Bev Hodt, Project Gambia leader and Assistant Headteacher, Ridgewood High School (a King Edward’s and Halesowen Colleges’ academy), writes…
“Miss, wouldn’t it be good if we could go to one of these poor countries and help them?” Why not? I thought… and nearly 10 years on, over £150,000 has been raised, over 500 people have visited The Gambia, and Project Gambia is an integral part of life at Ridgewood High School.
When it was first established in 2007, the aim of Project Gambia was for year 10 students to travel to the Gambia for a week each year to experience first-hand life in a developing country. The aim was for them to become aware of their responsibilities as global citizens, develop a respect and appreciation of their own culture and make a difference to the world in which they live.
However, Project Gambia has become so much more than that. The yearly trip is now just a small part of Project Gambia; now, as a registered charity, it involves ongoing, day-to-day work.
Changing lives… in the Gambia
Fundraising for the developing world is hardly unique to Ridgewood: many schools do some admirable work in raising money. However, the aim of Project Gambia has always been to go beyond ‘handouts’: we have worked closely in partnership with Gambian communities and families and built strong relationships with them. Through these relationships we have been able to provide education, support and funding for many Gambian people and villages to become independent and find sustainable solutions to poverty.
Nine years on: a snapshot of some of our work:
- New classrooms have been built.
- Schools have received much-needed equipment and resources.
- Schools have been refurbished.
- Children have access to education and medical care.
- Medical resources are supplied.
- A nurse has been employed.
- Farms have been established in rural communities.
- A solar powered water pump now provides clean running water to a whole community.
- Gambian people have been enabled to develop businesses.
We have also provided:
- Thousands of solar lights
- Thousands of items of clothing and shoes
- Thousands of mosquito nets
- Hundreds of ‘Christmas Shoeboxes’.
Changing lives… including yours
Project Gambia is not just about raising funds and changing lives in the Gambia. Equally important, and an integral part of the project, is the impact it has on the lives of our students, the skills it develops and the way it changes their outlook on life.
Both in preparation for the trip and while in the Gambia, the students develop a range of skills as they organise fundraising, set up business enterprises, prepare activities they will lead in the Gambia and give presentations about the project.
During their visit to the Gambia the students gain first-hand experience of poverty as they spend time with families and communities. Through the relationships we have developed with Gambian families the students have many unique experiences which challenge them and cause them to reflect on their outlook on life.
Their perception of poverty is challenged and they are amazed how in the midst of poverty the people they meet are happy and resilient. Many of them are left thinking that the Gambian people are rich in areas where we are poor.
One of the strengths of Project Gambia is that it gives students the opportunity to ‘become the change they want to see in the world’. Not only do the students see the many projects resulting from the funds they have raised; but they become part of the change, painting and refurbishing schools, leading activities in schools etc.
Not only do the students see the many projects resulting from the funds they have raised; but they become part of the change, painting and refurbishing schools, leading activities in schools
‘Character education’ takes place on a daily basis as students develop perseverance, resilience, teamwork, courage, justice, compassion etc; lessons they would not learn so well in a classroom. Project Gambia is real life learning, which for many of the students becomes a life changing experience; a number of them make repeat visits in subsequent years.
The wide range of skills and confidence the project develops is remarkable. Students are asked about their experience in the Gambia in job, college and university interviews, and are often invited into our local primary schools to talk to younger students and lead assemblies.
Students are first allowed to go to the Gambia in year 10, but this does not stop younger students getting involved in fundraising, donating items etc. In fact, many of them when they arrive in year 7 have already decided they want to go in year 10. The work of Project Gambia is regularly shared with students and parents through assemblies and newsletters.
Project Gambia also has a positive impact on the curriculum. Students understand from the projects we run and first-hand experiences over nearly 10 years what life in the developing world is really like, what sustainable development really means, how solar energy can benefit a community, etc. Lessons become more meaningful and relevant.
Engaging a community
From the outset our vision was for Project Gambia to engage our local community. However I had no idea the extent to which this would happen. Each year volunteers from our community travel with us to the Gambia, support fundraising and donate endless items of clothes, shoes, books, equipment… you name it they give it.
Not a day goes by when something doesn’t arrive in reception! We have had high profile in the local media, who recently launched our ‘Well of Life’ campaign which raised over £12,000 to install a solar water pump into a village that had no clean running water.
Parents contact me, telling me their children can’t stop talking about their experiences and asking if they can come on the trip.
Businesses and professionals ranging from builders to midwives offer their services and expertise. Many of them say that they have always wanted to do ”something like this”,’ and Project Gambia gives them the ideal opportunity. They like the idea of local businesses supporting a local charity.
Many people also comment that they give to Project Gambia because they can see where the money goes and the impact it has. This is undoubtedly a strength of Project Gambia and something we have worked hard to achieve. We make sure that lots of photos are taken of items being given in the Gambia and of the projects that fundraising has supported. These are posted individually to people with a thank you. People can also access information via the Project Gambia website, on which we post daily blogs and videos when in the Gambia (in addition to our Facebook page and Twitter account).
Through the work of Project Gambia, 18 of our local primary schools are engaged in global learning. In July 2015 we became an ‘expert centre’ for the Global Learning Programme (GLP). Our students visit them and talk about their experiences, and we link them with schools we work with in the Gambia, provide teaching resources, photos and videos and talk about global issues from our experiences. As a result of this, other schools have helped us fund a medical centre, provide school equipment, collected shoes, clothes, etc; and a number of their staff have visited the Gambia with us.
The success of Project Gambia and the impact it has had on people’s lives both in the Gambia and in our school and local community has been achieved through the day-to-day commitment and hard work of a team of people. To sustain a project like this is not for the fainthearted; it takes a huge amount of effort, energy and time.
As Project Gambia continues to grow the challenge is not to lose sight of our initial vision, changing lives in the Gambia, but also challenging and developing our students. We have to work hard to ensure that the project does not become impersonal, as part of the project’s success is that people can see where money and items donated goes.
For each year group that goes, a new project is developed so that they can return to the UK knowing that they have made a distinct difference. Over the years we have developed an understanding of what does and doesn’t work; the wrong projects can do more damage than good. This as you can imagine takes a huge amount of time and thought and depends on the strong relationships and trust we have built with our friends in the Gambia.
For each year group that goes to the Gambia, a new project is developed so that they can return to the UK knowing that they have made a distinct difference
As the project continues to grow, we face various practical challenges: storing all the equipment and resources donated, thinking of new ways to fundraise, etc.
As the cost of flights continually increases how can we ensure that all students have access to the trip, not only the few can afford it? A seven-night trip currently costs £995, though that is all-inclusive and the students don’t need much spending money or new clothes. We apply to various educational trust funds to support the cost of the trip for students from low-income families and staff members contribute towards the cost of the trip to help reduce the cost for students.
On some days, I think: this is such hard work, is it worth it? Then I go and talk to some students who have been… and yes, of course it is.
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