ACCRA, GHANA In her part-time job as a pool lifeguard, Virginia Commonwealth University senior Elizabeth Reeder is able to quickly help people in need.
But her training didn’t prepare her for what she experienced two days after the New Year’s holiday while visiting an impoverished area of Accra, Ghana, in West Africa.
There, Reeder and other students from VCU’s School of Social Work met Felicia, a 10-year-old girl who appeared to be lifeless in the tiny, one-room dwelling she shared with her mother and eight siblings.
Reeder hoisted the girl on her back in a sling and, with the help of other students, carried her to a hospital on a Tro Tro, one of the many recycled passenger vans that serve as public transportation. The students, who pitched in money to pay for Felicia’s treatment, waited anxiously for reports about the youngster. They knew that she had had a stroke last year and had been hospitalized for three months.
They learned Felicia had contracted malaria, a blood disease transmitted to humans by mosquitoes and one of the leading causes of death in Africa. Although Reeder is relieved that Felicia survived, she still is shaken by the child’s suffering.
"To carry her on my back, feel her warm temperature and heartbeat and hear her crying . . . it brought things home," said Reeder, 22. "It really humbled me."
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Reeder’s words reflect those of the 18 VCU students who spent their winter break volunteering with Sovereign Global Mission, a nongovernmental organization with which the VCU School of Social Work has established a partnership. The mission, which has been run by Ghanaians Eric and Felicia Annan since 1992, assists orphaned, abandoned, sick or abused street children in Accra’s Cocoa Marketing Board region.
The mission also conducts outreach and education in rural communities; provides information, education and training on HIV/AIDS prevention; offers job training through the Homeless Street Girls Project; and helps provide medical assistance to street children, men and women.
The trash-infested CMB area in Accra is occupied by street children — some estimates place the number as high as 20,000 — who must live by their instincts. Children as young as 7 or 8 take care of younger siblings who can barely walk. Girls ages 12 to 16 who have fled Ghana’s northern region in search of a better life become "porters" or sell items to passengers at nearby train and bus stations. Other girls resort to prostitution.
When the Annans are unable to stop young girls from selling their bodies, they raise funds to send them back home. A 14-year-old girl with ebony, model-like features was put on a bus home during the VCU students’ visit.
Witnessing the patience and joy she exudes as she easily walks among the street children dispensing toothbrushes and other personal items, the VCU students fondly call Felicia Annan "the Mother Teresa of Ghana."
Eric Annan, 41, said he and his wife are "grateful for the students’ presence. . . . Every year, they come to help support our programs and provide resources such as shoes and clothing."
Randi Buerlein, assistant director of field instruction for VCU’s School of Social Work, met the Annans while visiting Ghana five years ago. She was searching for an organization with which VCU could form a short-term partnership. After learning about Felicia Annan’s weekly feeding and outreach program, Buerlein became an SGM volunteer.
"I sometimes have a sense of anger; it seems so unfair that so many children we meet are going to be sick or not survive," Buerlein told the social work students one night during the group’s recent trip. "Anger’s not helpful, but it can be motivating."
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This trip marked the fourth time Buerlein has traveled to Ghana with VCU student groups. The trips are open to any VCU student, alumni or friends of the university, with each participant responsible for paying his or her expenses.
One group included Kelly McCall, 25, who after visiting Ghana in January 2005, returned eight months later. She stayed six months, conducting HIV/AIDS training, teaching rural children and "living like a Ghanaian."
McCall, who teaches job-seeking skills to clients at Richmond’s Daily Planet, said, "I never wanted to go home.
"I used to have social anxiety, but teaching and working with others helped eliminate that."
She also lost 30 pounds with all the walking and physical activities that living and working in Ghana require.
McCall helped Buerlein lead the group this time. She cautioned the students to "see Ghana for what it is by focusing on its strengths and methods of survival."
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In 2006, Chris Burnside, former assistant dean of student affairs in VCU’s School of the Arts, met the Annans on another student trip. Struck by the level of poverty and the students’ work, he created a class. In "Making a Difference," students created a benefit program "FOR AFRICA," to raise funds for the nonprofit SGM.
Burnside was co-director of the event last November that helped raise $38,000 for a child-development center being built by SGM.
The center is part of a three-pronged approach for combating the poverty that has haunted Ghana in the 50 years since it obtained independence from British rule.
One part of the VCU-Annan project involves working with street children, providing food, basic health care and literacy education. The second phase sponsors children to attend school for one year. The third phase involves building the child development center in Adoteiman, a village outside Accra.
The total cost for the project is $60,000, and a library and dormitory are expected to be completed in April. A Richmond-based foundation account established through Peacework, a nonprofit organization in Blacksburg, will accept donations that will help sustain the school through annual donations, Buerlein said.
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The students helped dig the center’s foundation in Adoteiman, hauling cinder-block-sized bricks amid sweltering temperatures. Their evenings were spent in a hotel with no hot water, bad lighting and lots of lizards.
Yet there were few complaints.
"It’s one thing to read about global poverty and having HIV and AIDS," Buerlein said, "but it broadens their perspective by being there and seeing" such challenges. "They all come back wanting to do more."
Cecelia Rich, a first-year graduate student in social work, wanted to help SGM but was also eager to visit the country’s slave castles or forts, which housed up to 10,000 African slaves a year during the 250-year slave trade.
uot;40-something" Rich, who has worked in social work and criminal justice for nearly 20 years, wants to start her own community-based social work program. A VCU master’s degree will help, and so will the time spent in Ghana, she said.
Rich was pleased to find unity, community, resilience and tenacity among the Ghanaians.
Their situations are bad, but their nature was "we’re coping with it," she said. "To be able to see how they can make a quick income by selling something off the Earth, or being resourceful while recycling . . . that’s ingenious."
Bonnie Newman Davis, a former editor and reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is an associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. She traveled to Accra, Ghana, with the VCU students as part of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Ethel Payne Fellowship.
Doug Buerlein is a professional photographer who lives in Ashland.