Sunday, August 28, 2011


Most things I do in life fail, even the successes. What I think is special about most of the successes is that, for some reason, I decided to try again. . .and again. . . and again. Retrospection is perspicacity, and am I thankful that I did not give up on the following project!

Let me give you the background first. While teaching in the States (I taught 9-12 in a grade 6-12 school), I decided to take a job teaching in a school for kids from low-income communities. My school was an all-day school (till 5 PM) which helped keep kids off the street longer; we had afterschool tutorials until 6:30 PM which were mandatory if your grade was below a certain mark; we had Saturday school; we had mandatory summer school before grades 6 – 10; we had two mandatory high school summer internships between grades 10-12; we had mandatory service hours each month; we had week-long college visits across the country during the spring to different locations for each grade level; we had cell phones for the students to call the teachers for help on homework because “being stuck” was unacceptable; our seniors were required to gain acceptance into a 4-year college or university in order to graduate otherwise they had to stay again for at least another semester until they met this requirement; etc. I could go on. You get the picture.

While teaching there, I wore many hats as do most teachers. Besides, teacher, tutor, informal doctor, informal counselor, I was also a service advisor, a service grade-level coordinator, a summer internship advisor, and various club advisors. What concerned me was that many students wanted to do international summer internships but the costs were prohibitive especially for kids in my school. But, as the story goes, we changed that.

After a visit to El Salvador to see a Peace Corps Volunteer friend (a trip that profoundly affected me, even to this day), at the suggestion of my PCV friend, I decided to organize a group of students to go to El Salvador and join her in her work. This time, however, there would be no prohibitive costs for the students as long as they were willing to invest the “sweat equity” to raise the funds and own the trip. What was difficult however was that the students not only had to raise the money for the projects they were to do, but they had to raise the money for their expenses, as well.

I ran into a variety of obstacles along the way, the biggest of which was my school, opposing me (yet “supporting” the trip). Another obstacle was time. Because this plan came through during Spring Break (which is half way through 2nd semester) we only had half a semester (a month and a half) to raise the money. But we did it. We chose students were available most weekends to raise the money. And, of course, as I always say, the students do not raise the bulk of the money (at least according to plan), much of that is done by me or other teacher-leaders when they go and request money, talk about the program, give presentations, etc. But I wanted the kids to participate in their own legacy not just pass a gift on. I wanted them to sacrifice for what they gave. I wanted them to own it in order to truly give it away.

Needless to say, we overcame the obstacles and raised the money, all the money required, even when it looked like we would fall short, some money coming just in the nick of time. The process was very hard on me as a teacher because I was at a school that was all day and doing tutorials until 6:30, the same school that required 2-3 hours of preparation each night for each subject-lesson you teach the next day, not to mention all the grading you’re supposed to do added onto administrative work, parent-contacting, parent-visiting, service planning, etc. That year I also had the most students out of any teacher in the school, so it was interesting. I would often get a substitute on a test day or slip off-campus during an off period for which no students needed me to give a presentation or a talk at a Rotary club, Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, or a Breakfast club. I would use off-periods while students were doing tutorial problems to call businesses and request in-kind donations such as airline tickets or transportation or housing, etc. But we raised it.

I meant to leave it at that, I had no grand vision, honestly, at least I don’t remember having one. But something strange happened. I came back to the school the following year, and teacher after teacher after parent after parent came up to me and ask “how did you do it?” I of course had no idea what they were talking about when they made a general opening statement like that. Then they would say “Alex” or a name like that. They would point out how he was more kind, considerate, others-focused, responsible, and dependable. They would point how that he thought less of himself and had a greater awareness of his surroundings and the needs of others, his school, his city, even his teachers! So I said, I don’t know but that’s great to hear. Around the same time, people would ask if the program would be offered again. When students started asking me, there was no way I could say no. The answer was of course, YES. So we did.

The same process ensued. I contact Peace Corps country directors during the summer to ask them to send my email out to PCVs. They would read it and some would respond. We would also contact NGOs and we would evaluate the project options put before us by the PCVs or NGOs. We always did groups of 10-12 for a specific reason related to group dynamics. We always sent a team back to the same countries we visited the previous year because we were doing relational service. We always added a new country each year. We always had one primary tangible project that the students could see (the concept of service is somewhat narrow at that age, and this helps to solidify the service work done while at the same time destroying that concept of service through other secondary projects) and a multitude of secondary projects both tangible and intangible. There were other (quite beautiful) components to the program but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that the students met throughout the year for 4 reasons: training for the work they would do in the country, fundraisers, language training (though this could be done individually), and pen pal letter drop-offs or writings. They wrote letters to students of the same age and younger so that when they arrived they had already established relationships with the kids.

