Sunday, August 29, 2010


I was talking to a friend of mine earlier today who moved into college about a week ago. I've heard friend after friend complain about how hard it is to sort their stuff and figure out how to fit as much as possible in their half of a tiny dorm room. He was the first person I've heard say that downsizing and simplifying was one of the things he actually really liked about going to college.
I've gotta say I agree with him wholeheartedly.
There's something about leaving behind all the excess that really appeals to me. I think it's actually one of the primary reasons I really wanted to do a year of service: I'm craving simplicity.
I'm surprised by how calm I feel now that my last night in the United States has finally arrived. I've spent most of the last two months in crisis mode- fighting back all the anxieties, fears and uncertainties that come hand in hand with moving to a foreign country- and the rest of the time I was floating on giddy excitement. Now both emotional extremes have (momentarily) subsided and I hardly know what to feel.
I think I'm just ready to go, plain and simple.
I'm done planning and ready to start doing.

(Ben, if you happen to read this, the pun in the title was just for you, bud)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Johnson County became the Volta Region

Hello everybody! Welcome to my blog!

As many of you already know, I decided early on in senior year to take a "gap year" between high school and college to do service work. I graduated from Pioneer High School this year and plan on going to Northern Michigan University in 2011 for speech pathology.
To fill my gap year - a name I dislike since it implies some sort of loss or waste, but I might be overthinking it- I applied to the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky in December. I spent three days there in June touring their various programs, meeting the directors, etc and overall had a positive experience. (

Then I learned that life doesn't always go as planned.

I came home from the interview and, after having my heart set on Kentucky for 7 months and less than 2 months before my scheduled departure, I announced to my family that I was turning CAP down and had no specific replacement plan in mind, but I was definitely not considering beginning college any earlier...
And my parents, God bless them, let me take that risk.
In 3 days, 7 months of planning and 9 months of my future went into limbo.
I can easily say deciding to take that risk and listen to my gut was the hardest decision I've ever made, yet so far has been equally rewarding as it was difficult. Although CAP had much to offer and the people I met were wonderful, some small voice had whispered that I wasn't in the right place yet.

After blindly searching the internet for 2 days without success for the "Golden Combination" program:
Had to take 18 year olds
Had to offer programs where I could work with kids
Had to accept me on short notice
Had to be a long term placement
Had to be reasonably priced
Had to accept volunteers with no degree/college experience
I began paging through a book my older brother had given me for Christmas. In Frommer's "500 Places Where You Can Make A Difference", I found my Golden Combination.
VARAS (Volunteers for the Amelioration of Rural Areas) is a small non-profit volunteer organization run entirely in Ghana, West Africa. (
By some miracle, only five days after applying, I was accepted and began the most frustrating, exciting, complicated and incredible process I have yet experienced...and I haven't even left Ann Arbor yet!

I can't fully explain how the intention of going to Kentucky became the roots of a cross-continental adventure to Africa, but I can say with absolute certainty that despite the occasional moments of mixed panic and terror, this is very much a dream come true for me. "The Lion King" came out at a very young and impressionable stage in my development, so maybe that has something to do with my lifelong fixation with Africa. Anyone who has known me for more than 5 minutes can tell you that I have planned to live "somewhere in Africa at some point" for as long as.....always. I was just getting out of my car, and incidentally already on the phone with my Dad agonizing over whether I should just be sensible and register at NMU, when the executive director of VARAS called me to tell me I was accepted. I literally sank onto the driveway, put my forehead to the pavement, and started crying out of pure joy. I don't suffer from a lack of emotion by any means, but that still was a very powerful experience.

I will be living in the Volta Region of Ghana. Ghana is in the "armpit" of Africa on the underside of the West coast. The Volta Region is in the eastern part of the country, very close to the border of Togo. Ghana is about the size of Oregon. Their official language is English (thank goodness because I don't speak any French beyond "Je vois la voiture"...). It’s worthwhile to point out that Ghana is among the most stable and safest countries in Africa.

I'm leaving August 30, 2010 and I will be gone until May 23, 2011. I’ll be staying with a host family, which will give me a very unique opportunity to experience Ghanaian culture in depth. Through VARAS I will be working with children, hopefully both teaching and helping out at the orphanage; I don't know much more details about the work itself at this point. One of the most appealing and frustrating aspects of VARAS is that it is an entirely Ghanaian organization. That means the program directors are native Ghanians who are therefore very familiar with the area, culture, people etc. That gives me a high level of confidence in their abilities to run a successful program, plus it's always encouraging to see people helping their own. However the downside is that communication difficulties, between the long-distance phone calls and cultural misunderstandings, are common and many basic details of my stay there are still somewhat unknown.

But, to answer the most commonly asked questions:
1. My parents have taken this entire process – from its conception in November to present day – with an unbelievable sense of acceptance and have been nothing but supportive. I don't understand it, I only hope that amazing people raise amazing children.
2. I am VERY VERY VERY excited, ecstatic, thrilled and happy, but yes, I am scared. I've only had one head-between-my-knees-dear-God-I'm-crazy level panic attacks so far though, so I'm doing well.
3. No, they won't pay me. I'm paying them, but only to compensate my host family.
4. No, I'm not coming home at any point in those nine months. I don't know if my family will visit me.

Well, I think that's a good start!
T minus 25 days!