Sun-kissed and wearing comfortable African-style clothes, six Canton high school students sat at a table at Canton High School after returning from a volunteering trip spent in the hill country of Ghana. These girls, some now graduated from the school, spent a year and a half planning and fundraising for their trip as part of the club "Be The Change" and returned only a few days ago.
Be The Change is a social justice and community action club at Canton High School run by teacher Jen Gembala. Gembala started the club in 2008 soon after arriving in Canton. She and her members, numbering about 20, have brought in speakers and done volunteer work around Canton. About 15 months ago, she set her sights on taking a group of students to Ghana which is lightheartedly known as "Africa for beginners."
"It's a politically stable and safe place," said Gembala, but poverty is an issue in outlying areas.
So, after raising the funds themselves for many months, Emma Eytan, Leigh-Ann Rossitto, Emily Barger, Jillian Casey, Ashley Enns and Adrienne Kunkel boarded a plane about two weeks ago.
"I was worried," said Emily Barger, "how our host family, the kids would receive us. She worried, for example, that people would think they were trying to "save the world."
But Barger said the host family welcomed them immediately and she felt comfortable right away. The family they stayed with was considered wealthy because they owned goats and chickens and had their own home.
Gembala said that when they arrived at the daycare where they would be working, she got teary-eyed. "It was like Little House on the Prairie," she said, showing pictures of barren stucco walls and wooden desks without chairs. Chipped and cracking, the walls were in need of repair and the children learned out of only three books.
The girls painted everyday from 8:30 a.m. to noon. Then they spent the afternoon playing with and teaching small children, who they all fell in love with.
"They didn't need to be able to speak our language," said Casey. "They would say 'Auntie' and put their hands up. They wanted to be held and cuddled."
"I noticed they had a sense of inner peace," said Enns."And the kids were much more well behaved."
"What I saw, I expected," said Barger, "poverty. I thought we would be fish out of water, but, within 24 hours, it felt natural."
When asked if the experience meant more to them because , the girls all said yes. "Raising the money myself made me appreciate it more," said Enns.
Now that they are home, the girls are pondering how they will take the things that they saw and learned and apply them to their lives.
"People there, they don't sweat the small stuff," Eytan said. "There are so many things we get worked up about. What do they really mean in the long run? My attitude towards a lot of things has changed." Eytan is planning a trip to Peru with the same organization that took them to Ghana.
"I am starting to see everything 'big picture,'" said Barger. "In the grand scheme of things, there's always going to be another problem."
"It's going to change the way I teach," said Gembala.
Enns has high hopes about how she and her friends will take what they learned and make a difference by teaching others about the world outside of the United States. "I think when you have a mind-change, it can't be taken away," she said. "Once your eyes are open, you can't shut them to what you've seen."
Everyone shared a knowing laugh when Rossitto shared her first Ghana inspired moment upon returning to the states: "It helped me loosen up. The first day I got back, I burned eggs...but I still ate them," she said, and they all laughed.
Be The Change will be continuing its work in the community this fall once school begins. A ceremony will be held as well where the girls will present sponsors with gifts from Ghana.