I’ve been home for exactly a week since returning from my volunteer trip to Ghana. I wanted to share a day by day summary of the trip while everything was still fresh in case you’re curious or are interested in learning more about the experience of an SLP volunteering abroad.
I went on a 10 day trip to Ghana as part of Smiles for Speech, a nonprofit focused on “providing children with special needs living in impoverished communities with the therapeutic intervention and resources they need to enhance their ability to reach their full potential.”
Below is a day by day summary of the trip. If you’re interested in learning more about volunteering abroad as an SLP including who I think is a good fit and how to find a good organization to go through, click here.
After 3 flights, I landed in Accra, Ghana with 3 other SLPs. We waited patiently for all of our bags (we packed several bags filled with therapy materials) and then found our driver who took us to our first hotel. We arrived around 7pm, unpacked, and then had a group dinner.
Sandy, the founder of Smiles for Speech, generously made bracelets for everyone with our intention for the trip. I chose the word “grow” and loved wearing my bracelet each day.
I was exhausted so as quickly as I could, I snuck out and went to my room to prep training materials for our visit the following day. Some of the more adventurous SLPs went salsa dancing.
I woke up and went to breakfast at 7am. We ate and debriefed and then left for AACT (Autism Awareness Care and Training). When we arrived, we were greeted with the best hugs and smiles and cheers. It definitely started the trip off on the right note.
While at AACT, we broke off into groups to work directly with families (some that couldn’t afford to attend AACT but wanted to learn more about how they could support their kids at home), staff from AACT, and some amazing kids.
I did a short training to staff and families on using low-tech AAC boards to support language. I also worked directly with a mom and her 11 year old child. He picked up on the core board quickly and it truly warmed my heart to empower this mom, this boy, and his teachers to give him the power of communication.
Other members of my group did presentations at AACT about basic first aid, assessing autism, and on how to use materials and toys to elicit communication skills.
They served us a traditional Ghanian meal which was delicious.
I learned quickly that many times, child rearing in Ghana is more compliance driven than communication driven, a theme that would emerge again and again in my trainings, partnerships, and consultations.
After we left AACT, we went to the W.E.B. DuBois Centre where we toured his home and learned a little about W.E.B. DuBois and his role as a civil rights leader.
Then, we enjoyed a rare afternoon at our hotel. I read and journaled outside on the balcony.
Last, we went out for dinner and dancing and lots of laughs.
Day three started bright and early at 4:30am. We packed up and left for Cape Coast which was about a 3 hour drive. We arrived at Autism Compassion Africa, an ABA based school serving students with autism.
Each student is paired 1:1 with an adult so we all paired up with a student/teacher for the day. We spent the morning collaborating about speech and language as this center does not have an SLP or SLT.
The boy I worked with was adorable and so smart but the real shining star here was the staff.
Every staff member I interacted with understood their students and were so tuned in to their needs. They giggled, tickled, loved, and supported kids through tricky behaviors. They were open to feedback and even gave me feedback about which ideas of mine would be most helpful!
After lunch, we left to unpack at our next hotel in Cape Coast. After about an hour, Sandy and I headed back to ACA to do a presentation for the staff after the school day ended and the students were gone.
I presented on using core vocabulary boards and on how to use basic vocabulary kits I made prior to the trip. They included basic vocabulary pictures, a Velcro-ed Bingo style board, sentence strips, and leveled directions. The staff was so attentive and I was impressed with the work they were doing all around.
After my presentation, Sandy and I stopped at a local fishing market.
Even though it smelled terribly fishy, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I’d never been anywhere like that in my life!
After this stop, we headed to our hotel, ate dinner, and had a few drinks and a million laughs before crashing in bed.
Here’s a group picture from day 3 of the amazing women I was lucky enough to travel with. Seriously, this group was INCREDIBLE, so flexible, so patient, and so knowledgeable.
Day four was on a Saturday and because schools aren’t in session on the weekends, we spent these two days touring around and enjoying pure tourism aspects of Ghana.
On this day, we started by going to Assin Manso Slave River where slaves were given their last African bath before being sold or auctioned and marching 35 miles to one of the slave castles on the coast.
