Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ever Wonder How Joan’s Dad Felt....?

People, especially ones with children of their own, frequently tell me how shocked they are that my parents allowed me to move to Africa as a recent high school graduate - not to mention that they helped me start the school and sent me back two years later to create the foundation. While most parents were struggling to cope with their children going to college out of state, mine were researching antimalarial drugs.
I'm sure I will never fully appreciate the depth of that sacrifice until I am a parent myself.
With his dual role as a parent and as a founding Advisory Council member with SSF, I asked my dad, Thomas Niemann, to share a little about his experience of my adventures in Ghana.
As he often does, my dad's response surprised me. But read for yourself...

That would be of Arc.

Imagine how the 15th  Century conversation begins, “Hey Dad, I've had this vision with St. Michael the Archangel. I’m supposed to lead the king’s troops to victory. And don’t worry that  I’m only 17 years old. I got this.”

Flash forward to the 21st Century. Your precious baby girl, who was supposed to spend a relatively innocuous “gap year” in Kentucky, now tells you she is fulfilling a lifelong dream and “calling” by going to Africa instead.
Like many dads, I have an over-active sense of protectionism. Like Joan’s dad most certainly had, I had a laundry list of items of why this was a “bad” idea.

You’re too young.

You’ll be with strangers.

Who will watch out for you?

You have no experience with leading troops into battle - oops, I mean, teaching orphans in a foreign country...

But your daughter is this remarkable, incredibly articulate, stubborn and amazing young woman.
She has her fears and worries, but also the conviction of a crusader. She is resolute in doing what she knows with all of her heart is what she has been called to do. So I did what any father would do when faced with the insurmountable will of his extraordinary daughter, backed by the faith of a similarly extraordinary mother, I got out of the way before I got steamrolled; and hit my knees.

So if you know Joan’s story, with a borrowed set of armor, she marched off to join the king’s army in Orleans, France. Katherine, with a full complement of vaccinations and bug repellent treated clothing, flew off to Accra, Ghana. As history tells us, Joan faced many obstacles and naysayers following her dream. So too did Katherine, but like Joan, she persevered in the face of heart-wrenching tragedies and organizational politics. And like Joan, she carried the day.
With a courageous heart and undefeatable spirit, both of these remarkable women achieved what they were called upon to do, and the world is a better place because they believed and would not be deterred.

And like the father of any remarkable child, daughter or son, we stand in awe of what our progeny can accomplish in spite of our limited abilities to grasp how they can accomplish the inconceivable.
And when it is all said and done we breathe a very proud sigh of relief. We thank God that Katherine’s story had a much happier ending than Joan’s. But like Joan’s father, we’re also eternally grateful for having been allowed the inestimable honor of being their father; and we share with pride the abundant crop of new gray hair the experience has brought us....

Thursday, September 4, 2014

History Lesson

I was sitting in my Sociology of Minority Groups class today, only half listening while my professor rambled on about global population changes throughout history. In passing, she mentioned that the first slaves to arrive in America were a group of West Africans brought in a Dutch ship.
And suddenly she had my full attention.

I had a startling realization that it is extremely likely I have stood in the very same cell where those people were held before making that horrific journey.

Elmina, in Cape Coast, is the largest and oldest slave fort in West Africa, the center of the slave trade for the Dutch for decades.
And I've been there.
I've been in the prisoner cells. Listened to the story from the other side of history.

Suddenly the world seemed like a much smaller place. It was shocking for history to become so immediately and unexpectedly real for me with just that one offhand comment. I may have learned about slavery since grade school... even visited the slave forts themselves... but oddly, it had never seemed more real to me than it did in that moment. Perhaps it took the two coming together for me to realize how interconnected our lives can be. To know with sudden clarity that history isn't just names and dates, but the stories of real flesh and blood humans who lived and breathed in places where I too have lived and breathed.
I felt a genuine sorrow for them. Not an abstract reaction like history lessons might normally generate, but a true sadness, as if I'd known them. I also felt gratitude, that I have been fortunate enough to have these life experiences that give me this perspective. I do not take for granted that the things I have seen and touched and tasted have allowed me to personally identify with so many varied situations.

