Giving Back

Posted by Rhea Datta on June 4th 2009 in Organizations, Volunteers Edit

After most people travel to exotic destinations, they simply post pictures online and send thank you cards to their hosts. Not Heather Burkland. As a junior at Macalester College in 2002, Heather traveled to Cameroon to study for a semester. There she was overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality shown by her host family and the communities she studied in. Despite meager resources and limited funds, all the Cameroonian people she met were eager to open their homes to the American students.

Heather met Michelle Wilson in the same program. The young women shared an observation — that there were not enough educational resources for Cameroonian youth to complete their academic aspirations.

Upon their return to the US, Heather and Michelle provided their host family and friends with financial support, but soon realized that in order to make a significant change for their friends they would have to spread their message. Opportunity Africa was born from their desire to increase their outreach. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide Cameroonian students from disadvantaged backgrounds with scholarships and other educational resources. Armed with a belief that education can open doors for a better understanding of family (and community) health and greater earning potential, Heather and Michelle created a forum where people can provide monetary support to deserving Cameroonian youth.

Vieux Nguepi, Heather’s host brother, had dreamed of tackling malnutrition problems in his country. That goal dwindled when his father passed away, turning Vieux into the sole breadwinner. With help from Opportunity Africa, Vieux completed a Master’s degree in environmental studies at a school in Belgium in 2007, and is pursuing further education in biosafety and environmental impacts of modified foods. Clarisse Akabiyene received a full scholarship to nursing school from Opportunity Africa and is now an HIV/AIDS educator at the Ministry of Health in northern Cameroon. Heather Burkand, currently the board president, says, “It feels really good to have achieved so much already. We now need to focus on the follow through and work on making sure scholarship recipients have contacts and job opportunities.”

Still in its fledgling stage, Opportunity Africa has big plans for growth and development. The hope is that access to education will have a domino effect in Cameroon, resulting in better job placement and a higher standard of living. Its eventual goal is to extend its work into health education and community outreach, with a special focus on raising the role and agency of women and girls. Heather hopes to partner with other grassroots NGOs to expand their impact into microlending and small business growth. With a little help and a lot of determination, Opportunity Africa and the Cameroonian youth are slowly turning dreams into attainable goals and eventually realities.

Opportunity Africa

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