Aislinn Paul and Munro Chambers, stars of the TV show DeGrassi: The Next Generation, and a dozen other cast members left their set, scripts and TV cameras behind to trek to Ghana this summer.
The Degrassi group visited the coastal fishing village of Asemkaw in the West African country as Me to We volunteers, to help build a school that is a project of the children's charity Free the Children.
Me to We is an enterprise that offers socially responsible products such as books, jewellery, clothing and volunteer travel experiences. It donates half of its annual profits to its charitable partner, Free the Children.
"I really had no idea what to expect in Ghana and neither did anybody else," says Ms. Paul, 18, who has been on two previous Me to We trips. (On Degrassi, she plays Clare Edwards.) "This was the first youth trip to Asemkaw for Free the Children and we were blazing a trail … we met with some interesting, powerful personalities and it's an amazing, lively community."
Other Degrassi actors on the trip included Sam Earle, Charlotte Arnold, Dylan Everett, Chloe Rose, Jessica Tyler, Melinda Shankar, Spencer Van Wyck, Jacob Neayem, Shanice Banton, Alex Steele, Sarah Fisher and Olivia Scriven.
Degrassi has been involved with Me to We/Free the Children since 2007, when actors spoke at We Day and travelled to Kenya to build a school with Free the Children. They have also travelled with Me to We to Ecuador in 2008, India in 2010 and Haiti in 2011.
Free the Children has been working in Ghana for a decade to construct or update schools and water projects in Domeabra, but is moving into coastal communities to implement Adopt a Village, a sustainable community development model. It is designed to meet the basic needs of developing communities and eliminate obstacles preventing children from accessing education. Its five pillars to lifting communities from poverty include education, alternative income, health care, water and sanitation, and agriculture and food security.
Free the Children works with communities to determine the best ways to help and empower them. "The community was very welcoming. They realized we were there to help and not to step on toes," says Mr. Chambers, 22, who has been on three previous Me to We trips. (He plays Eli Goldsworthy on the show.) "They have a lot of pride as a community and want to make change for themselves."
"One of the biggest things is trying to integrate education," he adds. "The children were very excited to see us. A lot of them spoke English. They were crazy, awesome kids."
The Degrassi volunteers built a foundation for the school. Ghana's national literacy rate is 67 per cent and lower in rural villages, especially among women and girls. Most children are required to help their parents fish during the day and many attend school only three days a week.
The Degrassi volunteers also visited a national rain forest and joined "mamas" on a water walk to gather drinking water. "We got to carry the water on our head like the women do," says Mr. Chambers.
"It's ridiculously difficult. It hurts your neck like you wouldn't believe. It's amazing how strong those women are."
In Ghana, just 74 per cent of those living in rural villages have access to uncontaminated water. More than 90 per cent of people are without latrines and a place to bathe.
With the construction of new schools in Ghana, Free the Children will also build clean water projects and gender-segregated latrines on school grounds, vital to keeping girls in school.
Mr. Chambers and Ms. Paul are looking forward to more Me to We adventures.
"Going on these trips has completely changed my outlook on activism," Ms. Paul says. "As a young person, I didn't think there was much I could do, but when you go on one of these trips, it's so obvious there is so much you can do. Free the Children and We Day are so empowering. Giving that empowerment to youth is incredible and I'm so grateful."
The Ghana visit gave Mr. Chambers new insight as well. "You really learn to value family," he says. "People's morals and strength of community and values go so deep. When we look at our own lives, you might think they have nothing, but in ways, they have so much more.
"Even when I'm off Degrassi , I still want to be an ambassador for Free the Children because it's such a great cause."
In addition to Ghana, Me to We offers trips to Kenya, India, Ecuador, Nicaragua rural China and Arizona (an eco-learning destination). For more information or to book a trip, visitwww.metowe.com.