ASEC's Service Learning Program enables students and sisters from ASEC founding institutions participate in annual service trips to Africa. Accompanied by mentors, U.S. participants travel to Africa for three weeks and are immersed in a wide range of volunteer opportunities, serving side-by-side with African Sisters. In May-June, 2019, a team of volunteers from Chestnut Hill College and Marywood University traveled to the West African nation of Ghana to serve in the Cape Coast region.
Kirsten Gillern, a 2018 alumna of Holy Cross High School and current Music Therapy major at Marywood University, was eager to share her service learning experience at Padre Pio Rehabilitation Centre. Padre Pio was founded in 1983 and operates to serve the marginalized, disabled and disadvantaged. The facility has a family support center, a school for special needs, housing for leprosy survivors and much more. The sisters of the catholic congregation Daughters of Mary and Joseph run the work of the centre with the support of the management board and facilitators around the world.
Home is where the heart is
Since I have been home, I have encountered many family members and friends who immediately ask me about my service experience in Ghana. Every time I am asked about my service learning trip, I am at a complete loss for words. I often tell a few stories and show one too many pictures. But, in all seriousness, I am terrified of giving a “watered down” response. I have found myself sitting around many nights trying to string along the perfect words to describe my trip to Ghana. I stumbled upon a quote by Anthony Bourdain, which states,
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
This quote manifests exactly how I would describe the time I spent in the motherland.
I did not realize how much would change in my life after boarding my first flight in Philadelphia to travel over 5,000 miles to Ghana. As our plane landed in Accra, we were quickly immersed into Ghanaian culture, we were simply welcomed as one of their own. It seemed as if the entire airport was welcoming me by saying “Awkaaba”. I immediately felt at home and this was a feeling I was not expecting.
I was ready to be homesick, I almost expected to be. This aspect of Ghanaian life completely surprised me.
Besides receiving countless “Awaaba’s”, my first encounter with a Ghanaian was with Haruna, a security guard. When I went to go retrieve my luggage, I came to find out that my guitar got lost somewhere in the midst of our travels. Haruna was on a mission to help me, he stopped everything else he was doing. I began to thank him for taking so much time to help me and his response was that “I am Ghanaian, Ghanaians love everybody”. Haruna and his words stuck with me and I soon began to find out that every Ghanaian was just like him.
Every Ghanaian I encountered simply loved everybody and I loved them all right back.
I had a lot of knowledge about Ghanaian values prior to my trip. But experiencing Ghanaian life and their cultural values first hand – I learned so much more. I experienced how the people of Ghana had an immense love for humanity. This aspect of Ghanaian life and culture surprised me, but more importantly it inspired me. From my first moments in Ghana, I realized home is truly where the heart is. I am in complete awe and hope to practice the value of humanity and brotherhood more in America.
The joy and light of children with special needs
Before arriving in Ghana, I learned a lot about how people with special needs are looked down upon in Ghana. On the van ride over to Padre Pio for the first time, I was preparing myself for the sadness and emptiness I may feel. I was warning myself that it would be emotional, especially knowing that people with special needs are often shunned for their disability, marginalized and forgotten.
I expected to have a heavy heart. But, there was no possible way to prepare myself for what I saw next.
When I arrived at the Padre Pio Centre there was no sadness or emptiness throughout the entire facility. There was only smiles and laughter from each and every person.
The times I felt most loved and welcomed in Ghana, was at my service site. We were welcomed with so much love and we were treated as family the entire time we were there. The children would greet us in the morning with the biggest hugs. I have never felt or experienced so much love and happiness in my life.
It was heartbreaking at times, but it was so beautiful to see these children who are marginalized, who have every right to feel empty and sad and hopeless… be the happiest of all.
I was distressed because I envied the happiness that I found throughout the Padre Pio Centre. I envied their joy, their light. This moment was the silver lining of my trip to Ghana. I knew in this moment that each and every one of these children were going to make it okay in this life. The work that was happening within the Padre Pio Centre, was like no other. The Padre Pio Centre held close the value of humanity and brotherhood, it felt like the heart of Ghana. I knew that because of the Padre Pio Centre, these children were taken care of and would continue to be happy.
The Padre Pio Centre taught me the most important lesson I have learned in life so far - that privilege does not guarantee happiness. And when you take everything away, love and kindness is what will truly save your life.
Bonding with music
The hardest part of my trip was the fact that the special needs children did not speak English and of course I did not speak fluent Twi. At times I felt helpless because of this huge obstacle. But we quickly overcame this obstacle that was between us.
After we practiced numbers and colors, I asked the teacher if I could play music with them. The teacher responded with a very excited, “Yes!”. As I carried my guitar into the classroom, the children became just as excited as the teacher. Music was universal, we did not need to speak the same language.
From that moment on, every day we would all come together to play instruments, to sing and to dance. Therefore, the biggest lesson I learned was we did not have to speak the same language to show love and kindness to each other. In the bible, it states, “Little Children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
I love you, say it back
The last day I spent at Padre Pio, I wore a shirt that said “I love you say it back”. Ever since I stepped foot on the compound that day, Charles who was a special education teacher, poked fun at me. We spent our last day just like any other day, filled with laughter, games, dancing, colors, numbers and most importantly music.
But the day soon began to end and we all sat in a circle. Charles began to talk about how grateful the center was for us and wished us well on our journeys home. I couldn’t help but tear up. Luckily Dorine, the first student I met at Padre Pio, was sitting right next to me. She wiped my tears away while laughing at me for crying. Charles then began to look over at me and he said “She loves us and we all love her right back”.
I knew Charles was secretly waiting to make that remark since he saw me get off the van that morning.
I immediately thought of Haruna and how he said “I am Ghanaian, Ghanaians love everybody”. From my first encounter, to my final moments at Padre Pio, I felt unconditionally loved.