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From human to humanitarian

March 22, 2016 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Through its International Cooperation program, the Alberta Teachers’ Association supports a number of humanitarian projects, many of which are spearheaded by Alberta teachers. The stories on these pages are the second instalment in a series entitled From Human to Humanitarian, which profiles some of these teachers and their humanitarian efforts. Two more instalments are scheduled for publication in the
ATA News during the current school year.

Marilyn Pottage poses for a photo-op with children from the northern region of Ghana. The organization Pottage founded gave the girl in the middle money to buy a school uniform, so this was her first day of school.

Tools for Schools Africa Foundation
Marilyn Pottage is the founder and current board chair of the Tools for Schools Africa Foundation, which traces its roots back to 2004. Initially focused on providing school supplies, books and teacher training to schools in Ghana, the foundation is now focused on a scholarship program that enables girls in northern Ghana to attend junior/senior high school as well as post-secondary institutions. The organization is currently sponsoring more than 90 girls.

The foundation pays tuition, books, uniforms and incidental expenses during junior/senior high school. Once girls have been accepted into a post-secondary institution, the organization provides each girl with a moderate living allowance while seeking individuals or families that are willing to help sponsor girls during their post-secondary years.

Pottage is proud of the fact that foundation volunteers know the girls personally and, because the organization is run by volunteers, the overhead/administration costs have never exceeded one per cent. As it has for several years, the Alberta Teachers’ Association provided $15,000 to the organization in 2015/16.

Making a difference

Marilyn Pottage didn’t often defy her mother, but when it came time to choose her career, she felt she had to.

“I always thought that I wanted to be a teacher, but when I was graduating from high school my mom said, ‘You can be anything you want to be but you can’t be a teacher.’”

Pottage’s mother was a teacher herself, mostly Grade 1. When Pottage was growing up, she spent time in her mom’s classroom after school, helping mark and prepare for the next day. While Pottage felt drawn to the profession, her mother wanted her to explore other available options.

“She didn’t know if I really wanted to be a teacher or if I was just taking the line of least resistance,” Pottage says.

Pottage initially enrolled in home economics but later switched to education, without consulting her parents.

“I always felt that my occupation had to be something that mattered. Teaching seemed to be a thing that bettered the world,” she says.

Starting out in Edmonton Public Schools in 1971, Pottage taught mostly upper elementary grades at various schools over a 17-year span in the district. After relocating to Red Deer, she taught in both regular and special needs classrooms before earning a master’s degree in the reading and spelling acquisition of the severely learning disabled. During the last years of her teaching career she was an early literacy specialist with Red Deer Public Schools. Then, under the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), she headed up a four-year project teaching core curriculum through the arts at Annie L. Gaetz Elementary.

As a teacher, Pottage was not one to leave the job behind when she left school. Rather, she lived and breathed the profession.

“I often thought that my best teaching was developed in the middle of the night because I’d wake up thinking of things I could put in place to help a specific student,” Pottage says.

Pottage says she loved being around the kids and seeing them succeed. Two of her most memorable career moments were ones that highlighted student success.

One of these came when she attended a districtwide dinner called Striving for Excellence, which recognized hard-working students who had succeeded in their academic endeavours.

“That evening, there were five or six kids that I had worked with in early literacy that walked across the stage. To me, that was one of the highlights of my career because these kids started off really struggling in the primary grades and here they were five or six years later, being recognized for their academic successes,” she says.

“I’m certainly not taking all the credit — not at all — but to see what they had achieved was really rewarding.”

Another highlight came when she received an envelope in the mail containing a graduation photo from a student she’d taught in Grade 5. On the back of the photo was the message: “You’re the reason I graduated from high school. Thank you. Danny.”

“I had left Meadowlark school several years earlier, and the fact that he would take the time and effort to track me down seven years later just to send me his graduation picture ...  I’ve always remembered and really appreciated that gesture,” Pottage says.

