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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Student founds nonprofit while studying abroad

When UA business management senior Michael Penn first set foot in Ghana, he had no idea he would leave one week later as the co-founder of a nonprofit organization called Finding Refuge.

Penn visited the West African nation in the fall of 2010 while studying abroad with the Semester at Sea program, which allows students to circumnavigate the globe while studying aboard a 590-foot-long ship.

When the ship docked in Ghana, a member of Penn’s party coordinated a visit to City of Refuge Ministries, an orphanage in the small farming village of Doryum. City of Refuge Ministries combats child slavery, specifically the enslavement of children in fishing communities surrounding Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in the world. The orphanage physically rescues enslaved children and provides them with shelter, food, clothing, education and medical care.

Every day, children are kidnapped and enslaved by fishermen on the lake. Many of these children are forced to fish for 15 hours a day or more. They are beaten, starved and exploited by their masters, many of whom were slaves themselves, Penn said.

“You know, these kids, they have nothing,” Penn said. “But the cool thing was the smiles on their faces were bigger than I’ve seen anyone’s on campus.”

Penn and a small group of students spent one day at City of Refuge Ministries, where they met the founders of the organization and the children who live there. The students learned that many of the children they were playing with had once been slaves along the shores of Lake Volta.

After discovering that the children were victims of slavery, the students were overcome with a desire to help.

“We just knew we had to do something,” Penn said. “We went there and, you know, pretty much every (student) gave whatever they had in their pocket. They gave 20 bucks, 50 bucks or whatever, clothes.”

The students were so determined to help the orphanage that upon returning to their ship, they started their own nonprofit organization, Finding Refuge. They began by spreading the word among their classmates in the Semester at Sea program, many of whom donated to the cause immediately, Penn said.

Finding Refuge works to spread awareness about child slavery while supporting City of Refuge Ministries. Since its inception, the organization has raised about $11,000 in contributions and donated a basketball court to the orphanage, Penn said. Finding Refuge also runs a program called Save a Slave, which allows individuals to donate $1,000, all of which goes to rescuing, rehabilitating and educating a child.

According to Penn, City of Refuge Ministries is able to rescue a new child each month.

While Finding Refuge has seen considerable growth since it was founded, Penn said the greatest challenge he and his fellow founders face is expanding.

“We’re kind of at this plateau now where we need something to bump us up to the next level if we’re going to get there, and we don’t know what it is,” he said.

In order to promote his cause and gain support, Penn organizes fundraisers about once a month. He also sells Finding Refuge wristbands on the UA Mall and at concerts like N9NE Fest. Additionally, Finding Refuge offers internships, organizes summer trips to Ghana and continues sending students to visit City of Refuge Ministries through the Semester at Sea program.

For Penn, getting involved in the fight against child slavery and starting Finding Refuge has turned him into a “walking advertisement for nonprofits,” he said. In fact, he said he plans to continue working with Finding Refuge and other nonprofit organizations for the rest of his life.

“I’ve learned a lot, that giving really does feel better than getting,” he said.

According to Penn, the easiest way to help Finding Refuge is raising awareness about the organization.

“It really is all about word of mouth,” he said. “Get involved, go to Ghana. Just go and you’ll be changed, you really will. And then that person will change five others, and then he’ll change five others, so it’s like this trickle effect. It’s a beautiful thing to watch happen.”

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