Sometimes things aren't as far away or as irrelevant as we might like to think they are.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Serenity or Courage?

I received an email from a man who has spent a significant amount of time as a volunteer teacher in Ghana, particularly in the Volta region. He applauded our good work, but he challenged our ability to eliminate the use of corporal punishment in foundation schools. He argued that caning is too ingrained into Ghanaian culture; a mindset that is too hard to fight. 

I work at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, a job I typically enjoy. However we encountered a difficult situation this week that has no clear solution. Doing the right thing will mean doing the hard thing, and that will still not guarantee a successful outcome.

These two situations have prompted a lot of reflection for me over the past few days. They remind me of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Maybe it bothers me that it's called the Serenity Prayer.

How often is our first reflex to shrug and say, "That's just the way it is"? Why are we so often content to believe we have no capacity to implement change? What if we taught ourselves to ask for courage first, and serenity only as a last resort?
I personally believe there are very few things in life we actually don't have any ability to change. I also believe most problems are bigger than what we could tackle by ourselves, but there's no cosmic rule that says you can't fight something unless you can fight it alone.

Getting rid of corporal punishment in Ghanaian schools is going to be a long, uphill battle. Perhaps it's a battle that all of us with SSF aren't going to be able to win by ourselves. Maybe the best we'll ever be able to do is chip away at this problem, and it will be someone else down the line who finally breaks through.
My dilemma at work is most definitely a problem that will outlive my time as an employee there. My impact will only be a ripple in a solution that should be a tidal wave. I'm going to make that ripple anyway.

There are so many things I want to help change; problems I don't have any intention of developing a sense of peace about. 
I'm going to need a different prayer, I think.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

You Have Arrived

I'm just full of good news these days!

I was eating our traditional St. Patty's Day dinner with my friends and roommates when I got the call from my dad that we had met our third and final fundraising goal. My friend said he'd never seen someone have to sit down because of good news before.

Only two and a half weeks after the Open Challenge began, Students of Success met and exceeded it's $7,500 goal.

As the Open Challenge drew to a close yesterday, we have raised over $8,400 from 76 donors.

Although we are certainly continuing to fundraise, today I am taking a moment to step back and enjoy the view.

Thank you to everyone who helped us reach this incredible milestone.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The First Pancake

I got a package from my mom yesterday.
The first thing I pulled out was a box of pancake mix.
Which both my roommate and I thought was a little weird... until I was reaching into the box to see what else was in there and suddenly it hit me:
"Hillary, it's the first pancake!!!"

All week leading up to our "An Evening For Africa" fundraiser, I was referring to it as my "first pancake." See, the first pancake is the experiment, and therefore the one that usually gets thrown out. Maybe the griddle's too cold and it's all runny and weird. Maybe it's too hot and then it gets burned. There's no shame in throwing out the first pancake.

As our first official event as a foundation - not to mention the first time I've personally ever tried to plan an event on that scale - I was pretty worried about the outcome of our first pancake.

My anxiety didn't get much better when we had a smaller turnout than I would have liked. There wasn't much of a difference between the number of people in attendance and the number of people we needed to cover the cost of our overhead, so I wasn't overly optimistic that we'd made enough money to justify the time, energy and funds I'd put into hosting this event.

Despite my worries, it was a lovely evening. I was so amazed by the interest and support I received from our guests. They were generous and responsive. Afternoon Delight Cafe provided us with delicious desserts and we had two professional cellists playing duets. My presentation went off without a hitch. I figured that I may not have raised much money, but at least I'd gotten the event-planning experience.

That night I went home and did the math.
Then I did the math again.
Then I made my mom do the math.

"An Evening For Africa" raised over $1,500!

