Last year I had the chance travel to Ghana and be a part of a one of a kind student led volunteering program available to any Ryerson student (Full-time, Part-time, CE). The group, Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Ryerson sets itself apart from other student volunteering opportunities through its base philosophy. At it’s heart ASB Ryerson is about growing up in the world instead of the campus bubble. Shunning traditional large scale NGO’s for student selected and even home-grown organizations, ASB puts community involvement, sustainability and a unique team-based experience at the forefront of its project selections. With the announcement of it’s trip for this year to Kenya (and possibly Mongolia) I wanted to offer an inside look at what makes ASB tick and what prospective applicants can expect from the amazing adventure that is ASB Ryerson. For more information on this years projects and ASB in general check out their website: asbryerson.tumblr.com before applications are due October 5th.
The very first meeting. Teams are created very early on to allow for fundraising and team building. Meeting every week for the months leading up to the trip you have instantly found a new group of great people and future friends.
2)The student leadership team takes each team member’s opinions very seriously. It is a fully organic environment where every week they would ask for a positive, a negative and a neutral comment from every team member. The comments could range from the leadership style and handling of week to week operations to a thank you for something specific.
3) A hallmark of ASB is ‘be adaptable’ – even if this means having to dodge an impromptu football game when leaving the bathroom.
4) ASB’s engagement with small scale NGO’s allows for a level of cultural involvement that is hard to find with ‘pre-packaged’ volunteer experiences. We got to know and become good friends with not only the youth of the village but the local political leader. He would stop by to share lunch and a humorously aggrandized speech almost every day.
5) The freedom to explore the village and surrounding area was an opportunity unique not only to ASB but the relative safety of the village we were staying in as well. One afternoon me and another member found our way to the ‘Big River’. The river oscillates between perfect calm and complete kid chaos. An afternoon spent here is an afternoon spent with life.
6) Afternoons after work can be spent in all manner of ways. Some went into town to market, some returned to the Gbi Special School to spend more time with the students. And still others might allow the kids to play beauty school for what was literally hours.
7) 30 + days and nights with your team. You sleep together, you eat together, you work together and play Uno together. With the sun setting at 6pm, every day felt like a late summer night spent chatting with the oldest and closest of friends.
8) Cultural excursions are another part of ASB. A weekend spend in Cape Coast offered a range of engaging experiences to take part in, including an 80m high canopy walk across brides spanning 300+ feet. We crossed our fingers that the Canadians that built it years ago knew what they were doing. .
9) Cape Coast is also home to two of the largest castles in West Africa, both used extensively in the Atlantic slave trade. The experience was incredibly unsettling and affects me to this day. This was the kind of powerful and personally enlightening experience ASB was made for.
10) Just outside the walls of Cape Coast castle is a beautiful 70 foot high outcropping of rock. Me and two other members spent the entire day reflecting on what we had just seen, and the trip as a whole to this point. Around 4pm, as the sun began to make its decent, four young women made their way to the peak of the bluffs. From there they sang, they sang with joy and passion into the ocean and beyond. As the sun began to set almost two hours later and we collected our belongings to leave, they called us over. We learned that they have been coming to this point to pray since childhood, that they did it every Sunday from 4pm until the sun set over the ocean horizon. They asked us to join them. At first timid and afraid to sing aloud, I eventually became confident enough to sing out and into the ocean, if not as loud as I could. The experience brought me to the edges of my confidence and pushed that boundary a little further. We shook hands and hugged, making plans to meet in years future on a Sunday between 4-6pm.
11) Play time was any and all time. Sometimes the odds were decidedly staked against you.
12) Living within the village on a community member’s compound meant that the local children who lived close to us became not only friends but family. To this day I am shocked by the mixture of their pure childlike playfulness and the strength each one of them holds inside. The heart of a child with the hands of a hardened adult.
13) While playing a soccer game against the local youth team many team members gave their cameras to the kids to become Canada vs. Ghana sports shooters. One boy in particular became my photographic protege, learning the basics of focus, adjusting exposure and how different lenses look. It has inspired me to go back and offer photography courses for youth at the Gbi Special school, the nearby school for the deaf and local orphanage. Something I hope to accomplish for Summer 2013.
14) A proud moment in a landslide loss to team Ghana. By the end of the game so many local kids had come to the field and so many Canadians had run themselves to exhaustion that Ghana vs. Canada looked more like Ghana vs. Ghana. .
15) A child in Cape Coast peers through a window in the castle walls. Religion and faith in Ghana is incredibly strong. A small necklace and crossed left on the window frame is just one of the many small reminders of this throughout our travels.
16) Journalling the entire experience (even our experiences as a team in Canada) was encouraged. Throughout the day while ‘in country’ you would find groups of team members sharing in this highly personal experience. .
17) The warrior chiefs of the entire region gathered for a cultural exchange on our departure. Each local warrior chief would perform a ritual improvised dance to the drumming and chanting of all the other chiefs. We in turn prepared a choreographed dance to ‘This Land Is Our Land’ to which we received large amounts of applause and laughter. .
18) The most personal and powerful of my experience is Ghana was the relationship I built with Selorm. Alternating between inconceivably strong and comprehensively jovial we spent many afternoons playing far into the night. He became quite literally a little brother to me. At it’s core ASB is whatever you make of it. It reflects you and how you engage with the world. In this way it can teach you about who you are.
19) For me this picture sums up ASB perfectly. At one point in time everyone in this photograph has relied on one another for strength, laughter and support. Each member experiences the journey in their perfectly unique way but we experience it together. No one in the world fully understands what Ghana meant for me except those 17 friends I shared it with. It is this fact that makes us family and keeps us close months after we’ve returned from our travels.