A working vacation changed 16-year-old’s view of Africa

  • September 28, 2011

Celeah Gagnon spent her summer vacation abroad. But she didn’t spend it tanning in Cuba or backpacking across Europe. For five weeks, she was in Africa helping her grandmother.

Her grandmother is Barbara Michie, a Scarboro Missions lay missioner who is working as a teacher in Malawi at an all-boys Catholic boarding school.

During this time, Gagnon, a Grade 11 student at F.J. Brennan Catholic High School in Windsor, Ont., mended about 300 books in the school library, which her grandmother runs.

“We’d bind the books from the outside or if the pages were ripped, we’d tape them, we’d put a plastic cover over the entire book so the outside stays safe and clean,” said Gagnon.

She also spent time in the classroom at St. Patrick’s Catholic Secondary School for Boys interacting with the students — and building relationships. Every other day, time was set aside for the students to ask her questions about daily life in Canada or related topics, and she in turn learned more about their lives in Malawi.

“I got really attached with the kids at my grandmother’s school,” she said. “When they all went home for their summer vacation, I cried with a couple of the students… It’s amazing how much you can connect with people only knowing them for three weeks.”

The trip changed her perspective on the preconceived notions she had about Africa.

“When you think about Africa, most people just think about impoverished places, bare land and the Sahara Desert. But when you go there, it’s completely different.”

In particular, the divide between rural and urban was what struck her most.

“People can come from absolutely nothing and have no crops and earn barely nothing and then you go the cities and it’s completely different — it’s just the same as us. You have a decent job and you have your own house.”

At only 16, Gagnon said she feels a call to serve her community. In Windsor, she volunteers with her mother at a nursing home on a regular basis.

Already, she is planning to go back to Malawi one day. But next time, she hopes it will be as a professional helping those in need.

“I’ve been thinking about going into nursing and if I was doing some kind of job in that field, I could eventually go back to Malawi and serve — sort of a Doctors Without Borders sort of thing.”

But until the next time, Gagnon said she will hold onto the unforgettable memories, the new friends she made and the time she spent with her grandmother, who has been working in Africa for the past seven years.

This article is part of our Call to Service special feature.

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