Global Connections: University YMCA partnership with Sierra Leone YMCA fosters international understanding, expands student opportunities

The University YMCA (‘the Y’) has pioneered initiatives, spearheaded programming, and fostered dialogue and action in the Champaign-Urbana community for more than 140 years. Their focus around the four pillars of social justice, environmental protection, interfaith cooperation, and global engagement is driven by student volunteers. One example of the Y’s student-driven initiatives is their thriving, collaborative partnership with the Sierra Leone YMCA connects two communities who are committed to learning from each other. Illinois International Communications sat down with the Y’s Executive Director Mike Doyle and Y Staffer Ricki Runions to learn more about the Sierra Leone YMCA partnership.

How did the partnership with the Sierra Leone YMCA first come about?
Mike Doyle (MD): At the time [of a $100,000 legacy donation from Cosmopolitan House], the Y board made the decision that we really wanted to re-engage in the work of global engagement, both here on campus and outside of campus. This donation seemed like a great opportunity for us to move that vision forward. The Y put out a Request for Partnership Proposals, because we really wanted to hear from other people on campus, other non-profits, and other YMCAs on how we could be more active in global engagement work. We received probably 25 different proposals and the Sierra Leone partnership proposal was one of them.

The Sierra Leone partnership proposal came from a group of students who were part of the Global Health Initiative (GHI) on campus. GHI really wanted to identify some place overseas where students who are involved in the Initiative could learn, study, and have firsthand experiences. At the Y, we realized that if we were really going to do this and do it right, we wanted to find some place where the University had an existing relationship so that we could build a partnership that had multiple layers and opportunities. Also, we were interested that there be a YMCA on the ground. We found all of these qualities in Sierra Leone, which has 24 YMCA locations and is home to Njala University, with whom Illinois has a thriving academic partnership.

After you identified the Sierra Leone YMCA as a partner, how did the relationship take off?
MD: When we first sat down with the Sierra Leone YMCA, we talked about what kinds of challenges and needs they had, and where they as a community and as an organization were interested in working. We really wanted this relationship to be a true partnership, where it was beneficial to both sides. Some areas that we initially identified were the need for access to clean water and youth development and job training. And then the Ebola outbreak hit Sierra Leone and froze the back and forth travel of partnership affiliates. We were still in touch with the Sierra Leone folks and from that experience we identified a third need, tackling mental health in post-Ebola Sierra Leone. After these conversations, we began our work of talking to individuals on campus to find those who were interested in these topics or had resources to support programming.

What are some of the broader goals of the Sierra Leone partnership?

MD: At the bottom line, this partnership improves global engagement. It provides our students with the opportunity to have a greater understanding of different cultures. It helps people realize that we are all on the same planet and we all care deeply about our futures together. I think more specifically; the goal of the Sierra Leone partnership is to create opportunities where students could go abroad and be engaged in something that is real. That bridge from what they are learning in the classroom to hands-on experiences. Part of it is really trying to build a partnership where we are connecting not only the two YMCAs, the two universities, but also the communities on both sides.

For example, the Y partnered with Illinois Enactus to take students from the Gies College of Business to Sierra Leone. The students had the opportunity to analyze the potential for starting a woodworking business that would supply furniture to local schools, also known as the Furniture Project. So, the students learned what it was like to start a business in an international setting.

Can you talk a little bit about projects that are happening as a result of the partnership?

Kenama Well Project

MD: One of the needs that was identified by the Sierra Leone YMCA was access to clean water. The Sierra Leone YMCA has a school in Kenama (in Sierra Leone) that they wanted to build a well next to. While they had been able to do a lot of the preliminary planning, they still needed to raise an additional $7,000 for the project. So, we brought in the expertise of a non-profit consulting group, Akelos, which was founded by students involved in the Honduras Water Project at Illinois, and Engineers Without Borders, another Illinois RSO, to weigh in on the plans and develop a proposal that was submitted to the Urbana Rotary, which approved the funds to support this project. Again, we are giving students real life problems to tackle and solve in an international setting while they learn what it is like to work with a partner on a global scale.

This past summer (2017), the well was completed, opened, and is actually functioning and working. The well was built by local contractors identified by the Sierra Leone YMCA and is open to anyone in the neighborhood. This well is part of a larger vision to have a community center around the well. We are also hoping to identify new locations where this project can be replicated. An exploratory trip will take place this coming summer (Photo: Sierra Leone YMCA Executive Director Christian Kamara and colleagues surround the Kenama Well).

Furniture Project
MD: This project grew out of the need for youth development and training. Unfortunately, this project is moving much more slowly than we would like. Currently, the artisanal nature of the project does not generate enough revenue so we will need to purchase machinery. However, a big obstacle to purchasing machinery is ensuring that it has a reliable power source. There are a couple of partners in other countries (England and Germany) that also have relationships with the Sierra Leone YMCA that are having conversations about purchasing a generator for the group. This shows how important it is to have extended networks and community involvement in these projects so when we have some hurdles, we can find ways to solve them.

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Global Connections: University YMCA partnership with Sierra Leone YMCA fosters international understanding, expands student opportunities
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Global Connections: University YMCA partnership with Sierra Leone YMCA fosters international understanding, expands student opportunities
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The University YMCA ('the Y') has pioneered initiatives, spearheaded programming, and fostered dialogue and action in the Champaign-Urbana community for more than 140 years. Their focus around the four pillars of social justice, environmental protection, interfaith cooperation, and global engagement is driven by student volunteers.