LINCOLN — The Addison County-Ghana relationship will thicken this year as Lincoln’s Ruth Polishuk lifts ECHO off the ground. ECHO — which stands for Education, Culture and Health Opportunities — is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO) based out of Lincoln and Ghana’s southeast Volta Region.
Founded by Polishuk last October, ECHO hopes to strengthen U.S. and Ghanaian education, health care and cultural understanding by increasing exchange and improving communication between the two countries. But, the NGO is being careful not to impose on the Ghanaian way of life.
“I’m not in the mode of ‘I’m from the U.S. and this is how you should solve your problems.’ I don’t want to go over and say, ‘This is how we do things over there, so this is what you should do over here,’” said Polishuk.
Walking a tightrope, balancing assistance on one side and traditional practices on the other, the NGO has outlined three primary goals reflected in its name. They are:
1. To improve education (the E) by building overseas relationships between teachers and administrators and by providing greater educational opportunities to both Ghanaian and American students.
2. To expand cultural understanding (the C) by bringing Ghanaians to the U.S., particularly Vermont and by taking Americans to Ghana.
3. To augment Ghanaian health care (the H) by collaborating with doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and health care administrators in the hope of improving the quality and accessibility of health care, as well as by setting up clinics that will also be used for health care training.
When Polishuk went to Ghana for the first time in January 2006 with Addison County native Rory Jackson, founder of the Trinity Yard School, she returned to the U.S. a changed person.
In Ghana she witnessed the power of simple medical knowledge, caring for children with basic injuries like cuts that could easily grow infected if not properly treated.
“Little basic stuff that we don’t even think about can turn into major problems,” she said. “It was just simple first aid: patching up scratches, providing ibuprofen for basic fevers and dealing with little common injuries.”
Inspired by the positive impact that one person could generate, she returned to the U.S. and enrolled in nursing school at the University of Vermont.
“That’s what got me to be a nurse — simple medical treatments helped kids so much,” Polishuk said.
In the summer of 2008, Polishuk hosted close friend Timothy Adampah, 26, of Denu, Ghana. While spending the summer in Addison County, Adampah performed Ghanaian cultural rituals and taught about his country’s customs alongside locals who had visited Ghana. He also helped Jackson with a week-long summer camp.
As she had every summer since 2006, Polishuk returned to Ghana in the summer of 2010 to investigate Ghana’s public health care system and lay the groundwork for creating ECHO. Accompanied by Devon Macleod and Bonnie Melnick, teachers at Lincoln Community School, Polishuk explored primary care conditions and the health care infrastructure while the two teachers met with educators and school administrators to discuss teacher exchanges and an online mentorship program.
Assisted by Adampah’s father, Joseph, an English teacher of 25 years at St. Paul’s Secondary School in Denu, the trio was successful in forming a foundation for the future of ECHO.
“Without (the Adampah family’s) connections, this whole thing would have taken a lot longer,” Polishuk said.
In January of this year, ECHO purchased an office building in Denu. Timothy Adampah, acting as regional coordinator for ECHO, found the space and helped the organization purchase it.
“He has done the work and really set things up over there,” said Polishuk.
Before the new office with Internet connection was established, it was very difficult for Polishuk to coordinate with the Ghanaian side of the ECHO team. Now communication is much smoother.
The Ghana office provides electricity, an Internet connection and a space for the ECHO Youth Ghana team.
ECHO IN ACTION
ECHO Youth Ghana is a group of educators comprised of about 15-20 young adults who are university graduates, nurses and teachers. They work with schools to organize education programs that focus on basic health and hygiene, time management and preparation for Ghana’s national secondary school exams. The ECHO Youth Ghana team consists solely of volunteers.
In the future, Polishuk hopes to split ECHO’s three-room building into three distinct units: an office and Internet center, a library and classroom with books and up-to-date resources, and a health clinic for treatment and training. After obtaining her Nurse Practitioner’s degree from the University of Vermont next January, Polishuk plans to run ECHO’s Denu center in Ghana for half of the year.
To kick off ECHO’s inaugural Ghanaian exchange, the organization aims to bring the Fafali Dance Ensemble to Addison County in January 2012. Fafali is a well-known drum and dance group that will perform at Lincoln Community School, other Vermont schools and possibly Middlebury College.
But, in order to finance Fafali’s trip, ECHO has its work cut out. On May 4 the NGO will hold a fund-raising event at the Bobcat Café and Brewery in Bristol and later that month (the date is still pending) it will hold another event at Middlebury’s American Flatbread restaurant located in the Marble Works.
Polishuk plans to conduct research this summer in Ghana for her degree and the future of ECHO, but she’s still unsure of what her research topic will be. She wants to rely on the people of the Volta Region to tell her where help is needed most.
“I’m trying to make this organization a little bit different from other similar ones,” said Polishuk. “I want this to be grassroots in that I want people in Ghana to decide what they want and need and can use from the assistance of this group.”
Reporter Andrew Stein can be reached at [email protected]