A little over a year ago I was nervously waiting in the lobby of the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences Arts Center before going into the theater to make a presentation with Miller Hull’s founding partner, Dave Miller, to the entire SAAS faculty and staff. For the past several months we’d been working on a study for SAAS to help them identify future opportunities, priorities, and logistical challenges of consolidating their campus. Assistant CFO and Director of Operations Doug Ambach and I were casually chatting, which was a welcome distraction for me. We talked about upcoming summer vacation plans and I mentioned that my husband and I were going to be traveling to Zambia to do volunteer work. Doug asked me if I knew about the school’s Zambia Club and their annual trip to work with partner schools there. I didn’t and it was one of those unique moments when disparate parts of your world collide.
I would say that volunteering and seeing the world can be so eye opening and life changing if you allow it to be. You need to always keep an open mind and put in the time and effort to meet new people and become close with them because that is how your views change and you start to see things in a different way.
-Emma Yuh Coleman
Having fallen deeply in love with Africa after our first trip in 2011, it’s always a pleasure to meet others who understand the pull the continent has on your heart, mind, and soul. So when Doug offered to introduce me to some of the teachers involved in the program, I was thrilled; but with summer break on the horizon, making contact in the immediate future would prove to be challenging. In the meantime, I did some of my own research by following the Zambia Club’s adventures through their blog and I knew right away I had to meet these students and ask if I could write a profile on them.
Being involved in the Zambia Club throughout the year ensures the students are fully invested in the meaning and purpose of the trip and the people they’re helping, whether or not they actually go to Zambia. Those that do go on the trip have an amazing opportunity to spend a month in a part of the world that couldn’t be more different from what they’re used to, while spending their time doing service work and helping others. But what I heard from students and teachers alike is that the experience is much more than that. It’s about forming relationships and learning that people all over the world, regardless of their circumstances, are really pretty much the same; understanding that you might not be able to save the world but you can make a difference, and that what you get from this type of experience may be even more valuable than what you went there to give. These were all things I learned from my own experiences as a volunteer in Africa and I know how life-changing it was for me. I envy the fact these students are able to have this experience so young, enabling it to help shape their futures.
After the students were kind enough to invite me to give a presentation to the Zambia Club about my time volunteering in Africa, a half-dozen members (four students and two teachers), returned the favor by answering some questions for me and sharing their stories and experiences.
How did the SAAS Zambia Club get started and how did you get involved?
Melinda Mueller (science teacher): A family with a student at SAAS had connections in Zambia and was interested in a pilot program to help a school set up a computer lab in Lusaka to find out whether such a resource would be of significant benefit to Zambian students. The family sponsored and funded the first SAAS trip (six students and two teachers); the school collected laptops donated by graduating SAAS seniors (school laptops which they were planning to replace with newer versions for college). Because I had traveled to Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana) on my own, and had done a number of other trips with SAAS, I was asked to join the trip on the second year.
Jackson Gode (age 16): I got involved with the Zambia Club in 8th Grade as the president of the middle school club. The best thing about that year was that I got to meet Olive Mumba, principal of the Birdland School, for the first time and help plan her visit to Seattle.
Sam Zieve (age 18): The Zambia Club began as a dream of a parent who envisioned a partnership between SAAS and a school in Lusaka, hoping to encourage cross-cultural collaboration. It has since expanded into both middle school and upper school clubs. I got involved in 8th grade, encouraged by my then English teacher, Sonja, to lead the middle school faction that year. Since then, Zambia Club has been a core facet of my life and an integral part of who I am. The club raises funds for The Birdland School and Munali High School in Lusaka, Zambia. As President of the club, I am in charge of directing both the fundraising and the meetings. But it is not the administrative work that defines my passion. True service work gains its meaning only when one meets and bonds with those he is helping.
Can you explain for our readers what the purpose of the Zambia Club is and what sort of activities you do throughout the year?
Alice Flood (age 18): Our goal is to raise money and items to help the students and people we have connections with in Zambia. We sell concessions and have bake sales that target specific causes. We also hold a shoe drive to collect nice black shoes for the school children who are required to wear a uniform.
Jackson: [The causes] could include scholarships for students in Zambia in need to building a play structure at the elementary school.
