MIUSA: What motivated you to volunteer abroad?
Teresa: I love to travel, and I have an interest in teaching and working with students. I seem to connect with them. I also like challenges and working through them. I knew it would be a lot of hard work and that there would be a lot of self-motivation involved!
I was surprised and grateful to be granted the Harris Wofford Global Service Fellowship, which covered the program fee for the Cross-Cultural Solutions program. In order to cover my airfare, I tried my best to work hard and save up money for a year.
What was it like to volunteer at the school with Deaf children?
When I was deciding where to volunteer, I knew I wanted to work at a school for the Deaf. My experience at the school in Ghana was quite different from my school back in New York! I was a teacher's assistant for a large class whose students had very different learning paces, so I had to balance my teaching to reach both slow and quick learners.
In addition to being Deaf, some students had disabilities such as vision disabilities or cerebral palsy. To teach the DeafBlind students, you had to use tactile sign, but not all of them were comfortable or familiar with doing that.
After teaching each day, I'd stay at the school to lead them in games, help paint murals, or just chat. I learned some Ghanaian Sign Language, and found it’s not too different from American Sign Language (ASL). There were only minor differences in mannerisms, so it was easy to communicate with the students.
How did the students respond to you and what did you think of Ghana?
All of the students at the school were captivated to meet me. They’d all swarm me or ask to take pictures. Part of this was because I have different hair and skin than they are used to seeing - they thought I was born in Brazil!
They were also stunned to see my hearing aid and wanted to touch it. The students didn’t have any hearing aids because they're so expensive there.
I found Ghana to be very clean, and people were very respectful. I appreciated Ghana's mountains, the dancing, the different traditions, the beautiful clothes and jewelry... and of course there were many different kinds of food - I always had enough to be full!
I wish I could have stayed in Ghana longer, and hope to return someday.
How did you communicate with your hearing peers, staff, and students?
At first, people were concerned about how difficult it would be to communicate with me because I was the only Deaf volunteer in my group. It was quiet and awkward at first, but I’m a jokester and like to make people laugh, so as time went on, we felt comfortable opening up to one another, usually by writing things down back and forth. There were a couple of volunteers who knew some ASL, including my roommate. He said he wished there were more volunteers who use sign language!
The staff there were really friendly too. When I'd sign "good morning," they'd wonder what it meant, but then they learned to sign it back. Some were very helpful to me.
I had sign language interpreters while I was there, but sometimes I had a hard time following along as they interpreted. In Ghana, they're used to slower signing and fingerspelling, so they wouldn't be able to catch what people would say if they talked too fast, or sometimes they would stop interpreting to answer their cell phones. It was frustrating but I tried hard to pick out what was being discussed. After the program, I shared some suggestions to how they could improve accommodations for Deaf people to meet their needs.
What were your biggest accomplishments?
The DeafBlind students inspired me. A lot of people just ignore them, so they don't have a lot of outside sources. I taught them signs like "I love you" and parts of the alphabet, so I got to open their world a little bit.
My other accomplishment was hiking to the top of Afadzato mountain in Ghana. It was a dream of mine to do something like that. The staff had invited me, and though I wasn’t sure I wanted to, they convinced me to do it and to not give up.
When I came back, I tried to meet with the United Nations about wanting to help the Deaf school there, to see if there was anything we can do to improve the school system and their work in ASL.
I also plan on giving a presentation at my old school so I can share my experience with the students there. A lot of them sometimes think “I’m Deaf, I can’t do anything,” but that's not true. I've traveled to Spain and Africa, I've worked with Deaf students. Why can't they?
The Harris Wofford Global Service Fellowship offers individuals the unique opportunity to participate in an international volunteer service through one of several partner organizations. Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) partnered with Mobility International USA (MIUSA) to select Teresa as a Harris Wofford Global Service Fellow.