Only once during her 35-year teaching career did Pottage have a placement where she didn’t enjoy going to work every day. It was an Edmonton school near a large hotel, and it was clear that several of the students didn’t have adequate supervision at home because their mothers were involved in the sex trade at the hotel.

“As a matter of fact, after they left school some of these students were involved in a court case in which a body was found in a freezer,” Pottage says.

“It was the only situation of my teaching career where I had to spend more time keeping the lid on the classroom than reaching the kids the way I wanted to.”

Looking back at her career as a whole, Pottage says she feels really fortunate.

“I have been offered some really incredible opportunities in my teaching career, and I have really appreciated and enjoyed every one of them,” she says.

Laying the foundation
In conversation, Pottage conveys a no-nonsense attitude.

To her students, it was clear that she respected them and cared about them, says Mark Jones, Pottage’s former principal, who now rates her as a lifelong friend. She cared about all her students and knew about their homes and families.

“She was very passionate about teaching, getting the best out of kids,” Jones says. “Her belief was to give them every opportunity to be successful.”

Pottage is also someone who gets things done.

“She’s a mover and a shaker,” Jones says. “There’s nothing that she would expect anybody to do that she herself wouldn’t do.”

Pottage traces her “get ’er done” attitude to both her personality and to her childhood growing up on a farm between the small central Alberta towns of Bentley and Rimbey. The younger of two, she says that she and her brother enjoyed a “great childhood” with lots of space and fresh air. There was also a lot of work to do.

“There was certainly play time, but you were also expected to help,” she says. “If I wasn’t helping dad, well, mom would find something for me to do in the kitchen or put me to work weeding the garden.”

More interested in throwing bales, chasing cattle and mending fences than she was in indoor chores, Pottage spent more time helping her dad. While not poor, the family lived a simple life compared to today’s norms.

“I remember in Grade 6 I had two pairs of pants, one blue and one red plaid,” Pottage says. “That’s just the way it was, but it was the same for everybody else. A few of the ‘town’ kids had nicer clothes and skates than the farm kids, but we all got along well with each other and didn’t really think about what we had or didn’t have.”

Most of the girls who receive scholarships from the Tools for Schools Africa Foundation come from subsistence farming families that live in small villages like this one in the northern region of Ghana. People in these villages still sleep on the ground on goat skins. This year they are suffering through an extreme drought so they will have no more than one meal a day.

Off to Africa
Pottage’s agricultural upbringing was at the root of one of the most transformative experiences of her life.

Her dad, Allen Moore, had grown up on a farm, and despite a desire to become a history teacher, was forced to shelve his post-secondary ambitions and continue farming in order to put his four younger siblings through school. This was prompted by his own father’s death when Moore was about 20.

When Pottage was finishing high school, her father’s sense of adventure and desire to see the world and employ his farming skills for the greater good led him to volunteer overseas through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

“He really never got to do what he wanted to do with his life so he applied to the Canadian government and said, ‘Send me anywhere in the world,’” Pottage recalls.

This led to a placement in the village of Damongo, located in a remote northern area of the West African nation of Ghana. As a resourceful farmer who’d survived the Depression, Moore’s role was to help develop better agricultural methodologies in a community of subsistence farmers.

The family lived at the Damongo Agricultural Institute. By that point, Pottage had completed her first year at Red Deer College. She volunteered in the office of the Damongo Regional Hospital, where her job included paying wages, tracking pharmaceuticals and writing letters requesting pharmaceutical donations.

“The time I spent in Ghana with my mom and dad was a part of my life that I really treasure,” she says. “Every day was a new experience, meeting such interesting people from such diverse backgrounds, travelling to new places, seeing new things, understanding more of the reality of day-to-day living in a society still using a hand hoe to earn their living. It was a wonderful experience.”

It was also transformative.

Pottage learned just how privileged she was, both in terms of material possessions and access to education. She also noticed that she wasn’t able to build friendships with many of the African girls she met.

