High School Volunteer Abroad: Ghana Experience
Our High School Volunteer Abroad program is a way to be immersed in a new and exciting culture while making an impact in a community abroad. Not only is it practicing English and forging bonds with local students, but you’ll also get to go on weekend adventures while building friendships with other teens.
As a current Program Specialist and a two-time alum of the High School Volunteer Abroad I can honestly say that this experience shaped my life. It provided direction on what I would later study, the career I would pursue and the subjects that I would continue to stoke a passion for.
But wait, this post is not about me. I want you to know the incredible impact that CCS Teens are making around the world, such as in the Volta Region of Ghana. There, schools are full of children exonerating joy and displaying their culture with pride, but lacking resources for their education, in crowded classrooms with teachers who have few materials to teach from.
Wondering what the experience is like? Meet Erin Zarr, who joined us in Ho last year.
What made you want to volunteer abroad and why did you choose Ghana?
I’ve always wanted to try something completely different from my mundane activities and I’ve been volunteering for years now. I loved volunteering in high school, but I never really felt like I was directly affecting people. I wanted a volunteer opportunity that involved me working with people. I found Cross-Cultural Solutions, read each page of possible destinations, and instantly fell in love with the information about Ghana. It had everything I was looking for, so I knew it was the right place for me! Ghana is so culturally different from home, and I was excited to embark on a new experience and really pour myself into the local culture.
What type of volunteer work did you complete when you were there?
When I first got there, I was told that I would be working on a playground half the time and teaching English to primary school kids the other half. I got to choose which class I wanted to teach in, so I chose Kindergarten 1. I was really surprised by how well some of the kids spoke English already, even though it is one of the main languages along with Ewe. We taught the kids fun songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, which they really seemed to enjoy. After we spent the morning teaching the students, we would go back to the volunteer house for lunch and then either go on an afternoon excursion or go back to the school and play with the kids. I loved playing with them because they taught me so many fun games and I even learned a lot of Ewe! For my last week, I was put in the sixth grade classroom because the little kids started their summer vacation. I taught Math to the sixth grade students, which ended up being super fun! For the playground, it had already been started when I arrived, but there was still a lot to do. We put up a fence, dug many holes in the ground to place the playground pieces, painted the pieces, and even planted grass! It was amazing to see the development of the playground over time and the little kids smiling and laughing as they enjoyed playing on it.
How did you feel initially about the playground project?
I was open to anything when I arrived in Ho, so when I found out that we would be building a playground, I was excited. It was hard work and entailed many sweaty days, but the hard work definitely paid off in the end when we got to see the kids’ excitement, as they swung on the swings or slid down the slide.
How was the school different from schools you were used to?
The school was very different from what I’m used to. At first, I was very surprised to see the kids cleaning up outside every morning. I would see them working together and raking the leaves or picking up sticks. In the classrooms, there were minimal resources for the kids. Also, there were many age gaps between the kids in primary school. There was a 9-year-old in my kindergarten 1 class, and an 18-year-old in the sixth grade. Another thing I noticed was that the school community is very tight-knit. The kids acted like they were family, which was very refreshing to see because I would not see that in the schools at home.
What did you learn from the kids?
Going into this experience, I expected to learn the basics of the Ghanaian culture and a few other things. However, the kids taught me so much more than I could have ever expected. I learned a whole new way of life that I could have never known if it weren’t for the students and the locals. Their way of life is so simple, yet so complex.They told me that after school they go to work with their parents or they go to the street to sell items like handbags or food. This upset me at first because I didn’t like how kids so young were already working, but it’s a way of life for them and it’s what they’re used to. Also, like I mentioned before, the kids taught me lots of games and dances during free time. I had a great time learning so many cultural norms and much more.
What were some cultural highlights for you?
Some cultural highlights for me included the picking up the language, learning about everyday customs and the brightness of traditional clothing. I found our language sessions very helpful because we learned the basics, and then we would bring them to the school with us or to the village and use them! It was very funny when we would try to speak the language and we didn’t get the words completely right because we would have a laugh with the kids or locals! It was also interesting to see what everyone did everyday such as families going to collect water and then carrying it on their heads or backs. I would never see this at home and I could never imagine myself being able to carry that much on my back or head, so it was really astonishing to see so many women and men do this up steep hills or on the local roads.The traditional clothing is very beautiful and we even got to pick out some fabric from the market and have the seamstress come by the house and make whatever we wanted with our fabric.
Why would you recommend another teen to do a program like this in the future? Why Ghana?
I would definitely recommend this program to another teen because it was honestly the best four weeks of my life! I learned so much more than I could have ever learned doing something else. I really built up a relationship with the kids that made it very hard to leave, and I can’t wait until I can see them again. The kids were the highlight of my trip. I have a bias towards Ghana, but for sure Ghana is the best destination! Not just for the great culture, but also for the people. I felt so at home when I first arrived. Lucy, the teen coordinator, was the best and acted as a mom and a best friend. She was always there in times of need and made me feel very comfortable, even though I was in a completely different setting from what I was used to everyday of my life. Joe, the cook, never failed at cooking us up a yummy meal. Makafui, the director, was always available to answer any questions and even joined in sometimes during our late-night dance parties! Along with Lucy, Joe, and Makafui, everyone at the house was great to be around and I know that my trip wouldn’t have been the same without them. I would choose Ghana again 100 times over if I could and I can’t wait to visit again!
I can also attest to the impact made by Erin and her new friends. CCS Country Director Makafui was invited a few months later to the “Commissioning Ceremony” of the playground build at their school, and I had the privilege of joining along. After being greeted by children who were ecstatic about seeing volunteers, then seeing murals left being by the teen volunteers (which are still used as references for various topics by the students), I witnessed an amazing display of gratitude by the school and the community for the project done. They had a cultural presentation of drumming and dancing, remarks made by the director and Makafui, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. I got to see the excited looks on the children's’ faces as they played on their own school playground for the first “official” time. It was very clear how much the hard work and effort of the teen volunteers meant to this community (not to mention the love and lessons they were a part of during the summer!).
There is so much more to be done! Is it far? Yes. Does it take time saving? Yes. If you ask me, Erin, or any of the students of this community in Ghana, the time you give and impact you can make as a High School Volunteer is well worth it.