When Judy Griffin emailed a video and a few photos of herself and two of her boys using the Math-U-See manipulative blocks in Ghana, we were intrigued.
They were a lovely sight: differing skin colors and more than a generation apart, with heads bent together working diligently toward a shared goal. The little boys in the video were so dear—funny, fidgety, and determined as they built their problems and recorded their answers under the benevolent tutelage of their grandmother-tutor. She had written to thank us at Demme Learning for the Math-U-See curriculum.
Two years ago, at age 76, Grandma Judy relocated from her home in Washington State to Ghana, moved by compassion for four orphaned brothers who lived there. I had to know what her life looked like now, parenting, teaching, and caring for so many kids so far from my familiar settings. I perused Grandma Judy’s blog and her website, and slowly things fell into place. The place to begin and end this story is with compassion and love. It’s no more and no less spectacular than that. The same love that leads you to answer your daughter’s whiny voice with patience, the same love that would compel a father to sleep under the crib of his newborn in the hospital for days—that same love is what brought Grandma Judy to a new country to look after some kids who didn’t have anyone.
Grandma Judy agreed to FaceTime with me. With me in my air-conditioned office and her in a schoolroom one ocean away, we talked a little about her life in Ghana, her life before Ghana, and the day-to-day joys of parenting at The Kids’ Shelter, part of the Alafya Foundation out of Holland.
Me: Where did you first learn compassion?
Grandma Judy: My parents spent much of their time doing volunteer work… church, PTA for our schools, scouts, 4-H, Little League, Community Club, Ladies in White (volunteer first-aiders). As a child, I took care of my younger brother and sister, and I nursed our sick family pets. Later in life, I worked in the school system with children with disabilities; they were a great blessing to me.
Grandma Judy’s vision started with her three Ghanaian-American grandchildren and extended visits to Ghana. Her connections in Ghana grew to include four brothers whose parents had died. They were in need of many kinds of assistance, naturally, but most of all they needed a loving parent. When the third brother, Joseph, was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, Grandma Judy arranged to stay at the Kids’ Shelter as a long-term volunteer and rear John, Peter, Joseph, and Christopher. (You might want to stop here and watch these videos or bookmark them because these young men are so precious, sharing their dreams and thanking their supporters, most of whom they have never met.)
When Grandma Judy moved to the Kids’ Shelter as a long-term volunteer, she quickly discovered the deficiencies in education that result from inconsistent schooling and unreliable or non-existent parenting. She works hard during school vacations to fill in the gaps for her boys and the others at The Kids’ Shelter.
Me: What do you teach?
Grandma Judy: I assist the children here with whatever subject is troubling them at the time. They all need help with math, so when I knew I would be coming to stay in 2014, I brought the Math-U-See curriculum with me. We watch the video lessons and do the practice sheets with the blocks to gain understanding of concepts; then we bridge the gap to how it is taught in the schools here and what their teachers expect of them.
Me: What’s your favorite part of teaching?
Grandma Judy: Seeing the light of understanding suddenly come on in the eyes of a child is delightful. Whether it is in understanding a math concept or how to make a computer mouse move; successfully jumping rope or realizing how to use a new English word correctly; making a clever move in chess or reading a new book, it is wonderful. By the way, I love your program. Their eyes light up and they get it, and it’s because of your curriculum.
Me: How do you approach teaching students with severe emotional needs or those who have suffered trauma?
Grandma Judy: Although we try to make our environment as near to a traditional home as possible, still the fact remains that each of our children lacks a nurturing family of their own. I wouldn’t say our children have severe emotional needs, but each of them in their own way cries out for attention and the love of a mother and father. They respond well to hugs, to words of praise, even to discipline, as that gives them a sense of safety. When they must be disciplined, we tell them that we cannot tolerate the action they did, but we love the child, just as most American parents do.
Me: What do you particularly bring to The Kids’ Shelter?
Grandma Judy: Languages are not my gift, but being in a culture and being with new people, really living in a place. Providing nurturing and the stability of parenting.
Me: Where do you consider to be your home?
Grandma Judy: Legally, my home is in Sequim, Washington. When I am there or in other areas of the west coast of America, I am happy with family and friends. However, right now my heart is here in Ghana. I am needed here and will remain here as long as the good Lord keeps me healthy enough to do so.
Me: Who is on your team? Who is the “we” you refer to on your site?
Grandma Judy: There is the American “we” in the several churches and many individuals who support by prayer, encouragement, and financial donations the work that “we” are doing here in Ghana.
There is also the Ghanaian “we” in the directors of The Kids’ Shelter where I live: Gerdy and Moses Osei. There are staff members and sometimes other volunteers. Part of this “we” is the church we attend, the school, Ghanaian friends, and those who occasionally bring donations of food or funds to help in the operation of this nonprofit children’s home.
Lastly, but really firstly, there is the Lord who has opened all the doors and windows to allow us to be a part of this great journey.
Me: What is your dream for the people you live with now?
Grandma Judy: My dream for each of the children is that they continue to receive nurture and education to reach their own goals. Some have a goal in mind, such as being a pastor, nurse, soccer player, or banker. Others are too young yet to have an idea. My hope is that there is continued financial support to see them through the level of education necessary for them to become self-sufficient, productive members of their country and culture. For some this will mean finishing junior or senior secondary. For others, this will mean finishing university level training or apprenticeships.
Me: What are the children’s dreams?
Grandma Judy: As for their dreams, they range from wishing they could have a soccer ball of their own or a dish of ice cream to wishing that I (or one of my friends) could adopt them so they would have a family of their own. They all want so very much to be loved.
Me: What cultural changes have you had to get used to in Ghana?
Grandma Judy: Food is spicy here. You can’t easily get fresh milk; it must be reconstituted. Cheese is hard to come by this remotely. And, of course, I miss going to church services in my native language.
People are friendly. They ask, “How are you?”, and they are interested in the answer.
The people around me are very protective of me, especially in the instance of an especially aggressive beggar. They may see a white person and think I have a lot of money, so I give little economics lessons and explain that, by American standards, I am “low income.”
I have been conned before, but the majority of the people I meet are honest and caring.
Grandma Judy wrote in to thank us at Demme Learning. While we receive that, we also thank you, Grandma Judy. We want all your precious students to have such good lives. Thank you for letting us be part of the love you show them.
And good luck, grandchildren of Grandma Judy!
Me: How can readers get involved?
Grandma Judy: I started the Helping Ghana Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is now sponsoring 24 children (including the boys mentioned), widows, and medical situations here in Ghana. So if people are interested in receiving our newsletter, giving support, or sending their thoughts, they can contact me here: HelpingGhanaKids@gmail.com. There’s also a place on the website to make contact.