“The friendships I was developing with Ghanaians were not with women because they were too afraid to speak with a white person. They had never had the opportunity to go to school or to learn English and just didn’t have an equal place in society.”

She also learned that, in most instances, working hard wasn’t enough to help most families get ahead or improve their children’s lives.

“I saw families in the Damongo community that were working as hard physically as they possibly could just to provide their families with enough food to survive. In most cases educating their children wasn’t really an option because they couldn’t afford the school fees and because the children were needed as labourers in the fields,” she says.

“That was a realization that I had never really thought about. In my Canadian life, children were required to go to school and were not thought of as a primary source of labour for the family. In Ghana, even when one child in the family was allowed to go to school, the other children had to work along with their parents to help pay the school fees for the lucky child.”

Tools for Schools
After returning from Africa, Pottage switched to the faculty of education at the University of Alberta and her life proceeded according to a familiar script: career, marriage, raising a family of three boys. Always in her mind was her experience in Africa and the sense that she’d someday return.

Thanks to her master’s degree and related work, Pottage had published some diagnostic assessments to help teachers evaluate how to help students who were struggling with reading and spelling. She had also begun inservicing Alberta teachers and presenting at teachers’ conventions. In 2003 she was hired to provide teacher inservicing for the Association of International Schools of Africa. This tour took her and her husband, Gary, to five African countries, including Ghana.

Even after 34 years away, returning to Africa was like a homecoming for Pottage. As soon as she stepped off the plane, she was hit with the familiar blast of hot, thick, humid air tinged with the ever-present smoke of cooking fires.

“The first thing I noticed was how familiar that humid smoky air seemed. It felt comfortable, like I was coming home to Africa again,” she says.

As she toured from country to country and worked with both ex-pat and local teachers, Pottage visited some of the local African schools. This time she had the perspective of a parent and an experienced teacher.

“I realized even more how privileged we are in Canada and, in some cases, how wasteful,” she says. “I just decided I could and should do a little something about that.”

One of the things that struck Pottage was how few school supplies the African students had. Often rural schools had no textbooks or library books, and the students had few pencils or scribblers. Paper was a very scarce commodity and crayons were unknown. Meanwhile, it was common for her students in Alberta to throw away their remaining school supplies at the end of the school year because they knew they would get all new supplies in the fall.

When she returned to Alberta, Pottage set up boxes for unwanted school supplies in a few schools, then shipped the supplies to some of the local African schools through teachers she had met while doing teacher training.

These acts generated many letters of thanks, but several Ghanaian teachers also requested books, saying that their schools had none. So Pottage spent a year and a half fundraising and gathering discontinued books from seven school districts in Alberta (also Saskatchewan and California) to fill two 40-foot shipping containers. Pottage and fellow teacher Marilyn Ganger travelled to Ghana to deliver the supplies equitably to struggling schools in the northern region.

Once those had been delivered, Pottage thought that was the end of the project, but it turned out to be just the beginning. Before she left, school authorities asked their advice on the best way to help their school system move forward. The answer was obvious: teacher training. Many of the teachers had never completed high school themselves and understood very little about the English they were supposed to be teaching. They had never heard of a vowel or a consonant, and were teaching almost solely by rote memorization.

In July of 2008, a contingent of Alberta teachers travelled to Ghana at their own expense to help conduct teacher training sessions in teaching English, math and science. Through a total of six conferences they worked with more than 700 teachers who had travelled from all over the northern region to attend. Some teachers came from so far away that their fellow teachers said they had come from “overseas.” Hundreds of award-winning African juvenile literature novels and teaching manuals were given to teachers free of charge.

By 2009, Pottage shifted her focus to creating a scholarship program to help Ghanian girls continue their education beyond Grade 6. Many girls weren’t able to attend school in the first place, but for those that did, there was a huge dropout rate after Grade 6 because there was often no junior high school in their area. Again, Pottage decided that she could do something.

