Caroline Saxton, program associate for the Grinnell Prize and Office of Social Commitment, was awarded a staff fellowship to work with 2011 Grinnell Prize winner James Kofi Annan and his organization Challenging Heights. Caroline traveled to Ghana in July 2012 and volunteered with Challenging Heights for three and a half weeks.
Caroline is a 2009 graduate of Smith College and grew up in Grinnell, Iowa. She is looking forward to bringing her skills in administration and her interest in women's health to her fellowship with Challenging Heights.
A "Day in the Life"
My staff fellowship is centered at the Challenging Heights School, where over 600 students are enrolled. Every morning, I walk from the Lagoon Lodge (my hotel) to the Challenging Heights School. I prefer to walk, rather than taking a taxi, because I get to see so much more of Winneba. I see children in their school uniforms walking to school, often hand-in-hand with their younger siblings, and adults operating their businesses with names "Sweet Jesus Ent." and "God's Time Beauty Salon". The walk to Challenging Heights takes me about an hour, and I don't see another "obroni" (white person) the entire route.
Once I arrive at the school, I spend the majority of my time working on handbooks and spreadsheets for various Challenging Heights programs. One of these handbooks is for their Child Sponsorship Program, which pays for uniforms, school supplies, and other costs for sponsored students. The Child Sponsorship Program (CSP) works to reduce a child's risk factor for slavery and/or trafficking, and now sponsors over 100 of the 600+ students who attend the Challenging Heights School.
Being with the kids at break times, seeing how much they enjoy being at school, helps reinforce why I'm here. I'm here because of the great work that Challenging Heights does to help children and families. If the work that I do, my handbooks and spreadsheets, is useful to the organization and makes it easier to run these programs, than in a small way, I will have helped continue to fulfill Challenging Heights' mission.
Outside of my time at the school, I walked along the beach and waded in the ocean, visited Kakum National Park and experienced the famous Canopy Walkway, and patronized the artisan market in Tema.
Big Moments and Accomplishments
I have been thoroughly enjoying my fellowship experience. My biggest accomplishments have been putting together two handbooks for two of Challenging Heights' new programs. They have a new ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Center which is being used for classes with students and teachers. I created a handbook to guide the next ICT Manager and other CH staff in how to run the Center, especially when they expand its usage. I have also enjoyed "teaching" a few ICT classes, working with students in a focused, small-group setting.
I am very proud of the comprehensive handbook I created for the Child Sponsorship Program, which will facilitate a smooth transition from its creator and current manager, long-term volunteer Sarah Morbitzer, to a new staff member or long-term volunteer. If my efforts in these small ways can assist CH staff in their day-to-day work and to continue fulfilling the goals and mission of Challenging Heights, I will consider my fellowship to have been a success.
I am truly inspired by the Challenging Heights staff. Every day, these incredible people work to make a difference for children and families in Ghana, taking action to end child slavery and prevent child trafficking. Their passion and commitment is seen in all aspects of their work, from the women's microfinance loan program to teaching everyday in the Challenging Heights School. It has been an honor to work with the people of Challenging Heights.
One of the highlights of my fellowship happend toward the end of my time in Ghana. I attended a community sensitization event in Winneba and was amazed at the response that CH staff is able to draw from an audience. By using AV equipment to play Ghanaian music videos, the Programs Staff create interest from children in the area, who in turn draw in their parents and other adults. Challenging Heights waits until they have a large audience, around 100+ people, before transitioning to sharing information about children's rights, the reality of child trafficking and child slavery, and the difference going to school and getting an education can make in a child's life. The response of the audience is tremendous, and these community events often generate information about children who have been trafficked or sold being given to Challenging Heights.
Encountering and Overcoming Challenges
It's not about me. It's not about you. It's about us, working together, to create something bigger. I've discovered that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in volunteering or working overseas is thinking that it's about you or that you have all the answers. Part of what has made my fellowship so rewarding was from learning from other people, getting other people's perspectives and working with the Challenging Heights staff to make their work easier. The best advice I can give to others is to open yourself to new experiences, to truly listen, and to acknowledge your own shortcomings. Remember that it's not about me, and it's not about you. It's about us, working together, to create something bigger.
Reflections and Using What I've Learned
It's good to be uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable pushes us to be better, to confront our fears and limitations and move beyond them. My time in Ghana reinforced that I need to continue to be in settings where I am not the majority. This means being an adult in a group of children, a Christian in a non-Christian community, a woman at an otherwise all-male gathering, the only white person in a community, a liberal in a conservative town. By pushing outside of my comfort zone, outside of what makes me feel at home and feel good, I grow. And we all need to grow. My three weeks in Ghana reinforced my calling, and what it's truly about. My calling is about people. Working with people, finding a common ground of understanding, listening rather than speaking: this is my calling. I will probably never make a lot of money, and I'm okay with that. My life will be defined not by my tax bracket or my salary, but by the people I meet, who push me to be better, who challenge my ideas and my comfort zone, and who help me as much or more than I help them. We all have something to give, and we all have room to grow. Thank you, Challenging Heights and Grinnell College, for giving me the opportunity to give and to grow.