York Region students experience Ethiopia

By  Angela Serednicki, Youth Speak News
  • December 9, 2010
 Kristine SoufianTORONTO - Kristine Soufian wanted to help people who needed it the most. So she took action, initiating the Ethiopia Summer Experience.

The main focus of the volunteering initiative is to offer an ESL (English as a Second Language) program to both elementary and high school students in Gambo, Ethiopia, over the summer. The program is one branch of the Cor Unum Africa Foundation.

“Their resources are limited,” said Soufian, now an English and Religion major at the University of Toronto. “The majority of the students I taught cannot even afford to wear shoes. Some young seven-year-olds carried their six- to 24-month-old sisters or brothers without diapers in order to be able to attend the English classes that we offer free of charge.”

The classes began because students in Gambo only receive one hour of instructional English per day until the completion of primary school. After passing the required government testing they are mandated to complete their secondary schooling solely in English. Qualified English teachers are not available throughout the school year and thus many students are not able to continue in their education.

As a Grade 10 student at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School in Maple, Ont., Soufian met with Fr. Marco Bagnarol after confessions at her school and expressed  a desire to help wherever there was a need over the summer. Bagnarol, a missionary priest who works with Consolata Missionaries, set her up with the Cor Unum Africa Foundation, where the Ethiopia Summer Experience was born.

“I wanted to see poverty with my own eyes,” said Soufian.

In the summer of 2008, Soufian, along with her best friend Laura Pereira, travelled to Gambo for the inaugural summer of the program. Nicole Manteiga joined them the next summer and the three girls now co-ordinate the program.

The Ethiopia Summer Experience is one of the many initiatives within the Cor Unum Africa Foundation. Cor Unum Africa, meaning one spirit for Africa, is a Canadian charity founded by businessmen Domenico Saverino and Vincenzo Verduci in 2008. The foundation officially became a registered charity last March.

“The purpose of the Ethiopia Summer Experience is to educate, to break the cycle of poverty and to open doors to opportunity,” said Manteiga, an environmental studies student at York University.

Each year, Cor Unum Africa holds a wine and cheese fundraiser. With the money raised, the charity is able to finance half of the price of the plane tickets for the volunteers of the Ethiopia Summer Experience. The funds also cover room and board for the volunteers.

“Volunteering is usually so expensive. However, Cor Unum Africa gives people the chance to help,” said Pereira, an international development and English student at Toronto’s York University.

The summer program is offered to students in both high school and elementary levels. In the morning, high school students are given the opportunity to rebuild their English skills, grammar and spelling. After the lessons, there is a recess break where students can play with skipping ropes, soccer balls or other toys and equipment that are usually donated. In the afternoon, younger children in the elementary school level are offered the same program.

This summer, the Ethiopia Summer Experience is anticipating more volunteers than ever before.

“We’ve grown so much, we now have around 20 volunteers,” said Pereira.

Volunteers hold fundraising events through dances, luncheons, BBQs and through presentations in elementary and secondary schools to spread the message. For the upcoming trip, they now have volunteers from St. Jean de Brebeuf Catholic High School in Woodbridge, Ont., St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Maple, and St. Elizabeth Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ont.

“In Ethiopia, one loaf of bread costs 10 cents and $20 can feed a family of 13 for a month,” said Soufian. “Every penny donated counts... And it’s not just about raising money; it’s also about raising awareness.  

“It is never too early or too late to send out a helping hand or even shed a light in a dark room. We are the hope. We are the change. We are who we want to be.”

(Serednicki, 16, is a Grade 11 student at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont.)

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