaves June 4.
Kinniry has never been on a plane before, nor has she ever been out of the country. She's looking forward to working with the kids. “I'm just really excited to share my joy of learning and reading,” she said.
She learned about Teach on the Beach through a friend of a friend, Amelia Castleman, who went with the group last summer. Castleman died in a car accident in November, just four days after attending a meeting with Ryan and prospective volunteers, including Kinniry, about another trip to Ghana. “I feel like she was so passionate about it,” Kinniry said of Castleman.
Kinniry's parents gave her the OK to go this June, provided she raises the $3,500 the trip will cost. So far she's raised $1,100.
She's nervous about the culture shock of going to such a different place, but excited, too. “I can't stop thinking about it,” she said.
Kinniry realizes there will be no need to get dressed up there, no need for makeup or even a hair dryer. It will be different, but some of her best friends are going, and she said Ryan has “a really good motherly instinct.”
She hopes she can inspire children in Ghana, adding, “I hope to learn something, too.”