The time Mikaela Sword spent teaching kids French in Ghana has left a lasting impression.
“I still get phone calls from them sometimes — I can recognize the extension,” she says.
Now at the University of Waterloo, the experience has translated into her career aspirations, choosing to study urban planning over architecture because she says it focuses on improving people’s quality of life, and she could do it internationally.
“It’s a really practical way of helping people,” says Sword.
After graduating from Leaside High School Sword chose to take a year off before starting university in order to travel. She signed on with Lattitude Global Volunteering, an international charity providing gap year programs that connect 17–25 year olds with volunteering opportunities.
At first, Sword wanted to go to New Zealand because of her love of rugby, but says she considered Ghana because she knew it would be a completely different experience.
“None of my friends have done anything like that and I was just really curious about what it was like there, because I only found out that Ghana existed once I had started talking to Lattitude,” she says.
Each trip costs $3,100 not including flights, insurance, immunization and visas, but kids don’t have to figure it out all by themselves.
“We help them with all the nuts and bolts of travel,” says Barb Swanson, Lattitude’s volunteer recruiter for Ontario and a retired guidance counsellor from Havergal College.
Lattitude is different from programs like Katimavik and Canada World Youth because instead of picking successful applicants, everyone who applies can go, Swanson says.
After filling out a simple application, volunteers have an interview with Stuart Sutton-Jones, the country manager of the Canadian office in Vancouver and a one-time BBC journalist who lived in Ghana for 15 years. Then, their application is passed on to the country that suits their skills and preferences.
“We’re the eHarmony of students and volunteer work, because we do really try and match,” Swanson says with a laugh.
Canadian students can be sent to 15 different countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Oceania, for between four and 12 months. Depending on where they’re placed, volunteers can teach at schools, work at camps or outdoor education centres, do research and public education about the environment, help with community development or special needs care, or be a medical assistant at a Japan Red Cross hospital.
“The mission really is to allow young people to get a world perspective by living in a community — not just visiting and doing a good deed, not voluntourism — but really being part of a community,” Swanson says.
Swanson says kids are protected by what she calls an umbrella of safety, in the form of co-volunteers placed nearby, a country manager in their placement and Sutton-Jones in Canada, who is available all the time by cellphone.
“No one’s saying you can’t stay out all night, you can’t drink a few beers. You’re not there as a student, you’re there as an adult,” Swanson says. “But if they didn’t show up for work one day, someone will be looking out for them and so that’s a really reassuring thing for parents.”
Sword stayed in Akim Achiase, a small village with the family that owns the Victory Assemblies of God International School where she was taught. She had a lot to adjust to, like eating with her hands, sporadic electricity, no running water and constantly humid 35-degree heat.
She says she learned that despite their simpler way of life, Ghanaians were happy, friendly and proud of their country.
“You’d think they would be miserable living in mud houses with cement walls, but they’ve known nothing else, so that’s just the way that life is for them,” she says.
“They love their country and they want you to love it too,” Swanson says.
Even though Sword got homesick, especially at Christmas, it was when she got home after the six-month trip that she had to deal with the most culture shock — in reverse.
“I came back in the middle of second term,” Sword says. “I had nothing to do and all my friends were in different cities, so it was a bit weird.”
She still remembers her happiest moments teaching the kids, like when she would bring them the crossword puzzles her parents would send her.
“They went crazy over (them) and it just made me so happy that something so simple could keep them occupied for hours,” she says. “And they were so proud, like they’d come up to be the first ones to finish.”
It’s because of stories like Sword’s that Swanson feels her volunteer work with Lattitude is worthwhile.
“For me, that’s rewarding. I like doing it because I feel this is my way of giving a little bit to the world, of helping not only these kids, but then the communities they help.”
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