“Dear friend,” many begin. Some are typed, others handwritten with penmanship ranging from precise print to the uneven lettering of small hands still learning the craft. Doodles of birds, flowers, hearts and spirals fill margins. Composed continents apart, their pages contain news of a sibling’s birth, an aced exam and a favorite after-school snack, but also fears, losses, dreams.
The letters, shared between students in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, are the result of Yo Ghana!, a nonprofit seeking to deepen cross-cultural understanding and build relationships through the art of letter exchange. Several Portland Catholic schools participate in the program, co-founded by Central Catholic High School graduate Elizabeth Fosler-Jones.
The letters expand students’ views of the world and of themselves, while certain cultural tidbits learned — for example that pizza is sliced differently in Ghana and the States — are simply fun. The connections can also be powerful. “There are kids in both countries where they are being raised by a single parent or have been through trauma,” said Fosler-Jones, now a freshman at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “It’s good for them to see that other kids are going through these things, too. It gives them perspective.”
The Portland-based organization began about five years ago as the vision of Fosler-Jones and David del Mar, an associate professor of history at Portland State University and the author of several books. Del Mar, whose academic expertise includes American perceptions of Africa, had visited Ghana and was intrigued by the schools, which he said “had obvious needs but where students seemed optimistic and relentless at working toward an education.”
Fosler-Jones, then a 14-year-old honor’s student at Central Catholic and a classmate of del Mar’s son, was similarly interested in Africa and had a passion for positive social change. The two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance and soon after launched Yo Ghana!
The nonprofit has grown to about 2,700 students from 30 schools in Ghana and 28 in the United States, including participating classes at Central Catholic and St. Mary’s Academy. The entire student body at St. Andrew Nativity wrote letters this year, and a parent is organizing a small group of writers at The Madeline School.
Yo Ghana! partners schools in the two countries and works to established topics of mutual interest to guide the three to five letters exchanged over the academic year. Students might write about the most important holiday for their family, the person they admire most or a challenge they’ve overcome.
Since some schools in Ghana are located in isolated villages, it can take months “for all the connections to take place,” said del Mar, noting that English is the gulf nation’s official language but numerous indigenous languages are spoken in the country.
Yo Ghana!’s primary focus is the letter-exchange project, but it also offers grants to improve Ghanaian schools — providing everything from books and educational technology to necessities such as water and sanitation. The organization helped construct a junior high school and currently is paying the tuition of two students, who in exchange volunteer at a local public school. School communities match grants with donations or time. A parent may help with a class, or donate food or water to the school.
“It’s a collaborative effort,” said Fosler-Jones,
Nativity eighth-grader Elizabeth Temple said the letters have helped her “gain awareness of other people’s lives, culture and struggles.” Some letters resonated with her own family history; her parents fled violence in West Africa’s Sierra Leone before coming the United States.
Along with Nativity’s schoolwide participation in the letter-writing exchange, students in an extracurricular class created oral histories in one of three pilot programs started this year by Yo Ghana! The organization also began a photography and cultural identity project and arranged for two schools to Skype each other. “Skyping adds another element of connection,” said del Mar.
Bryce Driscoll, a religion teacher at Nativity, coordinated the letter-writing at his school. He said the project has been a great educational tool. Students have explored Ghana’s holidays, schools and climate.
Yo Ghana! opted for mailed letters rather than email exchanges for a number of reasons. Letters usually are more reliable because internet connectivity and cybersecurity in Ghana are inconsistent.
And in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, “there’s something to be said for sitting down and typing or writing out a long, thoughtful letter,” said del Mar. “The process of letter-writing requires a level of focus and authentic engagement.”
Such engagement is critical as “our world is getting more polarized,” said Matt Essieh, a Ghanaian native who runs a software company in Oregon and is a major financial backer of Yo Ghana! “The letters are a wonderful way to connect people and help them look at the world through a different lens,” said the parishioner of Holy Rosary Parish in Portland.
“Perhaps one of the biggest outcomes of the letters,” added Fosler-Jones, “is that they help kids realize that there is a network of people far away who care about them and that they can relate to and talk to.”
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