Service Before Self: 180th Fighter Wing Airman Volunteers in Ghana

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  • By Air Force Airman Hope Geiger, 180th Fighter Wing
Alone, in a remote region of Africa, surrounded by strangers and living in a shack without running water, Senior Airman Courtney Iannucci made it her mission to adjust to a foreign culture while caring for orphans.

Iannucci, an intelligence specialist assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, sacrificed modern comforts during a three week trip to Ghana on a volunteer mission in 2016. 

She flew into Accra, the capital of Ghana alone, where she met a man standing with a sign that said “International Volunteer Headquarters,” the volunteer program she found online. She was one of two Americans who volunteered. The rest were from all over the world.

There were many volunteer programs she could have chosen, but she knew she wanted to travel to Africa to experience a new culture that was out of her comfort zone.

“I traveled alone to Africa where I lived in a shack and slept on a rectangle on the ground that wasn’t really foam, with a mosquito net around me to keep out the poisonous spiders,” said Iannucci. “I couldn’t wear my western clothes, I had to go pick out some fabric at a market where they made me dresses and pants. To shower, I had to walk a mile to a well to fill up a heavy bucket, and I would stand behind a brick wall and dump it on myself.”

Living in Ghana for three weeks, in her concrete shack she only had light from a single lightbulb to live by every day, she tried to blend into the culture as much as possible. Her attire was modest and culturally appropriate. Most of her meals were rice based, with minimal amounts of protein. 

“It was very minimal and different, but I could adjust,” said Iannucci.

She wanted to live in the same conditions the orphans were living in. They were better able to bond and build trust with her.

“We had about 30 orphans,” Iannucci said. “The kids weren’t fully orphaned, they have parents, but their parents can’t take care of them. They either couldn’t afford to or they just didn’t care if they survived.” 

There were more children who needed help, but the volunteer program could only afford to care for a limited number of kids. 

“It’s heartbreaking because I couldn’t help everyone and that was the realization of being there,” said Iannucci. “When you volunteer there you want to save the world and help everybody but you realize you can’t actually do that. I had to understand, I was helping as many as I could and giving these kids a better life.” 

Each day revolved around the kids. 

Iannucci and the other volunteers would wake up early, dust off, clean their shacks, and start preparing food for the kids. She would then walk into the village to pick them up to bring them back to the food. 

“Some of them refused to walk back, so we would have to carry them,” said Iannucci. “We would sit them down, pray, give them food, and walk them to class.”

When the kids were done with class she took them back to the shacks, fed them dinner, helped them with their homework and spent time with them playing games.

Volleyball was a favorite. Iannucci brought a soccer ball with her, but the kids wanted to play volleyball with it. She used the single lightbulb’s hanging electric wire in her shack as the volleyball net.

“Other than that we had bubbles,” said Iannucci. “The kids loved bubbles. Just how excited they were over them, was great. They would be entertained for hours over just bubbles.”

She was shocked how happy the kids were.

“They had nothing, but they were so happy every day,” she said. “They were always excited to see the volunteers and the small little things we would bring them for the day, like bubbles.”

The days were exhausting, but having a good group of people around her made it better.

“Everyone was able to make it fun and make me smile every day,” said Iannucci. “Seeing the kids happy with everybody made it all worth it.”

“I went through all of those things because a lot of volunteer programs, you help kids but you stay in a place where you are comforted,” she said. “I wanted to experience a different culture and this was the best way to do it. I don’t think I would have the heart to take care of orphans while I’m staying in a really nice hotel.”

It was hard for Iannucci to leave the kids when her time there was over.

“Even when I was leaving, the second I left I knew other people were coming, so it made me feel better knowing the kids had new people to care for them,” she said.

The happiness of the kids, influenced some changes in her life.

When she went home she threw away a ton of her stuff, because she realized she had so many things she did not need. She stopped using her phone for a little while because she was not use to having it. The experience made her appreciate things she never did before her trip, like showering and driving her car. 

This experience was different for her. She stepped out of her comfort zone and was able to make a huge impact on not just her own life, but others. 

“Every day I still kind of think about it,” said Iannucci. “It made me more conscious of everything I’m doing now. Like when I am taking a shower, I feel really lucky to have a shower and to be able to wash my hair.”

Iannucci plans on going on more volunteer trips in the future.

“I want to go to India or the Philippines next, because I want to go somewhere that has a totally different culture,” said Iannucci. “They’re not places I would normally travel or vacation to, but I know they have a lot of orphans.”

Despite the hardships she faced, Iannucci embodies the core value of service before self and is committed to serving others, both at home and abroad.

“I am not at all surprised by Airman Iannucci’s willingness, dedication and desire to help others,” said 1st Lt. Justin B. Tucholski, Intelligence Officer at the 180FW. “Every time she is serving at the base, her optimism and grateful attitude are contagious. In my opinion, one of the best things about being in the Ohio Air National Guard, is our connection and direct ties to the local community. Airman Iannucci embodies the “Citizen Airman” concept, maximizing on the skills and knowledge obtained in the military and paying it forward.”
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