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YMCA students return home with new perspective

Students travel to Dakar, Senegal, to aid schoolchildren with reading, writing

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  • About YMCA Dakar

    •  The YMCA school in Dakar started in 1999 as a two-classroom kindergarten. It served 27 children, ages 2-5.

    •  The school expanded to 90 students in 2000, 117 in 2001. In 2006, four more classrooms were built, serving 200 students.

    •  As of 2012, the school serves 264 children from K-grade 6. The Senegal YMCA wants to build two more classrooms; the project would cost about $36,000.

    Source: Candace Cooper Murray, YMCA community development staff member.


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    Senegalese names

    Bernie Rapp: “Amadou”

    Anjelica Pendergrass: “Awa”

    Deonte’ Howard: “Dowda”

    Julie Burton: “Nabou”

    Locals in Dakar helped the Y team: Four of the eight members became ill while adjusting to the environment, and “whenever someone on our team was sick, (the Senegalese) just wanted to make them comfortable. They gave up their time to take care of us,” Julie Burton said.



A little boy wearing a tattered white T-shirt greeted Alan Lee when he arrived in Senegal.

The child, carrying a small bucket, begged him for money – a sight that caught Alan off guard. “It was heartbreaking,” he said, “to see a little kid begging.”

But Alan had come all the way from Charlotte specifically for kids, as part of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s 2012 Global Service-Learning Project. Four Charlotte high schoolers, plus a UNC Charlotte student and three YMCA staffers, traveled to Dakar, the capital and largest city in Senegal, to teach schoolchildren and to observe the country’s education system.

Students on the trip were Alan, from Butler High; Teal Green, from West Mecklenburg High; Anjelica Pendergrass, from West Charlotte High; and Deonte’ Howard, from West Mecklenburg High, plus Bernie Rapp, who attends UNCC.

Each was nominated by a YMCA supervisor, then had to submit an application and reference letters, said Candace Cooper Murray, YMCA community development staff member. Chosen students were also required to volunteer for six weeks prior to the trip with the Y Readers program, a literacy program for students in preschool through second grade who read below grade level, Murray said.

The travelers used those Charlotte-earned tutoring skills overseas, Murray said, spending Thanksgiving break (Nov. 17-25) visiting several YMCA sites in the west African country, including a primary school.

Teal and YMCA staff member Julie Burton worked primarily with 2-year-olds on the trip, playing music on djembe drums, dancing and coloring. “Children there wanted to learn,” Teal said. “They value their education and it seemed like they enjoyed going to school.”

In Dakar schools, Murray said, it is common for first and second grade classrooms to have one teacher to 80 students, so volunteers are much appreciated.

The Charlotte students said they noticed stark differences between U.S. classrooms and classrooms in Senegal. Senegal room setups were simple, for example: Only desks, chalkboards and notebooks. Classrooms also seemed more relaxed, Julie said. Teachers would shift in and out of classrooms while students were working, and students spent lots of time working in groups. The teens said school attendance didn’t seem to be enforced: In the middle of the day, they saw children of all ages begging in the streets for money to support their families. UNICEF calculates the primary school attendance rate for Senegal at less than 60 percent.

“From birth, we are put into the education system,” Anjelica said. “We take what we have for granted.”

Bernie and his partner were in charge of 100 children younger than 4. “I taught a bunch of kids the Macarena,” Bernie said, laughing. He also spent hours teaching artwork and coloring with kids.

“I really became thankful for what I was given growing up,” he said. “When I turned 16, I was given a car, but (Senegalese) have to walk across the city to go anywhere. I’ve had a great home my entire life. I went to school, then college. I haven’t really had to worry about anything. But they worry all the time.”

Most students agreed that the most challenging aspect of the trip involved communication. “The older kids in the school spoke Wolof and French,” Burton said. “It was hard to figure out what they were saying.”

But they did discover that drawing and dancing are universal languages, Anjelica said.

While in Dakar, the students also went to historic sites, visiting Goree Island, a port for slave trade to the Americas from Africa. They bargained in local markets and participated in traditional songs and dances with Senegalese YMCA staff members.

Before the trip, the YMCA youth had helped with fundraising events aimed at helping the Senegal YMCA, and were able to donate $6,000, Murray said.

Anjelica said she learned how valuable it can be to lend a hand to another: “Somewhere else, somebody is struggling.”

Penland: 704-358-6043; Twitter @BrittanyPenland
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