Claudia Bartholomew, was just 18 when she told her mum that she was travelling to Ghana to spend three months volunteering.
“I just needed to do something meaningful,” explains Claudia, now 20 and from Huddersfield.
She took a sabbatical from her job as a SEND teaching assistant at a local school and travelled out to Africa with a volunteering organisation in September 2018.
She did general volunteering and community outreach and met and made friends with Caitlin Nottle, 28 from Cornwall she currently works in hospitality.
As part of their outreach work the girls found hidden in a building, no bigger than a garage that was falling down, a school for more than 40 additional needs children and adults from eight to 34.
“It was like they were hidden away all crowded into one room,” recalls Claudia.
“It was heartbreaking to see, The staff were doing their best but the facilities were shocking.”
The Akumoah Achampo Special Unit, is based in Nkawkaw Eastern Region Ghana.
The special unit has been attached to the main primary school for 10 years. The unit is staffed by three teaching staff with specialised training.
The pupils have a variety of needs from partial/full deafness, hyperactivity/ADHD, down syndrome, Cerebral palsy and Autism.
At that point Claudia’s mind was made up and she devoted herself to making the school environment better and supporting the teaching staff.
“What we wanted to do was to build a new unit that would have two separate classrooms, a sensory room and also training for those older pupils to give them some sort of life chance which they just didn’t have before.”
Claudia worked with a teacher to support the students to upskill for life post school.
She worked with family and friends in the UK and raised the funds to buy sewing machines, beads, braiding kits and mannequin heads. Developed a sensory wall for the children and stocked the cupboards with school materials. Together the girls worked with the community to get and fund two students, Hannah and Ernest, apprenticeships in sewing and carpentry.
After three and half months the girls returned to the UK to fund raise in earnest to raise enough to build the new school.
Although the girls managed to do some great things for some students there is a lot of work that needs to be done in order for all current and future students to get the best educational experience and start to working life; and achieve their potential.
So as they left they promised the lead teacher Felicia that they would return and rebuild the Akumoah Achampo Special Unit .
Mass fundraising took place in 2019 and both girls worked to save for their own living expenses with the intention of going out for the whole of 2020.
“We needed to raise £10,000 and even though Caitlin was down in Cornwall and I was in Huddersfield we got enough to start the building work.”
The girls travelled back to Ghana this January to see work on the school begin. They planned to spend the entire year there and gave up their jobs. Claudia even sold her car to help fund her trip.
“It was so exciting,” says Claudia. “We also put in a water pump to allow the school and the village to have clean water because up until then they got their water from a dirty stream.”
First up was to start the difficult negotiations with the community, high school and the educational commissioner to agree a site and the girls could start to build. Whilst these conversations were ongoing they worked with another charity to source a drilling rig to get fresh water to the site, until then the children and school had relied on river water.
Eventually permission was granted to build the school on a site near to the current school and next to the new well. Then work started at a pace, clearing land, negotiating for materials and labour and slowly the building went up.
Then,just when the walls were starting to go up, Covid happened and the girls were forced to return to the UK, using their living funds to do so.
“We were heartbroken to return having promised to build the school and given up a year of our lives to do so. It was crushing to return,” says Claudia. “We had nothing to return to, no job, not money and we had not finished the school.”
But they didn’t let this stop them and have worked hard from 4,000 miles away to get the school built .
“The school now has a roof and looks fantastic,” says Claudia. “Next up are electrics, plastering, windows and doors, painting and furniture. We are currently about £4,000 short of completing everything in this phase as prices in Africa have gone up due to Covid.”
Both girls plan to travel out next year. Work won’t stop at the school, wheelchair friendly access and a toilet block as well as transport to get the children too and from their villages to the school.
“There is one boy who carries a disabled girl on his back for three miles. A minibus would really help them get to school. We cannot wait to get back there.”
For more information and to donate towards the girls’ campaign visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/caitlin-nottle
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