Little did I realize that the fundraiser was only the beginning...
Wednesday was Bonus Day, which meant that Global Giving was matching donations at 15%. We urged people at the fundraiser to wait to pay for their auction items or make any further contributions until then.

As Bonus Day dawned, Karina called me to discuss some things, and told me that we were at almost $3,000 and 29 donors. (Our participation in Global Giving's Open Challenge is threefold: To earn a permanent place on the website we must raise at least $5,000 from at least 40 unique donors, and we also set a personal goal of $7,500.)
By the time I got home from class at 2 pm, I got the news from my mom that we had met the $5,000 and 40 donor mark.  
We were officially part of Global Giving.

I went to work at 3 pm and ecstatically told my boss the good news.
About two hours later, one of my friends who was keeping an eye on the website for me (without me even having to ask!) told me we had broken $6,000.
The texts and phone calls were pouring in for those several hours when we were rising by more than $500/hour. I walked around work in a daze.

By the end of the day, we had raised over $3,500 and earned 4th place for the most donations received for Bonus Day.

Currently we are at over $6,800 - just shy of our personal goal - from over 60 donors, and only just halfway through Open Challenge month.

I am amazed, and moved beyond words by these results. Unless you have lived in a developing community, it is almost impossible to convey the impact this amount of money can have.
More than that though... I cannot describe the feeling of realizing that somehow we have gotten people to care about what we're doing. I have carried around this fierce love for Ghana and my Aflao family for nearly four years now. Suddenly I have come face-to-face with proof that those sparks have somehow set light to a fire. Somehow we have convinced other people to care about my Aflao family too without even having met them - enough to raise almost $7,000 in two weeks. 
That is astounding.
How can I express how powerful that is?
I have worked single-mindedly since July to accomplish exactly what we finally achieved on Wednesday, March 12th: a permanent place with Global Giving, and with it the means to sustain the work we've begun half a world away. We have been given this wondrous ability to make a real impact on this world because 60 people (and many more, really) chose to believe in our vision for our students. I hope I never fail to be humbled by and grateful for that responsibility.

The rest of the package from my mom included a bottle of maple syrup and a card that read, "Sometimes you don't throw out your first pancake after all..."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Marvelous Golden Moments

I'm back in Ann Arbor, scrambling to finish organizing our "Evening For Africa" fundraiser before Sunday. And so the day was spent tromping around downtown to ask local businesses to donate to our silent auction, which until today only had 2 items. (Some awesome jewelry from the Silver Crow and a basket of Alaffia body products from the co-op, both in Marquette.)

The day got off to a rough start. For some reason I just felt really unsure of myself, scattered and awkward. It didn't help that most of the businesses I specifically wanted to visit didn't open until 11 (it was just after 9). Or that the first business I approached very dismissively answered my pitch with, "Fine, fine. Just leave me your stuff."

To which I replied something along the lines of, "....Uhhhhhhh, stuff?"

Oy. Smack forehead. Go home and whip up a short letter explaining who we are and why we're fundraising. Print off a couple dozen. Return downtown. Remember to wear gloves this time.

One deer-in-the-headlights moment at a time I will learn how to do this job properly!

I got a lot of maybe's - some of them more promising than others. I'm expecting quite a few calls - some of them more likely than others. Got a handful of regretful no's. Got one or two unapologetic no's, come to think of it.

Then there were the marvelous golden moments when people said YES.

The owner of Elixir Vitae Coffee & Tea handed me two $20 gift cards without a moment's hesitation. I don't think I'd even finished my sentence.
A worker at one shop volunteered her own time as a professional photographer even though all I'd asked about was the store.
Bivouac (Yikes. This is about the 10th time today I have spelled that word and I am still spelling it a different way each time...) didn't even ask who we were or what we do until after they'd handed over a $25 gift card.
Dawntreader gave me a $40 gift certificate as soon as they heard the word "literacy."
The owner of La Marsa Mediterranean restaurant refused to give me a gift card because he wants to run a week long promotion instead where he will donate 20% of the bill of anyone who brings in our coupon.

