Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jetting to Ethiopia; Volunteer Trip with Friends of Fresh & Green Academy

Jetting to Ethiopia; Volunteer Trip with Friends of Fresh & Green Academy

by Lyuba Halkyn

Thanks to an interesting career that I have chosen, I am able to travel with my job while on the clock and on my days off from work. Throughout this year, I have been to London, Amsterdam, Thailand, just to name a few.

By far, the most inspiring and heartfelt trip that I have taken was to Ethiopia just a few weeks ago. The main objective of my trip was to volunteer with a non-profit organization called Friends of Fresh & Green Academy. This organization raises money for a private school, Fresh & Green Academy, located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The 110 children that attend this school range from ages three to ten and are among Ethiopia’s poorest children. These children are not orphans, but live in conditions that would be unimaginable to most people living in the United States.

Fresh & Green Academy is able to provide three nutritious meals a day for the children and a nurturing environment for them to learn. The director of the school, Muday Mitiku, added a dinner meal for the children after overhearing a conversation between two of her students. The children discussed how hungry they were the night before at home, and how they could not wait to come to school that day to eat breakfast.

I was able to spend three full days with the amazing and bright students of Fresh & Green. These children are intelligent, and eager to please. They are patient, and full of love. The director of the school, the teachers, and the entire staff are extremely dedicated.

I was fortunate enough to travel with my good friend, Trish, who is the President and Co-founder of Friends of Fresh & Green Academy. Along with a non-paid board and many other volunteers, this organization raises money through fundraisers, donations, and child sponsors to keep this school afloat.

The advantages of Fresh & Green Academy versus a government school in Ethiopia are many. At this point, I must say that I have not personally visited a government school in Ethiopia, so all of what I say is based on conversations with highly regarded sources. Some of the benefits that these children receive at Fresh & Green are nutritious meals, clean clothing, and a place to take a shower, including soap and a towel. Their educational curriculum besides basic studies includes English, art, music, and a creative form of physical education. I was able to observe the children in these extra curricular activities where a music teacher and physical education teacher came to the school to add a creative touch to learning.

Also, in Ethiopia, kindergarten is not mandated. Fresh & Green Academy began as a kindergarten and has expanded to include a prekindergarten. The school now can accommodate many of the siblings of the older children.

While visiting the school, the kids taught us games and songs. We worked on a project with them. We also spent some time introducing the kids to some basic yoga, while Muday's husband translated for us. The kids had fun and were very patient with us. They are natural born yogis!

Muday Mitiku has also created a mothers’ cooperative. The children's mothers are able to come to the school one day a week to make local crafts, which provides a small income for them. Most of the children live with their mothers only. It is very common for fathers not to live with their families and in many instances to leave the mothers once the babies are born. Also disease and sickness is prevalent among the moms, including HIV & AIDS. Some of the children also suffer from similar issues but according to Muday, proper nutrition helps these kids to stay healthy.

I cannot explain in words, the joy that I have felt since returning from Ethiopia. In our daily lives as Americans, I feel that sometimes perspective is lost by the life of convenience and privilege that many of us lead. I will speak for myself when I say, I do not know what it is like to be hungry or poor.

My friend Trish told me before I left for Ethiopia, that this trip would be life changing. It is not that I did not believe her. I have traveled to poor places before. My travels throughout the last decade included a trip to visit family in Ukraine in which some of them did not even have indoor toilets.

With that being said, I believe my friend was right. The gifts that I have received from this trip are immeasurable, truly a unique experience. I noticed that while I was in Ethiopia, I was very present not thinking about the next moment, but truly engaged in each present moment. What a gift, not to be obsessing with unnecessary chatter in my head. I felt clear and happy the whole time I was there. I have found a hidden treasure in a school in Ethiopia with 110 plus smiling faces.

The kindness and generosity, which was shown to me by my new Ethiopian friends, was genuine. The food at Fresh & Green, that was prepared in a kitchen with not one modern day convenience, was delicious.

My adventure continued with a weekend excursion to Northern Ethiopia where I saw my first hippopotamus, not in captivity, but on Lake Tana, the source of the Nile River. We visited many small islands and interesting Orthodox monasteries with ancient artifacts. We hiked to the bottom of the Blue Nile Gorge Waterfall accompanied by local village boys who were very interesting and very eager to speak with us.

I was told many interesting stories, including how coffee was discovered. A goat herder, named Kaldi, noticed that his goats would come back from grazing everyday extremely happy. Kaldi followed the goats, and saw that they were eating an interesting plant, which made them very excited. This turned out to be what we today know as the coffee plant.

I was also privileged to eat at one of Addis Ababa’s most premiere Italian restaurants located in an area called Piazza. Ethiopia has an Italian influence due to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s, under the reign of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

My trip was rich in culture, history, and adventure. Most of all, I was able to see with my own eyes, what a difference one school can make for some children and their families.

I plan on returning to Ethiopia to visit Fresh & Green Academy. I urge everyone to volunteer and find a cause to support, even if it is right in your own community.

For more information on Friends of Fresh & Green Academy, please visit www.FriendsofFreshandGreen.org.