…. to bring hope to the world

How building an IT classroom in Guinea taught me empathy

Mikey Lukanowski is a UK based Software Engineer with a strong passion for helping those in need. He has been involved with a local charity called Urbond where he undertakes various projects with the most recent being building and equipping an IT classroom in Guinea, Africa. As a passion project, Mikey runs his own fitness blog called Workoutcave: a place where people can turn for a simple and realistic home workout ideas.
We interviewed him about the project he carried out in Dubreka.


IT class in GuineaYou were already volunteering in Uk with Urbond. What encouraged you to go personally in one of the poorest areas of the world?

That’s true, I have been involved with the URBOND Charity for the past 3 years mostly being based in the UK.

Working alongside Drame, the founder of the charity, and seeing his passion and the enormous amount of work he put into organizing a volunteering trip to Guinea, made me realize that I wanted to help even more in the field, outside of my homeland.

Once I spoke with my friends and family and they all got excited and supportive of my idea of going to Guinea, I knew it was the right decision. With no second thought, I started getting things ready for the trip.

How was the impact with Dubreka’s reality?

Durebeka’s reality was a culture shock for me, to be honest. It was very hot and immensely overcrowded and I was shaken (literally) by the condition of the roads.

The level of poverty broke my heart many times and at the end of the day, I felt so grateful for my comfortable life in the UK. This experience made me realize how lucky and fortunate I am to have a house, and car, and be able to afford good food and water on a regular basis.

Both the kids and locals were extremely happy and appreciative that we had chosen to help their community. Everywhere I went I was sincerely greeted with beaming smiles, laughter, dancing, and music. That was amazing!

Can we say that your experience shows once again that education is the key to community development (perhapsVolleyball team in Guinea together with sport)?

Absolutely! Bringing IT to a new school in Dubreka and providing local kids with books to study while making sure that they have everything they need to play some sport after school, definitely impacted the growth of Dureka’s community. These kids are busy studying and playing volleyball hence more connected to each other and their families.

What is the biggest lesson you learnt from this experience?

I’ve learned a lot during this trip. One of the most important learnings was realizing how good my current life is. I started feeling more grateful for everything I have: my own place in the UK, being surrounded by supportive family, having good food served every day, and having access to water. Something that locals and the kids in Dubreka don’t have and they still remain happy which is truly inspiring to me. Also, I’ve learned that education is really the most powerful weapon to change the world and unite people.

How this experience impacts today on your life and on your way to relating to others? How getting involved directly boosted your empathy?

As mentioned already, I am more grateful and appreciative. I no longer complain about some small inconvenience that happens to me on a regular basis such as traffic or last-minute plan cancellation by my friends and family.

I indeed developed more empathy towards not only others but also myself. I tend to be harsh on myself and since this trip happened, I’ve been practicing more self-love and self-compassion. This is a hard and everyday practice but so rewarding!

I’ve seen that you went to Guinea with an eleven people team. Is empathy contagious? And how important is to work in a team to get results?

Yes, it was a big group of international volunteers that joined the trip, including my best friend and fellow blogger Agness of Etramping who also shared her Guinea volunteering experience of helping to build a library and a computer room in Dubreka with Urbond on her blog.

I knew most of the volunteers from the volleyball team that I belong to. They were all enthusiastic about helping others and making a big difference in Dubreka. These awesome people are full of empathy, and love and they cared so much about the kids. I can truly say that empathy is contagious.

Mikey Lukanovski

I wouldn’t do the work I did in Dubreka if I was there on my own. It was definitely the team effort that made this trip so successful. We all joined the forces every single day and together we were able to build, paint and facilitate the school with laptops and books. While I was setting up the computer room, my fellow volunteers were painting the walls, cementing the floors, and building strong connections with locals and kids.

Are you still in touch with the community you met in Dubreka? What are your plans? Do you have other projects in mind?

Yes, I am still in touch with everyone and I am actively volunteering at URBOND. I also offer remote support to the URBOND IT teacher in Guinea. Additionally, I meet Drame on a regular basis to see what else can be done to support the community. Recently I have also started another fundraiser to help the Dubreka volleyball team to improve their training facility.




