For many high school students, summer vacation is a time to hang out on the beach with friends, do some travelling and perhaps earn some spending money at a part-time job.
But this year, a group of Vernon teens decided to do something a little different with their summer holidays, by travelling to Kenya and helping to build a school for their African counterparts.
Working with Me to We and its sister organization Free the Children, a group of students travelled to Kenya in August as part of a new program at Vernon secondary school called Global Action, led by teacher Susan Egan.
“What a privilege to travel with these students, to live in the village and make a connection that is life-changing,” she said. “We were really immersed in the culture and that was a powerful educational piece.
“Our primary purpose was to help build a school, and while we were building, we were thinking about the children, we were laying the foundation between Vernon and this community. Me to We’s policy is a hand up, not a hand out.”
Founded in 1995 by international child rights activist Craig Kielburger, Free the Children empowers children in North America to take action to improve the lives of fellow children overseas. By combatting child labour around the world, it creates opportunities for children to go to school to ensure they will have a better future.
After arriving in Nairobi, the students travelled to the village of Ngosauni on the Masai Mara Game Reserve in southwestern Kenya on the border of Tanzania
Rayel Bolton, a Grade 11 student at VSS, signed on as a way of immersing herself in another culture, rather than just travelling as a typical tourist.
“It was a whole different world, and I didn’t get homesick because everyone was so welcoming — it was such an amazing experience,” she said.
And, while all of the students admit the days were long and exhausting, all say they wouldn’t have changed a thing, whether it was hauling water, tying rebar by hand or digging with a pick-axe.
“I was so sore at the end of the day, but this is helping them so much, and it was such an amazing feeling to be doing such hard work and helping people so much,” said Bolton. “I’m not physically changed, but I’ve noticed the little things since I’ve been home, such as don’t leave the lights on.
“I’m not going to change the world, but I have knowledge to try and help. When I graduate, I would love to take a year off and go back to Kenya.”
Grade 12 VSS student Olivia Held said since returning from Kenya, she has learned to appreciate the small comforts of home much more.
“You learn to appreciate that we have water when you get home and seeing the lake, all that fresh water,” she said.
Held was something of a novelty for the Kenyan students, who had never seen a Caucasian person, let alone someone with blonde hair and blue eyes.
“They touched my skin, played with my hair,” she said. “I spoke to one girl about what we did on a Saturday. She spent all day walking to the river to get water and I’m thinking I’m going to walk 10 feet and put my clothes in the washing machine.”
After graduation, Held is planning on a career in nursing. But first, she is considering a mission trip back to Kenya or to perhaps work there for a summer.
“Before I went on the trip I wondered if I was emotionally ready for it,” she said. “I was exhausted every day, but the people were so wonderful — they are the happiest people you’ve ever seen in my life. It was good to hear their ambitions and their dreams, to know that around the world we’re not that different.”
Grade 11 student Natalie Johnson wears handcrafted beaded bracelets she purchased in a market in Kenya. On her other wrist are the scars she also wears with pride.
“I have scars from carrying bricks, but they remind me of the trip because being there helps the kids go to school,” she said. “I hoped for a new experience and a different outlook on the world. I loved playing with the kids, and when we played soccer, the boys thought it was unbelievable that I could play soccer.
“We did as much in 11 days as you would normally do in a three-week trip. The trip has changed all our futures. We went there thinking we would help them, but they helped us so much. They were so positive and had such a good vision of what the world is going to be.”
For the first few days after returning to Vernon, Johnson spent hours online researching a way of going back to Kenya, hopefully as a facilitator with Free the Children.
“The facilitators there were amazing. They are the happiest people, and yet we have so much more than they do, such as running water everywhere,” said Johnson, who plans a career as a physiotherapist. “The work I’m doing is such a good cause; for lots of kids here, they say ‘I have to go to school,’ but in Kenya, it’s a privilege.”
Egan called her students wonderful ambassadors for Canada and said the trip was especially memorable, as one of those students was her son Chris, a Grade 11 student at Kal secondary.
“We didn’t feel like tourists, and it was very emotional when we left,” she said. “I’m definitely impressed that students have chosen how they spend their money and how they spend their holiday time. I was proud of each and every one of them.”
Free the Children also works to ensure girls are able to attend school, where a combination of the cost of attending school and the need to help provide for their families makes it unattainable for many of them.
“As a teacher, I feel quite privileged, the connection you have with your students. But when I talk to Kenyan teachers, there is the similarity: we care about our students, and the connection we have that is so key, so much in common as educators. I had some fascinating conversations with other educators there.”
Egan said ensuring students have access to clean water is another crucial piece of the work done by Free the Children, which provides a well next to each school it builds.
“The water there is disease-ridden, so with a well next to the school, girls can still fulfill their obligations,” said Egan.
But it wasn’t all hard work and no play. The students had the chance to do what most people travel to Kenya for in the first place: a safari.
“Animals are a fact of life there, and one morning 33 giraffes walked by our village,” she said. “On safari, we saw lion cubs playing, zebras, a river filled with hippos, two lionesses and eight cubs,” she said. “The wildlife was magical, it was incredibly peaceful, the world was at it should be.”
Egan and her students said a highlight of the trip was learning from the three Masai warriors who were assigned to them, and taught them some Swahili.
“We had traditional Masai weapons training with Milton and Philip, who taught us to use the bows and arrows. One of our facilitators was a Masai warrior — he was so contemporary and educated, yet he went back to his mud and dung hut to live. The hugest thing was the sense of community — we could learn so much from them.”
Egan gives special thanks to teacher chaperones Mike Sawka, Jacquie Nuyens and Debbie Henderson, and to Education First Tours, a Toronto-based company that partners with Me to We.
She has already filled all of the spots for next year’s trip, but she is taking registration for the 2013 trip
“For the moment, we’re planning to go back to Ngosauni, our friends are begging us to go back, and having that emotional connection, it’s very appealing. We’ll be doing ongoing fundraising for our village throughout the year — Ngosauni will be in our heads forever, and the kids in Kenya all want to come to Canada.”
In Nairobi, Egan had the opportunity to meet Craig Kielburger, an experience she compared to meeting a movie star, and one that left her tongue-tied.
“He spent time talking to our group. His message is that we can all make a difference, whether it’s in your community or somewhere else, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t make a change.
“I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and always wanted to travel — my dream was to show these students that anything is possible and now it’s come true, I feel so happy.”
The trip — for which students earn credit — is open to all secondary students in the district. An information meeting will be held Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the VSS auditorium. EF Tours will donate $10 towards clean water in Kenya for every student and parent who attends, to a maximum of $200.
For more information about this global volunteer adventure, please e-mail Egan at firstname.lastname@example.org