Meet Do Something Awards Semi-Finalist Sarah Geller

Sarah Geller

During college, Sarah Geller traveled to Trinidad and began teaching music to children who had either been abandoned by their drug-abusing parents or orphaned by the AIDS epidemic—all had been exploited, neglected, and abused. Sarah was amazed at the dramatic change in her students’ behavior when given the tools to express themselves through the arts. Inspired to reach more children, she started Arts Education International, which provides art therapy programs for children orphaned by AIDS in Ghana and children who were child soldiers in Sierra Leone through immersive, sustainable and community-based arts programs. AEI currently employs 50 artists—most of whom are AEI graduates—to teach indigenous art to over 700 children in Ghana and Sierra Leone.

We asked Sarah a few questions about her experiences and what keeps her inspired. How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

Sarah Geller: When I first began working with orphaned and abandoned children, I felt completely devastated by the hardships they were facing. I felt overwhelmed when I thought about how much they had suffered. There were many days when I felt discouraged, and wondered if there was anything I could do to help. Initially, I felt that my contributions paled in comparison to the trauma these children had endured.

DS: How do you feel about it now?

SG: Now, I feel a great deal of hope. One of the major issues traumatized children face is that they are unable to imagine a better future for themselves because they are trapped in the memories of their past. Many also feel shameful about their experiences. I have seen so many children confront trauma on their own terms through the arts, and their lives have been transformed by it. Once isolated in their shame, they now feel a sense of community. The presence of our programs have given so many children a consistent source of support, activities to look forward to, skills to build a life with, and mentors to look up to. For traumatized and disenfranchised children, these networks are literally life-savers.

DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?

SG: I will never forget the day I met a 14-year-old named Kelly at a children’s home in Trinidad. I was teaching music classes twice a week, and she would sit in on the keyboard class. She would never participate and would ignore me if I tried to talk to her. One day she handed me a notebook and asked me to take it home and read it. When I got home, I opened up the book and it was filled with her poetry. She had written poetry about being abused as a little girl, about her mother’s crack addiction, about loneliness, and about hope. I stayed up all night reading her poems over and over. The next day I went back to the home and told her that she was incredibly talented, and she shared with me some of the songs she had written as well. I connected her with Tony Hall, a producer and mentor of mine in Trinidad. Kelly went on to record an album, perform during Carnival season, and publish her poetry. I had the privilege of watching her grow from a troubled and insecure young girl to the confident and eloquent young woman that she is today. This fall, she will be attending college at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine.

DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?

SG: I have met so many people who inspire me in my work everyday. Recently, I've been thinking most about Cosi, one of our students in Makeni. When he was eight years old, his mother was burned to death in their home right before his eyes, and his father was killed by rebel forces weeks later. Cosi was taken in by a man whom he thought was a kind stranger, but in fact turned out to be a rebel commander. Knowing that the commander would force him into combat, Cosi decided to escape one night and go out on his own. He walked for 20 miles, 3 miles of which were through rice paddies with water up to his chest, before finding the main road. It would have been much easier for Cosi to stay with the rebels—certainly many orphaned boys his age did. But Cosi believed that there was a better future for him, somewhere beyond the dark of the night and the gunk of the muddy rice paddies, far down the road to Makeni. It is a privilege to be a part of Cosi’s better future.

DS: Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?

SG: One moment that I always treasure is returning to the village of Daru in Sierra Leone after having hired our first group of stipend-supported student instructors. They are a group of orphaned boys who had formed a collective called the “Vision Stars,” and when I first met them, they were incredibly despondent. They were largely isolated from their communities, and formed the collective as a support group. They all were suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, having frequent flashbacks and nightmares. They excelled in our programs since their inception in Daru in 2008, completing intensive training in singing, dance, batik-fabric dyeing and T-shirt and sign stenciling. In 2009, the Vision Stars became Arts Education International’s first group of stipend-supported student instructors, leading an after-school program for other orphaned children in their community.

I returned to Daru 4 months after they began their after-school program for other orphaned children in their community under the supervision of our Freetown-based artists. I couldn’t have been more proud of their accomplishments. They had been training over 200 children in music, dance, drama, and practical crafts. They also started their own T-shirt and sign-printing business, and had younger students apprenticing at their shop. I was blown away by the complete transformation that these boys had undergone: from outcasts to leaders in their communities, from being trapped in a horrifying past to having high hopes for the future. Further, I felt that their success represented an important cycle in our development work: the delegation of instruction to artists in Daru, and the success stories of careers built on the skills acquired through AEI programs.

DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?

