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The Work of our Volunteers in Ethiopia and Djibouti is an Inspiration

 By Dr. Julie H. Sullivan, President and CEO of IFESH

I recently had the privilege of visiting our programs in Ethiopia and Djibouti and meeting with our outstanding volunteers. Mr. Mamo Mengesha (country representative for Ethiopia) and Sierra Hutchinson Yessoufou (country coordinator for Djibouti) kept me extremely busy during my respective visits, which helped me to learn more about the great work of our volunteer educators and the selfless endeavors that they undertake "to help people to help themselves."

My late father, Reverend Leon Sullivan, was often quoted, but one of his sayings is rarely mentioned:

"In your hand is an egg. Either you can open your hand and hatch it, or close your hand and crush it."

To me, the quote speaks of the capacity of each man, woman and child to realize a better future simply through the decisions he or she chooses to make. For those of us fortunate enough to live in high-income countries, those decisions are often only a matter of making the better choice among two. However, for the millions of poor in Africa, the choice to "open your hand and hatch it" may never arise. For instance, children die, despite herculean efforts on the part of their mothers. As a result, many global dreams and hopes for a better future are crushed.

In observing the activities of the IFESH educators in the field and their dedication to serving others, I am reminded that we, in our unique role, are not "hope crushers" but we are rather "dream makers."

In Ethiopia, I encountered people who are helping to change the lives of the poor for the better, not only in education but in the health sector as well. In Asela, Charlene Taylor is training nurses of Gynecology to improve services for women. In addition to her activities in training teachers and nurses, she is also working on the development of a culturally relevant HIV/AIDS education module to share with local teachers. Dr. Thomas Syre has assisted health colleagues at Haramaya University in developing a new professional health bulletin, with the first edition published last month, as well as advising the Dean of the College of Health Science at Harar campus and mentoring MPH and Ph.D. students. At the same university, Dr. Augustine Sesay manages the Higher Diploma program for university faculty.

Dr. Julie H. Sullivan, IFESH President and CEO, speaks with school girls at Balbara 3 primary school in Djibouti during her January 2011 trip to the country.

Dr. Julie H. Sullivan speaks with school girls at Balbara 3 primary school in Djibouti during her January 2011 trip to the country.

IFESH is proud to emphasize sustainability in our work; one example is the continuation of previously established programs. For instance, Dr. James Rollins, a former IFESH educator, worked with his colleagues at the University of Addis Ababa to establish the first-ever School of Social Work. His work is being continued by Dr. Berihun Mekonnen, a current IFESH educator, who is working with his Ethiopian colleagues to develop and strengthen postgraduate programs and to enable the school to establish a premier Ph.D. program.

Many of our educators are willing to work in remote areas. That is another hallmark of the IFESH volunteer - getting out there and doing what it takes, even under hardship conditions. For example, Ericka Scott is training primary school teachers in the remote Gondar area and working with University of Gondar students in improving their English skills. Comesha Griffin, in addition to her responsibilities with the higher diploma program (HDP) at Finote Selam College of Teacher Education, has developed a rural girls club. For these girls, "Mesha" as she is called, has brought an awareness of basic health and hygiene practices. She has also brought hope, by engaging a donor (Jack and Jill of America) to support the project, which has supplied sanitary women's items to the girls.

Megan Flowers was one of the five Ethiopian volunteers who I was unable to meet with during my visit, because of the remote location of her project and my time constraints. However, when speaking to her on the phone from Hossain College of Teacher Education (on January 17th, Ethiopian Christmas!), she gave me an upbeat and positive report. She is training pre- and in-service teachers in English language, establishing an HIV/AIDS program at her school, fostering gender equity through increased awareness, and establishing an English lab.

Our Volunteer Educators often become local celebrities within their communities - and this is certainly true for two volunteer "Katherines." Dr. Katherine Simpkins is at Kotebe College of Teacher Education, where she is serving as a teacher trainer, establishing a Teacher Resource Center for special needs education and assisting students in improving their English language skills. Watching her within the resource center, now fully stocked with modern books, and hearing her vision to acquire state-of-the-art equipment so that her teachers have access to the same learning materials as their counterparts in the West, it was apparent that her zeal for learning was contagious. Watching her walk the campus, greeting teachers and students by name, and later during a coffee ceremony, it was clear to me that her work had become a welcome feature of the fabric of the school and student community.

