SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - First came yellow fever inoculations and warnings about eccentric cuisine, including porcupine. They were told they can expect tropical heat, mosquitoes and possible exposure to malaria.
Despite these "inconveniences," nine Slippery Rock University students answered the call to participate in a 10-day service trip to Gabon, Africa, during winter break.
The group has been meeting since the beginning of the semester for various planning activities, including last Sunday's training at SRU's Leadership Center. Students will provide health information, skills training and aid to orphans, confronting a hidden hurt in a country most American couldn't place on a map.
Myra Balok, assistant professor of English, is leading the trip to Libreville, the capital.
"My desire for these students is see that although the people we will meet have far less 'stuff' than we do, including things we take for granted everyday such as flush toilets, electricity, and at least one meal a day, the Gabonese we will serve are among the most generous, delightful and caring people I have ever encountered," Balok said.
"It is an honor for me to serve as a conduit for the energy and encouragement our students will provide for those in Gabon we will meet," she said. "The students have servants' hearts, and are already making differences in the lives of people here and soon for people half-way around the world. Our students represent hope to me."
The group departs Dec. 29, flying from Pittsburgh to Paris, then Gabon. Working at an orphanage called House of Hope, students will provide basic health instruction and present an anti-Malaria skit to village people outside of Libreville.
Students are paying their own way, at a cost of $3,000, and will arrive home Jan. 9.
Balok said the origin of the trip began with a fundraiser table at Empty Bowls, the University's annual even for hunger awareness. She displayed a collage of 50 children from House of Hope she met during a previous trip. Many students inquired and Balok scheduled four feasibility meetings in the spring to talk about the journey.
"The response was amazing. Forty-three students came to hear about a trip. Sixteen students made applications, and every one of those was outstanding. It was difficult to pick only nine, but our invitation to the country was for 10," she said.
Students, led by Laura Ordaz, a physics major from Cooperstown and member of the SRU Council of Trustees, will distribute LifeStraws to villagers. The giant straws purify water to 99 percent.
Ordaz said she decided to participate after hearing about Hope of House and being told about the loving people of Gabon.
"I am interested in traveling to Gabon because I want to experience the amazing culture and wisdom that Gabonese people I have heard have to offer," Ordaz said. "I want to see the people who will be benefiting from the LifeStraws and hear from their mouths if there is anything else that we can do to improve their health and well being."
Ordaz, who serves as a community assistant in Building D and is involved with many clubs on campus, said she heard of the struggles that the Gabonese people face.
"I want to help those who have less than I do," she said. "I believe Americans have a bad habit of assuming that the less fortunate need certain things. We need to step back from these assumptions and ask what we can do for the people. I want to travel to Gabon so that I may hear what the Gabonese have to say."
Students will present the skit to villages on the outskirts of Libreville and hope to do some crafts and games with children at House of Hope.
The skit involves a family, a doctor and a few mosquitoes. Act 1 will show the family getting ready to go to bed while leaving standing water in a bucket. After the family goes to bed, the mosquitoes come into the scene and 'bite' the child.
After the mosquitoes leave the scene, the child wakes up with the shakes, fever and sick. The child is acting out the symptoms of malaria. The next scene involves the doctor who gives the child medication for the sickness and a bug net to keep away the mosquitoes. The doctor also shows the family how to throw out the water from the bucket so that there is nostanding water to attract mosquitoes.
"We will be acting this out to teach the Gabonese the importance of bug nets, throwing out standing water and taking medications," Ordaz said.
To prepare for the trip, students have been studying French and how to dress appropriately for the culture. Officially the Gabonese Republic, Gabon is on the west coast of Central Africa. More than 1.5 million people live there.
It won't be all work. In their free time, students plan to go to the beach, hike and shop. Students will be staying in the Guest House, a small compound with 24-hour security, flushing toilets and showers. Students will celebrate New Year's Eve a long way from home.
Balok said she has been discussing different ways the Gabonese view life experience. It is a tropical area, so fruit is common, especially pineapples.
"Since it is a coastal country, fish is very common," she said. "Bush meat is illegal, so the only strange meat they may be offered is porcupine. I was served it last year. It wasn't too bad, but I must admit that I swallowed it rather hastily."
Nuts are common. Bananas are everywhere. "I have seen women toting entire bundles - the whole thing, dozens of bananas - on their heads in baskets."
Ashton Donmoyer, an early childhood/special education major from Fredericksburg, Va., said she learned about the grip when volunteering at SRU's Cardboard Village Program a year ago.
"I have traveled to Ethiopia twice for similar missions work and fell in love with the people there," she said. "The flight is long and the trip can drain any energy you have, but knowing the effects of our visit keeps you going. I will always have a place in my heart for Africa and its people. This opportunity is one I could not pass up."
