Hi, that’s me over there >>
My name is Stella Tsouknidas, I’m 22 and I live in rumney. I’m currently unemployed but I volunteer with the SAFE foundation 3 days a week, it has to be said I look forward to going into the office and seeing the safe girls!
My life changed completely once I met the SAFE foundation staff members Lucy and Hannah.
Before Africa I would spend most my time getting high with my friends either out on the streets or in our houses, that isn’t what the life of a 22 year old should be like, especially when I have dreams.
I left school with no GCSE’s so finding a job or going to college was basically my only options. I hated school with a passion, I just couldn’t wait to leave. I went to three different high schools and hated them all. The last school I attended I had a great group of friends who made my school days worthwhile. I was a little brat in school, I got kicked out half way through my last year for arguing with my head teacher. I had a part time job but once I got kicked out of school I went into full time work in a bakery and I loved every minute of it. I really enjoyed working there and I was sad when it closed downL. I used to have arguments with my mother and I moved out for a while with a woman I didn’t really know that well. All I did was sit in and get high on my days off work and stay in with her and loads of boys from the area. It isn’t the life I wish I had led, if I could go back and change the way I used to be I would, but I can’t. All I can do is learn from my mistakes and make the best out of it. I went to college for a year and did hairdressing but after the first year it felt just like high school I was so bored and we hardly ever learnt anything new but the same things over and over again and I felt like I was wasting my time, so I left. At least I left with my NVQ Level 1 in hairdressing.
It started in December when I saw an advertisement in the local postcode book. I wasn’t too sure about it at first but I gave it some thought and when the interview date came I found myself walking to the centre with butterflies in my stomach. Once I got there I was welcomed by Hannah who was so cheerful and happy, which made my butterflies calm down a bit. Then I was introduced to Lucy who signed me in and took a photo of me for the interview. I didn’t know anyone there so I felt a bit weird. We got started. They told us about Sierra Leone and what we would be doing there if we got chosen to go. We had one-to-one interviews with each member of staff there which was a little scary, but I thought “just be myself and it will be fine” Once I started talking my butterflies turned to excitement. After the interview process I said goodbye to everyone. Once I got home I was there for about an hour then my phone stared to ring. I answered and it was Hannah “you’re going to Africa!” OMG I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say, I was speechless.
I sat down for a minute to take it all in and then it hit me.. I’m going to Sierra Leone!! ME! I never thought something like this would ever happen to me but I was sooooooo excited it was unreal I told my mum then we called everyone in the family. They were so pleased for me, congratulating me, telling me what an amazing experience I was going to have and how life changing it was going to be. I was shocked for the whole day I didn’t sleep much either. My family members were so supportive of me but my friends not so much, they all thought I was crazy going to Africa saying “it’s a war zone you’re stupid if you go out there” or “I can’t believe you’re going”. I started to get fed up of explaining to people that it’s not a war zone and if it was they wouldn’t be taking us. But I was so excited that I thought if they can’t be supportive I’ll do it without them.
We had 6 weeks of training prior to the trip. We would all meet up and learn about the things we were going to be teaching in Africa. Nutrition, HIV/AIDS and life skills, Which was taught to us by the amazing Lucy. Every Friday I was greeted by Hannah at the door with a big squeezy hug followed by Lucy and it made being there so much better because I still didn’t know anyone. I still felt a bit weird around everyone but Hannah and Lucy’s hugs always made it a little bit better… who knew that after those 6 weeks of training and just 2 weeks in Africa that we would feel like a family. It’s crazy how everything’s all changed in such a small amount of time.
BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS
When we landed in the airport and I stood off the plane I was hit by the heat, it was getting dark and still the sun was blazing. After what seemed like hours and hours of waiting outside the airport our transport finally came. 16 people, loads of suitcases and bags and all we had was a small mini bus and a car. We had to squish us all in the mini bus with the bags and filled the car with the bags as well. We were all sat on top of each other for the whole journey. It was such a shocking drive. I don’t think we were all ready for what was about to happen… the driving was INSANE! The roads were like one giant pothole! It was crazy how they drove around at night trying to avoid other vehicles. It was pretty dangerous and a little frightening aswell, I soon got used to it though. We had to get a ferry to Freetown. We cued up outside and we all got out of the minibus so the smokers could have a fag and so we could stretch our legs. We were bombarded with the locals trying to sell us things and just standing there looking at us like we were aliens or something. It was strange. When we were on the ferry we all sat down on the floor waiting and we were all so silent. I was thinking about what to expect and I started to get a bit homesick, I started to miss everyone back home but then we all started talking to each other and it made me feel better.
