New Carrollton Gazette March 19, 2009

School community prepares to volunteer in the Gambia

Natalie McGill

   When her plane touched down in the Gambia in 2007, Bowie's Alysia Flynn knew she was in for more than just a volunteer trip when she saw a row of cows outside the airport instead of cars.

"It was such a culture shock that first night," Flynn said.

But after the initial shock wore off, Flynn, 19, and seven others spent three weeks forming relationships with the Gambian people which they hope to renew with a third trip in June through Side By Side: The Gambia Project trip through New Hope Academy in Landover Hills.

The Side By Side trip, which partners with groups such as international nonprofit Service For Peace, began in 2007 through New Hope Academy and teacher Beverly Berndt as a cultural exchange program for youth to provide health education, character education, tutoring and beautification. A group of eight went in 2007 and 18 went in 2008 trip. This year, 12 will take the trip.

Berndt went on a volunteer trip to the Gambia by herself 10 years ago and enjoyed the experience so much she began bringing her family with her. But Berndt wanted more youth to have the chance to go and in 2007 headed the first group trip.

"Most everything we do, we do in pairs because it's got to be a cultural exchange," Berndt said. "It's not as impactful unless relationships are created."

Flynn, who attended New Hope for ninth grade, was paired with a Gambian woman named Bintu in 2007. Flynn is particularly excited to return to Gambia to see Bintu since she just gave birth to twins.

"I'm so excited to see her children," Flynn said. "These people are truly and really a part of our family. I feel like the rest of my year is in preparation for my trip to Gambia."

Flynn said the group did about two volunteer projects a day such as "Mother Baby Day," where they monitored infant weight and gave children oral vaccines for polio, and "Operation Clean The Nation," where residents work together to clean the streets, make large piles of trash and burn them.

"They just have this unbelievable spirit about taking care of their community," Flynn said. "There's no separation between about what's theirs and what [is] their neighbors. Everyone just shares everything."

Berndt said it costs about $2,500 a person to go, including airfare, a visa fee and living arrangements, which cost $200 a person. Instead of staying in a hotel, the group stays with families. The group is raising money through bake sales, flower stands and through a New Hope Academy production of "Pinocchio."

"It's a very daunting number, especially now since no one has a lot of money," Flynn said. "I feel so passionate that this is where I'm supposed to be every summer that it works out. Something always comes through. But there's definitely that moment were you're like 'Oh my gosh, is this going to work?'"

This year will be New Hope Academy 2004 graduate Charles Robinson's first time going to the Gambia.

"I saw clips of stuff when people go help out and people have the biggest smiles and they're so giddy," Robinson said. "That's definitely something I wanted to partake in."

Robinson, 22, of Lanham said he transferred to New Hope Academy his senior year of high school from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. He said the school's volunteering spirit inspired him to give back.

"These people, the alumni and the people who attended New Hope and the staff that go to Africa every year, they do this on their own time, spending their own money," Robinson said. "I've always taken things for granted until attending New Hope. These people are so nice. They do this out of the kindness of their heart."