Students take road less traveled to aid child slaves

by Nate Hoekstra

Many students spend their free time during study abroad trips taking in the sights of Paris, enjoying the beaches of Australia or exploring unique London neighborhoods. Some, however, choose a different experience entirely.

Students, some of whom have been rescued from child slavery, spend time in class at Challenging Heights in Ghana.

Over seven weeks from June to August, 14 students and two faculty members from the Frederik Meijer Honors College chose the road less traveled, and by doing so helped to change the lives of a very special group of children.

During the Ghana Honors Service Learning Program, students and faculty members spent time in Ghana helping an organization called Challenging Heights, which helps to rehabilitate and rescue children who have been trafficked into slavery in the illegal fishing industry. Morgan Talbert, a senior biomedical sciences major, said the trip was life-changing.

“It was one of the most impactful, life-altering experiences I’ve ever been a part of,” Talbert said. “The trip, and getting a chance to work with these children, has given me an entirely new perspective on the world and a real appreciation for the small things we have.”

The trip consists of both classroom and service learning, said Joe Verschaeve, faculty advisor and affiliate professor of sociology. Students begin with a week of classroom work, learning about nongovernmental organizations, followed by five weeks of intensive service learning experiences in the village of Winneba, home to the Challenging Heights organization and the Hovde House, a secure rehabilitation center where the rescued children are reintroduced to society.

While students have opportunities to take part in several different service learning projects, Challenging Heights is a main focus of the trip. The school serves to protect children who have been rescued and those who are at risk of being victimized by traffickers a second time.

The births of some of the children have never been officially recorded, and they must be examined by a doctor and a dentist to have a birth date assigned to them. “It has to be done so the government can recognize them as someone who exists,” Verschaeve said.

Janaan Decker, student services coordinator for the Meijer Honors College, describes her involvement in the program as an experience that she will never forget. She said she is hopeful that students get the same emotional reward from the trip as she does.

Decker began organizing the program four years ago and laid the groundwork for the experience the students have at Challenging Heights. She was able to meet James Kofi Annan, founder of Challenging Heights, and said she that it was a place where meaningful work could be done by talented, dedicated Grand Valley students.

“When I first went to Ghana, I was struck with the abject poverty of the place, but I was also inspired by the spirit of the people who live there,” Decker said. “I knew immediately that it was a place where we could bring students to help do real, tangible good.”

Working with the children on learning basic skills like reading, writing and counting isn’t the only service learning that is done by the students. Many get to work on medical service learning with the Ghana Health Service.

Alex Doubek, a junior biomedical science major, was allowed to do meaningful work in the pediatric ward, and scrubbed in on a hernia surgery. It was an opportunity he said he wouldn’t get in the U.S. until medical school.

“Going to Ghana and having the experience I did definitely confirmed my choice of career,” Doubek said. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but this really nailed it down.”

The experience the students get on the trip comes home with them as well, Decker said. Allison Stephens, a senior social work major, went on the trip to Ghana and has brought the mission of Challenging Heights back to Allendale. She’s the president of Challenging Heights GVSU, the first university chapter of the organization in the nation.

Decker said the program has been a resounding success over the past few years, and it is scheduled to continue.

“At Challenging Heights, the rescued children are taught the motto ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” Verschaeve said, “and I think our students who take part in this honors service trip are learning and living that motto as well.”

Page last modified February 19, 2013