The drive to our lodge was long and seemed to take ages. It was so hot in the mini bus with everyone piled on each other and only a few windows open. We pulled up into our lodge that looked like apartment buildings, we went to our rooms to get settled (which were better than what any of us expected) I shared mine with Chantelle aka Chanty warrior, Rae aka rabies, Sam, Lucy evo and Sophie. It was such a laugh. We had a lovely view from our room unlike everybody else (they were all stuck on the bottom floor). We also had a view of the little kids that lived right outside the lodge in a small shelter. We woke up every morning with the one boy playing in some sand that was left on the side of the building. Our apartment consisted of 3 bedrooms, a shower room and a small kitchen area with a table for us to eat our food. The staff there were amazing. Our chef Mr. marsh was awesome, I loved his food he was such a good cook although breakfast wasn’t the best meal of the day I think we ALL looked forward to our meal when we came home from school. Then there was smart A ‘the guy that brought us our food every day’, he was such a hard worker, he worked just so he could give money to his mum for rent for her and his brothers and sisters, meanwhile he lives in a room where he could just about fit in he has nothing there it was so sad when he was telling us about his life and how hard he works just to support his family, he was only young. When I think about it the smallest room in my house I could still fit a bed and a wardrobe in, it was a big culture shock.
The school we taught in was a 2 hour drive away, the first day was the worst because we didn’t know what to expect. When we got there we all got out of the cars and we were suddenly surrounded by all these kids who were trying to grab any part of us that they could they were all so happy to see us. It was just like what you see in the papers or on the news when you see a celebrity go to Africa, it was incredibly overwhelming but amazing. I just couldn’t stop smiling the whole time. We started walking to the school and we were just all looking around at each other and we all had a massive group of kids surrounding each of us. It was so different to experience. Some of us got attached to a few of the kids me, chanty, Lucy evo and Lucy dicko all got attached to the same kid, Mohammed. He was just a toddler and he was such a cutie we all loved him. We also got attached to one of the kids we were teaching from day one he was there, talking to us making friends with each of us telling us about his life, Ibrahim Y Sesay he was such an amazing kid who had dreams. I think a few of us have still kept in touch by writing letters to him he is such an amazing kid! It was a privilege to have met him! All of them. It was so hard when we had to say goodbye, I held back my tears so I didn’t cry in front of them but there were so many people begging us to take them back to the UK with us. It was so hard and heart breaking. I wanted to bring them all with me or stay there with them, it was a sad moment for everyone.
It was such a rollercoaster with all the things I had experienced that not a lot of people could even imagine. There was so much beauty in Sierra Leone but there was also so much pain and suffering. It was just so hard to take it all in. They are all such happy people and they suffer so much but they expect so little, yet here in the UK we have high expectations, if we don’t work we have benefits to help us, if we’re homeless we have hostels and shelters we have good hospitals and doctors. We have it good here, so to see what we did in S.L was such a shock.
It’s something that I will never forget. It will stick with me forever it’s what has kept me here with the SAFE foundation. I have always wanted to do something like this but never thought I’d get the opportunity and now that I have and I’ve experienced it I don’t want to stop. I want to keep doing this, I want to help people all around the world. It was such an amazing feeling doing what we did.
Our days off
On our days off we went to two different beaches, a market, a chimpanzee sanctuary and we even went to a festival. All I can say is… AWESOME! Where do I start, the festival our last day in Sierra Leone it was just amazing that’s all I can say it was the best festival ever. Lucy and Hannah even opened up the festival by singing some of their songs! We danced our booty’s off, we even learnt a dance move from a man who had spotted us dancing and he came up and started dancing with Chanty Warrior it was so funny. The beaches, again ‘amazing’… Especially number 2 river, it was such a beautiful place – It was like paradise! We were the only people on the beach, and it was just beautiful. My eyes had never seen such a beautiful place that wasn’t on the tele or in a magazine, it was amazing!
Lumley beach was only a 10-15 min walk from our lodge, it wasn’t as beautiful as the other beach but it was still beautiful (if that makes sense). The water was amazing the sunset was amazing it was just overall an amazing experience!
The chimpanzee sanctuary was also an amazing experience they were so cute I really wanted to hold one. Our guide was hilarious he made noises just like them it was insane, so funny to witness that.
After Sierra Leone
Since coming home from Sierra Leone, I have stayed with the SAFE foundation, I do part time volunteering 3 days a week and I consider us here a family. We have been through so much and have grown together so quick it’s amazing. We’re a little SAFE family and I wouldn’t change it for the world. They have changed my life completely and for the better. If it wasn’t for them my life would probably be the same as it was before. But things have turned around, I look forward to all the good I can do in the future and I will help where I can.
It’s been 4 months since S.L and I’m now planning on going to India to do more volunteering! ‘Another chance of an amazing experience that I won’t ever forget’.
My life has changed completely I don’t take things for granted any more I appreciate everything I have, every healthy moment I live the choices I make, the opportunities I have, I’m so grateful that I had the chance to experience something so amazing. I can’t thank the SAFE foundation and communities first enough for what they have done for me, I just wish everyone had the opportunity to do what we did it would make the world such a better place to live.
We gave them knowledge to help them with their life and future we helped them realise that their dreams are, not just dreams… they can be made a reality!