Eileen Mejia, communication studies faculty, will lead a retreat for Universal Unitarians in Seabeck, Wash., in May 2015.
How did a young woman from Akron, Ohio end up in Sub-Saharan Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer? With a determined focus of creating change and cultivating healing — no matter where the work took her.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in psychology at Adrian College in Michigan, Lynda Mick worked with residents who suffered from severe and persistent mental illness in a Chicago retirement home. She spent her nights prepping for the GRE and researching art therapy programs. When Lynda discovered that Christine Turner had developed one of the first art therapy programs in the Pacific Northwest, she applied to the program and moved to Oregon.
Lynda graduated from Marylhurst with her MA in Art Therapy Counseling in 2010, was hired at her practicum site and gained her licensure. She passed her NCC exam right before leaving for Peace Corps, a decision that brought her Ghana.
This past January, Lynda joined 24 other Peace Corps volunteers to assist with Operation Smile, an American-based nonprofit that provides free cleft lip and pallet surgeries to those in need. Lynda left her own art-minded imprint on the event with her project of creating courage sashes with the patients and their families. After the operation ended, we exchanged emails with Lynda to hear more about her work and experiences in Ghana.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I always had thought of it as such an amazing opportunity. Considering my age and where I was in my career, I knew it would be harder to make the commitment as time went on so I decided to step away from what I knew and take a chance.
What have been some unexpected challenges while living in Ghana?
Probably the most difficult [thing] is just being with yourself for very long periods of time. In the village I wash all my laundry by hand, I take bucket baths, I eat whatever is around or what my mom sends me in care packages. All that was surprisingly easy to manage compared to the insane lack of distractions. There is no TV, very little Internet, no one who gets your jokes. Life is very simple and very slow, and it gets easier to adapt to the longer you're there, but initially the simplicity is maddening.
You spend a good amount of time thinking and reading and processing new experiences and developing a very solid understanding for who exactly you are because that is always with you no matter what situation you are in anywhere in the world.
To flip the coin, so to speak, what has been an unexpected joy?
This may be just a personal experience, and it may be unique to Ghana, but at just about every moment when I think things are too difficult or I am too frustrated to deal with anything else, something great happens that completely affirms my being here. It can be as simple as walking out to the middle of town while in an awful mood and having a little kid run up and hug my leg for no reason. Or my vegetable lady 'dashing' (free gifting) me something extra at market because she knows I'm close to being broke. I never expected to feel so safe and so cared for, but Ghanaians are genuinely the most friendly and helpful people you will ever meet.
For example, if you ask for directions the person will often walk you to your destination, sometimes holding your hand and they won't leave you till they know you have found what you are looking for. Once a taxi driver turned around and drove an hour back to the station just to give me my phone I left in his car.
Share a little about Operation Smile and the courage sashes.
As an undergrad, I was an intern under the art therapist at the University of Michigan's hospital on the oncology floor of the women's and children's wing. This was where the ideas for the courage sashes came from. The Peace Corps volunteers ran the shelter where patients were staying, and I thought it would be a great evening activity to make courage sashes with patients going into surgery the next morning.
I was surprised that the adults seemed to love the activity as much as the children did. We selected and pre-cut yellow fabric with black stars on the center to resemble the Ghanaian flag.
What, specifically, is the therapeutic purpose of the courage sashes?
Therapeutically, the sashes offer a means for preparing the individual to undergo a difficult task with bravery. The creation of the sash provides control to the patient in that they are instructed to fill the sash with items, symbols and words that they find empowering. Then they can wear the sash (essentially bringing these items with them) to pre-op. Being that all of the sashes are the same color with pre-made stars attached, they also help to encourage a sense of camaraderie among those receiving surgery.
What other work have you been doing in Ghana?
When I learned that the rate of HIV was increasing in my district, I offered my services as a counselor at my local community clinic to help individuals assess their options post diagnosis. Every woman that is tested for pregnancy is also tested for HIV, and some have found out both tests to be positive on the same day. There is still a great deal of stigma around HIV in Ghana, as well as traditional beliefs including it's a curse or it doesn't actually exist. Supporting people in these situations can sometimes mean helping to prevent the spread of HIV and encouraging proper care for the mother during pregnancy and after birth so the virus does not pass to the child.
I'm also working with SWAT (Standing With Africa To Terminate Malaria), which is the anti-malaria committee of Peace Corps in Ghana. Each region has a representative in charge of facilitating the spread of useful information regarding malaria prevention. I'm the communications specialist, responsible for coordinating and encouraging malaria work around all of Ghana.
Can you share an example?
I started a mural campaign as part of the anti-malaria education. I've found that murals benefit both the volunteers and the local communities because the communities believe it adds beauty to their town and the volunteer can then utilize it as an education aid whenever possible. My hope is to have 10 murals completed by this time next year.
It sounds like you try to incorporate art wherever you can in your work with Peace Corps. Can you share a little about your pursuit of art therapy — not just as a profession but in your current work in Ghana?
Art therapy combines my unquenchable desire to understand humans with the power of creation. I was attracted to it from the moment I found that it existed. Therapy aids people in creating change, cultivating new life and healing. Making art is the same without words or rules. I wanted to be that kind of therapist, one that believes we can all start with a fresh page and fill it with whatever we want, destroy it when we need to, and start again as we see fit.
I've only really utilized art therapy in one setting here in Ghana. I was a part of an education camp over New Years, and on the final day of camp, we asked the children to make dream boards. I was a little hesitant since creativity is difficult for many Ghanaian children due, in large part, to the teaching style they are exposed to. However, at this point of the camp, I had formed relationships with the 15 teenagers and shared my own dream board example, which left me feeling a little vulnerable. In hindsight, this was probably a great catalyst for the kids as they seemed to meet me and share their own hopes with the same level of maturity. What they produced surprised not only myself but their teachers as well. Their selection of imagery and descriptions of their futures were simple, thoughtful and real. For example, one girl chose a picture of flowers and said she wanted to have a nice flower garden around her house someday. Another boy selected a bicycle and said he wanted to have a bicycle so he could get to and from his job quickly. They really understood the concept, and I felt so proud to share that moment with them.