The Akaa Story
Our Beginnings, told by Founder Lauren Grimanis
The summer going into my senior year, 2007, at Wayland High School (Wayland, MA), I traveled to Ghana to volunteer. I had spent considerable time volunteering locally and wanted to experience volunteerism globally. I also wanted to have a unique personal experience, one that was shaped by my surroundings and culture. Set up through Cosmic Volunteers, I set off, alone, on the 10 hour plane ride to Ghana, where I would live with a local family and volunteer in a orphanage in the capital of Accra.
Working in the orphanage and attached school, I had my first experience with the challenges of charitable giving. I had collected toys, clothes and school supplies from my hometown before I left. My second day of volunteering I brought the items to the orphanage where I was directed to the office. I walked into a room lined with books, bags of clothing, and even a Playskool playground. I was startled but handed over my donations and received a recognition slip.
The next day at school, I was told the teacher’s child was sick and she would not be in that day. That meant that on my third day in Africa I was left alone with 30 three to five years olds in a cramped classroom. I tried to get some order in the room and get the students to sit down. No luck – most did not understand me and all just wanted to play. I remembered I had stickers in my bag and I started handing them out to the children that were sitting. Kids started to scramble to find a bench and table space so they could get a sticker too. My plan worked for a couple of minutes before the children started to hide their stickers so they could get another one. When I would smile and tell them “I know you already have a sticker,” they would just get up and start playing again.
I was exhausted by break time but knew that I needed to engage them differently, so I went to the school office to get some of the paper and crayons I had donated. But I was turned away when I got to the office. I pushed back and explained how I had donated materials and now wanted to use them for the school. Still, no was the answer. I was angry and couldn’t understand why the school office had so many resources that weren’t being used to benefit the children that needed them. There were donations from large UK based non-profits that were just sitting collecting dust. Near the end of my trip, I learned that this practice was very common: donations would be sold instead of going directly to the intended children. Whether the money was going back into the orphanage or into someone’s pocket was a mystery.
Later in the week, I took a day off to travel to the Eastern Region, about 2 hours from the orphanage. I wanted to see rural Ghana and visit sites outside the city. I traveled to the beautiful Boti Falls and then to the nearby Umbrella Rock. Literally a rock shaped like an Umbrella, Umbrella Rock was located on the outskirts of a village. Walking from the rock to a palm tree that had 3 trunks, I met several children. They were all smiling and happy but I wondered why they weren’t in school. I learned the school was an hour walking distance. Then I met a young girl, carrying a child on her back. She was 16 and was carrying her second child. I had just turned 17 and couldn’t even imagine the responsibility. This was my Ah-ha!, eye-opening moment.
When I returned home I kept thinking about that village, Asiafo Amanfro. I wanted to do something, make a difference, change those children’s futures. So I acted. With the community and local Ghanaians, the Asiafo Amanfro Community School started. The school was made from low mud walls and palm leafs for a roof. We hired three teachers with basic education and 30 children started attending daily classes.
The excitement and potential we saw from the community lead us to think of our next steps. The non-profit organization, the Akaa Project was created. We chose the name Akaa because it represented not just one village but a community. The Akaa community stretches across farmlands and villages and we strive to work with everyone in this area.
I started to involved others in the Project. My parents became very supportive and similarly dedicated to the work. Without their encouragement and ideas, the Akaa Project would not exist. While developing the Akaa Project, I kept the orphanage in Accra in the back of my mind. I wanted to be able to show people where their donations were going, be transparent and direct with our work. I wanted people to see their impact. We have been able to show impact because of our direct connection with Akaa.
The school grew and we realized that the health of students and families financial well being affected the success of education. We decided to grow our mission to include healthcare and financial initiatives as well. We grew our outreach in the US as well: I began bringing volunteers to Ghana and formed the Akaa Project group at my school, the College of Wooster (Wooster, OH). My work in Ghana began with volunteering as a student so it has always been important to me to share this experience with others. I have loved giving others the opportunity to learn and laugh in Ghana and I hope to continue to do so.
I started the Akaa Project with no experience in global development, poverty alleviation or non-profits but the Akaa community was my inspiration to act. Now our initiatives have grown and our mission is one of empowerment, collaboration and community. The best part of what the Akaa Project has created? The personal connections and willingness to learn of the Akaa community and volunteers, and together creating opportunities for change.
– Lauren Grimanis, Founder and PresidentRead Lauren’s Blog