Philanthropic Mentors

Lauren Grimanis

Posted on by ums

I am the co-founder and president of the Akaa Project, a non-profit organization creating opportunities for families in the Eastern Region of Ghana. I am 21 years old and a senior at the College of Wooster, a liberal arts school in Ohio, to graduate this May 2012. I am a Wooster Fighting Scot on the field hockey and tennis teams and enjoy being active and involved on my campus through student organizations, service opportunities and policy discussions.

My parents moved into the suburb of Wayland, just outside of Boston, when I was born. Growing up in Wayland provided me great opportunities in education, sports and extra-curricular activities. Since settling in Wayland, the town has grown into an affluent suburb with high taxes and multi-million dollar homes. Despite being surrounded by increasing wealth and desire for the newer, better material items, my family did not buy into these trends. I spent my weekends outside playing sports and helping my dad with outside chores and fixing up the house. My parents were certainly a factor in how I developed as a person and are the two greatest influences on who I have become. My mom is a warm, caring person with unfailing morals of always helping people (and animals). My childhood stories include memories of my mom corralling a stray horse into our garage and the horse stepping on her foot and breaking her toe, or picking up stray dogs to find their homes, or the even more ridiculous of setting out deer food for the local deer in the wintertime (all true stories). As a pediatric nurse practitioner, my mom’s dedication to helping others was enforced into her parenting and I was constantly exposed to service and volunteering.

My dad is a mechanical engineer but the epitome of do-it-all-yourself. I was always fascinated by how he could fix the car, build a house, cut down huge trees in our yard, reconfigure plumbing, but also play any sport with me. Even if he had never done something before, he always tried – even if it took a couple of days (or weeks) to get done. No matter what the problem was, my dad was always problem solving and thinking of new solutions or ways to do things. He always encouraged me and supported me in my activities. My parents have given me the chance to experience a lot in life and have supported me through these opportunities. They have challenged me to go for it and have especially been my biggest supports through my college life and with the Akaa Project. While they support my academics, they also support my passion, which I think says a lot about them as parents.

The summer going into my senior year of high school, I wanted to volunteer abroad. Throughout middle school and high school I had volunteered in my own community. I had heard the stories from my friends who had gone on mission and group trips. They had a great time but after seeing their pictures, it seemed like they mostly were around other Americans. I wanted something different. So I convinced (and scared) my parents by telling them I wanted to volunteer in Africa. After some research and inquiry, they agreed that I could volunteer in Ghana through Cosmic Volunteers. This international volunteering organization set me up with a host family and a volunteer opportunity. So in July 2007, I stepped onto a plane, my first plane trip by myself, and set out to Ghana, not really knowing what to expect. Ivolunteered in an orphanage in Accra and lived with a wonderful host family. The school and orphanage I worked at was truly an eye-opening experience for me but my true moment of inspiration came from a day trip to the Eastern Region. My host mother, Joyce Doh-Efa, took me to see her cousins and some tourist areas in the Eastern Region. Some of the tourist attractions were directly within a village, Asiafo Amanfro, so hiking back from Umbrella Rock, we meet some local teens and children. It was clear that the children were not in school. I also found out from Joyce that the young teen was 16 years mother with a baby wrapped around her back. I was shocked. I had just turned 17 and couldn’t believe the responsibility of this young girl. I also found out that the government was encouraging tourism and supporting local tourist attractions, yet none of the money from tourism was going back into the community.

The community had no school and no services or support. Joyce and I talked about this for two hours on our trip back to Accra. When I left Ghana, I kept in touch with Joyce and from both our passions and determination we decided to work with this community. Joyce visited and talked with the community, I talked to people in my community, and several months later we started the Asiafo Amanfro Community School. The structure was a low mud walled structure with palm leaves for a roof. We hired three teachers from within the community who had basic middle school education. The school began to expand and classes could not be held in the rainy season. We decided to expand. We moved the school closer to the road, so that all those in the greater Akaa community could attend the school and we started a school committee made up of all community members. The committee mobilized the community to help build the current school structure – cement floors and a tin roof. With the expansion of the school came the decision to create a non-profit organization, the Akaa Project.

As an organization, the Akaa Project seeks to create opportunities for families in the Eastern Region of Ghana. We began to understand rural issues and the concerns in the Akaa community. We found that child and family health and the financial well-being affected the success of education. We got the Ministry of Health involved to vaccinate children and Marie Stopes International provided education to the community on sexual health. We started a community micro-finance project with a grant from the College of Wooster’s Center for Entrepreneurship. In 2009, I brought the Akaa Project’s first volunteer to Ghana! Since then we have greatly developed as an organization. Joyce has formed a team of Ghanaian volunteers, equally passionate about working with this community.

We have focused on community driven initiatives and utilizing individual and community assets. We started giving individual micro-loans to women and in January we built the walls of our school and added 32 new students from 2 miles away. We also brought our first large group of volunteers to Ghana, a group of College of Wooster students over their winter break. Because of Joyce’s involvement with volunteers and my experience from volunteering, this has become an important part of the Akaa Project. We believe this is a mutual benefit, where volunteers and the community greatly benefit from interactions and the talents each person has to offer and share. I have learned a great deal through developing the Akaa Project.

Each time I travel to Ghana I learn something different, find out something new about myself and understand people. No matter what age you are, be prepared and open to learning from people. The best example of this is volunteers. I typically see volunteers very excited to “make a difference” and “change people’s lives” before they go to Ghana. At the end of the trip, while they have done great work in the community, they are the ones who have been changed in the process. Joyce and I ensure this learning and openness with all volunteers and it is truly amazing to see people transform and learn about themselves and others.

To hear updates, support or learn more about the Akaa Project visit www.theakaaproject.org

What were your greatest obstacles and how did you overcome them?

There have been many obstacles in creating the Akaa Project, domestically and in Ghana. As a college student, it has been difficult to balance education, extra-curriculars and the Akaa Project. This was a Project that I started in high school and carried on to college, but did not seem to fit into a college student’s schedule. I realized that I didn’t have to do this alone. I realized that many people wanted to become involved and help out. It started with a bunch of friends and has expanded into over 25 students running and operating the non-for-profit. In addition to continuing the Akaa Project and its activities, this has given students a chance to gain skills they cannot learn in academics.

As a mentor what advice would you give others wishing to follow in your footsteps?

I have two pieces of advice: do it and take opportunities.

1. As a young person, I think there a certain expectations and pressures from peers, parents, relatives, professors, neighbors, etc. The world sometimes teaches you to go through a certain path to be “successful” and “accomplished.” But I say do it different. You don’t need a Masters degree or to be rich to start something or make a difference, it is the passion and drive within a person that makes them achieve greatness. Don’t wait or feel like you need more experience, your journey will be your experience.

2. I am a big believer in opportunities; the Akaa Project’s tagline is “creating opportunity” Take the opportunities you are given, whether it is in school, volunteering, meeting someone, etc.. Any opportunity may open new doors and new opportunities. There are people who don’t have opportunities in this world, so take the ones that are presented to you – and don’t forget to dig to find some too! My Unique Mindset is being open and ready to learn, no matter the age, education level, experience or background.