Carmel Valley student helps build school in Ghana

By Karen Billing

Claire Bolton, a 17-year-old senior at Canyon Crest Academy, spent part of her summer building a school for children in the village of Abeadze Dominase in Ghana.

For 21 days, from July 24 to Aug. 14, Claire volunteered her time as part of Empathy FX International, a non-profit organization that allows high school and college students to help create educational opportunities for the under-served and under-resourced in the global community.

“It was amazing to see the school all done,” said Claire, whose name was painted on the wall, forever marking her contribution to the village.

Claire has lived in Carmel Valley for five years, moving to the country with her family from the United Kingdom. As a freshman, Claire got involved in CCA’s Key Club, the high school community service organization sponsored by Kiwanis International. Through the club she volunteered for projects such as beach clean-ups and at the soup kitchen before the president of the club told her about Empathy FX.

Empathy FX was started in 2009 by 20-year-old Rosemary Hua, a UC Berkeley senior, with help from Ghana resident Nana Aggrey-Fynn. The double major at Berkeley is passionate about education and has led one-to-two student volunteer trips a year, and has built three schools in Ghana so far. While the trips have usually included only college students, this summer’s was the first to involve high school students.

“She is very inspirational,” Claire said of Hua.

To be selected for the trip, Claire went through an application process that included interviews via Skype and a personality test. She was the only San Diego teen on the trip, along with four high schoolers from San Jose, a college graduate student and Hua.

To be able to go on the trip, Claire had to fundraise $5,000, which included her travel and lodging costs as well as supplies to build the school. She was able to get donations from Qualcomm, HP, Abtech Technologies and even her orthodontist.

“Everyone in Ghana is so welcoming and friendly,” Claire said. “A lot of people carried stuff on their heads and babies on their back. I carried cement blocks on my head.”

In the village, the group built a three-room school from the ground up and Claire did everything from mixing cement to wiring to painting. Once the building was complete they gave the 70-some children, who will attend the school, some donated supplies, taught them a few English words and colored with them.

The village children were fascinated by Claire’s long blonde hair and by her braces.

“I gave them a speech on what braces do, drawing in the sand,” Claire said.

During her 21 days, Claire stayed with a host family of three girls and their grandparents, along with two of the girls from the trip. They had egg stew almost every day for lunch and dinner with sides of noodles, yams or rice.

The family did not have indoor plumbing and Claire said it was simple basic living.

“I appreciate life way more now and the things I have,” Claire said. “I wouldn’t complain about what I have because I realize people in Ghana may struggle but they keep happy every day.”

The group worked five to eight hours a day but they did have some free time to explore — Claire saw a slave castle at Cape Coast and went to the beach, although people don’t really go into the ocean like San Diego, most of the coastline was filled with fisherman.

She and her group gave plenty of business to a local craftsman, having him make colorful, personalized bracelets for friends and family back home.

Claire said she made lifelong friends out of the process and would love to go on another trip in the future. She hopes to continue doing community service work through Key Club and although she does not yet know where she will end up for college, she hopes to study communications.

To learn more about Empathy FX, visit