In the spring of 2009, Jessye Kass ’13 was another ordinary high school senior, anxiously awaiting acceptance letters from colleges. After the grueling process, Kass was accepted to Brandeis and decided to enroll shortly thereafter.
“Ultimately, I ended up choosing Brandeis because of the midyear option,” Kass said. “I knew I wanted to be teaching English to children somewhere in Africa that didn’t require me to have a degree.”
During her midyear semester, Kass traveled to Ghana with Projects Abroad, an organization that sends students to volunteer abroad. For six months, Kass lived in an area of Labadi, Ghana, where she taught English and worked in an orphanage. The most rewarding part of her experience, she said, was having the children thank her after a hard day’s work.
Her experience was so powerful that when she arrived at Brandeis in January 2010 she decided she needed to figure out a way to return. Kass applied for and was granted the Sorenson Fellowship, a $4,000 stipend intended to cover travel and modest living expenses for a summer internship.
In the summer of 2010, Kass returned to Africa, working at the same orphanage in Ghana. Later in the summer, Kass traveled to Kenya and spent time working as a medical intern. It was there that Kass met Serge Attukwei Clottey, a friend whose idea to create an organization to bring art to poverty-stricken children would forever change her life.
“We both grew up loving art and wanted to spread this love with as many people possible in Ghana,” Kass said. Almost one and a half years later, the Attukwei Art Foundation is now a full-fledged non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides art therapy to children ages 4-15. Its outreach programs give underprivileged children in the Accra area the opportunity to use art as a safe means of expression.
As founder and president, Clottey’s vision was made possible by Kass’ tireless efforts to create a safe environment for children to be able to share their stories. Kass returned to Ghana this past summer, continuing her work to provide an outlet for children to share their stories through the artistic methods of learning.
“Honestly, the greatest feeling is watching these children use art materials to verbalize their stories,” Kass said. “It’s so powerful.”
Back at Brandeis, Kass continues to dedicate five to six hours per week to the organization. As founder and vice president, she talks to Serge daily via e-mail and Skype. She updates the blog and website, and answers e-mails daily while also calling various countries’ embassies to rally support for the organization.
Kass’ experience has had a noticeable effect on the Brandeis community. She says that there are currently two Brandeis students applying for an internship with the organization and there is one person applying for the Sorenson fellowship with the intent to study in Ghana next summer. In addition, Kass will present her experience, along with the five other 2011 Sorenson Fellows, to the Brandeis community in December.
In addition to her work for the foundation, Kass, a Concord, Mass., native, is majoring in Anthropology and African and Afro-American Studies and minoring in Social Justice and Social Policy. She is the founder of the Brandeis Anthropology Club and works at Lemberg Children’s Center.
She plans to return to Ghana in February for two weeks and then again in May. She encourages Brandeis students to apply for the internship with the Attukwei Art Foundation, which can be found on the Hiatt Career Center’s website. Volunteers spend four hours of the day teaching and four hours of the day socializing and playing. She says the experience is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“We have only the highest hopes and dreams for this organization and for bringing art to children in need,” Kass said.
Kass’ work in Ghana exemplifies the Brandeis philosophy that a small idea can make the world a better place.