Buck-I-Serve Trip to Akokwa Ghana

Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

The Buck-I-Serve trip to the small town of Akokwa, Ghana is partnered with the Akumanyi foundation: a nonprofit who’s work serves to better the lives of vulnerable women and children in community. For my trip, most of our time was spent at a children’s home aiding in the daily chores, as well as reading, teaching, and playing games with the kids. The trip also allowed for endless moments of cultural emersion and learning from the kids, locals, and visits to Ghanaian historic sites.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

The experiences I had during my stay in Ghana brought about both a new understanding of the maturity and independence needed as a young adult, while also sparking a refreshed sense of the endless curiosity, wonder, and excitement of youth. This was my first international experience, and it wasn’t until walking to the union the morning of my departure that I realized the thrills of packing, passports, and planes had masked the true absurdity of the journey I was about to embark on. By this time tomorrow I would be wakened by the sound of roosters in a small village thousands of miles from home, in an unfamiliar land, with 18 or so strangers (aside from the few moments of small talk had before meetings). I was afraid, yet the line between fear and excitement is easy to confuse, and with the latter often the more desirable, I eagerly boarded the shuttle. Fast forward through two weeks of cooking, sweeping, cleaning, never ending rounds of thumb wars, sweat, laughter, singing, praying, dancing and vulnerability, I’d be once again stepping on to a shuttle but with wet eyes and a new understanding of Home.

I learned that despite where I was, or the people I was with, so much real and impactful emotions can be shared with another. It didn’t matter that I had just met these people, or that we grew up in different parts of the world. Our lives are all so much more similar then different. We have all experienced the best of joys, the lows of pain, and to fully realize the similarity that all human experience is rooted in was truly life changing. I have a greater love for myself and know that it’s not just the feelings of home, but rather a new home itself that can always be found when one is willing to share and listen in vulnerable areas of life.

What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

There is something about my time in Ghana that seemed to just pass a little slower than at home. Maybe it was the early sun rises, perhaps the dull inescapable heat, the awesome new land, or maybe it was a lack of constant noise and entertainment found too readily at home. Regardless of cause, this feeling of a prolonged experience with time resulted in a much higher attention to the subtly. The relaxed atmosphere in Ghana was wildly contagious and felt more like a homecoming then a change. At home I can be a bit anxious, I like to fidget and move to keep me occupied. In Ghana, simply sitting was enough. One of my clearest and most fond memories from my trip, was simply sitting under the shade with my buddy Zoey.

Zoey was a spitfire of a child and if she wasn’t jumping or dancing, she was probably pulling jokes on us volunteers. She was always high energy, smiling, picking and defusing fights, always on the go. One Saturday afternoon however, this all seemed very off. She wasn’t carrying that same smile as before and sought solitude from the other kids. We talked for a bit, before moving into the shade where we then sat for close to an hour: motionless, her head on my lap, not sleeping, simply being. Zoey never did say what was wrong, and to be honest it wouldn’t have matter. Each, just being in the others presence, was far better than any words could have ever been.

Another experience characterized by such an intensely emotional connection in the ordinary was the first and only day it rained during the trip. The dry season was just ending when we arrived in Ghana, and everything was beginning to look green. We had been in Ghana for over a week and although it looked like rain a few times, we never had any. The humidity had been building up for some time however, and just as we thought another storm might pass us over, we felt the crisp cool air come flooding through the trees followed by a spattering of drops. We quickly ran to grab the clothes from the line and made it back under the roof just as it started to pour. Huge drops crashed against the roof but as we stood protected from the rain, an undeniable yearning came over me and the other boys to go run amongst the drops. The kids all hooted and laughed as we rounded the property and back with the girls now joining us. The moment was surreal, simple, and beautiful. Slow down and take note of all the little beauties around us in life, for It is through adding them up that truly wonderful life exists.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

