A spring break trip to Morocco gave one Greencastle High School graduate a taste of life on another continent, and helped build a fledgling social work program.
Brandon Skates was among social work students from Indiana State University who traveled to Hassan II University-Mohammedia to take books, toys, games and collaborate on setting up a social work department.
For Skates, a junior social work major who graduated from GHS in 2004, bridging the gap between Moroccan and American culture was as simple as walking across the room.
"When we got to the school where the children were, I could sense this barrier," Skates said. "All the kids were on one side of the room and we were on the other, so I just went over there with a translator and started talking to them, and they liked that."
Skates became a favorite companion of the students at the Dar Taleb school for children who reside in the mountains of rural Tameslouht in this northern African country. While their families live in the hills, the students live on-site at the school during the academic week, because the journey back and forth is too difficult on a daily basis.
"You learn these skills in class, how to relate to others as a social worker, and it was neat to be able to actually do it," Skates said.
ISU's social work department chair Robyn Lugar had last visited Morocco in 2005 to lay the groundwork with Hassan II faculty for a social work department at that university. It is the first and only bachelor's program in social work in the entire country. As part of the most recent trip, she and the student contingent took more than 200 stuffed animals, jump ropes, games, hair ties, combs, toothbrushes, candy and Girl Scout cookies for the local children.
Before the stuffed animals were presented to the children, they were pressed into service on the overseas voyage, doubling as cushion for the more than 1,200 pounds of textbooks that Lugar and her students gifted to Hassan II University-Mohammedia's fledgling social work program for the creation of an English textbook library.
The enormity of the gift and the presence of the American students created a media buzz. Moroccan national channel 2M covered the event, interviewing Lugar and Skates.
Skates, who had never traveled before, much less left the country, said he is now considering returning to Africa when he graduates.
"My mom was a single parent, so we were never even able to take family vacations," Skates said. "Getting the chance to actually go across the ocean to another country was amazing.
"I learned from this trip that I can relate to people from other cultures; it's something I'm good at and that I want to pursue. Being African-American, I was especially excited at the opportunity to visit Africa and experience it, and I think I might like to go back and be an international social worker."