Then, we headed to Cape Coast Slave Castle. This is one of over 40 slave castles build on the coast of Ghana that was used in the trans Atlantic slave trade.
This entire morning was difficult. Standing in the dungeons slaves were kept in was emotional however I did truly learn a lot about African history that I somehow missed in all of my history classes growing up and even in the Africa class I took in undergrad.
After the slave castle tour, we ate a traditional Ghanian meal with the most amazing ocean view.
We finished the day by participating in a naming ceremony where we were given Ghanian names and bracelets based on the Ghanian tradition of giving names based on which day of the week you were born.
Last, we enjoyed an AMAZING performance from a group that does a variety of difference traditional African dances. They even taught us a few moves. I was exhausted before this performance and wasn’t terribly excited about it but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts! It was so much fun!
Day 5 was our other tourism focused day on the trip. We woke up and left for Kakum National Park where we got to do a canopy walk through the treetops in the rainforest.
It was a little scary (even for me the adrenaline junkie!) but the views were INCREDIBLE.
Afterwards, we visited Elmina Slave Castle where we learned even more about the history of the trans Atlantic slave trade.
Both of the tours as the castles ended with an emphasis on being kind and accepting of ALL people, a message I can definitely get behind.
After this busy weekend, we enjoyed a few drinks at our hotel, I watched an amazing synchronized swimming performance from Lisa and Sarah (SLP Toolkit), and cuddled the cutest puppy the world has ever seen.
On Monday morning, day 6, we had an early wake up call at 4:30am. I had a slight moment of panic that my luggage was stolen but alas, I was only sleep deprived haha. We left Cape Coast and headed back towards Accra.
We spent the morning at Buduburam, an ex-refugee camp. It was previously a refugee camp primarily for Liberian refugees but it is no longer supported by the government.
We worked with Harmony Disability Center to provide training and materials for the children they serve there. Harmony Disability Center primarily serves children with cerebral palsy and complex communication needs. They focus on these children because in Ghana, children with cerebral palsy are often called “snake children” and their parents are advised to kill or abandon them. There’s also very little support for families with children with disabilities so centers like this are critical.
Prior to the trip, we were paired with Ghanian speech therapy students that we had emailed with a few times. I met my student, Pamela, this morning and she helped me wrangle a group of wild and silly boys while training the staff on how to best support their functional communication. I was immediately impressed with her care, compassion, and understanding of students with complex needs.
I’ll admit that this stop was likely my hardest of the therapy stops as it was pretty intense. The entire group of us was in one small room so it was loud and crowded. One of the children I worked with was severely malnourished and had the body of a toddler even though he was almost 6.
However, another boy I worked with was a naughty stinker and kept me on my toes and laughing the entire visit. If you worked with me professionally, you’d know that I love my stinker kids. They truly make me smile!
Again, I was reminded of how quickly some children pick up on using the core vocabulary boards. Within an hour, I had half my group using the board to request “different”, “more”, “go”, and “mine”. It was fulfilling and exhausting and sensory overload all at once.
One difficulty with being an SLP blogger and creating materials is that I often don’t get to directly see the impact of what I make. On this day, I paused several times and looked around to see materials of mine floating around and truly making a difference. Cue the tears.
I also had several moments where I looked around in AMAZEMENT at the incredible group of SLPs I traveled with. The second we arrived everyone dove right in and provided judgement free, evidence-based, supportive ideas and training.
After this visit, we went to a local, high end pop-up market. I bought lots of fun things and even had a delicious mixed drink. YUM.
Last, we went out for a dinner. I got a little too comfortable with Ghanian spice (which is VERY spicy) and learned an important lesson to try a small bit before shoveling the meal into my mouth haha. I was EXHAUSTED so after dinner, I went back to the hotel and crashed.
On day seven, we started the day at Multi Kids (MKA), an inclusive school in Accra. Multi Kids is an amazing school that provides inclusive education to students. You can learn more about Multi Kids here and here.
We observed their morning routine and some of their classrooms and gave them feedback. I taught them about using sentence strips to try to expand some of the language their students were using.
