Lindsay Denny volunteered in Ghana for two months in 2010. A graduate of UC San Diego and Boston University, she also studied abroad in Italy and the Philippines. Having proudly spent a month+ on five continents in five years, she now lives in Cambodia where she is the director of an NGO.
Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with Volta Aid Foundation in Ghana?
After graduating from college, I decided to volunteer abroad to determine if I wanted to pursue a career in international public health. To be honest, I didn't care what country I ended up in, so long as it provided opportunity, was safe, and was affordable.
I searched online and was either shocked by the price of volunteering abroad or had difficulty finding a program for an independent young person. Plus I needed something for students without a medical degree. When a friend found VAF, I thought immediately that it was the one.
It was within my budget, it allowed me to work in a healthcare setting to gain experience, provided homestays, and was a small, local NGO. Once in contact with the Director, I was put at ease as he helped me prepare for my journey and got me really excited about Ghana. My gut instinct could not have been more right.
Tell us about one cultural difference you encountered.
Religion is a major part life in Ghana. In the north, the majority of Ghanaians are Muslim while in the south most are Christian. The two live harmoniously. You see aspects of the religion throughout your day, with stores named "God's Fingers Tailoring," "Count Your Blessings," and "Holy Father's Inn." Joining friends to church is a unique and lively experience and includes plenty of singing! Plus it means you get double the number of holidays, as both religions are recognized by the government.
What was the best moment of the trip?
I have so many happy memories ranging from weekend adventures around the country to quiet nights on the patio with neighbors chatting. But one memory that stands out is an afternoon spend at the orphanage VAF supports.
By standing up a couple of benches on top of each other, we created a barrier to act as a net for volleyball. We started an impromptu game, with older kids lifting up the younger ones the spike the ball. Kids on the side cheered as another volunteer played the guitar. Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves, despite or perhaps because of the makeshift nature of the fun.
Do you feel like you made a significant impact on the local community? Why or why not?
Did I make a significant impact on the entire community? No. Did I make an impact on certain groups of people? Definitely. I worked at the diabetes ward in the hospital and spent my days teaching newly-diagnosed diabetics about their condition.
I created the first handout for the hospital to give to these patients, so they had something to reference at home. I had a great relationship with the nurses and told them all about the US as they explained Ghanaian culture to me.
My host father, who always wanted to travel, used to joke that rather than Mohammed going to the Mountain, the Mountain had come to him. He cherished the small gifts and postcards he received from around the world and the whole family loved to hear stories of life outside Ghana. You try explaining snowboarding to a child who's never seen snow or pizza when he's never eaten cheese!
How has this experience impacted your future?
Wow, how has this experience not impacted my future? I came back to US and immediately began applying for graduate schools. Meanwhile I stayed involved with VAF by becoming their US Ambassador, speaking with numerous volunteers (and their parents) about the organization, various volunteer opportunities and day-to-day life in Ghana.
The experience helped me not only get into graduate school but also supplemented my coursework as I had real scenarios to recall as I studied. Three years later, I now run an NGO in Cambodia and often think back my time in Ghana and how VAF gracefully handled volunteers as I take on volunteers of my own.
Becoming more independent, open-minded, and understanding were, for me, inevitable outcomes of volunteering abroad. But I did not expect to find myself so embraced by both the organization and the community and to in turn feel as though I fit into this life.
As I write this, I am chatting with the Director about his trip back, and we laugh at what a family this has all become, even those of us who volunteered at the very beginning. I don't know if this is the typical volunteer experience, but I wouldn't have had mine any other way because I wouldn't be who I am today otherwise.