Curious about short-term volunteer opportunities abroad? In Africa? During teacher summers?
American teacher Sue’s experience will inspire and assist you.
Teaching Traveling: Sue, tell us about background.
Sue: My name is Sue Ron-Gonzalez. I am a special education teacher with the San Francisco Unified School District, and have worked with students with learning disabilities and emotional difficulties for the past 25 years.
My desire to travel to Africa began when I read the book, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, about an American missionary family’s tumultuous experience in the Congo. After reading this book, I began sponsoring children through Save the Children. I dreamed of volunteering in Africa, but since I was a single parent I needed to wait until my children were grown.
TT: Fascinating! How did find your volunteer position in Ghana, West Africa?
S: Two years ago I started researching volunteer opportunities in Africa and found an amazing non-profit, Tomorrow’s Stars. Their focus is on breaking down educational barriers in Elmina, Ghana. I decided to volunteer with this organization at the Bantuma School in Elmina, Ghana.
For two weeks, I stayed at volunteer lodging at the beach and read with kids at the school’s library. I had an amazing time, but two weeks just wasn’t enough time for me. I knew that I had to get back to Ghana somehow.
The following summer I went back to Ghana for three weeks to implement an international book club project. Working alongside a wonderful Ghanaian librarian, the students at Bantuma School authored books to share with each other and on a website.
TT: Wonderful! I also had a remarkable time volunteering in Ghana. How did you find the money to fund your travel experiences?
S: Flying to Africa during the summer months can be very expensive, especially on a teacher’s salary. For my first flight, I used the miles I accumulated from my credit card.
For my second trip, I was awarded a grant through Fund for Teachers. This organization awards grants to teachers who want to travel the globe to enrich their professional and personal growth.
This year I am very fortunate to have been awarded a grant from the Omprakash Foundation to go back to Ghana for a month this summer. Omprakash is dedicated to connecting volunteers with grassroots non-profits around the world.
TT: Thanks for these excellent resources. Now, tell us one moment from your travel that was particularly powerful.
S: One of my favorite moments of the reading club was the day I brought out the art supplies for the students to illustrate their stories. Usually, these students had been so serious in class. The moment they saw the assortment of colorful markers and crayons, the students were beaming with excitement.
One by one, each student came up to the desk to take one marker. I told them that they could take as many as they wanted. It was touching to watch these students try to hold on to twenty markers at a time with one hand while trying to illustrate their book with the other hand. These kids had the biggest smiles on their faces!
They all wanted me to take a photo of them with their brightly illustrated picture. For the first time since I began the reading club, each child came up to me after class and shook my hand. I couldn’t believe that something that we take for granted in our schools in the US could be such a joyful event for the Ghanaian students.
TT: Beautiful! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
S: My travels to Ghana have allowed me to create meaningful, authentic experiences for my special education students back home. I work with students who typically struggle in school and become discouraged easily with traditional curriculum.
The first time I showed my students pictures of the kids in Ghana, they became so curious and excited to learn more about the Ghanaian way of life. I saw a desire to learn that I just had not ever seen before.
My students have now become experts of life in Ghana, and recently taught other students at my school about Ghana during our multi-cultural day exhibition. We have also started an African Friendship Club where they make bracelets from the beads that I brought back from Ghana, and sell them as a fundraiser for Bantuma School.
Typically, my students with learning disabilities have great difficulty getting their thoughts on paper. Now, they love to write stories for the international book club because they know that the Ghanaian students will enjoy reading their work.
TT: So powerful. How have your Ghana volunteering travels impacted you as a person?
S: Traveling to Ghana and building relationships with the people that I have met there has opened my heart immensely. I have so much respect for the children who wake up at dawn to complete their chores before arriving for a full day of school. Their passion to learn amidst the challenges they face touched my heart.
In Ghana, I learned to feel a rhythm of life instead of thinking so much. When I took drumming lessons, Kobe taught me to stop counting the beats but feel the rhythm. Judith, my dance teacher, taught me to feel the music from my head to my toes instead of thinking of the steps. In our Western culture, we often say, “I think, therefore I am”.
In the African culture, the philosophy is “I dance, therefore I live”. I have heard that African music wakes you up to your own rhythm. My experiences and connections with the Ghanaian people have taught me to feel the rhythm of my own life.
TT: Gorgeous! What advice do you have for other teachers wanting to volunteer abroad and seeking grants and funding?
S: Research on the internet for low cost volunteer or grant opportunities. Omprakash.org has a great deal of resources for people wanting to volunteer around the globe. At first, I had a lot of fears around traveling to Africa by myself. But, I feel that these experiences have had a profound impact on my teaching practice.
My excitement for teaching has been a motivating force for my students to get excited about learning. So, don’t be afraid to take a chance on traveling. Your students will gain so much from your experiences and you may be surprised at the unexpected impact on your own life!