Michelle Hertel - Care & Community in Ghana
For the most part, I was never one for going out of my way to volunteer. I would do my hours, get the supervisor to sign the form and hand it in, glad that my obligation was fulfilled. But as I got older, I began to realise that I really am capable of making a tiny difference in someone’s life. I have also always been a big dreamer, so of course I didn’t think to try to make a difference at home in my own community. I wanted to go big.
I started searching online-at first for a gap year programme in Africa. When I found Projects Abroad, I was thrilled! Not only did they have programmes to volunteer in Africa, but they had two week high school specials, which meant I could go that summer. I filled out the forms, got my Journalism and Chemistry teacher’s information for the recommendation and presented it to my parents. They agreed that it would be an excellent experience. Just a few days later, I got the e-mail telling me that I had been accepted to the Projects Abroad programme.
The next two months didn’t go nearly fast enough. By the time I landed in Accra, I was so excited, I probably would’ve done almost anything Projects Abroad asked me too. On Sunday, after I had rested and adjusted to my new home, Emmanuel, one of the local Projects Abroad staff, came to the house. He explained that we would be working in Kokoom village, plastering some of the houses so that they would last longer. The taxi came to pick me and the other four volunteers from my house up at 8am and fifteen minutes later, we were mixing plaster on the ground in front of the house with volunteers from two other houses.
The first day, I didn’t know how to plaster at all. The mason from the village finished a full wall in the time it took me and two other volunteers to plaster a three-foot high section. At noon, Emmanuel told us we could head home. I was thrilled, and I kept my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t have to plaster again. After that, the plastering got easier. A few days later, I was helping show new volunteers how to plaster. I could almost say that I even enjoyed plastering.
My favourite day plastering was when I was working with three volunteers from the Reverend’s house on a home near the front of the village. While we were working on the back wall, a tiny older man from the village came up to us, told us that plastering was a lot of fun for him, and did half the wall for us, laughing and joking with the mason the whole time.
In the afternoons, we would sometimes go to Mount Zion foster home and orphanage. The kids were great. They were always happy to see us, shouting “Obruni!” as soon as we stepped from the tro-tro. The first time I was there, one of the younger girls took me by the hand and pulled me into the building for arts and crafts. The whole time, she was smiling and there was a twinkle in her eyes. When we had to leave, the kids would come out to the courtyard and wave good-bye. It was such a seemingly small thing, but the way those kids seem to appreciate and enjoy the little that they do have made me realise just how lucky I am.
Not only did I get the opportunity to learn from the kids and the villagers and even the Ghanaians that I only saw once, who waved to me when I walked by, but I also got to learn about other cultures from around the world. In my house alone, there was a man from the Netherlands, a man from France and a woman from France, a man from Florida, two girls from New Jersey and one from Colorado. At work each day, I only met people from even more countries. It was incredible to learn about Ghanaian customs and lifestyle and hear stories from other volunteers who had come to Ghana for the same reason I had.
When I first left for Ghana, I thought that it would be an incredible experience. I thought that it might have some impact on me, but I was more likely to have some impact through my work. When I got back from Ghana, I was more humble about it. Sure, I may have helped someone out, but I definitely didn’t do it alone. And Ghana did more than slightly impact my life. It had a drastic effect on my life.
Because of my experience in Ghana, I realise now what I want to do with my life. I realise just how lucky I am for simple luxuries like constant electricity and consistently warm, running water. But more importantly, I realise that I don’t need to have expensive things to be happy. Ghanaians are some of the happiest people I have ever been lucky enough to meet. They may not have much, but that doesn’t stop them from singing songs every morning; from going out of their way to help someone they have never met. Their general happiness and joy taught me that if I really want to be happy, I should put others first and do that with joy, even if that means I just smile a little more often. After all, as Mother Theresa said, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”
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.