I have always loved doing service work and feel a great sense of fulfillment after helping others, however with this trip I know that it is I who has received the greater service. Part of what has made this trip so impactful for me was how welcomed I was the instant we arrived. Naturally, the first fante word I learned was Akwaaba or Welcome. This came at the right time in my life as I had been feeling as though I wasn’t the true version of myself. The fact was, I felt as though I needed validation from another to feel the way I did or act a certain way. I left these feelings behind in Ghana as there’s nothing quite like 2 weeks with children to teach you how to take yourself less seriously, enjoy the present moment and just love.
For me, this change in mindset has had an immeasurable impact on my life. I no longer feel the worry or pressure to be anything other than who I am. As a result, I’ve found that my openness and acceptance for others for who they are has grown as well. My ability to connect and grow with others has improved greatly from this. The serene beauty of all that is Ghana has reminded me to strive for what’s best in life, to let go of the things I can’t change, and to seek the love and beauty in all creation.

Preserving a Passion

Rachel Helbing
Service-Learning & Community Service

My STEP Signature Project took place in the mountains of Colorado, specifically those of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Traveling across states to observe and cherish the beauty our country has was great motivation to give back. Volunteering with park rangers and learning how to protect our national parks gave me lifelong memories and new perspectives.

First hand experience of the central United States transformed my view of our country. There is much natural beauty in the land that I took for granted before. Seeing a new landscape or a new way of living expanded my thoughts of what America was. I’ve been confined to Ohio my entire life, minus a few vacations, and until now haven’t been able to take things slow and take in all that is around me. Now I find myself slowing down and appreciating the natural world around me. Finding joy in the land around me and valuing parts of my life I haven’t before.

Driving about twenty hours each way between Ohio and Colorado was the greatest exposure to America’s diverse lands and cultures. Traveling through the large, bustling cities of St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver was contrasted with the pit stops in Colby and Limon where there wasn’t much to the town other than a gas station. Seeing how quickly the landscape and structure of a place can change within 15 miles was astounding. Even the difference between a few blocks in a large city showed different lifestyles.

Hiking to the top of a mountain to see a glacier, or following a trail to a great fishing spot were first hand experiences that transformed my love of nature. Something so literally “natural” provided a great sense of serenity and clarity to the experience. While traveling as far as Colorado provided a greater magnitude to this trip and transformative process, I know that I can find and appreciate this beauty where I live as well.

The volunteer efforts on my part took a different form than I had expected. I had imagined I would go into the park and do amazing projects, such as restoring a trail or removing an invasive species. With only being in the national park for a short time, these were not feasible tasks. Instead, along with a park ranger, my project took a more service-learning approach and focus. It became a philosophical experience that I had not expected. We had conversations along our hikes in the park that taught me more about conservation and the efforts of the National Park System than I could learn elsewhere. Being in the environment of the Rocky Mountains made these teachings more impacting and they still resonate with me now back in Columbus.

Speaking with a park ranger was informative, as well as perspective-changing. He talked of how important it is to preserve the beauty found in National Parks. We explored the topic of public access to wilderness and what the right balance is. While we want people, such as myself, to travel and explore new scenes, we must also limit the potential damage and industrialization that happens when doing so. Something as menial as adding a road or walking path to a park could have serious consequences to the wildlife and ecosystem. This talk really made me take into consideration how this project shouldn’t be taken for granted. My experiences come at a cost to wildlife, so I should do all I can to not affect it further.

I chose this project area as a personal transformation. While I also learned some along the way, it was to reignite my passion for the outdoors after being so cooped up in classrooms during the year. Volunteering within the Rocky Mountain National Park was life-changing because of the people I met, the places I saw, and the memories I made. I will take the experiences learned in Colorado and apply them wherever my life and career take me in the future. I will look for ways to get outside and enjoy the natural parts of our world. I will also consider how my actions have an impact on that same wilderness, and try to minimize my footprint. The greatest lesson learned while in the park was that every opportunity to enjoy nature also comes with a cost to it. I must be conscious of my actions and how appreciating the wilderness must be coupled with restoring it. I want to aim to appreciate and maintain the beauty of our Earth.