It’s not every day that a fourteen-year-old co-founds an international nonprofit, impacting hundreds of school children locally and abroad—but that's what happened here in Portland with Yo Ghana!. It's a student-to-student ambassadorship program, designed to foster global compassion and empathy, with its roots in the Rose City.
In a nutshell, the nonprofit forges partnerships between schools in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, having students exchange handwritten letters in English. The idea behind the exchange is to foster multicultural understanding through snapshots of American and Ghanaian life.
So how did it all get started? In 2014 Portland State University’s Dr. David Peterson del Mar traveled to Ghana and was awestruck by how local schools worked together and pooled their resources to fill learning gaps, despite the fact that some schools were so poor the students didn’t have tables and chairs.
“They had dedication to learning and support of each other that was really inspiring,” Peterson del Mar says. “I thought it would inspire students back here.”
But the program was only a vague notion until Peterson del Mar met then-fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Fosler-Jones through his son. As a freshman at Central Catholic High School, Fosler-Jones was passionate about Africa and wanted to get involved and make a difference.
“Certainly having a nonprofit and working in a country that is so far away requires some tools, knowing people, and having resources that I didn't have at that age,” says Fosler-Jones. “So meeting David and being able to work on this together was amazing and for me it has certainly been a growing process. It’s been amazing to just learn and grow as the organization has grown.”
Today, the program gains its strength from its diverse 10-member board with backgrounds ranging from grassroots development to higher education. The board has kept the premise and avenues to involvement simple but powerful in action, including funding development projects in Ghana to strengthen the educational infrastructure.
“We help them think of Africa as a place that is not full of suffering people and charismatic animals, but people who are just as important as they are,” says Peterson del Mar. “Relationships are something that are stressed a great deal. Even if there may be extreme income inequality, you can still strive toward respect and partnership.”
Although handwriting letters in the digital age may seem archaic to some, it’s part of what makes forging a real connection with a stranger work. Also, and most importantly, how else can you include bad-ass, self-portrait doodles? Snail-mail for the win!