For education major Shania Brown, the most difficult part of her recent service learning trip to Ethiopia wasn’t the language barrier, or the 8,000 air miles traveled, or the side effects of the malaria pills--it was seeing the students in a special education classroom whose only curriculum past the fourth grade was weaving mats. Day after day, weaving, until their parents could no longer afford to send them to school. The eight students, who ranged in age from ten to young adult, were told to remain silent as a sign of respect, so Brown was not able to talk to them.

In Ethiopian culture, these young people are considered cursed. They have no future career options beyond begging or eking out a meager existence selling goods like the mats. “No one will hire them,” Brown was told by an educator at the school. “If they did have a job, they wouldn’t be paid. They would be beaten and abused.”

That day was really hard,” said Brown, who has a passion for helping special needs children. “I left feeling sick to my stomach. I wanted to help those students but there was so little I could do.” Brown was asked to make recommendations for how the special education program could be improved at the school. “I couldn’t just tell them, ‘hey, the way your culture views these people is wrong.’ We had to find ways within the culture to improve things for these students.”

“It was difficult to experience how cultures differ for how they care for people who have disabilities and diseases, but it is also a reminder how these attitudes and educational policies have progressed in United States over the past one hundred years,” added Dr. Erin  DeHart ‘94, professor of education, who visited the classroom with Brown.

Brown and DeHart spent their spring break working with the non profit I Pour Life in Kore, a village on the edge of the city dump outside of the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. It was a primitive place, where many subsist on whatever can be scavenged from the trash. The settlement is comprised mostly of women and children living in roughly constructed huts with no running water or electricity. Thousands of people live in the makeshift town which is ravaged by disease and occasional landslides.

While in Kore, Brown and DeHart visited several schools to provide materials, training, and recommendations for teachers. In this way, they were able to have a lasting impact on the village. Brown and DeHart were part of a larger team of educators working with I Pour Life on this project. The team also included DeHart’s roommate from her years at YC, Casey Daugherty ‘94, a literacy specialist with Republic Schools in Missouri.

Big Changes Start Small

I Pour Life hosts a number of social projects in Kore, working with women and children in need to raise their standard of living and help them find stability. “Many of the women are single parents because of poverty,” explained DeHart. Often the fathers leave to find work and then don’t come back. Sometimes due to lack of healthcare and unsanitary conditions, one or both parents have died and children are being cared for by other relatives. I Pour Life helps single women with children to establish businesses. Women who are accepted into the program receive business training and microloans, as well as coaching on personal finance and saving to help them to provide for their children. So far, the organization has helped more than 100 women develop sustainable businesses to support themselves.

The organization also provides working women with free childcare at a preschool for kids under five. DeHart and Brown visited the preschool and worked with teachers, giving them dramatic play toys (masks, costumes, puppets, dolls, etc) and showing them how the items could be used in an educational capacity. Some of the toys were donated by local York business Isaiah’s Toy Box. Others were purchased with donations from Brown and DeHart’s friends and family.

I Pour Life will soon open two additional preschool care sites in Kore, a great benefit to young learners, says DeHart. “These kids are living in poverty and don’t have a lot of their needs met. The extra enrichment is so helpful to them before starting kindergarten and it helps the women be able to work and know their children are being taken care of.”

Two of the women in the program received a special gift from the I Pour Life volunteers--a hut makeover. The team replaced the mattress and linens in the home to provide a comfortable place for the women and their children to sleep. They also took pictures of the families and had them printed and framed. Volunteers tidied up the huts and placed the new items inside, then had a dramatic reveal worthy of HGTV: they lined up on either side of the doorway and made a tunnel with their outstretched arms, wiggling their fingers and crying “li-li-li!” Despite the basic conditions, “the women were so excited and smiling. They felt honored,” said DeHart.

“The people we interacted with were proud of what they had,” added Brown. “The women invited us into their houses. They were dragging chairs from anywhere they could get them because they wanted us to be in their homes. They weren’t embarrassed by their poverty. They were hospitable. Not because they wanted us to help them, but because they wanted to be our friends.”

The first woman they worked with on a hut makeover was HIV positive, 20 years old and had a five year old son. Yet, she like many other women in Kore, had a strong faith in Jesus. “If you compared our lives, you might think they aren’t ‘blessed,’ but God loves them just as much as us,” said DeHart. “You have to change your mindset about what blessed really means.”

Ethiopia in the Classroom    

Both Brown and DeHart used their experiences on the service trip to impact students in their classrooms in the states as well. “You can’t bring all of your students to Ethiopia, but you can bring Ethiopia to your classroom,” said DeHart, who spent a day telling pre-service educators at YC about the trip. “You don’t need to have a direct experience yourself to be changed…My travel always informs my teaching and impacts my students. ”

The trip was a unique opportunity for collaboration for school children in York, as Brown is student teaching in York Public Schools. Prior to her trip, the middle school students read the book A Long Walk to Water, which is set in Sudan (Ethiopia’s neighbor), and made beaded bracelets for Brown to deliver to children in schools in Kore.

When she returned, Brown told her students about the conditions their counterparts in Kore experienced daily and used it as a springboard to broadening their worldview. “Life in the U.S. is not what life is like in the rest of the world,” she told students, pointing out the many luxuries students in American schools take for granted, from technology, to meals, to running water.

One of Brown’s students struggled mightily with that disparity. “She kept asking, ‘WHY is it so hard for them and so easy for us? It’s not fair.’ I didn’t have an answer for her,” said Brown.

Brown plans to return to Ethiopia to work with I Pour Life in the future. In addition to greater emphasis on children with special needs, the organization is starting a literacy program for adults in Kore, where many of the people have only a third grade education. “That would be pretty cool to be involved with,” said Brown, who will graduate later this month and then start a job as a special education teacher in Grand Island, Nebraska, this fall.

For DeHart and Brown, this trip was an expression of their faith. “Many times, we wonder if we should go on a mission trip, especially when we are already involved with helping others in our own local communities,” said DeHart. “However, because of our talents, time, and resources we are able to go far away from our community and care for others who have greater needs.”

In the summer of 2018, Brown participated in York College’s study abroad program. One of the classes she took while in Europe focused on studying and applying Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. “The people of Kore remind me of the blessings Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes and how we should care for people, not limiting who that should be.”

While there were challenges, Brown said the six-day trip to Ethiopia was well worth it. “It has transformed my teaching for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s helped me be able to talk to my kids about advocacy, sticking up for other people, having cultural sensitivity and a global mindset.”