SRU's core values include service and globalism, a perfect tie-in to the mission of the Gabon trip.
"I have always hoped to travel to troubled nations and help those who do not have all of the luxuries I have been blessed with," Donmoyer said. "My mother reared me to work hard for everything I want in life and to be aware that not everyone has the opportunities I did growing up. I was able to volunteer in homeless shelters during high school and found I loved that work. I also have had a heart for children since I can remember. Learning about the effects of poverty and malnourishment in my classes makes this work even easier for me."
Donmoyer said knowing she can help children receive food and other important amenities excites her.
"As I have learned in my past experiences, the only thing 'in it' for me is everything," she said. "The entire experience changes your life in a way I cannot explain unless you have seen people who literally have nothing and are happier than almost everyone you have met in your life. Spending time in Africa helps me to grow as a person every single time. It reminds me how lucky I am and that even the littlest efforts can make the biggest difference in someone's life."
"Giving these kids love is the biggest gift they could receive," she said. "We will also be bringing books over for university students and other school children. They love to learn and new books are such a resource for them. In addition to books we will be bringing along malaria prevention information."
Donmoyer said she is most nervous about getting ill.
"It is easy to get caught up hugging children and playing with them and forget that they may be extremely sick. I am nervous to get any illnesses or other traveler's diseases that you can contract when in Africa," she said.
Genna Miller, a social work major from Langhorne, said she was interested in going to Gabon because of the service aspect and chance to experience new and exciting things.
"I am only young once and in college once. If the school provides opportunities, I might as well take advantage of them," she said. "My heart for service has always been there since I can remember. My parents instilled a sense of service in me from a very young age when we would go volunteer together as a family."
She said she is most nervous about the heat and getting sick.
"We are going right after the rainy season and it is going to be very hot and humid. I am also worried about accidentally forgetting not to drink the water and drinking it, which will make me sick. Another huge worry for me is accidentally disrespecting their culture and offending them."
Allison Jones, an early childhood education major from Pittsburgh, said she also got typhoid and polio shots.
"I am very nervous for the unknown. But with having the unknown, it gives a sense and experience for adventure," she said. "I believe my biggest concern is about water. Dr. Balok graciously bought each one of us a LifeStraw to take. I am very thankful for it because I know it will help make the water more purified. To me it's funny that my biggest concern is having safe water when in reality the citizens in Gabon face concerns every night such as even receiving water."
For the past several months, the group has been meeting to discuss the culture, beliefs and lifestyle of the Gabonese. The team leadership exercises at SRU's Leadership Center started Sunday with rope and other team-building drills aimed at promoting unity.
Chloe Finigan, a communication major from Falmouth, Mass., said she has been interested in service since her sophomore year, when she joined the Community Service Corps. She volunteered at Empty Bowls and said she has always been passionate about international service.
"When we work together, we can strive to make the world a more productive and compassionate place," she said.
Finigan said she struggled with volunteering at first, because she wanted to do the 'fun stuff'. Her attitude changed with she participated in an SRU CareBreak to Mississippi, where she moved woodpiles and dug up pipes in the hot sun.
The trip to Gabon will be memorable, she said.
"I also believe primarily in globalism," she said. "I love intercultural communication, and understanding cultures is vital for our prosperity and our general quality of life. This trip is the most important thing I've ever done with my life. Hands down."
Jake Rogers, a psychology major from Jersey Shore, Pa., said he decided to participate because he SRU provided service trip opportunities to an Indian reservation in New Mexico.
"My next goal was to always go on a service trip to Africa and when I heard about this one I could not pass it up," he said. "I figure I should do these things when I am younger because who knows what my life will be like within the next few years.
Rogers said the group will distribute hospital gowns to local women and might travel to other villages to provide minimal health care, such as counting medicine for patients.
"I have always had a heart for service because I am so fortunate to be able to have the things I do, and I want to pay that back to those less fortunate than me," he said. "I enjoy leaving the world where I have everything under control and experiencing the unknown. It enhances my appreciation for what I am truly blessed with each day. It also gives me the ability to experience a new culture and understand how those different from me live."
Rogers said he is, "concerned about the language barrier the most, but after a few days there I should be fine. I am just excited to see the culture of Africans compared to us. I enjoy seeing simple lifestyles and how people living them are very happy. I am also excited to see the reactions of the people we interact with. It is always interesting to see how different cultures react to new people."
The other three students participating are: Jessica Coddington, an early childhood major from West Homestead; Rachel Kerr, a therapeutic recreation major from Harmony; and Naomi Marshall, a therapeutic recreation major from Greenville.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.