For years I’d admired people who volunteered for missions across the globe. At age 65, I took the leap.
Two personal motivators are opportunity and avoidance of regret. Together they explain how I, a Jew in Chicago, came to volunteer in West African Ghana for more than two months in 2008.
Opportunity presented itself when my niece Mary Virginia volunteered for the Peace Corps. Her emails were full of stories about family visits to other members of her Peace Corps class. Since there was no one to visit her (she had lost both parents by the time she was 14), I decided to visit Mary in Mali.
That’s when “no regret” entered the equation. Let me explain. For me, being a Jew has always meant being a good human being with responsibilities toward the larger human community. My parents taught by example—one year my mother was chapter president of ORT, Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary, and Pioneer Women (Naamat)—simultaneously! She also applauded the 12-year-old me who stood on street corners collecting coins for cancer research. So, not surprisingly, I have long admired people who volunteer for missions across the globe. And now, here I was, 65 years old, with my husband’s full support, finally going to an area of the world where I might be able to make a contribution.
In April 2007 I contacted the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a Jewish organization dedicated to providing nonsectarian humanitarian assistance and emergency relief to disadvantaged people worldwide. My age was not considered a detriment; to my delight, I was accepted very quickly. The next phase was to pick a country, identify my skills, and find a suitable non-governmental-organization that would welcome me. The closest AJWS could get me to Mali was Ghana, where English is spoken. Aseye, the local Ghanaian AJSW contact, showed my resume and statement of skills around, and NGO Street Girls Aid (SGA) expressed interest because of my teaching background—in fact, enough interest so as to allow me to volunteer for only two months, waiving its policy of a four-month minimum commitment.
Late January 2008 I flew to Mali. After a week’s visit with Mary Virginia, I boarded a plane to Accra, Ghana’s capital. Based at Kinbu, one of SGA’s four child care centers (called crèches), I was assigned to write a curriculum to use with one- to three-year-olds.
Street Girls Aid serves homeless pregnant women as well as women with children who live on the streets. Hundreds of such women leave their homes in the rural areas to settle in Ghana’s market and transportation centers in hopes of earning a living. Unfortunately, in Accra housing is very scarce—and even when available, landlords now demand an unaffordable two years’ rent up front. SGA provides these women with free classes in health, literacy, and vocational training (fabric design, sewing, hair care, and culinary services) to help them earn money and eventually get off the streets.
Before leaving for Africa, I received a piece of invaluable advice from American Jewish World Service: Your chances of success will be greatly improved if you establish good relationships from the outset. In addition, I approached the assignment with a “blank page” attitude (no preconceived expectations). I was not going to be “an ugly American,” but rather try to demonstrate respect and care for the people and their way of doing and seeing things. Thus I decided not to undertake any curriculum task activities in Ghana for at least two weeks, not until I had a chance to connect with the people there and learn about their customs, traditions, and behaviors.
Fortunately, on my first day, staffers from the Canadian embassy brought a DJ to Kinbu to entertain the children while the Canadians helped the crèche staff wash walls, windows, and floors. I was able to show the Kinbu staff that I could clean like the best of them. But perhaps the greatest impact came when they saw I could dance with them comfortably. I was off to a good start.
About 160 children go to the crèche at Kinbu, where there is one teacher for each age group of one- through five-year-olds. The 50 to 60 one-year-olds are also attended by two “minders” (aides), who spend most of their time in the bathroom changing pants and cleaning up.
During those first two weeks, I helped with lunch (hot, nutritious meals), observed each of the five teachers, demonstrated interactive reading and other teaching strategies, showed them how to use puzzles and games as teaching tools, and introduced and made visuals for the classrooms. For example, the teacher for the one-year-olds banged a spoon on a metal pot to get the children’s attention at the beginning of organized classroom activities; I demonstrated how to make the banging into a 1, 2, 3 counting and marching lesson.
Once I felt comfortable with the staff, and they with me, I held meetings with the teachers, assuring them that my assignment task—writing curriculum—did not include my evaluating them. To help win their acceptance, I intentionally incorporated their existing practices into the curriculum. I used free, available materials for teaching tools—like the time I demonstrated how to make hand puppets from leftover scrap material and spontaneously placed one of the puppets into the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll which I then “dressed” in bright crayon. An amazed Enyonam, the central office crèche coordinator, commented, “I threw one of those out this morning. Who knew it was an educational resource?!”
Near the end of my stay I produced two documents: the actual curriculum and a resource that gave teachers alternative vocabulary units, games, posters, and songs. For example, the daily 11⁄2- to 2-hour organized classroom activity always starts with a welcoming song and the resource features nine examples of interactive morning songs, such as “Where is Latifa?” (teacher) / “Here I Am” (2-year-old student). In addition, recognizing the need for teacher training, I conducted three 2-day workshops for the teachers in each group. They later told me it was the best training ever, because they now had new resources to take back to their classrooms: puppets and material for additional puppets; posters on numbers, alphabet, and vocabulary units; and more. Even when given the opportunity to stop working at their usual time of the day, each teacher chose to continue working until all the sample materials had been copied.
This was the most humbling. The teachers’ hunger for learning and resources was very evident, and I was feeding that hunger. In some small way I was leaving them with a legacy which affects many others, at least in the short term. Still, I worried: Without ongoing teacher support, how long would the new teaching methods and the use of available resource materials last? Few of the preschool teachers had professional training; universities in Ghana do not give degrees in early childhood education.
The needs are so great that I’ve learned not to focus on the big picture, but instead to concentrate on a small piece. In this way, I could take pleasure in what I was doing and in the people I was doing it with.
Unlike other travel experiences, which recede to the background upon returning to the United States, my time in Ghana rides on my shoulders. Ever present, it remains a constant source of awe.
Selma Burley is a member of Congregation Emanuel in Chicago. After teaching Hebrew and Sunday School there—her first teaching experience—she discovered that she could excite Jewish students about learning Hebrew and celebrating their history. Inspired, she switched careers in her 50s and become a teacher in the inner city (“where the need was the greatest”). In Ghana she was able to give back what she learned along the way.