Villanova students return to Ghana to aid school

(From left) Lauren Colegrove, Nashia Kamal, Andrew Balamaci and advisers Devon Jackson and Hezekiah Lewis hope to help in Ghana.
(From left) Lauren Colegrove, Nashia Kamal, Andrew Balamaci and advisers Devon Jackson and Hezekiah Lewis hope to help in Ghana. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 11, 2014

The Villanova students found neither running water nor electricity when they left their Main Line campus last summer for a school in rural Ghana.

But what Lauren Colegrove and Andrew Balamaci discovered at Heritage Academy was a student body with a voracious appetite for learning.

Their trip last summer was for credit. Their return in July will be personal: They're helping the students create their first school newspaper.

"It's the idea of giving these students a voice," said Colegrove, 22, a journalism major from Warrenton, Va.

The Villanova University students' journey will deepen a remarkable connection between Heritage, a pre-K-12 private school, and the Philadelphia region that started 10 years ago.

The academy was founded by Kwesi Koomson, a Ghanian native, and his wife, Melissa Schoerke Koomson, both educators at Westtown, a Quaker school in West Chester.

The Koomsons took a yearlong break in 2004 to build the school in Ghana and have since nurtured relationships between Heritage and several Philadelphia-area high schools and colleges.

Each year, students from Westtown, Conestoga High School, Franklin and Marshall College, and Villanova teach, mentor and help with construction at the West African school. This year, students from KIPP DuBois charter school in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania also will visit.

"Every volunteer has to teach," Koomson said. "I believe that through teaching, you share your very unique life experience with the kids. In teaching, you also get to learn about kids' lives and what's important to them."

Colegrove's trip last summer was arranged through a film course in social justice. She and Balamaci, 21, a communications major from Scarsdale, N.Y., were members of a film crew that made a 40-minute documentary, Rise and Shine.

The film compared the lives of students at Heritage with those of students at Strawberry Mansion, a low-performing, neighborhood high school in Philadelphia.

The crew called their film production company Five1Four9. That's how many miles lie between Villanova's campus and Heritage.

Colegrove said her two weeks at Heritage altered her career plans. She wants to stay involved in education, possibly write for a nonprofit.

"I really started to form these relationships with some of the students," Colegrove said. "I want to be able to continue this long-term."

Her film partner, Balamaci, who hopes to write and direct motion pictures, was also moved.

"I want to continue my social justice work," he said. "That's really what has changed me the most in college - and life."

Their professor, Hezekiah Lewis, was thrilled: "To see these students take this beyond the classroom is exactly what my personal mission is."

Koomson is grateful for help that furthers his dream of providing quality education to students in his hometown. He comes from Essiam, a village in central Ghana where most people farm and the typical family earns less than $2 a day. Scholarships helped his escape, first to a Methodist high school in Ghana, then to United World College in England, and Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster.

Every time he went home, he saw former classmates struggling.

"The big difference was, somebody gave me a scholarship," said Koomson, who has taught math at Westtown for 17 years and has a master's from Villanova. "I wanted to give back."

Using their savings and living on credit cards, the Koomsons started the school in a church, with 32 students. A year later, they bought a building and converted it into classrooms. They started a second campus in a nearby village and in 2011 added grades 10 through 12.

Now the two schools enroll 1,350 students. They nurture girls as much as boys, refrain from corporal punishment, and offer electives such as creative writing and entrepreneurship.

With her family's support, Koomson's wife started the Schoerke Foundation to raise money for student scholarships. The couple last week received a U.S. award for service to society from the Friends Council on Education, an umbrella organization for Quaker schools.

Heritage only recently got electricity and a working well. Students must share desks. But it is building dorms and recently opened a library. It started a farm to grow fresh vegetables for meals.

Lack of resources hasn't stunted achievement. Koomson notes that 100 percent of its students pass national exams, compared with 42 percent in the region.

When Colegrove and Balamaci head in July for a month at Heritage, they'll be joined by Nashia Kamal, 21, a journalism major from New York City. Kamal did not go to Ghana but was motivated to participate through her experience with Balamaci on a film project in India.

"You don't just learn about these people and never look back," she said.

Villanova students will teach alongside Ghana educators and recent Heritage graduates so they can continue the paper after Villanova students leave.

"We want this to be sustainable," Colegrove said.

The students will face challenges: How to print a newspaper at a school where paper is scarce.

"A lot of the kids use one notebook for most of their subjects," Colegrove said. "We're keeping our options open and will try to find the most cost-effective way."

The students are raising funds and also hope to get a grant through the Villanova communications department. They anticipate a budget of $12,000.

"By the end, we want to have a physical copy of a paper that they can take home to their families," Colegrove said.

Koomson visited Heritage recently to pave the way for the Villanova project. He said students at Heritage were thrilled.

"It's a chance for them to tell their own story," he said. "They were jumping up and down."


ssnyder@phillynews.com

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@ssnyderinq

www.inquirer.com/campusinq

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