The other Katherine, Dr Katheryn Crayton-Shay, is equally dynamic and hardworking. She has singlehandedly developed a platform at Debre Berhan University to conduct a continuous professional development (CPD) training for 60 school facilitators from 15 schools. These 60 facilitators will be expected to train 300 teachers in their respective schools, including laboratory demonstration training for 48 science teachers. In my discussion with Katheryn, she joked that her main wish was to hire a helicopter so that she could make efficient site visits to the primary schools, rather than having to walk the long distances by foot.

Some of our volunteers have made quiet but just as distinctive inroads, such as Abebch Guttema who is also serving at Debre Berahan TTC. As a resource person at the school, has established a premier project at the Teacher Training Center (TTC) aimed at empowering young girls and advocating against violence aimed at women.

The Ethiopian volunteers seem to be a close knit group. They got together in Addis Ababa, over Christmas (December 25th), as they do whenever one of the educators from a remote area comes to visit; Katherine Simpkin's home is the designated "home away from home," a convenient inflatable bed placed on her small living room floor.

From Ethiopia, I traveled to Djibouti, a much smaller country but with an equally "big" mandate for education reform. The Djiboutian Ministry is implementing an ambitious reform agenda through partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). A major goal of the program is to strengthen the professional competencies of Djiboutian educators, thereby impacting the quality of learning environments in the classroom, through in-service training of primary school teachers, school directors, and pedagogical advisors.

It was evident that the teachers had their work cut out for them. Although only three in number, they are having a significant impact working under the umbrella of a structured program, called Project AIDE, with specific objectives delineated by the Ministry in dialogue with USAID.

Sierra Hutchinson Yessoufou, Country Coordinator, is doing a fantastic job juggling the responsibilities of managing the day-to-day work of the program, as well as fulfilling her responsibilities as volunteer. Sierra has been involved in providing support to the Coordinator of the Training Unit of CFPEN (Centre de Formation des Personnels de l'Education Nationale), to the regional directors and trainers in the Northern and Southern regions, with the goal of improving the efficiency of their work. She has supported school inspectors and pedagogical advisors by linking the training worships to follow-up in the classroom, and going forward will work on developing and strengthening the Teacher Resource Center model at CFPEN and the Ministry of Education. She also accompanied me to visit a preschool school in Tadjourah, where the quality of the environment was clearly evident by the bright posters and learning materials to which the children were exposed.

Dr. Harriet Nettles is doing an outstanding job in supporting CFPEN's evaluation group in helping to improve teacher observation tools and to develop related competencies, including the use of spreadsheets to analyze data. Her enthusiasm is appreciated by everyone. She is also working directly with the school inspectors to provide training in education management. When I talked with her in Djibouti, she lit up as she spoke about her work in providing English language instruction to the Ministry as an ongoing part of in-service teacher training.

Finally, Sandra Yowell, in her subtle, conscientious manner, is strengthening school directors and pedagogical advisors in the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in class instruction and management. She is helping to lead on-site computer classes for students in school clubs and their faculty sponsors. In her quiet manner, Sandra is the "glue" among her counterparts and has adopted the Djiboutian mannerism of moderation in all things.

Beyond the sight of children in the classroom (and the tentatively but determined raised hands of the young girls in primary classrooms where the discussions were often dominated by boys), the highlight of the trip to Djibouti for me was my opportunity to attend the Martin Luther King, Jr. Reception at the U.S. Embassy. This annual soiree convened more than 100 American and host-national guests, notably the Prime Minister of Djibouti, Ministry representatives, international partners and USAID representatives, including Mission Director Stephanie Funk. Ambassador James C. Swan spoke warmly about my late father's contributions to sustainable development in Africa. The three volunteers were present, and by the evening's end, were able to discuss the work of IFESH with many individuals in the impressive and multi-faceted crowd.

Clearly, our educators are making a substantial impact in the field - and they are making it their duty to hatch eggs of hope rather than to crush them. God bless them and continued good luck in their important work!