Mavis Agatha Abla Ekpe

Family Strenthening Programme Coordinator SOS Children's Villages in Ghana
photo: © 2018 Stefan Lechner Photography

Remain focused in the midst of changing career demands

Telling a story about a flow moment in my work life to the world is something I never dreamt of, but here I am telling you my story after having discovered it myself. I wish you a joyful reading.

How it all begun - My first experience with children and young people in the SOS Children's Village - The teaching days.
It all began in the year 1999 when I was teaching integrated science, which is physics, chemistry and biology. I was teaching in a Second Cycle Institution after I had completed National Service following my first degree. My assistant headmistress, who was the wife of the village director of the SOS Children's Village in Tema, the harbour city of Accra, Ghana, one day asked me if I was willing to support some SOS Children with extra tuition. I agreed and looked forward to meeting this group of children whom I considered very special because of the quality of care they were receiving. I secured an appointment with the village director through my assistant headmistress after which I prepared myself to meet the village director and the children in the Village.

I recall now how I felt at that moment when I entered the Children's Village for the very first time. The serenity of the environment was indeed a refreshing sight to behold. After the pleasantries with the village director, I was ushered into the room where the young people were waiting for me. Just as I entered the room with the village director, it was like beginning a new chapter of my life. I realised from the initial interactions that the young people were anxious to find out how they could benefit from my teaching sessions with them. I was also very conscious of the fact that I needed to be constantly innovative in the strategies I used to maintain the interest of the young people in the various teaching sessions. This was very necessary to ensure that the learning sessions had a positive impact on the lives of the young ones whose challenges with science needed to be addressed. This complementary relationship between the SOS young people as my students and me as their science teacher continued until the need arose for SOS CV Ghana to set up a Girls Youth Home for young women in the Tema Village.

My life as a youth leader - A new role - Challenging but fulfilling days
With my increasing interest in supporting the young people further and with the village director's encouragement, I took advantage of the opportunity that was available and applied for the position as the female youth leader. I was offered the post in February 2002 at the end of an elaborate recruitment process.

The beginning of any new role has its challenges but, with the support of my family, staff in the national youth department at the head office in Accra, and the Tema village director I quickly learned and adapted to my new responsibilities as the first female youth leader of the youth home situated outside the Children's Village in Tema.

I have always been very passionate about mentoring and guiding young people through their adolescent and developmental stages. My motivation continues to be driven by the fact that they will grow up to be adults and, as individuals, family members and citizens, they can only give what they have. I therefore have a strong drive to ensure that they are exposed to real life situations while being protected by the systems and structures in society.

The beauty of the youth leader role was the fact that, although I considered it a more challenging one than when I was teaching, I always felt fulfilled knowing that I had a much more regular and consistent mentoring, coaching, counselling and guiding relationship with my young people. Having a more varied mandate with diverse responsibilities, an entirely new experience and a new environment all contributed to the beauty of taking on a new role even though it was with the same young people.

I must admit there were times when I had mixed feelings about managing both the high and low moments of the adolescents. Professionally managing the socio-emotional battle the young people experienced and manifested really tested my resilience on several occasions. There were also times when I was flowing fully and truly enjoying my youth leader role. I recall the moments of flow when the young ones confided their innermost fears to me and I had to give them all the support and encouragement they needed.

Leaving the youth home never crossed my mind until one day I received a call from the national pedagogical advisor. Amidst everything he said, the phrase I clearly remember was "Management is considering changes in the youth home system and you will have to decide if you are interested in the new model". This was indeed a very great blow to me because I never saw it coming.

To convince myself further, I tried to understand what the exact meaning of his statement was, its implications for my relationship with my girls, how management intended to address this new model, how all this influenced my career path and the options I had. A management decision led to the change in which the youth leader would now have to live in the same physical space as the youth and share the same resources with them. I realised this change was not in my interests. It was different from the initial terms of engagement and would not allow me to have the "private space" I needed to be in the best frame of mind to give of my best.

During all this, I also sought external professional support from neutral human resources personnel on what one needs to do in such situations.

