When Sarah Hagan participated in Semester at Sea last year, she didn’t realize how the adventure would change her life, and the lives of children half a world away.
Hagan, a native of Gray, Ga., who graduates from WKU this month, spent a week in Ghana. She and five other students took a nine-hour journey into the heart of the African nation, to the village of Senase.
“Senase is one of the larger villages and the schools there are helped by churches and the government,” Hagan said. In Senase, the schools are concrete buildings suitable for children to receive an education. In Ghana, the children have to pass a national exam to go to secondary school, “so they have to be up to par at that level before they can go any further. If not, then at that young of an age they’re put to manual labor,” she said.
From Senase, the group took a 15-minute ride to the village of Akatim on the back of a planter truck in the rain, so they were cold and wet. What they found in Akatim had a profound impact on them.
“As soon as we saw the school, you forgot all of your discomfort,” Hagan said. “It reminded me of one of the forts that me, my brother and my sister would make when we were little. It was sticks holding up slabs of a tin roof with holes all through it. There were no walls or floors.”
Hagan said the lack of a proper facility was devastating to the children of Akatim.
“What shocked me the most was that in Senase, the children were so full of life and love and just had this light in their eyes that you expect children to have,” she said. “In this village, they didn’t have any of that light in their eyes. Just to see what they had been expected to receive an education in was heartbreaking.”
Hagan believes educational opportunities are a big part of the difference between Senase and Akatim. “In Senase, if they do their best, they can receive an education and go on to secondary school and then, if they want, go on to college,” she said. “In this school, no matter what they do, they’re fighting a losing battle.
“I just can’t forget the look in those children’s eyes in that school in Akatim. I have to believe that if they have more opportunities it would be different.”
Hagan said many of the 120 students in Akatim school walked two miles one way, and then could only have class during good weather. And even then, the teachers did not have the training to educate the students to the level of passing the national exam.
“Just seeing all this and learning the facts about this school was devastating,” she said. “It touched every single one of us there. We really didn’t know what we were going to do, but we knew that this is one of those times in your life when you can look at a situation and say that’s not right and you can turn around and forget about it or you can say that’s not right and let’s see what we can do.”
The Senase Project
As they finished their Semester at Sea, the group completed the paperwork to create the non-profit organization, The Senase Project.
“We knew we wanted to rebuild the school and revamp the education system so that the children could pass, but we knew that building a school takes time and it takes a lot of effort raising money,” Hagan said. “While we were starting this organization, we were in communication with the government in Ghana and we told them it was really their responsibility to keep their schools up. They were very much aware of this school in Akatim. It was so isolated and tucked back into the jungle that it was easy for them to brush it off and not worry about them and not supply them with the things they deserved.”
But as the organization grew, the government took notice. Hagan remains in touch with contacts in Senase and in November, she received photos of a new, three-room block schoolhouse in Akatim.
“It has a ceiling, it has windows, it has shutters, it has a floor. It’s everything that we would have wanted for these kids,” she said. “It floored me. It still stuns me that we somehow convinced a government in Ghana to listen to us.”
Hagan said she still becomes emotional when she talks about the new school. “I could not even fathom how excited those children were,” she said. “This is probably the first thing to happen in their lives that let them know that somebody cares about them and somebody is fighting for them, that they do deserve these things.”
Only the beginning
While the group is rejoicing in the news, it is only the beginning.
“These children now have a schoolhouse,” she said, “but they still need the education to go on to the next phase of their education. Otherwise it is just the same thing in a nicer building.”
Hagan plans to return in the next few months and pair teachers from Senase with those in Akatim to work together to help the children. Even though success has come more quickly than anticipated, “We have a lot of work to do and a lot of education that needs to be done,” she said.
Hagan is also organizing another project called Uniform Hope.
“In Ghana, children are required to wear school uniforms and it really is a symbol of pride because it shows that they are receiving an education,” she said. However, the uniforms worn by the children in Akatim are torn, ragged or nonexistent, so Hagan has set a goal to raise $1,800 to provide 120 new uniforms.
Staying true to the project’s mission statement of eradicating poverty through community development, Hagan will be using the money to hire a local seamstress in Senase to make the uniforms.
“It will create jobs and will boost the economy there, so we’re getting the community together to do this,” she said.
While Hagan is excited for the impact the Senase Project is having in Ghana, it has also had a more personal, and humbling, impact, causing her to change her plans for life after she graduates in December with a psychology degree.
“Up until about a month ago, my plan was to go straight on to graduate school and try to get into a doctorate program,” she said. “Lately my heart has been tugged and graduate school is now not a matter of if, but when. I feel right now that I need to take a year off and do service. Part of that is going to be Americorps.” She is also hoping that by March will find someone to sponsor her trip back to Ghana to find out what else needs to be done.
It has also proven to her that anyone can make a difference.
“If your heart is in it and you’re passionate about it, and you really fight and are driven to make a difference, you can. It doesn’t matter your age or your location, or anything like that,” she said. “That has been huge for me because so many people see a problem and they either assume it’s going to be too big of a struggle to undertake or they assume that someone else is going to fix it.”
The Senase Project has drawn support from across the United States and Hagan said she has been amazed that people were willing to step up and help children they had never met.
“People are so willing to open their hearts and it really has humbled me and made me think a lot about the goodness of society,” she said.
For information about Study Abroad and Global Learning at WKU, contact Tom Millington at (270) 745-5334 or Thomas.Millington@wku.edu.
Contact: Sarah Hagan, firstname.lastname@example.org.