Dominique Gutierrez - Social Worker in Ghana
Why I decided to volunteer in Ghana
I have a passion for working with children and trying to impact their lives in any positive way that I can. I am a Social Worker from the United States of America. I love what I do for a living and chose this type of career because I feel it is important to help children be the best they can be and to give them a voice. I've been doing this work for over 17 years and couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The decision to go to Ghana was inspired by God pushing me to step out of my comfort zone to serve children in need. At first I spent a lot of time trying to talk myself out of doing this trip; many people said I was crazy. I had never been to Africa before and I had never travelled alone. I have a twin sister and I have gone on mission trips outside of the America before, but I was always with her. I knew this was going to be different.
I'm at a season in my life where I'm being called to be selfless and to lift up others. I was being called to share my God given gifts with the world. What I found when I got back from Ghana and even during my time there, is that I needed this experience more than they needed my skills. I learned so much from this trip and I can only be humble and grateful for it. I was under the impression that I was going there to be a blessing to them, but they ended up being a blessing to me. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
My host family
I couldn’t have asked for a better family. I was welcomed into my host family’s home with so much love. They treated me like I was a visiting family member. The home was clean and very simple. I was fed three meals a day and it was way too much food to eat! The food was good and they were open to changes or requests. I only have good things to say about my host family. I was taught how to make some of the local dishes which I'm truly grateful for.
I had my own room, which was very simple and contained a bed and a place to put my clothes. I had a fan and a lockbox for my personal things. Each day I had to take bucket baths with cold water which I got used to after a few days. My host family took me around the neighbourhood and to church because I asked. My experience with them was way more than I expected and I'm very thankful for that and to my host family.
My social work placement
I was placed at my work site for six weeks. During my time there I used my skills and experiences of being a social worker in the child protection field.
Being placed at this facility opened my eyes to the harsh reality of social welfare in some parts of Ghana. During my time in Ghana doing social work, I was exposed to an inadequate system doing the best they can with the little to no resources they had available to them. Due to the lack of resources available to staff, it is impossible for them to fully provide appropriate care to the children they are serving.
I spent most of my time here because I felt I could be most helpful. I brought a lot of supplies from America which I was able to use.
My overall experience at my placement
When I arrived, the shelter had 12 children, both girls and boys. The ages of the children ranged from seven years old to 15 years old. Some of the children were there simply because they were lost, and didn't know how to explain where they lived. A few of the children were there because they were trafficked by their parents or caretakers. The kids were there for many different reasons and their stay there is temporary.
It was clear to me that the older children were less challenged with the daily activities. There were two children that had some developmental limitations and were less engaged in the activities compared to the rest of the children. I encouraged staff to engage them in the regular activities as much as possible. This can somewhat be a challenge to staff and difficult for the children to get used to and tolerate. During my time there I engaged them as much as possible in activities that they were capable of doing.
The shelter has 24 hour staff support and children can be dropped off at any time. I worked with three social workers at the shelter. One of the social workers is also the supervisor to the other two. I observed the social worker take on multiple roles, which makes it difficult for them to do meaningful social work. The other social worker took on the role of a teacher. She was really good at engaging the children in daily activities, teaching them different songs and dances. She also spent time teaching the children numbers and letters in English.
I had the opportunity to go out with a social worker to do some family tracing; this is a very important job function for a social worker at the shelter. Looking for the family is imperative to getting the children back to their caretakers. This is something that should be done more often and on a regular basis. The process is time-consuming and a lot of work. We went out on the streets with one child to see if she could remember where she was living before coming to the shelter. Due to her past trauma she was unable to take us to where the home was. It is unclear if she didn't remember or if she just didn’t want to return there because of the abuse. Some of the children ran away because they were being mistreated. They left their abusive environment hoping for something better.
At the shelter, the children engage in daily chores and help one another. The older children show the younger children what is expected of them and the staff support when needed. This shows them how to be responsible and teaches them to help each other and to clean up after themselves.
The staff at the shelter spoke English. Ga and Twi, the local languages, were also spoken to the children. The children came from different places and a few of the children also spoke French. The language barrier between the staff and the children can also be a challenge when assisting the children, but you work around these obstacles!
During my time at the shelter I spent a great amount of time doing arts and crafts activities with the children in the hope of encouraging the children to use their creative side. The activities I chose were to help empower them, in an effort for the children to see themselves in a positive way despite the reasons they were there. Some of the children were abused and neglected and needed to feel good about themselves. There is also some type of trauma to be expected due to them being away from a loving caretaker or a lack of having one.
Travelling around Ghana
There was never a dull moment during my weekends there. I worked at the shelter Monday – Friday and had my weekends off. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. On my first Saturday in Ghana, I was invited to go along with the other volunteers to the Inauguration Ceremony of Ghana's President Nana Akufo Addo. What a great experience to witness this occasion in person. I was overwhelmed by the culture and by the whole process in which I found myself.
Every weekend I was doing something exciting. I had the opportunity to go to Kakum Nation Park, a beautiful rainforest. I did the canopy walk, which was 40 meters high above the forest with great big treetop views. I took some amazing pictures and videos. I don’t have a fear of heights so it was fine walking on the suspension bridges. It was a great place to visit. I also went to Cape Coast Slave Castle and by far that was a five star experience! I highly recommend going to this place and hearing, seeing and learning about an inhumane time in our human history. During this trip I felt a compassion for the misery and suffering of the victims who were in the slave trade.
I went to Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and also W.E.B. Dubois Memorial; both were a must-see for me. They were two great men that I learned about when growing up as a person of African descent.
I met so many amazing people who are now friends to me. I was treated so nicely and it is an experience I will truly value for the rest of my life.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.