That second year there were 3 countries teams – a Ghana Team (GT), an India Team (IT), and an El Salvador Team (EST). I usually spend my summers abroad doing international service work to balance local service work I do, and I had some travel myself and couldn’t be everywhere, so I was soo thankful the second year to have a team of teachers on each team. They were truly wonderful. That freed me up, thanks to the good counsel of one teacher, to help manage them all and fundraise for all 3 trips while each group focused on their own. We even had mixed groups – where a team like GT or IT had students from more than one school (but the same family of charter schools).

So I flew in and joined GT (the Ghana Team) after they had been there for 2 weeks (I was in China on an educator trip) right about the time they met an amazing, still, and inspiring woman named Sophia. It is the words of Sophia that I share with you, today.

I still remember sitting by the fire that night with all the kids and the PCVs and teachers and sharing the good news. Only two months earlier, I was invited to the National Public Charter Schools Conference to speak about “Service in Education.” Now, the program, only in its 2nd year had been nominated for a National Character Education Award, and it won. The kids didn’t really get it, but we were flabbergasted. I think what struck me most was that I was always asked one question by potential funders: why should we give money to send these kids over when we could just fund the projects directly without sending the kids over? The very first time I heard this, I had answer for this without ever knowing that I knew what to say. We are raising future service-driven leaders who are not only being taught how to do service and serve relationally, but they are being taught how to raise up service-driven leaders themselves. This isn’t international development, I would say; it’s international as well as community development. You’re developing your own community at the same time.

This is the story into which you enter. The Ghana Team encountered a lot of problems along the way. I fought with the school even more. Some people wondered why I would do that, but to be honest, I’d rather be someone who fought a good fight and lost then one who worried about being on the good side of a school or the good side of the administration. And believe me, it put me on the bad side and raised all kinds of questions (and accolades) for the school. But as always, you have to remain beyond reproach and no criticism can stick. And even if it does, you remain honest and vulnerable. So I did. We almost didn’t make it. It was tough. The school seemed even more “supportive” than before (by that I mean less actively supportive beyond verbal/aural support). I advocated, emailed, discussed, criticized, and fought for my kids. And I did it because it was for my kids (both in the States and in Ghana). So to fly into Ghana after leaving China and see my kids and meet Sophia and the teachers and tell them that what they are doing works—I don’t know; it touched me.
So the kids brought the money to start a project which I think was initially conceived as an adult education center that would allow for night classes. There would be books and desks and the opportunity for learning. The kids raised the money not only for the construction but for their expenses which always doubles the costs but it was worth it. Often times, with some of this type of work, you never know what happens with what you did, brought, started, or gave. But Sophia kept in touch with the students. And I want to share Sophia’s story.

You see, the students started something along with Sophia and her townspeople of Wamfie. Everyone helped with the housing, food, construction, and work. The kids were also busy doing other secondary projects like HIV/AIDS workshops, permacultural sessions, classes at the school, etc. My kids were actually not able to finish the work they started in conjunction with Sophia and the town of Wamfie. They never saw the building completed. I stayed in Ghana about 2-4 weeks longer and helped out a bit more and saw it developed even more. Now I want to share the legacy of what my Ghana Team started.

Sophia will correct me if I’m wrong in saying this, but I don’t believe the building would have been built or started when it did if Sophia hadn’t received our request, that we wanted to go to Ghana to work with her. Most PCVs tell me that the work the students do in 2-4 weeks (it was only 2 with Sophia because our students worked with another PCV in another location for half a month) is the work an individual PCV would take to do in 6-8 months which is close to half her time there. It’s not only a big work boost, but also an emotional boost, a spiritual boost, a mental boost to have the kids visit and share their lives (for the kids, too). So as I was reading Sophia’s update, I was crying (I cry a lot these days) because the story is beautiful. It’s not a story written by my students alone, for many joined in the work with the kids and continued it afterwards. But my students planted a seed. Now you can always go further and further back. Teachers emailed the Ghana Peace Corps Country Director who passed it down. And I was over the teachers helping to run this program. And I was invited to go to El Salvador with my kids the year before by my Peace Corps friend. I only became friends with her because I accompanied another person down to El Salvador for spring break to see Peace Corps work firsthand. Etc. etc. But there you have it—life, in all its entangled and interconnected glory, is made bare and plain through letters like this. And the impact of what the kids did has never lost its effect on me. I love the Peace Corps practice of having new volunteers take over in the same place as old volunteers. I love the practice of having them overlap for a brief time. I love the practice of continued work which Ann, the volunteer after Sophia, actually did. And Ann carried the work until completion beyond Sophia (or my) wildest dreams. When I have opportunities like this to co-partner with people in creating beauty in this world in a way that liberates and transforms people—it’s like something within me resonates. This is how life is meant to be lived, and it’s something that can be done every day. As you read, pay special attention to all the many people involved in the project even after the kids left the first summer (they came back another summer without me after I moved abroad). The town is called Wamfie. It truly took a village to raise this library. And to be honest, it’s much more than a library.