Interview collected by Giuliana Arena
April 2022
All photos ©Mikey Lukanowski




Children’s Hope In Action: Improving lives, saving futures!

Nikki Cornfield is one of the Parfitt-Pascoe Writing Residents 2018. She is a British expat, yoga and meditation teacher, currently living in Australia. She blogs at https://nikkicornfield.com/. We thank her for this great article.


In July 2016 we joined two other families in Hanoi in the north of Vietnam to begin our adventure traveling south with Intrepid Family Holidays. Arriving in Hoi An, we were given the opportunity to visit CHIA – a grassroots charitable foundation for helping disadvantaged children in Central Vietnam. We donated packs of milk cartons and baby formula and were warmly welcomed by volunteer Jeanne Grant, who today is still generously giving her time as CHIA’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Jeanne Grant arrived in Vietnam on holiday in 2013 and after several more visits fell in love with it and decided to take long service leave from her job as a social worker and family therapist in Victoria, Australia, to volunteer her services at CHIA. “I was hooked and so excited to begin. I began the process of jumping all the hurdles at home to make my dreams come true.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.

Jeanne and the CHIA staff

We knew we would be meeting children whose problems and disabilities would stab at our hearts; in Vietnam children with special needs are deemed ‘useless’ to their families as they cannot work or go to school to learn. But as we sat and played with them, their smiles demonstrated that these were the lucky ones: they stood a chance of having an education and a future thanks to Jeanne and the volunteers who came from all over the world to offer specialized care.

Life as a volunteer

Arriving back in Hoi An on 15th of January 2016, Jeanne secured herself an apartment and a motor scooter – “even though I had never ridden one in my life.” Her work began immediately at CHIA and her experience has proved “remarkable, fulfilling and so much more than I could ever have imagined.” Jeanne’s courage to start this new life and to give her time making a difference for these children and their parents came from her love of working with children and families, her love of traveling the world and a close family who supports her in everything she does. It’s this foundation of ‘home’ back in Australia that she says gives her the grounding to be able to offer her all in Vietnam and use skills acquired from 20 years of work with abused children. “It is a pleasure and honor to work with this great organization and the staff and children. The greatest satisfaction is that I can make a direct difference in a child’s life, which is an amazing feeling.

Chia children, staff and volunteers

Jeanne introduced herself to our group of five adults and ten children and spoke about the work that CHIA does, not just in the center but also in the community. As the children crawled into our laps for a cuddle or to show us a toy we all melted at the love we immediately felt for them. We were all moved to tears at the stories of just how difficult it is in Vietnam for families to survive and feed their children, let alone educate them. We were humbled at how much we have at home in comparison. In Central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province families are directly responsible for the total cost of sending their child to school. With most families surviving on less than $2 per day – yes that’s less than your average take away coffee -, it is easy to see that school fees and supplies are so huge that this large financial burden becomes unsustainable and children have to quit school. They are forced to work at an early age to help their family. Jeanne explained to us that if the child has learning and/or physical disabilities they cannot do this which leaves them abandoned at home, of no use to their families or society. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room at this stage.

A doctor from our group was emotionally stirred to help immediately and set to work assessing the children. The center relies on volunteer doctors to diagnose the mental and physical disorders in order for them to receive the correct care. We were inspired by Jeanne to act and do something to help this incredible organization, which had made her turn her world upside down to help “change the world of Vietnam’s children.


Nikki Cornfield
July 2018

To support CHIA please visit www.ChildrensHopeINAction.org



The Penny Wirton School

The Penny Wirton School is a very special Italian language school for new migrants, founded by writer Eraldo Affinati and his wife Anna Luce Lenzi. The school is special because it provides a simple and efficient solution to the problem of linguistic integration of immigrants and is managed entirely by volunteers.


penny wirton school

Founder Eraldo Affinati with some students

The concept is simple and effective; whoever has a bit of time can become a teacher and help an immigrant to learn the language. Lessons are conducted one to one allowing the teacher and student to establish a personal relationship and the learning can progress at the student’s own pace. This method and the fact that it is run exclusively by volunteers, makes the school a meeting point between immigrants and locals, creating a common ground for integration that works beyond linguistic, social and cultural differences.