Sam: This year, myself and core members of the club have also begun to reach out beyond just fundraising. We have held discussions talking about the notion and nature of charity work, its impact, and how we approach it. I believe that true service work gains meaning when there is context behind one’s work and have begun to open the horizons of Zambia club.
How has your experience with the Zambia Club affected or changed your world view?
Alice: Traveling to Zambia and also being involved in the club has given me a greater knowledge of who I am and what I do to contribute to this world. I thought that, upon my return home, I’d be so Zambia-centric in my interests, but while Zambia will always be at the front of my mind I’ve become aware of causes in my community and in the rest of the world that could also use help and assistance.
Sam: Zambia Club has taught me to be a compassionate, empathetic, loving, and striving young man. I have learned to jump in and take risks with the understanding that failure is a possibility. I have learned to explore, jump past my comfort zones, and speak in front of large audiences. You don’t often get a chance to make such wonderful connections with people whom you would never otherwise know, and I thank Zambia Club for enabling those friendships to thrive.
What are the goals and purpose of the annual Zambia trip and what sort of activities and work do you do while you are there?
Gabe Cronin (science and robotics teacher): The trip has the goals of doing technology training and sharing cultures. More recently, we have been able to collaborate on curriculum projects not directly related to technology with the Birdland School. We work with students in local high schools to train them on topics ranging from MS Office product usage to internet safety and searching. The training topics change as student leadership over there expands and the “monitors” become more adept with computers. At the Birdland School, we work in classrooms, do writing projects, and visit the families of less fortunate students. We go on a safari in the middle of the trip, and spend our evenings at Pioneer Camp where we cook for each other, hang out, and have discussions to process the experiences we are having and sights we are seeing.
Emma Yuh Coleman (age 17): The goals and purpose of the trip are to make life changing and long lasting relationships with people from across the world. While there we play with the kids, read to them, teach them, do activities like teaching them how to write short stories, teach the Munali kids how to type, and mainly just create relationships with everyone we meet.
What expectations did you have for this trip going into it? Did it match, exceed, or disappoint?
Melinda: Exceeded! I already had fallen in love with southern Africa as a tourist. As rich as those experiences were, these trips to Zambia are many times richer. To live and work in Zambia, to have (now) ten-year relationships with partners who are now good friends, to see how profoundly the experience changes our students, and to see year-after-year the ways that our partnerships benefit Zambian students, is a peak experience of my life.
Emma: I had high expectations for this trip because I had wanted to go on it since 7th grade. Of course the trip exceeded my expectations beyond words and I am so thankful for this experience.
Sam: The Zambia Trip had been on my to-do list since 8th grade, when Emma, Alice, and I concluded that we would at some point go on the trip. It is safe to say that I had exceedingly high expectations going into the trip and it did not disappoint at all. My time in Zambia was, without a doubt, one of the best months of my life. To be clear, it was far different than what I had imagined, but the Zambian people are so welcoming I was just overcome with joy throughout the trip.
What is the first thought or feeling you had when you landed on African soil, took a look around, and started to realize what you were in for?
Gabe: The plane landed early in the morning just as the sun was rising, and the terrain was so very different from anything I had ever seen; barren, dry, but beautiful. The sun was magnificent. I had never seen a sunrise like that. I was exhausted from the travel time, and scared, but also excited.
Sam: I was scared, very scared, but I quickly learned that friendliness is key and as long as I am not afraid everything will work out.
Jackson: My first experience involved a lost piece of luggage. Each of us was in charge of two bags full of donations and one of them had been lost, which was mine. It made me miss the bus with all of the other kids so I got to go shopping with Olive, the principal that I had met in 8th grade, after we turned in the lost luggage report. She also took me to her house and I got to meet her family before we went back to the place we were staying. It made me realize that there would always be someone who could help me, even in this far off foreign land.
Do you think this experience has changed who you are, how you think, or what you might do in the future?
Emma: I would definitely say this experience changed who I am, how I think, and what I plan on doing in the future. I still think about the trip almost every day. I still talk to one person daily and I can honestly say that I see things differently. I was exposed to a completely different culture and loved every second of it. After the trip I really want to go back to Africa and work there, specifically with schools because while I was there I realized how smart the students were but they just didn’t have the resources.
