A lot has happened professionally and personally since we first connected through Instagram. Can you give us the highlights?
Yes, I’ve now past my 4th year of living in Ghana and we’re coming up to 4 years of Pen to Paper Ghana in December! How time flies. Since we last spoke and after running Pen to Paper Ghana for a year whilst just living off my savings, I had to find a job. It was not as easy as I thought since you must find a company that will support a working permit, but I’ve been fortunate enough to land myself a job working as an Accounts and Administration manager for a timber company. As much as I’d love to be out doing charity work the whole time, the financial practicalities of it didn’t work out, which was a shame. However, we did manage to recruit one full time local worker for the charity who teaches throughout the week. On weekends I teach with him.
Other than the NGO, I’m now married to Richard (co-founder of our NGO) so that was an exciting event for 2018 with over 20 of my friends and family joining us from the UK. Last month, we moved to a new house and got a puppy, a new addition to our family. She’s a mix between a German and Caucasian Shepherd – it feels like we’re new parents. So yeah, everything is still going well in Ghana.
How life transforming your move to Ghana has been! All the best for the new season in your life. Pen to Paper Ghana has grown and today have branched into 4 divisions. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Literacy has always been our key focus as we feel it is the heart of education, for without it children struggle with all subjects becoming a bigger struggle when they become adults. Our experiences being in schools we saw other needs too, so our 4 main divisions are:
- Literacy – we teach free daily phonics classes to teenagers struggling to read. We work in government schools where we assess all students and run classes for those unable to read. With often over 40 children in a class, it’s not uncommon to have teenagers sitting in class all day but unable to even identify the alphabet. We also run workshops for teachers so they’re confident in teaching reading skills correctly. We also have a mobile library to provide book resources for children to take home.
- School Infrastructure – we feel that developing facilities in schools helps to increase school attendance, motivation and academic performance as well as the well-being and attitude of teachers. For many schools in Ghana, children must share desks, often 3 child per desk with some sitting on the floor. We try to raise funds to provide desks as well as other projects such as wells for the community and writing resources, for instance our latest Pen to Pencil case project where we asked people to donate a pencil case with writing equipment.
- Education Scholarships – for many children in Ghana dropping out of school is common and mainly due to financial struggles. At Pen to Paper Ghana when we identify any of our pupils as being highly academic but without the financial means to continue their education, we do our best to provide educational scholarships to pay for their school costs and help them to have a brighter future. We have a waiting list of students we want to help but obviously we have limited funds to be able to help all.
- Medical and Education Mission – this is a small strand of our organisation but it’s a worthwhile one! Every year we volunteer with an American charity called Assist Africa to run the education part of their 2-week summer mission. They bring trained medical and education professionals (mainly from the US) and in collaboration with local workers, we run an outreach clinic with free medical care. Pen to Paper Ghana’s role is to run a summer programme for the children in the villagers which involves literacy and numeracy classes, hygiene workshops as well as sports and art activities.
Besides the wonderful work of the 4 new divisions to the foundation, you managed to get the mobile library up and running through a Go Fund Me page. Is there a route the bus operates within? How does the library operate regarding the loaning of books?
We started the mobile library in 2017 and it has been a big success. We’re so fortunate for the individuals that donated through Go Fund Me, The Anne Frank Foundation, Ghana School Aid and Assist Africa. We were awarded a Community Champion Award presented to us from the Daily Mail and General Trust – their generous support also helped to purchase the van.
The mobile library drives to schools where we allow any child in the school to take a book home. We operate on a 1 book policy so a student can take a book home and when we come back (usually once a week) they can swap it for another. If they finish a book early, they can swap with their peers too.The main thing that brings joy to me is when I see all the kids running to us in the van during their lunch break with so much excitement. Books are available in Ghana but it’s more the problem that parents cannot afford them or do not priorities books over buying other vital items. Most schools do not have a school library nor the funds to run one, so the mobile library has been a great way for the children to obtain books.
Today when you see the faces of the children you helped, witnessing their reading and writing skills progress it must bring so much joy and accomplishment to you. How does the teaching structure change as they develop?
We work on a one to two term process, so we teach our free classes for up to 2 terms and then move on to another school. In this time a teenager can go from not knowing the alphabet to reading confidently, even within a few weeks I can see so much change in the child. Not only does their reading improve, their confidence and self-esteem changes dramatically.
I’ll tell you a little story that made me cry – from happiness! We were nearly finished with our 1st term in one school and a teacher came bounding up to us as we arrived at the school and said “I hugged a pupil today. Can you guess who?” She had hugged a 14-year-old girl, who when we first started in the school did not know the alphabet and had always been hiding at the back of the class. She was very reserved and shy, in fact when we first started, she kept missing classes as she was embarrassed for not being able to read. After going to her home (which we often do to meet the parents) we encouraged her to start classes and she made heaps of progress. The teacher then said, “I’ve taught this girl for many years and today is the first day she volunteered to come to the front of the class and try to read what was on the board. I’ve never seen her do this and I’ve just noticed what a beautiful smile she has.” Learning to read does not just improve their education, it develops confidence and happiness – and in this girl’s case, also brought friends.
For many of the teenagers we work with since their reading level is very low many of them struggle in all other subjects. It’s hard for us to follow up with all individual cases but we sometimes go back to schools to find out how they are getting on and it’s incredible to see the difference in their education progress. We sometimes get calls from previous students letting us know how they’re getting on and it’s nice to hear when they’ve accomplished good enough grades, that they can go on to Senior High School.
In summary, it’s astounding how 3 like-minded people come together with a dream and in 4 short years impact 1000s of children’s lives through something as simple as teaching a child to read. I say simple for in the Western world we simply take education, literacy and books for granted for lack of wanting to harness the power these tools so readily provided to us.
The story of the 14 year-old teenager blossoming into a confident young woman for she can now read is touching in its innocence and powerful, for you’ve just witnessed the human side of change, yet it is tragic for literacy rates in poor countries such as Ghana still fall behind the rest of the world. The global literacy rate has increased by 4% every 5 years – from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015(1) according to a report compiled by Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina for an article posted on Our World in Data site regarding Literacy rates. The OECD released a school ranking listing Ghana at the bottom of the list of 76 countries. Organisations and the team behind Pen to Paper Ghana need to be commended and supported for they are personally and professionally invested in doing the ground work – helping to rebuild the educational and social system of Ghana in the hope to one day see generational change come around and see the fruits of their dreams come true.
Since conducting the interview in October, Katie has lost her full-time job. She is currently looking for new employment so she can financially support herself whilst volunteering at the foundation.
Please support Pen to Paper Ghana by visiting their website where you can donate.
According to the OECD report “How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820” Literacy rate in 1900: 21% Literacy rate in 1960: 42% According to the World Bank: Literacy rate in 2015: 86%