LAKEFIELD — When Lakefield natives Adrianna Cranston and Aaron Brandt applied through the International Volunteer HQ program to work in a Ghana orphanage in the small village of Dodowa, an hour’s drive from the larger city of Accra, they had hoped for a mix of volunteerism with children and new cultural experiences.
While they certainly experienced both, the trip wasn’t quite what the college students had expected — beginning with a one-day delay in arrival due to flight issues and their assignment at an orphanage coupled with a women’s refuge.
Cranston, a student at St. Cloud State University, and Brandt, studying at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, were among 10 volunteers placed in the Potter’s Village orphanage. The orphanage is home to about 120 children, half of which are school-aged.
The children had recently been pulled out of the public school system in Dodowa because they were being bullied — teased about being orphans. As a result, a makeshift school had been created within the orphanage to teach the children just days prior to the arrival of the new volunteers.
Whether it was a cultural difference or something else, Cranston said the teachers brought in to educate the children spent only an hour or two each day teaching and then they’d walk away, leaving the children alone for the remainder of what was to be their school day.
During their two-week stint, Cranston, Brandt and their fellow volunteers stepped in to fill the gap — without textbooks and only minimal supplies of paper and pencils.
“We did a lot of math and English for them because we couldn’t teach them in their native language,” said Cranston, who with Brandt taught students in the fifth grade. Neither had any prior experience in teaching.
“It was pretty hard. As volunteers, we all worked together,” she said. “At night we talked about lesson plans and gave each other ideas. … A lot of it was writing on chalkboards. We always felt bad making them write things down because of the limited supplies.”
Many of the children in the orphanage could speak English, but at varying levels of fluency.
With family members working in education, both Cranston and Brandt sought ideas from home to help in their classroom experience, ranging from tips on how to run a classroom to what should be taught.“Reading out loud was really hard for some of the kids,” said Brandt.
The children in the orphanage would be awaken at 4:30 a.m., gather for assembly at 7 a.m. and then begin class at 8 a.m., with an hour-long breakfast break. Classes were to continue until 2:30 p.m.
As the volunteers worked to get the classes developed, Brandt said IVHQ was putting out a call for teachers to come in and help the students. His hope was that when they left the orphanage behind last week, others would take over and keep the school going.
“One of the volunteers donated 300 to 400 new textbooks,” he said, adding that the books will cover a variety of subjects and be shared among students in the orphanage.
When the school day was finished, the children had nap time until about 4 p.m. That’s when the volunteers could do fun activities with the kids.
“It was cooler, so we could run around with the kids,” said Cranston.
The children welcomed the volunteers daily in a sea of smiling faces.
“When they saw us come, they would run at us and jump up on us,” Cranston shared.
“The biggest shock I got was how friendly everyone was,” Brandt added. “The kids came up to you and they wanted to hold your hand. They’d say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ — really common sayings.”
One child in particular, a 3-year-old named Yow, stole the hearts of Cranston and Brandt. The young boy, whose mother was in the women’s refuge, was born with a club foot and struggled to walk and keep up with other children.
Brandt was especially drawn to the child because his own uncle was born with a club foot and had surgery at just six months of age.
“I think that’s why it hit home,” he said, adding that his uncle went on to play sports in high school and have a normal life.
Brandt and Cranston are now trying to raise funds and make connections for Yow to have the surgery. Both have relatives who are doctors, and they’ve begun to seek help in making the surgery a reality.
Brandt said the next step is to try and connect with someone at Sanford. He and Cranston discovered a Sanford Clinic in Cape Coast during one of their weekends in Ghana. The clinic is just an hour and a half from Dodowa.
“That’s probably one of my next steps — to see what they do down there,” Brandt said.
Meanwhile, Cranston has created a page on the website Go Fund Me, which allows the public to donate to specific causes. She and Brandt are hoping to raise $5,000 on the website (www.gofundme.com/9qp6jo) to pay for the surgery and their return trip to Ghana to be with Yow when the surgery is performed.
“If we exceed the amount of donations that we need, all extras will go directly to the Potter’s Village Orphanage,” Cranston said.
“If a big chunk of our area (in southwest Minnesota) donates $1 each, that gets us way past our goal,” added Brandt. “Even 50 cents will get us there. We’re not looking for huge donations.
“If people want to donate more, that would be awesome,” he said. “We just want that kid to be like everyone else — to be able to walk and run.”
Cranston is hopeful the surgery could be performed near the end of the year, as both she and Brandt have J-term in January and could use their school break to return to Ghana. They already have an offer to stay with Mama Jane, who oversees the orphanage, during their return visit.
At the site where they stayed as volunteers, Cranston and Brandt shared a home with others in the IVHQ program that included three rooms with bunk beds, a small kitchen, living room and dining room. There were three bathrooms in the home, but no indoor plumbing.
“We used buckets of water,” Brandt said. “We’d fill up pails and that’s how we showered and flushed the toilets.”
Though they “roughed it” a little, Brandt said the living conditions were extreme in the area where they stayed.
“You definitely see a gap between the wealthy and the poor,” he shared, adding that nice homes were surrounded by brick walls or barbed wire, and a house next door could be real small with a tin roof.
“There’s no middle class there — if you’re rich, you’re rich, and if you’re poor, you’re poor,” said Brandt.
“It gave me a different perspective on a lot of things,” Cranston said. “Now I think about … what I have and what the kids don’t have. It makes you look at life in a different way. I think how lucky I am. These kids don’t even have bathrooms. They don’t know if they’ll have their next meal. We take things for granted. It just gave me a different perspective on life.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.