SG: Raising money has certainly been a struggle, as it is for any non-profit. However, our early financial hardship ended up being a blessing in disguise. In the first year, we had to cut back our programs for three months. I could no longer afford to pay the artists I had hired. Most of them continued to go to the orphanage without pay, simply out of obligation to the children they had formed a bond with and a belief in the project. Now I know that I have a great core group of artists who are truly dedicated to our mission.

Another hardship has been overcoming the legacy of aid (as opposed to development) in many of the communities we serve. Many of the villages we work in have had relationships with NGOs that were based on handouts in the form of food and petty infrastructure (like community centers) without an expectation of community input. Worse, many of the local governing bodies such as chieftaincies and councils had come to expect handouts from organizations working in their villages. It has been a long road towards establishing partnerships in these communities, and cultivating the trust required for long-term development projects. With every passing month in our established programs, our progress speaks for itself and this road gets easier. With every new project, our reputation precedes us and we are able to work towards those goals more quickly and efficiently.

DS: What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?

SG: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to treat the people I am serving as partners in my cause and to take very seriously the opinions of community leaders, the artists I employ, and the students in our programs. I’ve learned that people ultimately want to help themselves, and are very capable of doing so given the right tools and resources.

DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

SG: The most surprising thing is my own evolving role as the Executive Director of AEI. I began this journey as a volunteer, teaching music at orphanages and children’s homes. Today, I am working with artists indigenous to the communities I serve, focusing on the implementation and development of programs.

DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?

SG: Stick with it, and don’t be afraid to reevaluate your strategy if it’s not working. Your idea will evolve all of the time, and if it doesn’t, you’re not thinking about it enough. Treat the people you are hoping to serve as your partners and recruit them to help you with your cause, and treat the problems you encounter as opportunities for innovative thinking and growth.

DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?

SG: I first started working in Daru, Sierra Leone after being advised by John Caulker, the National Director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Director of a reconciliation organization called Fambul Tok. He was enthusiastic about the initiation of AEI programs in Daru, located in the easternmost Kailahun district, because the region had been largely neglected by NGOs compared to the capital of Freetown and larger cities of Kenema and Bo. When I first arrived, I wasn't aware of the complex and sensitive network of local governing agencies in Kailahun District. I had greeted the district chief upon my arrival, but had not consulted with the lower chiefs or the head counselor. They were deeply offended by my omission and made no secret of it, particularly since there was some debate over who exactly had the authority to allow our classes to take place at the Community Center that was built by UNICEF, but had been locked up prior to our arrival. We are now on good terms and they are happy to have our programs in their village, but we could have gotten off to a smoother start. I now make sure I consult with local elders in each new location, to make certain that I am paying proper respect to local governing agencies.

DS: What’s next for your project?

SG: The success AEI has generated a significant demand for more arts programs, and we are growing at an exciting pace! Within the next year, we hope to establish two new programs in Sierra Leone, one in Ghana, and our first ever domestic program at the Edgewood center in San Francisco.

Our new programs in Sierra Leone will take place in Kroo Bay, the country’s largest slum, where drug abuse and crime is rampant. Our new programs will provide drama and dance-focused arts education for 200 children in the Kroo Bay community center and vocational arts training for 40 children at the Kroo Bay Juvenile Detention Center. The impetus for these programs came from one of our most indispensable teaching artists, Mohamed Kamara, who grew up in this slum himself.

In Ghana, we will undertake our most ambitious program to date in Digborkope, an extremely impoverished village in the Volta region. With no infrastructure and an estimated HIV rate of 75 percent, this village is a prime target for human traffickers. Falsely promised hope of better lives, desperate families allow their children to be taken from them. The children are then taken to larger cities and sold into slavery, unable to escape largely because they know only how to speak in the rare dialect of their own tribal language. Through an intensive three-month program, we will empower the children of Digborkpe in the most time-efficient, sustainable manner possible. A dance and drama program, geared towards children 12 and under, will focus on AIDS awareness, children’s rights, and language skills. Older children will be trained in fish basket making and batik, as well as business principles, and be given start-up materials upon completion of the program.

Our first domestic program at the Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco will provide after-school instruction in African drumming and dance, digital photography, and stenciling for 35 children. The Edgewood center is a facility for children with severe emotional and behavioral issues. This program will focus on fostering a sense of accomplishment and physical awareness in these children, and will incorporate an email pen-pal program with our students in Ghana. The faculty will include volunteers from the San Francisco Art Institute and Kwesi Anku, an accomplished Ghanaian dancer and drummer.

Bonus Question: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?

SG: Oprah! She has endured a great deal of hardship to build an incredible career. She is also incredibly service-oriented with a like-minded viewership.

Check out more information on all of our Do Something Awards Finalists.