After a great deal of reflection on all the information I had gathered, I had to make a decision. However, two things were very clear to me at that point. Firstly, I still wanted to continue working with SOS Children's Villages. Secondly, I was not comfortable with the new model of youth home that was being considered by management. Considering the above, I decided to leave the final decision to management. However, I did not hesitate to express my concerns to management anytime I had the opportunity to talk to any of them. Management took a relatively long time to make a final decision, so I had to find ways of coping with my inner turmoil and the outer stress of uncertainty over what exactly was going to happen next with my career. As part of coping with this stress, I took all my 31 days' annual leave for the very first time. I travelled to Spain during this leave period for a long vacation, which included sightseeing, religious adventure and pilgrimage to religious sites. This gave me the opportunity to reflect further, away from the emotional upheavals, in a neutral environment and a place very far away from anyone involved in the issue.

What was standing between me and my goal was the unsuitability of the new youth home model for me, even though I still wanted to continue working with the organisation.

I recall that throughout the period of management's planning and re-organisation of the youth home model, I felt deep inside me that I had a "call" to go on supporting children and young people. I really felt engaged in that situation, especially when the young people got wind of the possible changes and began to make emotional statements. Their concerns got to me and that was when I felt that something special was about to happen. I decided I was going to leave the final decision about whether the organisation still needed my skills, knowledge and experience to management. The rewarding moment was when the organisation decided it still needed my skills. I considered this decision a win-win situation.

Experiences of a family strengthening programme co-ordinator - Another dimension - Adapting to a new role
After a series of meetings with management it was agreed that I had to relocate from Tema in Accra, the capital of Ghana, to Kumasi, the second most populous city in Ghana, which is about five hours' drive from Tema and 45 minutes by air. In Kumasi, I had the huge task of beginning the family strengthening programme (FSP) with the MFSII  project sponsored by the Netherlands government.

In September 2011, I changed roles from living with and guiding youth who had lost parental care to supporting vulnerable families in the local community facing social issues who had children on the verge of losing parental care. My team supports the families to improve their socio-economic conditions while building their capacity to make use of all the resources at their disposal. The joy of seeing children back in school because they are assured of sustainable support from their families to further their education drives my team members on. Very challenging family-life situations also put our social work skills - theoretical and practical - to the test. We all become winners when we record very small but significant improvements in the lives of the families we support.

With this new portfolio, the initial challenges of relocating to a new community and starting all over in a new area, changing from individual and group social work to community social work, the uncertainties about the demands of the new portfolio, personal and family demands, as well as the appropriate application of on-the-job knowledge and skills have all been comprehensively addressed. The passion to continue working with children and young people as well as the influence of both youth leader and FSP co-ordinator roles on children's' wellbeing was clear right from the beginning.

The good end
I wanted to continue working with the organisation even though I made my point to the management team that I was not comfortable with the changes in the youth home model and here I am, still working with SOS Children's Villages after all these years - 16 years and counting.

The key messages of my story among others include:

  • You must know what you want, relate it to the prevailing circumstances, project it into the future and assess yourself in order to make a holistic decision.
  • You must be honest with yourself and with others, which in many situations may result in a win-win situation.
  • Do not be afraid of change. Embrace change with a positive attitude and carry along lessons learnt from the past.
  • Remain professional and resist all temptation to be influenced by "hearsay" or grape vine information and any information that is not official.
  • Before taking a decision, wait until the main circumstances are defined.
  • Be patient while responding to the needs and demands of any situation that could influence your career path.

Different coping strategies were needed to cope with the varied career demands. The various efforts that will result in children having access to the resources they need and the ripple effect in their lives cannot be emphasised too much

Mavis Agatha Abla Ekpe

is family strengthening programme coordinator at the SOS Children's Villages family strengthening programme Kumasi, Ghana

Mavis’ motivation is driven by the fact that young people are the citizens of tomorrow. She believes that everyone can only give back what he or she got. In her work, she strives to ensure that the youth she works with grow up in a secure environment. She is convinced that we all become winners when we notice sometimes small but significant improvements in the lives of the families we support.

Her extended family plays an important role in her life. She has a two-year old nephew whom she especially adores. She devotes herself to celebrating the steps each family member takes, be it the growing of teeth or a graduation ceremony. Mavis is a busy person with work, church activities and family responsibilities. She also tries to make time to listen to music and to follow social and political discussions.

Mavis lives in Kumasi, a town in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Kumasi has a lot of culture and a rich tradition with the utmost respect for the ‘’Asantehene’’ who is the traditional leader of the Ashanti people and someone who wields a lot of power.

Video Harvesting Workshop 2018