We have decided to introduce this beautiful project because it shares many values and elements with “What Expats Can Do”. We believe there are common points that can create links and teachings, and hopefully, inspire the creation of similar projects in other parts of the world.

Reading the constitution of the Penny Wirton School, we were struck by some particular aspects.

“Those who teach at the Penny Wirton School are special people”

penny wirton schoolTeachers are individuals, with different beliefs and experiences, who give their time to this project for their own reasons, however, “in the end they are all driven by the same desire to give”. This reminds us of our challenge nr 2: The discipline to challenge our own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what we share with people rather than what divides us.

Diversity is therefore something that marks each one of those participating in the school, not only the students coming from different backgrounds and countries. Even from a professional point of view there are diversities: anyone can teach the language, included those who have never taught before or whose work is not related to teaching.

Every teacher is

“genuinely interested in the stories of his students: whoever they are”

Interest in diversity and curiosity regarding others are common elements in all success stories involving migrants, no matter where. And this reminds us of our challenge nr 1: Developing curiosity for strangers.

Everybody is welcome at the school at any time. The school is open the whole year round. The capacity to efficiently welcome everybody at any time probably depends on the teaching method: “the strength of each lesson lies within the personal relationship that grows, in different ways, between the teacher and the student”.

The teacher is a person who has “the capacity of establishing a contact with the people he meets” The gift of empathy is at the centre of the teaching method: one to one lessons, because “every person is different and must be considered as such”. Again this links to one of the challenges we suggested, The ability to directly experience lives and lifestyles of those different from us.


penny wirton school


This project was started in Rome 10 years ago, and has been so successful that today there are 22 schools in other Italian cities. We asked Anna Luce Lenzi, co-founder of the Penny Wirton School, to describe the elements that made this initiative a success.


The Penny Wirton School was created in 2008 to teach Italian to immigrants. The big challenge was to teach to young people coming from different countries, who hardly understood each other in a simple Italian. It was necessary to intensify the teaching of the language, to look the students in the eye and encourage their learning. We found it easier for some (Albanian, Moldavian, Romanian), and less so for others (Afghans, Egyptians).

penny wirton schoolOur school is based on a kind of freedom which is unthinkable in institutional structures, the freedom that comes from a direct personal relationship, one to one or in very small groups, made possible by the many people that are willing to teach for free: both students and teachers are volunteers. There are no classrooms, no marks. The only grade book used is to describe the work being done. We register attendance, not absence. We write down names and activities of the students, to allow every teacher to follow the student’s progress. The only style is the contact, the relationship between student and teacher, who sit side by side and “study” each other reciprocally.

In order to facilitate this process, we must start by looking for and establishing a rapport between students and teachers. Being professional teachers or well-intentioned volunteers is not enough: What is needed is, above all, the interest and capacity of adapting to the individual circumstance of the immigrants.

We make it clear that our primary aim is the teaching of the Italian language and we do not provide any other form of assistance. It is however obvious that the most important teachings are about respecting each others dignity; the chance to sit close together and understand each other; a mutual interest in each other as people and a continuous exchange of ideas. In the Penny Wirton School, people of different age, background and cultural conditions are welcomed in the same way: the one to one contact takes place in big large rooms, where you can learn and see others learning, where you have difficulties and see others having them: No one is blamed and each one advances at their own pace.

It is a sort of inner freedom that spreads and permeates the school and the persons in it. We put a lot of energy in explaining to the volunteers that they must not approach teaching with the classical concept of school. What is favoured here is the contact, the interested gaze, and the smile of one who feels understood and understands. Sometimes, after the first period, the volunteer does not feel able to teach a method without explanations and formal classroom structure, and leaves. However, in most cases the satisfaction and the happiness between student and teacher are reciprocal: Enthusiastic volunteers call other volunteers, satisfied students bring friends: This is why the school grows and develops with the strength that comes with volunteering and an open heart.

Anna Luce Lenzi
February 2017

Article collected and organised by Claudia Landini and Cristina Baldan

Translated from the Italian by Barbara Amalberti

Photo credits: Penny Wirton School

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