Greetings YES prep former or present teachers and staff,

First and foremost, I hope you are all well. It’s been a while since
I’ve written, and I regret the extent to which I’ve fallen out of
touch with you all. However, I write bearing good news! The Wamfie
Community Library/Youth and Community Center has opened its doors to
the public! I made a return trip to Ghana last month, and visited
Wamfie, where I was able to help physically stock the bookshelves. It
felt good to slide those books into place, I feel lucky to have been
involved in the final phase of the library’s development. Although I
realize it sounds corny, my heart was literally overflowing with love
and happiness the entire week I spent in Wamfie- and you are all part
of that happiness. I wish each of you, and your students, could have
the rewarding experience of stepping through the doors and seeing the
awesome culmination of our efforts. While that may not be possible, at
the very least I can share with you some photos of the finished

As you can see from the photos, the library is a pretty impressive
sight. The construction is totally complete. The walls have been
plastered inside and out, painted, and decorated with world, African,
and Ghanaian maps. (Ann- the volunteer who succeeded me- painted these
with local kids.) I should mention that all the masons, carpenters,
electricians, and other artisans who helped with the construction
worked at half price for the duration of the project- an act I think
really demonstrates the community’s commitment. In addition to their
labor, there have been countless days of community labor, during which
individuals donated their time- hauling water, mixing cement, laying
bricks, weeding, or cooking food for those who were laboring. This
obvious commitment helped us (me and Ann, the volunteer who came after
me) convince the District Assembly to chip in money for a beautiful
ceiling, complete with ceiling fans. The DA is also paying the
electricity bill, and hired a night watchman to guard the facility in
the evenings. They also helped us get in touch with Ghana Youth
Employment Services, a national agency that has agreed to send 2
librarians to work full time in the library. All 3 jobs will be filled
by residents of Wamfie, the librarians will also get periodic training
in computer record keeping and library cataloging. Ann was able to
work with Books for Africa, a non-profit organization based in the US,
to get 50,000 donated books- an entire container! She also did an
enormous amount of fundraising to pay for shipping and transportation
costs. One neat partnership she formed was with the Ghana Book trust-
she gave them a share of our books in exchange for assistance within
country transportation. They also did a bit of a swap- where we traded
out some of our English books for books written in Twi and English by
Ghanaian authors. Even after all of this trading and exchanging, there
were still so many extra books that the library couldn’t possibly hold
them all- so we donated the excess (sets of classroom textbooks) to
the District Education Office (who will distribute them equitably to
Wamfie Junior Secondary Schools), and to Mansen Secondary School
(where we did our HIV Education with the YES prep students).
Meanwhile, we used excess funds from construction to build
bookshelves, tables, and chairs for the interior- and we purchased 2
computers which will have intermittent internet access courtesy of MTN
cellular network.

I was unable to attend the grand ceremony for the opening, but I wrote
a small piece to be read, which I am attaching to this email. Ann
tells me that the ceremony was huge- there were 3 canopies set up to
create shade, and chiefs from all the surrounding areas came to bear
witness to the opening. The present and former DCE (you met the
former) also came to show their support, as well as representatives
from the regional and district education offices, and numerous local
teachers. (I think they may have canceled school so students could
attend.) Our Peace Corps country director also attended, along with
most community members. Ann is sending photos which I will forward

There is one remaining task left… Ann and I would like to collect
photos from all phases of the library’s construction. We are planning
to make a nicely bound photo book to place in the library- and we
would like everybody that was involved in the project, start to
finish, to be included. I could just rely on my own photos- but I have
a feeling that you all have some good ones too. I am therefore
requesting that you send me your photos (if you still have them) from
your time in Wamfie, to be included in the book. If you are interested
in a copy of the photo book, I’m happy to let you know how much it
ends up costing to print- otherwise I’m happy to burn all the photos
onto a CD for you. For now, I’d really appreciate access to your
photos- however I need access to the full file (as opposed to a
condensed shared file). I think the easiest way to do this might be to
request a burned CD? CDs can be mailed to my address, which is listed
below. THANK YOU in advance, and THANK YOU again for all the work you
put into this project… I hope you can see for yourselves the fruits of
your labor, and feel immensely proud!

