The Motherland awaits. And hopefully, by the end of the summer, Say Yes To Education will be able to get there.
Say Yes To Education, a non-profit that focuses on and strengthens education by offering a series of alternative education programs, is hoping to send area high school juniors to Ghana, Africa, in August, but it must raise money to fill the funding gap that exists.
To help send the kids on this life-altering journey, the organization and its supporters is having a “Say Yes to Education Africa 2012” dinner on Saturday, April 15 at the 20 Horse Tavern, 835 S. 2nd St., Camden, N.J. Festivities begin at 6 p.m. and include a silent auction, art raffle, fish and vegetarian entrees and performances by the jazz ensemble Eddie Jones Trio. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at the door or by calling either 267-231-0092 or 267-226-0658.
“I’ve been working with Say Yes kids almost since the beginning. I met them as third-graders and now they are about to be seniors,” said Dr. Michelle Strongfields, a longtime Say Yes supported and organizer of the fund-raisers. “I know how important this is, and I have committed myself to this, and will do anything to help them. We have to boost our youth and give them a push.”
Strongfields, a physician, and her husband, Stephen Fields, know about educating inner-city youth. Together, they have created the “I Am Science” initiative, which, among other things, leads a science workshop that introduces students to science in a stress-free and fun environment. “We have worked with the Say Yes kids; we do a Saturday school, where we have science lab with the kids,” Strongfields said. “My daughter is a physicist and does optics with them, studying the physics of light and sound, and my other daughter does technology with them.
“We try to do things that will grab their attention.”
It’s that attention and the eagerness to learn about their origins that has been the driving force behind this excursion to Ghana — something planned for over the past several years, said Say Yes to Education Director Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza.
“This is an excellent opportunity to increase their world view and to get to their historical place of origin. For one thing, this trip will help with their identity formation on who they are, and appreciate their African descent,” said Sullivan-Ongoza, who has made several personal trips to Africa. “They learn so much about other people’s culture and their homelands, and [the students’] view of Africa has always been the media’s view, and that it’s filled with war and poverty.
“So when they talk about Africa, they don’t feel all warm and fuzzy; so this trip is to help them see Africa is much more than what’s in the media.”
Financier and educator George A. Weiss found Say Yes to Education 1987, and among its first signature acts were to guarantee post-secondary tuition to the “Belmont 112” — the 112 students enrolled in Belmont Elementary at the time. The program has now grown to include more than 22,000 students in six chapter-cities: Philadelphia; Cambridge, Mass.; Syracuse and Harlem, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn. Say Yes recently announced that Buffalo, N.Y. has received a chapter as well.
Under Sullivan-Ongoza’s leadership, the local chapter of the non-profit has adopted an Afro-centric education model that focuses on history, togetherness, unity and knowledge of self; Sullivan-Ongoza believes that this trip will only enhance their self-identity.
“Everywhere the students will go in Ghana and other places in Africa, they will see Black people in charge, running things. And not just laborers, but the real decision-makers,” Sullivan-Ongoza said. “It’s very important for them to see this, and not in a marginalized way. They want to do this before they graduate. They want to go and learn, and for humanitarian purposes, by taking medical supplies.”
While Sullivan-Ongoza, Strongfields and others want to take as many Say Yes-affiliated youth the Africa as possible, they are all acutely aware of the financial crunch many of the families are in; donations are trickling in, but organizers are undeterred.
“I keep hope alive. We may not be able to take the 30 we originally wanted to take, but I always aim high, and we are definitely still going,” Sullivan-Ongoza said, noting that concerned parties can donate through the Say Yes fundraiser website, http://syteafrica2012.blogspot.com. “It’s important for the youth to go, but more importantly, when the kids come back, they will have to present to their communities and schools what they learned.
“They are going as ambassadors and coming back to share.”