Gabe: The character of the Zambian people gave me a lot of perspective on how fortunate I am and how easy my life is. At the same time, their focus on community and relationships far surpassed those in my own life and this made me self-conscious. In addition, the lack of regularity in the country has allowed me to cope with situations which are not so well defined, and to be flexible and less concerned when I do not know the outcome of a venture. I have been more willing to say “yes” to opportunities which present themselves in my life.
What do you feel you were able to give or share with the people you interacted with in Zambia, and what did you learn or take from them?
Alice: As clichéd as it sounds, I feel like I took away the knowledge of what it’s like to love what you have and truly be happy with your life. I met so many Zambians who, despite unfortunate situations, were so content with just being alive and on this earth that they were able to look over the hard lives they were living. Sure, many of them hadn’t known any different way of living, but they nonetheless inspired me not to get so down about small things like bad test grades or a flat tire.
Sam: I learned that we are all the same. One of the most surreal moments of the trip was our last day at Munali. I was talking with Lolanji, a girl my age who I become very close with, and we were talking about boyfriend and girlfriend drama, and it suddenly hit me that this is the same kind of drama we have back in the States. It was pretty incredible to realize how similar we all are, even if we do come from such drastically different circumstances.
Could you share some of your favorite moments and memories?
Alice: Before we taught many of the students how to use their computers we had a giant picnic with all of them at this wildlife reserve. The students shared traditional dances and stories with us and we shared some songs we’d rehearsed. Then we were just given time to “hang out” and do what high schoolers do. We played games, talked, and had a great time with one another. Definitely a highlight of the trip.
Gabe: I love watching our students experience moments of Zambian culture by playing with the children at Birdland in their games, by dancing traditional cultural dances with high schoolers. I really enjoy watching our students teach students over there. I mostly love it when our students take initiative to make “stuff” happen which was not planned. This includes running a project to make alphabet books with pre-kindergarten students, cooking a five-star meal for some Zambia friends we have, and initiating get-to-know-you games during free periods at our partner schools.
The safaris are always spectacular; the birds in particular are some of my favorites in the world. Lions are also always amazing to see.
Melinda: Watching African wildlife while on safari never gets old; neither do African sunrises and sunsets, and the way the African bush smells at those times. Sitting in the church near where we stay and listening to the choir of Zambian nuns sing hymns in Nyanja. Eating caterpillars (and other traditional Zambian food) at a feast put on for us by Birdland School to celebrate the library. Most of all, the friendships I have been gifted with a number of people in Zambia.
What was the most difficult thing about your time in Zambia?
Alice: One of our leaders told this metaphor about a man who walks along the beach picking up the starfish he sees and throwing them in the ocean. When he’s questioned why he does it, as he’s only helping a small population of starfish, he throws a starfish into the ocean and says “I made a difference to that one.” I had a really hard time dealing with the thought that I couldn’t help everyone in Zambia, but that my small interactions with people still made a difference.
Jackson: The scariest part of our trip to Zambia was that we almost were put into Zambian jail for being in the country illegally. After leaving to go to Botswana for a day on safari we came back into the country and border patrol stamped our passports incorrectly giving us only three days to be in the country instead of thirty days. We had to wait until Olive came back to the airport and miraculously got us through. It would have cost the group $20,000, or a month in prison, if we hadn’t had her help.
Emma: The most difficult thing about Zambia was saying goodbye. I became so close with everyone and the place itself that I just didn’t want to go home. Another difficult bump that I am still stuck on is that we only got to be with them for a month and will most likely never see them again. A few of the people that I got the closest with were deaf and have HIV. It was really heartbreaking to know that I couldn’t do anything to help them; they are so smart and have so much potential it is just unfair that they have such difficult setbacks. On the positive side, they never let that discourage them. They worked just as hard as or harder than everyone else in school and they taught me without even realizing it to appreciate my healthy working body and mind.
What advice would you share to other high school students and anyone else about traveling, volunteering, and seeing the world?
Sam: Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Most of the time, if you put in the effort, others will follow. And always try the local dish, even if it means tasting rat, caterpillar, and kudu!
Gabe: Be receptive to meeting the locals, and don’t expect to change their world. They understand their world much better than you, so the best you can do is learn as much about what is wonderful and difficult in their lives first, then help second.
Melinda: Do it! As much and as often as possible!