HO, GHANA–Growing up in a small New England (predominantly white) community, I rarely heard people speak about life outside of the United States unless it was my family planning a trip and I didn’t know of any kids who travelled abroad until I reached high school. I didn’t understand world affairs and geopolitics, but I saw firsthand the problems that affected the poor as well as the affluent in my hometown: from drug and alcohol addiction, child abuse, and problems related to distorted body image and to suicide among teens.
My formal introduction to the impact of global poverty came when I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. It was an English/social studies class and I remember distinctly the day we learned about the oppression of the people in North Korea. We had just finished a documentary about children working in sweatshops, cutting threads off jeans, while they should have been in school. I was outraged and confused by the paradox that I was blessed with opportunities and resources, while others died or were jailed for speaking out against their government or advocating for an education. That night I went home and searched for high school service trip programs. I knew I could not travel to North Korea, but I found a program called “Children of Ghana” which jumped out at me. This particular program from Global Leadership Adventure was designed for high school students, with a focus on human rights and education. It seemed to be a perfect fit for my interest with children and education. Several months later, right after I turned 15, I was dropped off at New York’s JFK airport, alone with a backpack that weighed more than me, and set out to catch my flight to Accra.
Upon arriving my preconceived notions of Africa were instantly erased. I was not living in some lush green jungle nor was I on safari with lions, giraffes, zebra or elephants. I had also imagined a type of dire poverty where people lived in huts, and were angry and depressed at the world. This was not my experience at all. Instead, I found people who, while poor, had a powerful sense of community and their friendliness blew me away. It expanded my idea of what poverty actually looks like. The people were materially poor, but they were rich in kindness and generosity and they helped each other and me. This was a type of wealth that I had not seen before. In my small Vermont town people know each other but we do not typically greet everyone we see with hugs at the store like they did in Ghana, and no 13 year olds were counting their calories which seemed to be an obsession with my peers in middle school. I was unconditionally invited into their community with no skeptical questions about me and my motives, and they, too had no ulterior motives and just accepted me for who I was.
While volunteering I made bricks and I taught English in a school for three weeks. Some of the students were older than me, but age was not a barrier. The students were eager to learn from us, whether algebra or a song. Many students accepted levels of personal responsibility to just attend school that was nearly beyond my comprehension. I’ll never forget the story of Faith, who humbly explained to me why she was often late to class and was quite disruptive. When I asked her to explain herself one day, she told me that her mother was very sick, her father was not in the picture and she had responsibility of her younger siblings. Every morning she had to get up early to get to the market to get medicine for her mother. She was faced with a decision of either not getting medicine and coming to school on time or getting the medicine and coming late. She explained how it made more sense to get the medicine and then be late to school. This story shifted my perspective of how important education was to these students and the fact that these students are in school is actually a great challenge–and privilege– for them. I was more grateful than ever for the opportunities that I had at home and often had taken for granted. I learned that although I came from a completely different background I had more in common with students in Ghana than I ever imagined. I also learned that regardless of my age I could make a difference.
When I returned to Vermont, I knew that going back to my normal life was not an option any longer. At school I gathered a group of my peers who were interested in international issues. We started spending our Saturdays volunteering at a refugee tutoring program, where we worked with Burundi refugee students on math, science and English. Then I started a school club, Refugee Outreach Club, to help expose high school students to the international community with service locally and globally. We sent even more kids to the tutoring program, invited international guest speakers who lived in our local area to share their experiences and we had several fundraisers. By the end of that school year the club was the biggest at my school (of approximately 1,200 students) and other schools wanted a club of their own. That summer I created R.O.C. Inc., a 501 (c) (3) non-profit charity with a professional board of directors to oversee the development of the school clubs. As of this writing, there are five new high school chapters and one university chapter at Middlebury College. Middlebury College is focused on creating a curriculum to prepare refugee students to apply for college. This will likely be a model for future college chapters.
In 2016, as a 17-year-old senior, I decided it was time to head back to Ghana to rekindle my original spirit of service. This time I wanted to focus on an international cultural exchange program with R.O.C. Inc., as well as work with an NGO that I had seen on my prior trip, The Village Exchange-Ghana. I reached out and with the help of the director of the reproductive health program, Kofi Nyalimba, we designed a nine-week curriculum on reproductive health and leadership. This country still amazes me. Kofi and I work in five different schools and we are engaged in deep listening and honest discussions with the students. We want to hear everyone’s voice. We want to learn from our students just as we hope they want to learn from us. The students are engaged with us and share their personal experiences and opinions discussing issues related to sex, relationships and personal empowerment. The cultural exchange program is designed to connect students in Ghana with students in Vermont. Each school in Ghana is matched with a R.O.C. school. We spend 45 minutes a week video calling and the students ask each other questions and start to learn more about each other’s culture. Though this is a pilot project, the long-term goal is to continue these video conferences after I leave and integrate them into programs around the world.
Being in Ghana reminds me of the importance of community. It reminds me that as young people, we can make a difference. And it reinforces my sense of public service and how lucky I am to be able to attend a free public school education, in my community and to have a voice in my own educational opportunities. I have always taken an unconventional route with my education and I hope to continue that next autumn when I start college. I intend to pursue a degree in International Development, with a focus on behavioral economics and a perhaps minor in journalism. I will continue to work as the executive director of R.O.C. Inc., and I plan to return to Ghana to continue development of the R.O.C. cultural exchange program. Regardless of where my education and career takes me, I know that Ghana will always have a place in my heart and I will have a home and lifelong friends here.
Natalie Meyer is a 17-year-old high school senior from Vermont and founder of the Refugee Outreach Club
photos courtesy Natalie Meyer