Forging international connections

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Outfits made out of cards, trash bag dresses galore, and loads of GW TRAiLS members stylishly draped in the best of their supply closet dotted the Vern last Friday. This isn’t the typical GW student attire, but for students trying to raise money for community development in Africa it was the norm.

The annual Anything But Clothes run, which is organized by the group Student Movement for Real Change, requires students to pay $5 to register and asks others for donations. That money is usually donated to a school in South Africa.

But this year, one of SMRC’s own, Sarah Whitney, a senior graduating from the Elliott School of International Affairs, will be using the money raised to build a community center in the Uta community of South Africa.

Whitney began her journey with SMRC as a freshman. She was not particularly involved in the organization until she came across an internship opportunity through SMRC. That summer she found herself in the Uta community located in the Manyeleti region of Mpumalangpa, South Africa.

Along with 20 other college students from 17 different schools, Whitney and fellow interns spent a total of eight weeks learning about the Manyeleti region and working with its residents. Many of the people in this community live on nearly $2 per day, and the unemployment rate is nearly 70 percent.

Nonetheless, the Uta people, whom Whitney describes as a “dedicated” community, housed the SMRC interns. “I now have three little South African sisters,” Whitney said, “When you live with people for weeks, you get to be really close.”

In the last six weeks of her internship, she forged a special connection with a group of local high school students to create a community center. One student in particular, Forget Sitholi, took the lead on a project. Through weekly Skyping and Uta community outreach programs, Sitholi and Whitney have partnered together to lay the groundwork for the Uta community center.

To date, Whitney and her project partner, Claire Bristow, a graduate student at the University College of London, have raised $36,000. Half of that was donated by the Buffelshoek Trust, a major partner with SMRC based in South Africa. After Whitney graduates, she plans to return to the Uta community through an SMRC fellowship grant and build the center, which will include everything from a latrine and water source to microfinancing seminars.

“My role is to go in and not just throw some money at the problem, and just say ‘this is what I learned in school,’ but to ask what the community really wants,” she said.

You can track her progress next year through her blog.

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