“A comprehensive United Nations report said that the two factors that are most predictive of a country’s ability to move forward are the percentage of people no longer sleeping on the ground, and the number of girls graduating from high school. It seemed to me that the best thing we could do was to help bright girls continue through high school,” Pottage says.

This led to a scholarship program that has since supported more than 120 girls from Ghana’s northern region, almost all of whom come from subsistence farming families. Several years into the scholarship program, about 25 girls have attended university or other post-secondary institutions.

The registered charity Pottage started, called Tools for Schools Africa Foundation, also went on to build a boarding house for junior high girls (in partnership with architecture students from the University of Manitoba), publish and distribute two 48-page books about northern Ghana so kids could read about the area in which they lived, set up four libraries and completed a school building that included a library, computer lab and administration block. The computer lab is presently being converted into a junior high library as the school can no longer afford the electricity to run the computer lab.

Driving force
Pottage’s written accounts of her experiences, documented on the project’s website at, are sprinkled with anecdotes relating the quirks of life in Africa. On numerous occasions her group has received a live chicken or eggs as thanks for their work. One time they had puff adder stew. Groundnut soup has become a staple in the Pottage home.

In one anecdote, Pottage related a minor collision between the truck she and Ganger were riding in and a recklessly driven cab. She wrote that the penniless, licenceless cab driver was shaking badly when they threatened to call the police.

“When I told him that I was giving him a break, he got down on his knees to thank me,” Pottage wrote. “But he had driven so recklessly that I decided to use local beliefs to fight fire with fire, and I told him that I had the power to put a curse on him that would bring him bad luck if he drove so recklessly again. In the end, the owner of the cab fired him, so I guess that curse is just going to go to waste!”

The foundation has become a fixture in the Red Deer area, forming partnerships with various service clubs, businesses and individuals. Ganger, a longtime volunteer who has travelled to Ghana numerous times with Pottage, says the foundation has benefited from the contributions of many volunteers over the years, but it’s Pottage who always has another idea or a new direction.

“She’s the driving force behind it,” Ganger says. “She has been the one that is the most passionate about it.”

For Pottage, as with her teaching career, the successes of the students are a highlight. One of the very successful scholarship girls is Sophia Dauda, who went from a life of working in the fields to completing her schooling, and then graduating with a degree in business administration. She recently received a coveted and rare national scholarship that is enabling her to continue in a master’s program.

“This is a girl who hoed peanuts for a year and a half after high school but would not give up the dream of furthering her education,” Pottage says.

“It’s been a joy and it’s been a privilege to see these girls blossom and continue to blossom.” ❚

Why would you educate a girl?

Traditionally, in Ghana (and other African countries), girls and women were considered property that was sold from one family to another upon marriage. Because a woman was the property of her husband, any income she generated was his, and because the woman left her own family, it was the obligation of the sons to care for the parents in their old age.

Within this context, it made sense for parents to educate boys, since this would improve the boys’ chances of getting a job with regular wages and being able to support parents in a society where there is no old-age pension. Educating a girl was a poor investment, since her labours would eventually go toward supporting her husband’s parents.

A group of young women who are receiving post-secondary scholarships from the Tools for Schools Africa Foundation gather for a photo in June 2015. It’s expected that 10 scholarship recipients will graduate this June. All the girls who have previously graduated are working in their fields of study.

“The local people told me that educating a girl was a waste of money and free labour. They compared it to watering someone else’s garden,” says Marilyn Pottage, a former Alberta teacher who’s volunteered extensively in Africa.

In the close to 50 years Pottage has been interacting with this African community, she has noted a significant shift.

“This is a really interesting time in Africa because everything is changing. It’s changing from traditional ways to more modern ways,” Pottage says.

This change is supported by updated laws. In the past, when a man died, his property, including his wife or wives, became the property of his brothers. Now, 70 per cent of his estate goes to the widow and her children while the remaining 30 per cent is divided between the brothers.

