Sending students overseas is intended to open their eyes, but that doesn't mean they'll always like what they see.
Yvonne Harris, a 19-year-old Juneau woman, said she saw something on her second day in a Ghana orphanage she wished she'd never seen: Staffers trapped a little girl and beat her, Harris said. They laughed at the girl afterward.
"Ever since then, every week or every day, it happened to someone else," she told a group of about 25 well-wishers Wednesday at a reception at Northern Light United church sponsored by the American Field Service.
Harris returned to Juneau on Dec. 18 after spending about five months in Kumasi, a city of about 1 million people a few hundred miles north of the equator, in Western Africa.
Harris went to Ghana to work in an orphanage because she's interested in social work. She's still interested in social work. But Harris found her experience at the Kumasi Children's Home emotionally difficult.
"The children's home conditions - they were pretty bad," Harris said.
Harris said she expected to be able to teach the children, but the other teacher didn't want that. So Harris would go into the library with the older children, help care for infants, play with disabled children, "and would fend for other kids," she said.
Many of the attendees Wednesday already knew Harris' experience was harrowing. They were among about 75 people who helped sponsor Harris' trip by buying subscriptions to an e-mailed newsletter she sent them monthly from August to December.
Martha Preecs of Spokane heard of Harris' trip through her granddaughter, Sandlin Preecs, who is an American Field Service student in Portugal.
"I just thought that's a long way to go and such an altruistic attitude to have, and I thought it was a very resourceful way to finance it," Martha Preecs said of Harris' e-mailed newsletters.
"We certainly were thrilled and saddened, of course, by some of her e-mails. She had a really tough time. I'm proud to have a minute to tell her we're impressed with her," she said.
"I pray night and day that the kids in the home will find that light that I have found," Harris wrote in her November e-mail, "have some help guide them in life, to smile like I do every day, to have comfort and support in whatever they choose to do or be, and to lift their spirit and let them know there is a better place than the children's home."
The local American Field Service chapter, which sponsors foreign students in Juneau and local students abroad, doesn't usually help students raise money for their trip, said volunteer president Jane Ginter. A service scholarship covered 70 percent of Harris' costs. Students' families usually pay the rest.
But Ginter and others thought Harris was someone special. Harris, who had been in foster care, was on her own most of her senior year at Juneau-Douglas High School. She lived with and cared for a woman with cerebral palsy.
"It was just really tough," Ginter said. "You think of our high school kids and how we try to make life so easy for them. So we decided to try to help her raise the money if she really wanted us to."
Some people who bought the e-mail newsletters knew of Harris through foster care, her playing on the JDHS girls' basketball team or a newspaper story in June about her plans.
The story and the newsletters impressed Ann Turner Olson, a program officer with the state Division of Family and Youth Services. She nominated Harris for the Carolyn Frichette Memorial Award, given by the Children's Subcommittee of the Alaska Mental Health Board to honor youths who help other children. Olson presented Harris with the award Wednesday.
"So there has been this trail of people who don't know you and have been impressed with the work you did in high school here and particularly with the kids in the orphanage," Turner told Harris as she handed over a plaque. "It's for your office someday."
Harris also has been offered a full four-year scholarship to the University of Alaska Southeast, university regent Elsa Demeksa of Juneau announced at the reception.
"She's had a lot of challenges and has risen," Demeksa said in an interview. "She's got this winning personality. I think she's going to be very successful. She's very focused in what she wants to do she wants to work with disadvantaged children."
Most youths who participate in the American Field Service program are high school students who study overseas and live with host families. Only a few go to do community work service, as Harris did.
The service's Juneau chapter has sent about 50 local youths abroad, including eight currently, Ginter said. The service is now hosting four students in Juneau, from France, Chile, Germany and Portugal.
Amy Paige said her daughter, Marlowe Dunker, attended a private school in Venezuela during her junior year in high school.
"She says it's a life-changing experience. The world opens to you," Paige said.
"It gave her a sense of independence and opened her eyes about the disparity of income in the world. ... The gap between the rich and the poor is more hidden here."
Would Harris recommend the experience, a well-wisher wanted to know.
"As bad as it was, it was good," she said.
The American Field Service is accepting applications for student exchanges. Call Ginter at 586-6862 for information.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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