Phillip Arnold arrived in Abono, Ghana, armed with 13 pounds of hard candy and a pile of toys his children had collected from McDonald’s Happy Meals to share with village children. He left the small East African fishing village with deep bonds of friendship forged with people living half a world away from his Syracuse home. “The people there share everything,” says Arnold, a laboratory manager for the earth sciences department in the College of Arts and Sciences. “They are very open, affectionate, caring people who look out for each other.”
Arnold was part of the SU research team—led by earth sciences professor Christopher Scholz—working on a study of climate change in the tropics over the past million years by using information hidden in the lake’s sediment. Arnold, who helped build the research team’s boat, says children and adults gathered every day to watch the crew, and he soon noticed how quiet the children were. “The kids would sit around with nothing to do,” he says. “They didn’t have anything to play with.”
On his third day in Abono, Arnold took a break, jumped off the boat, and began cutting scrap wood into blocks of varying shapes and sizes. He threw them into a box and gave them to the children to play with. From that moment on, Arnold and the village children became inseparable. By the time he left, the villagers called him agyema, which means “father of the children.”
Arnold and his co-workers helped the children transform the crew’s work area, which was cluttered with village debris and other materials, into a park. The group made park benches out of logs, and Arnold used scrap wood and logs to construct five seesaws for the park. He also built a tree swing from chain, rope, and wood scraps. “It was a novelty,” he says. “They had never seen a swing before.”
The children were so excited about the park that they began to skip school to play there. The village elders ruled that the swing had to be rendered unusable during school hours. To help resolve the problem, Arnold built a swing and seesaw at the school.
Ghanaian children play on a seesaw built by Phillip Arnold, a lab manager for the earth sciences department.
Word of Arnold’s knack for making useful things from scraps quickly spread, and villagers asked him for help building tables and other furnishings. One of the more unusual requests was for a hinged moneybox that the villagers use to collect funeral donatdons. He also made writing boards for the children to use in school. Unsatisfied with those he made of scrap wood, Arnold bought plywood and set up a makeshift writing-board assembly line to produce 36 boards for the school—a rundown, wood-frame building that lacks adequate desks, books, and supplies.
After returning to Syracuse, Arnold organized a book drive at St. Matthew’s School in East Syracuse, the elementary school his children attend. He also bought pencils, sidewalk chalk, paper, art supplies, and bubble-blowing toys, and collected 10 soccer balls donated by local Hess gas stations. The supplies were delivered to Abono in mid-January when the research team returned to begin its experiments. “The most fun I’ve had in my life was teaching the kids how to use the seesaws,” Arnold says.
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