“Young men now understand that wealth is no longer measured by the number of wives and children they have,” Pottage says.

They are realizing that, to get a good job, children must be educated, and that it’s impossible to pay school fees for 20 or 30 children. They have also found out that, if a girl is educated and marries a man who is educated, that she will be a partner rather than chattel, and will support her own parents in their old age better than many of the sons have. ❚

Top of the class
After being given away at birth because she was a girl, Alfreda was handed from family to family and started working at four years old, looking after two-year- old twins. She began school at 13 and finished high school at 19. The Tools for Schools Africa Foundation paid her post-secondary fees and she became the only girl in her electrical engineering class of 248; she graduated at top of the class. Here, Alfreda poses in front of a school built by the Tools for Schools program along with Prof. Kelley Beaverford and students from the University of Manitoba faculty of architecture. The building houses administrative offices, a computer lab and a library that the project stocked. Alfreda inspected the wiring and worked with the contractor until it was up to code. 

Speech! Speech!

In September 2015, Sophia Dauda visited Red Deer to deliver a speech at the annual Shine fundraiser organized by the Tools for Schools Africa Foundation. Dauda is a former student whose post-secondary school attendance had been sponsored by the foundation. She has since graduated with a degree in business administration and is now working on a master’s degree. She has been promised a university teaching position upon completion of her graduate degree.

In her speech, Dauda summarized her life story: she comes from a family of 14 children, five of whom are stepbrothers and sisters, as her father has had three wives. Of the seven biological children, she was the fifth born and the third girl.

Sophia Dauda, a woman from Ghana who was able to attend university thanks to support by the Tools for Schools Africa Foundation, speaks during the organization's annual Shine fundraising event in Red Deer in September 2015.

“My parents have been farmers all their lives. Neither of them was ever able to attend school,” she said. “Since farming does not generate much income and also because my parents lived in rural villages without schools, my older siblings could not go to school. Fortunately for me, two of us were picked by an uncle to live with him in Damongo so we could go to school. As a result, the two of us are the highest educated in our family, and I am the first university graduate.”

Although Dauda and her sibling lived with their uncle, their parents provided for them, she said.

“My family was able to give me one pair of sandals for the entire school term and to wear to important places like church. If they spoiled, then I walked barefooted until the next school year. As for a school uniform, it was a scarce commodity. I only had a new one when the old one was beyond repair. My parents tried their best to provide for me but there were times I returned to school without sandals or a uniform.”

Dauda said she always performed well in class and received a lot of guidance. A teacher helped her gain entrance to secondary school.

“I tried to study even though there were numerous financial problems. My father had difficulties in paying my school fees. If he was to pay my fees in full, it meant that no one would eat until another farming season since he would have to sell everything to generate enough money to pay my fees. On several occasions my father brought his farm produce to the school by bicycle to replace my fees since he could not get enough money.”

Her attendance at university came after the headmistress of her high school recommended her to Marilyn Pottage and Marilyn Ganger (two Alberta teachers known as M Squared in northern Ghana) who were looking to help a needy but brilliant student.

“I never thought I would be able to go on after high school, but here I was with this wonderful opportunity. I knew my life was in my hands. I had to make good use of this opportunity to change my life from that of my parents and my older siblings. I was also made to know that the eye of the family was on me, and I was supposed to succeed so I could come and help them out of their situation. With this challenge I had to succeed so all our lives would be better.”

Because she has benefited through Tools for Schools African Foundation, Dauda has asked to be involved in the organization’s work in Ghana by mentoring other girls. She said she wants to “be able to raise people up” just as the organization did for her.

“There are no words to express how grateful we and our families are to you all,” she told the crowd of organization supporters. “For all that you have done for the education of African girls like me, I pray that God will replenish you a million fold.” ❚

For more information about Tools for Schools Africa Foundation, including how to donate, visit

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