And at the end of my long day I came home to discover that someone has made the largest donation yet. As a result, we have raised more than $400 in 4 days! 

Today was frustrating. It was tiring and stressful and I am really, really worried my event is not going to be nearly as successful as I'd hoped. No matter how excited I am about our progress so far, I will probably not sleep easy until we hit at least our minimum $5,000 mark and secure our spot on Global Giving.

And yet... there's those marvelous golden moments.

Today was a good day.

Monday, February 24, 2014

4 days, 5 hours, 19 minutes and 24 seconds

I just received the news that our project (the posting for our foundation) has been pre-approved for Global Giving!!!

In other words, we're on a website I didn't make myself!

Becoming a non-profit was an unbelievably enormous and exciting step. I will never forget the feeling of holding our first set of certificates the day Karina and I flew home from Ghana, or how it felt to receive Daniel's emailed photograph of the final certificate that signaled our full certification with the Ghanaian government.

Being accepted to compete in Global Giving's Open Challenge was another monumental landmark for us. I got together as many friends as I could on such short notice (about 7...) when I received the email and we popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate that victory.

And there have been a thousand other thrilling moments in between. Opening our bank account... Creating our website... Planning our Evening For Africa event in just two short weeks...

But this.
Oh this.

This makes all of that other stuff real. THIS represents everything we've worked for over the past 7 1/2 months. Joining Global Giving, earning the ability to fundraise in the US and give our foundation a real chance to do some good in this world... that is everything.

I didn't expect this moment to be quite so exciting, but I find myself ecstatic. I can't stop staring at our Global Giving page and watching the clock that is counting down to midnight on Saturday, when the Open Challenge officially begins and we can start accepting donations for the first time.
This is really happening. All of the pain and the challenges and the setbacks and the effort and the agony of not knowing how things would work out is paying off.
I feel like I've been handed the keys to the kingdom and I just can't stop grinning ear to ear. None of my roommates were home when I found out, which is problematic because squealing and jumping is best done with company. But instead I took advantage of the empty house to blast happy music and throw myself a dance party. Every time I paused to catch my breath, I remembered what this means and the journey it took to get here, and got the itch to dance to some more. I ended up jumping around my room for a good 45 minutes before my joy was exhausted enough to sit down.

So check out our page and think of us at midnight on Saturday!

4 days, 5 hours, 19 minutes and 24 seconds from now!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

200 Characters or Less

I'm putting in some late-night effort to get the foundation ready to be posted on Global Giving. (*Coughcough* the Open Challenge starts in less than 2 weeks!) I have to do things like describe our entire mission - compellingly - in 200 characters or less. State the problem, our solution and the long-term impacts of our work, each in 200 characters or less. Pick pictures and create captions that will be informative and speak to people's soft sides. I feel like I'm trying to explain the most monumentally important part of my life through a series of tweets. Hmmm, how to sum up the impact we're trying to make on the lives of hundreds of people in less words than I would use to describe what I made for dinner...
I'm being snarky; I'm actually enjoying the challenge of trying to frame the foundation in a marketable way. And of course I'm BEYOND excited for us to be officially posted to the Global Giving website. Anticipation of the moment I see that is fueling this late-night rally.

But as I struggle to shrink our mission into bite-sized pieces, this... I don't even have the word for it... little ache... keeps resurfacing that nothing I could ever write could ever be eloquent or professional or effective enough to convey just how much I care about what it is I'm describing.
I guess it's something I mention a lot, but it's something that never fails to startle me when I'm acting as founder of Students of Success and not just regular me. I mean, people hear my pitch and most of them want to help, they really understand? What words convince people, "This is my second home. This is my family, my community I'm asking you to help" ? I think regular me can portray that pretty well with all my ridiculous jumping and squealing and raving, but can founder me manage to do it when I'm wearing my dress pants and politely shaking hands?
Well, appropriately as this nagging thought was tumbling around, "Hey Brother" by Aviici started playing on my Itunes. It's already a favorite of mine, and some of the lyrics hit home tonight: "What if I'm far from home? Oh brother, I will hear you call. What if I lose it all? Oh sister, I will help you out. Oh if the sky comes falling down for you, there's nothing in this world I wouldn't do."
Such simple words and yet they sum up so beautifully how I feel about my Ghanaian family.
Hmm....and it's just about 200 characters....