Organizers with the community-driven non-profit Say Yes To Education have realized the dream of sending 15 of its students to Ghana, Africa, for a trip that is part humanitarian mission and part self-identification.
The 20-member SYTE 2012 Africa contingent will leave for Ghana on Tuesday August 7, returning August 22.
SYTE had embarked on an intense fundraising campaign, and organizer’s faith never wavered, even as the vision of sending 20 students on this life-altering trip began to dim due to the early lack of traction with donors.
In the end, SYTE was only five students away from its target goal.
“I really never lost hope. I never thought that the students wouldn’t go; even if I had to personally finance the trip, they were going to go,” said Say Yes To Education program director Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza. “As with all things, [potential donors] wanted to see us put forward the equity and really push for it, but for the last month and a half, donations have really started coming in.”
Ongoza and the SYTE youth did just about everything imaginable to raise funds for the trip, including holding raffles, auctions and bake sales while hitting up the graduation ceremonies of area colleges, and selling bags of celebratory goodies. By all accounts, the youth going on the trip were very much engaged in the fundraising process.
“These kids were working very hard,” Sullivan-Ongoza said, noting that SYTE board members and other prime donors supported the effort as well. “The youth are very excited; [at the farewell ceremony] they talked about what they did to raise money, and how even their churches supported them.
“The village really stepped up; it really did,” Sullivan-Ongoza continued. “It is really happening and everyone is excited.”
This is the first time organizers with the Philadelphia branch of SYTE have taken students abroad, and the way Sullivan-Ongoza sees it, what the youth invested in order to go to Ghana will pale in comparison to what they receive.
“For the youth, they will be returning home, so there’s the historical aspect of learning about themselves,” Sullivan-Ongoza said, mentioning that her daughter once went to Ghana and returned forever changed. “Ghana is a major location since it’s coastal. Our ancestors came through there on their way to the Middle Passage. There’s the slave dungeons and Door of No Return, so the youth will have that emotional experience.
“They will also participate in some of Ghana’s cultural events,” Sullivan-Ongoza continued. “They are going to be immersed in the cultural lives of Ghanaians.”
Sullivan-Ongoza said the group will also take part in an oceanfront service which resembles native coming-of-age ceremonies.
The humanitarian portion of the SYTE Africa 2012 trip may even outweigh the historical and ancestral components, especially considering exactly where the group is headed during its Ghana sojourn.
“The group will visit several schools, and take donated goods to two orphanages there — one which serves the children of parents who passed from AIDS,” Sullivan-Ongoza said. “They will also visit a health clinic and community health center, where they will deliver basic medical supplies. So we are doing humanitarian-type things while reconnecting to our culture.”
Several issues are plaguing Ghana, including the lack of potable water. Many young members of Ghanaian families must walk for several miles to find water to bring back to their families — usually, it’s the younger members of the family that go on water runs both before and after school. The SYTE Africa 2012 group plans to assist in sinking a well in a Ghanaian town, which would effectively terminate those backbreaking trips.
“The well is currently being built. We are going to participate and get some money to help, but it takes time,” Sullivan-Ongoza said, noting that the well must be built by hand and diggers aren’t sure when they will strike water, but are confident that they will. “They don’t want to drink river water for the parasites, which will cause fresh river water disease.”
Sullivan-Ongoza — a lifelong educator with a deep appreciation for the Motherland, who has visited the continent several times on personal missions — believes the youth will be just as affected as she during her first visit.
“When I look back on my life, [SYTE Africa 2012] will be ranked right up there for me, as I know I played a chief role in making it happen,” Sullivan-Ongoza said. “During my first trip to Africa, I knew what it meant to be there. It transformed me, and I go every year now.
“You get an appreciation for what you have here, the creature-comforts you take for granted,” Sullivan-Ongoza continued. “But you gain a greater appreciation for the Ghanaians who have very little material things, but are very rich in spirit.
“You always get teachable moments with outside the country, and I want the children to experience that, feel that.”