Hope you are all well,



Greetings to my dear friends and family in Wamfie. As many of you
know, I was recently in Wamfie, however my visit was too short. I
apologize for my inability to greet many of you due to the very short
visit. Although the visit was short, I was happy to have the chance to
visit the wonderful library, and help with the final stages of its
organization. I wish I could be here with you today, to celebrate the
opening, but instead I am with you in spirit, and have sent Ann these
words to read.

The library has been a long time in the making, and there are so many
people to thank. I think, however, that it is best to first recognize
ourselves, and thank each other for all the work we have put in to the
library. This is truly a community library- together we have cleared
the land, hauled water, mixed cement, helped dig a solid foundation,
and raised these very walls with our own two hands. Families have
helped by cooking for the laborers, or offering housing to those who
traveled from far away to help with the project. Our carpenters,
masons, and electricians have generously given their time and
expertise, even the young children here have helped put books on the
shelves, and have enthusiastically helped sweep the floors. There is
one person I would especially like to thank in Wamfie, and that is Dei
Prince. He has
been involved with the library from the very beginning, selflessly
giving of his time and efforts. I am happy to announce that he has
been selected as a librarian, and I can’t think of anybody who
deserves the position more... I think he represents everybody’s
enthusiasm for the project. As he told me yesterday, “Today, our
dreams are finally coming true.” I hope you all feel the same. This
library belongs to all of you, because you have all helped in some way
to build it. Without your help it would not be standing here today,
full of books.

There are also so many people to thank who have contributed
financially to the library. YES Preparatory School from Houston,
Texas, in the USA, send not only money, but they sent their students
for two
summers to help with construction. We also received funding from St.
Paul’s Catholic Church, in Juneau, Alaska, where even young children
gave their small change, all to help build this library. So many
individuals in Juneau, Alaska, my hometown, hearing of the library
project, approached my mother and asked to make a donation- some gave
money, some gave books, some gave games and toys… all of which my
mother carried with her when she came to visit me. All of these things
are now in the library! The donations didn’t stop there. Reading of
Wamfie in my hometown newspaper, schools and clubs and individuals who
I don’t even know came forward and donated to the library. Without all
of these donors, we never could have afforded the cement, bricks,
timber, roofing sheets, plaster, and paint to build the structure.
Today, I know they are all thinking of Wamfie, wishing us well. I know
they are very happy that our collective partnership has led to such a
beautiful library.

There were also many donors here in Wamfie that gave generously to our
project. In Wamfie, I would first like to thank Nana (PLEASE ADD HIS
NAME). Nana granted us use of the land, the very foundation of our
project, and even joined us to break ground. He has been very
supportive of the project, sending rice, oil, and charcoal to help
feed our visiting laborers. We will never forget his generosity, and
we thank him for being here today.

Ben (LAST NAME), former DCE of the Dormaa East District, has also been
incredibly supportive of our project. He joined us for the ground
breaking, and provided my sister Ann with support in carrying the
project forward. While I did not have the honor to meet NEW DCE, Ann
tells me that under his direction, the district assembly has continued
to be supportive, performing necessary roof repairs, providing funding
for the ceiling, paying the electric bill, and helping to secure two
librarians from the Youth Employment Office, as well as a night
watchman. We are very grateful for the districts support of the
project, and hope they continue to support the library in the future.

Last, I wish to thank the Peace Corps, for supporting me as a
volunteer. I can’t thank them enough for sending me to Ghana, and then
to Wamfie- which has become my second home. I also thank Peace Corps
for sending Ann as my successor. Not only has Ann done a wonderful job
carrying the project forward, she has helped it evolve into something
greater than I ever imagined. Most importantly, she has the same love
of Wamfie, and cares deeply about the community. I am happy to count
her as my Wamfie, Mansen Habitat Sister.

When I first arrived here, in 2006, most people did not know of Peace
Corps, and often asked of my mission. I struggled to come up with an
appropriate response. I hope that today you know my mission here was
not just to be involved in this library, but to learn from you and
share in your culture so that I could share it with people in America.
I hope you know how many people around the world care about you. You
will forever be in my heart, and I hope to come back and visit often.
I love you all.


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