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sincerely, A Happy Do-er

"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt 

those who are doing it"

~ George Bernard Shaw

With the marvelous news that we have been accepted into the Open Challenge, the scheming part of my brain has taken off like a racehorse. The good kind of scheming. The happy, dream-big-or-go-home scheming, because I finally get to do more of what I have always loved most about being part of this foundation (second only to being a living jungle gym for 300 kids): FUNDRAISE.

Which, although primary revolving around raising money of course, really has more to do with helping people fall in love with what we're doing, and the people we're doing it for/with. Perhaps I am too sentimental, but I personally believe that generosity has more to do with the heart than the actual wallet. Plus, it doesn't hurt that I think my strengths lie more in this type of work than the technical, legal, paperwork-y stuff I've been doing pretty much exclusively for the last six months.

So, this week finds me busily preparing for a fundraising benefit on March 9th! It's an ambitious project and I don't want to speak too soon, but so far I am quite hopeful! The businesses I've approached so far have been so generous and willing to help us out. If I can pull this off, it will be a fun, memorable event to kick start Students of Success Foundation's fundraising efforts!

As an aside, I/the foundation now have a Twitter account! I must admit it's not my social media of choice, but it seemed like a logical choice to get some more publicity. So if you're a fellow tweeter, follow us @GhanaWithLove !

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Well-Earned Victory Lap

In contrast to my last post, today finds me full of hope.

Although Global Giving's next Open Challenge does not begin until March, the application deadline passed yesterday -- And I am beyond pleased to say that, this time, Students of Success Foundation managed to throw its hat in the ring on time. Which is not to say we are guaranteed a spot in the Open Challenge, but at least we have the chance.

As always, each step forward comes with a mixture of celebrations and frustrations. The richness our foundation has from its multinational representation is often tempered with the challenges inherent to working across multiple cultures (Not to mention time zones...). We are all still learning to work together as a team, as well as learning what running a foundation entails - yours truly more than anyone. It took late-night effort from many people, but at the end of the day I clicked "submit" with everything I needed in place. And that is a victory that should not be understated.

Therefore, in light of that victory, I want to take this chance to honor the many, many people who made it possible. Whether our application is accepted or not, we are growing and moving forward, and that is worthy of celebrating.

So, thank you to Daniel, Worfa, Samuel, David and Thomas, who took on the project of creating a budget and in doing so put one of the most important puzzle pieces in place. Thank you to Dennis Benson-Sayram for writing us a glowing, professional letter of recommendation. Thank you to Karina for sacrificing sleep to design improved promotional materials and always being willing to help in any way possible despite her demanding schedule. Thank you to Sebastian for volunteering at SISCO and taking so many wonderful, heart-warming pictures for our website; it is exciting to be able to say that we have had our first volunteer! Thank you to Janet for advocating for our new organization where it matters most, and taking our efforts so seriously. Thank you to my roommates - Hillary, Kat and Alanna - for being my moral support, having so much patience with my turbulent emotions about this process, and in general keeping me sane.

It is impossible to express how much the efforts and dedication of each and every one of these people have made a difference. I am, as always, grateful for the countless people who have supported our work every step of the way. So whether your role in the foundation takes the form of Board Member, donor, blog reader, or something else - pat yourself on the back today.

Since drafting this post, I would like to announce that I have received the news that we were accepted into the Open Challenge! It has been a week of celebrating for everyone involved with Students of Success!