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First year joins SJP winner in Ghana

During the summer of 2010, Roni Finkelstein ’15 met and worked with Grinnell’s Social Justice Prize winner, James Kofi Annan. At the time, Finkelstein was volunteering with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) in Ghana building a latrine and teaching elementary school students. The program itself lasted seven weeks and was called Volunteer Summer.

Roni Finkelstein '15 teaches a first grade class in the Volta region of Ghana. This village of Sovie lies on the bank of Lake Volta the site of much of the child trafficking that occurs in Ghana. Photograph contributed.

“I’ve been going to the same summer camp since I was ten years old,” Finkelstein said. “Going into my junior year I was a counselor and then my senior year I decided I wanted something different. So I actually just Googled ‘volunteer summer’ and the American Jewish World Service (AWJS) was one of the first to come up. I thought, ‘Well I’m Jewish, and I want to go to Africa,’ and it ended up being a really cool experience.”

The group that Finkelstein worked with was taking a weekend to vacation at Cape Coast when she met and worked with Annan. The AJWS supported Annan’s program, Challenging Heights, when it first started and even though they no longer give him money, the connection remained.

Challenging Heights helps provide education for children who have returned from slavery and other forms of child labor. It also supports at-risk and poor families to ensure that, by improving their income, child slavery will not be necessary.

“When we first arrived at Challenging Heights, [Annan] introduced us and took us around to all of the classrooms,” Finkelstein said, “We got to interact with the kids and even teach. It was interesting because we taught a lot of the classes in the village we were staying in and the students were so far behind the students in the Challenging Heights School. The kids at Challenging Heights were all able to form basic sentences in English, which was a huge contrast between the regular schools and what [Annan] is providing.”

After working with students and seeing the school, Finkelstein and her group went out to lunch with Annan and listened to him share his past experiences.

“He kind of just sat down and told us his life’s story which, if you look into it, is really really intense,” Finkelstein said. “Yet somehow he’s able to sit in front of privileged, American, Jewish youth and talk about something that they can’t even imagine that he went through.”

That following October, Finkelstein found out that Annan was going to be in New York. She and a friend set up a gathering for him to speak.

Finkelstein made her decision to attend Grinnell College before the winners of the Social Justice Prize were announced. When she found out that Annan was a winner, she was excited.

“I was kind of just browsing the website—you know how when you’re excited about college and you’re looking on the website and all of the YouTube videos?” Finkelstein said. “I ended up on the Social Justice page and went, ‘Wait! No way!’ It was awesome. I was like, now I know why I’m going to this college: this is something they’re able to appreciate and support.”

When Melisa Chan, Coordinator of the Young Innovators for Social Justice Prize, found out that an incoming student had actually worked with Annan at Challenging Heights, her reaction was very positive.

“Roni was super enthusiastic and she volunteered to help and I jumped at the opportunity. She actually gave a presentation about her trip where she talked about working at the school and had taken some beautiful pictures,” Chan said. “We decided that students on campus should know more about the Social Justice Prize winners.”

James Kofi Annan, along with the other Social Justice Prize winners, will be on Grinnell’s campus Oct. 25-27. There are ten events scheduled during their stay where students are welcome to interact and speak with the winners.

“So, one thing that I would recommend is that everyone go talk to [Annan] when he’s here. He’s extremely open and will talk to anyone almost anything. You could ask him any question and he’ll answer it to the best of his ability,” Finkelstein said. “His story is really amazing, and you appreciate it even more when you see other people’s reactions.”

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    AnnaOct 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    you go Emma!