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Students' group brings hope to Ghana; Williamsville South grads' nonprofit makes a difference halfway around the world

Sometimes it takes more than a village.

Sometimes it takes three Williamsville South graduates who stumble across that village, totally unaware of what awaits them there.

And sometimes it takes people who may never see the village but who know the big-hearted college students trying to make a difference halfway around the world.

"It was pretty eye-opening," said Chris Toone of his first visit to the tiny villages of Senase and Akatim in the heart of Ghana.

Eye-opening enough that Toone left Africa with a new purpose in his life: to raise money for a clinic in Senase and a school in Akatim.

More than a year later, he's been joined by six other students, two of them fellow South High School grads, who together have created a nonprofit organization and begun raising money.

They now operate as The Senase Project, a tax-exempt organization dedicated to helping the two villages.

"I didn't pick it, it kind of fell into my lap," said Tyler Walters, a South graduate and University at Pittsburgh student, of his spot on the organization's board of directors.

Whenever they make their pitch for contributions, their story is always the same; it is a tale of kids at risk because they lack a real school, not to mention teachers, books and other basic resources.

The Senase Project founders talk often about their visits to Akatim and the look of hopelessness they found on the faces of school children crowded into a bare-bones classroom.

They also like to talk about the Ghanese government, and how their fundraising efforts cast a much-needed spotlight on the villages' problems. The attention is paying dividends in Akatim, where a new four-room schoolhouse, the product of a long-delayed government construction project, has been built.

"It's already a success," Walters said of the organization's overseas effort.

Walters, Toone and the others hope to add two new classrooms and a library as part of their campaign. They estimate the price tag at about $33,000.

The group, which includes students from across the country, also wants to build a new health care clinic down the road in Senase.

The clinic would provide basic medical care and allow for the storage of vaccines, fresh water and diagnostic lab equipment. The clinic would cost about $25,000.

"I grew up volunteering, but I wanted to find my own thing," said Toone, the acknowledged leader of the project. "I wanted to see the impact I could have on something big."

His attitude is proving contagious.

Sophie Hermann, a South graduate now enrolled at Buffalo State College and studying in Australia, said she first heard about The Senase Project from Toone's mother.

They had run into each other at a local farmers' market.

"When she explained it, something told me I was supposed to be a part of it," Hermann said in an email interview from Australia. "I actually sent Chris this really weirdly excited and passionate message saying I felt like I really needed to be in on it."

Hermann applied for a spot on the Senase board, got accepted and suddenly realized she was responsible for something special, and for whether that something special turned out to be a success.

That brings us to the project's biggest hurdle.

It's no secret Senase is a student-run organization and that it therefore carries with it a fair number of pitfalls, not the least of which are skeptical donors.

"Just about every presentation, I get that question, 'Hey, you're only 20 years old, how are you going to do this?' " said Toone, who serves as Senase's CEO.

Toone said the group constantly struggles with the perception that youth means lack of credibility.

He said his response is to remind donors, many of them much older than he, that he and the others went to great lengths and expense to form their nonprofit and they have no intention of stopping now.

The group began in late 2010 and launched its website,, a few months later. Donations can be made through the website.

The students also note that their fundraising has already generated enough money to buy school uniforms for all the students in Akatim.

"We need to look at our own generation," said Walters. "Whatever it takes, we'll make it happen."