Next, we partnered up with students and teachers and our speech therapy students. I worked with a young boy who will likely be remembered as my personal favorite (we all have favorites, right??). He came into the room very stressed and upset and ended the session by using a core board to say “I want more you go” to request that I blow bubbles for him. He also used it to ask “where” the bubbles went when I hid them.
I couldn’t deal with his cuteness and his rapid explosion of language. I was relieved that my student was able to see such a great session to get a better understanding of the true power of these low-tech communication boards!
After these breakout sessions, I did a training on using low-tech AAC boards and even discussed pairing them with high-tech communication devices when appropriate. I presented to most of the speech therapy students so they were engaged and asked awesome questions. It was SO fun to nerd out with people who have similar passions for AAC.
After Multi Kids, we went to the largest hospital in West Africa (Korle Bu Teaching Hospital). One of the other amazing SLPs I was traveling with did a two-hour presentation on pediatric dysphagia for a group of students and professors. The event was organized by Nana Akua Owusu who is the coordinator of the MSc in Speech and Language Therapy/Audiology Department of the University of Ghana (which is the #1 university in Ghana) . Click here to read more about this program.
I think this was likely the day when I felt most exhausted and cannot even remember what we did afterwards. It was another busy, amazing day.
The next day, we went back to Multi Kids to provide consultations. Multi Kids put out an ad for families with children with disabilities. Each therapist, and a group of SLP students, met with families for 20-30 minute consultations.
One of the families I met with drove for hours. Every family I met was amazing and fully committed to their children’s success, even with the many difficulties having a child with a severe disability in Ghana presents with.
After each consultation, I wrote out a list of recommendations and ideas that went home with each family. Several families also met with people from Multi Kids to learn more about community supports for their children.
Next, we went shopping at an amazing market filled with all sorts of items made in Ghana. I bought so many things including local honey, placemats made from Ghanian fabric, bags, and soaps.
We ended the day with some time at the pool and heading out for dinner.
Day 9 was our last day of therapy visits and it was another pretty intense one. We woke up early and packed bags full of training and therapy materials as a little gift for our students.
On this day, we worked at Castle Road School, a school serving a wide variety of children and adults with disabilities within a psychiatric hospital.
Because of the lack of services and education about people with disabilities in Ghana, many end up in inappropriate settings like psychiatric hospitals where they are often overmedicated and locked up at night. Some of the staff from Multi Kids was currently working with a lawyer on getting some children OUT of these settings because it’s truly a human rights issue.
If you want to learn more about one man we met, you can watch a BBC documentary on him by clicking here.
During our time at the psychiatric hospital, we were again partnered with our speech therapy students and staff to educate them on strategies and ideas for engaging their students with disabilities. We provided bags and bags of materials for them (and trained them on how to use everything!) as the head teacher of the school was truly starting with nothing.
My student, Pamela, took the lead this day with me closely observing and providing support and feedback.
Did I mention that she’s incredible? She jumped straight into this situation and did an amazing job of encouraging any and all communication from the young man we worked with.
One time, a staff member came over to get some advice and ideas from us. After he said that they weren’t using any signs with the young man we had been working with because “he wasn’t deaf”, Pamela did an AMAZING job of educating him on why signs can be really helpful for increasing functional communication. Go Pamela!!
After our training, we said goodbye to the amazing staff and students we’d spent the week with.
I left feeling so inspired by the work they are all doing to bring speech-language pathology to Ghana and fight for the human rights of people with disabilities across the country!
Because this was our last day, we went out for a celebratory dinner where we enjoyed some dancing and tequila shots. 🙂
Day 10 was our last day in Ghana. I slept in which felt AMAZING and had a truly relaxing day. We went to Accra Mall and shopped a bit. I also bought some beautiful baskets from a street vendor near our hotel that I will treasure forever.
We packed up and left for the airport extra early and enjoyed a nice dinner and some drinks at the hotel before leaving for the US!
I hope that this post gives you a true feeling of what a volunteer trip abroad might look like.
If you want more information on volunteering abroad as an SLP, click here to check out another post of mine about choosing an organization and who I think would be a good fit for a trip like this.
Thanks for reading!
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