Haley Matthews - 2015 Program Participant

Medical volunteers with local children and clinic staff in Ghana

Me with two members of the eye clinic staff, Rubin and Dr. Gaitu, and some of the students we did eye screenings on.

Why did you decide to study abroad?

I studied abroad in Wales in 2013 and also traveled to quite a few different European countries. Since that journey, I have wanted to travel and see different parts of the world, what better way to do so than by helping others through a volunteer quest?

Why did you choose United Planet’s program in Ghana?

I was seeking volunteer experience in the field of optometry because I am currently applying to optometry school. I was placed in a regional hospital with an optometrist that I was able to shadow and learn from for the entire four weeks I was in Ghana.

Volunteering abroad in Ghana was a perfect way for me to accomplish so many goals and open my eyes to a whole new world in a very short amount of time. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started the journey, but I cannot explain how rewarding it was!

Visitor at a monkey sanctuary in Ghana

Me with the monkeys in the monkey sanctuary - they eat bananas right out of your hands

What was your favorite part about the community you were placed in?

Ho, Ghana is a very friendly and welcoming community. The citizens of this community definitely made it such a great experience. I was very surprised by the number of people that I met who just wanted to welcome me to their native land. Not to mention the beauty of the mountains surrounding Ho. I was able to take a trip into the mountains a few times to hike and see the Wli Waterfalls.

What characteristics of your program made it unique?

The program that I participated in is unique in a number of ways. Ghana boasts a culture very different than anything I have experienced. By living with a host family, I was truly immersed into the culture. I was presented with traditional Ghanaian dishes every night for dinner. The in-country coordinator has a great friendship with the host family that I lived with, so I was able to really see and do most of the things I wanted to. They take great care of the volunteers and made sure I was satisfied every step of the way. They also offered great support as I ventured out and experienced unfamiliar circumstances.

In my volunteer experience at the hospital, I thought it was very unique that my placement was really up to me. They didn't plan for me to be in any one specific ward in the hospital, and I could have jumped from place to place if I wished to do so. I chose to stay in the eye clinic for my entire four weeks, and that was just fine as well!

How did local staff support you throughout your program? 

The local staff was great! The doctor that I was shadowing would often buy lunch and drive me home from the hospital after a long days work. There was also an optometry student working with the doctor I was volunteering for the entire time, so I was able to build a great friendship with all of the eye clinic staff. They introduced me to more local dishes, drove me around to souvenir shops, answered any and all questions that I had, and much, much more.

The tomb of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Accra, Ghana

The tomb of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana, in Accra

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

One thing that I wish I would have done differently was venture out through the city in my free time. At first I was kind of timid and didn't know if I should be walking around town by myself, especially since I didn't have a functioning local cell phone when I first arrived. I wish I would have gotten a phone on my own and not waited for the in-country coordinator to organize it so I could have done more exploring.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

A typical day for me started around 6 a.m. I woke up to the sound of roosters crowing and my host sisters sweeping the courtyard and patios. When I finally managed to get out of bed and ready for the day, I would head out to my patio where breakfast was waiting. I was typically served a slice of bread (absolutely delicious) or crackers with a thermos full of hot water. I would just relax, eat my bread, drink some coffee or tea, and then I would leave for work. The walk to work took about 20 to 25 minutes, and by the time I got there I was generally sweating! (I could have taken a taxi and avoided this problem, but I enjoyed the exercise and no one at the hospital seemed to care).

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we had clinic days, so when I arrived at the hospital I would start doing visual acuity tests with the patients. When I finished the tests, I would start shadowing Dr. Boamah, Dr. Serwah, or Dr. Gaitu and ask them what else I could help with.

If it were a Tuesday or a Thursday, we would head out to a primary school for outreach. On those days we screened children and interacted with the community in different ways. I would usually get lunch with the eye clinic staff, and then head home for the day around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.

When I arrived home, I would either relax or go out again to the market. A traditional Ghanaian dish would be served for dinner, and then I would spend time at home with my host family. I would head to bed around 10 p.m. on most nights, and that system worked well for me.

What was your favorite activity outside of your day-to-day placement activities?

My favorite activity was definitely my trip to the Wli Waterfalls. It was about a three hour drive from Ho, where I lived, and a friend of my host family drove me there. We stopped at the monkey sanctuary along the way and just had an absolute blast. It was an experience of a lifetime and I would go again tomorrow if I could. I had no idea how beautiful some parts of Ghana truly are!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it? 

I lived with a host family. The home I lived in was extremely nice and well kept. I stayed in one room of the house that had four beds in it and a bathroom. There was plenty of space for just me and I honestly can't complain about any of it. My favorite part about living with my host family was actually having people to come home to every night that cared about my day and made sure I was doing well. They also prepared some awesome meals for me, so again, I can't complain!

Wli Waterfall in Ghana

Wli Waterfall

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad impacted your life? 

When I first arrived home, I definitely went through reverse culture shock. I constantly felt guilty about the life of luxury I live in America. I also felt anger towards my family and friends for taking everything we have for granted. Every day I think of all of the ways people in Ghana could benefit from a fraction of the resources we have here. I often wish I could go back and take my loved ones with me, just so they could understand and experience life in Ghana first hand.

After having settled back into my routine in America, I have been much more grateful for beautiful world around me and the life that I live. My faith has grown in unimaginable ways, and I owe it to my new friends from Ghana! I know that my experience abroad has forced me to grow in many ways and I am truly grateful for all of my experiences. I'd go back in a heart beat!