Closing the Gap
Norristown-born nonprofit Pagus:Africa’s education and employment initiatives uplift and empower the children of Ghana
by Gordon Glantz

A Starbucks now sits at 4th and South streets in Philadelphia, but the spirit of its identity from the early 1950s remains intact.

It was at this location that Sal Berenholz, who was born in France but escaped the Nazis during World War II, operated a store, Mi-lady Shoppe, alongside his wife, Doris.

“That’s where my dad saw Johnny Young on the street and offered him a job just moving some boxes from one floor to another,” recalls the Berenholzes’ daughter, Ellen. “He quickly recognized that Johnny had that special spark and was a smart guy, and he offered him a regular job. From there, he did what he did with so many people. He showed them he believed in them, helped them gain the skills they might need and by giving them responsibility, which built their self-confidence.”

Young went on to become a career diplomat, serving as an ambassador to four countries—Sierra Leone, Togo, Bahrain and Slovenia—between the years of 1989 and 2004.

Meanwhile, Ellen was a Girl Scout in a troop led by her mother.

“My mother, too, had a heart for helping—teenage girls, particularly, through being a dedicated Girl Scout leader,” she says. “And she also provided me the opportunity to work directly with children living in an orphanage in Mount Airy. I remember how much I cared for and worried about those children.”

It stands to reason that Ellen Berenholz would follow the lead of her parents. In 1996, she and her husband, Irish-born artist Tim Hawkesworth, ventured onto their giving-back path with Pagus Gallery, a nonprofit art gallery in the Norristown Arts Building devoted to community outreach. They soon found themselves looking across the ocean to Ghana in West Africa.

Her interest in the Volta Region of the country, which has reached a level of political stability not common on the continent, began by sponsoring children. She soon saw the need to do more.

And, in 2005, Pagus:Africa was born.

“It’s been 10 years,” she says of the organization, which, like the gallery, is headquartered in Norristown. “And we keep learning every year. It started with very humble beginnings, with sponsoring one child to go to a school.”

But when you are the daughter of Sal and Doris Berenholz, your soul and heart conspire to do more.

“Sadness grabs your heart all the time there, as joy does,” she says.” It was hard to know how to best effect change.”

What she did was come home with a mission, urging friends and family to get on board, all behind the concept that “no money will go into anyone’s pockets—$100 will go for $100 of work,” she says.

The recent stability in Ghana, along with a healthy supply of natural resources such as oil, cocoa, gold, minerals and fertile land, has made it a place where foreign countries, from the United States to China, have begun to invest their time and money. “Many countries see Africa as their bread basket,” says Berenholz.

She and Hawkesworth created Pagus:Africa with the idea that the children of Ghana will be left behind without being properly educated and prepared for the responsibilities of holding regular jobs. Pagus:Africa ( levels the playing field through its works in schools and its burgeoning Center for Achievement, which features a lending library, computer resources and tutoring services.

Pagus:Africa has a broad ambition for its educational programs in Ghana. The students need to learn about “showing up on time, or showing up at all” for jobs, in order to be properly prepared for the working world. They also need an education geared to critical and creative thinking. Achieving these goals is not simple, according to Berenholz.

“Life there is more complicated” she says. “With more eyes on the ground, we started to see what we were up against. The international community is interested in Ghana. But, sadly, kids from the high schools there don’t have what the work force wants. Our cultures are very different. There are a whole different set of expectations with a global economy.”

Previously, Pagus:Africa worked with the Bishop Forson School, which was on the brink of collapse, to finish three classrooms, plus an outdoor classroom and two additional buildings that were used as dorms and classrooms. They also supplied students with desks, computers and books; it also donated a school bus and a farm vehicle, on top of drilling a borehole to provide clean water for drinking and bathing.

Pagus:Africa also built a new school, Airfield School, which serves seven rural villages and is run by Ghana Educational Service. Airfield School has eight classrooms—plus, a meeting room, an office and a sanitation facility (with “squatting” toilets flushed with harvested rainwater)—that is as much of a source of pride as any school in the Greater Philadelphia Area. Also, more recently, Pagus:Africa created Pagus House, which is home to five students (four female, one male).

“We have a program where we work directly with these children and students from the school outside of school hours, and another where we work in the schools/classes to improve literacy,” Berenholz explains. “Students from the schools and in the communities we work with are invited to participate in projects and programs—afterschool classes, community development projects, etc.—and they are invited to apply for internships and scholarships.”

After graduating from junior high, students can apply for internships or scholarships for high school. Upon completing high school, the support of Pagus:Africa carries on. Students may be recruited to work or intern for Pagus:Africa and the program continues to, as Berenholz explains, “see from there how to help them achieve their goals, either academically or to gain additional skills for employment.”

Presently, Pagus:Africa is running its own independent Center for Achievement. Additionally, Pagus:Africa is running a literacy program at Lokoe School.

Berenholz, who holds the title of executive director (her husband is the president), visits the Volta Region—in and around the town of Ho—two to three times of year, spending approximately one month per visit.

“I meet every student at least twice a year,” says Berenholz, proudly adding that chiefs of local villages are “pleading” for partnerships with Pagus:Africa.

She relies heavily on her local team on the ground in Ghana. It includes Senanu Yevuyibor (country representative), who has worked for five years without a salary, and Chery Adegah (assistant to the program supervisor), who has a background in health and acts as a “big sister” to young women so they can go to her to discuss sensitive topics. Canadian Sujanthi “Suji” Manivannan has been a vital volunteer for more than a year; Berenholz hopes to be able to retain her with a stipend. Four interns—“junior high students,” ages 17 to 18 years old—do a “version of work study” to complete their educational journeys. Stateside, eight to 10 volunteers provide additional support.

Says Berenholz: “Some help with educational programming, others with administrative aspects and others with fundraising and development. This is a collaborative effort; it takes donors and volunteers, and now we need a couple of key paid staff positions to run things as they deserve to be run.”

When discussing Pagus:Africa, or seeking donations, a question comes up like the refrain of a pop song: “Why Ghana?” Berenholz’s answer: “The deficit of education anywhere in the world creates problems that affect us wherever we live. We do live in a global village.”

Aside from this “intellectual” response, as she terms it, she cites deeply “personal” reasons, including the birth of her first child.

“I felt this crazy immeasurable love and sense of responsibility to care for every vulnerable child,” she says. “It seemed so clear from that moment that every child deserved the love and embrace that I could give to this tiny new being. And since the love was so huge, there was more than enough to go around.

“It doesn’t matter that it is impossible that I—or anyone—could provide adequate care to every child in the world,” she continues. “The point is that every child is my child. We are all connected to each other.”

Unsurprisingly, Berenholz’s children—Jacob, 25, and Leah, 21—are both involved in Pagus “to varying degrees, at any time,” she says, adding, “There is little doubt that it will impact what they do as adults.”

Likewise, there is little doubt this involvement springs from the roots of the family tree, where stories of giving back—like those of Johnny Young—are common.

“I grew up with those types of stories, and that’s pretty cool,” says Berenholz. “That is, for me, the shining example. It all has a definite impact on how I look at the world. It’s who I am.”

Photography courtesy of Tony Hoare and Pagus:Africa