Bridging the gap: A year without school rewards Cape Elizabeth, South Portland students

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CAPE ELIZABETH — When Francesca Governali and Emma Dadmun told people they were planning to take a year off after high school to travel and volunteer before going to college, not everyone was receptive to the idea.

“I got some weird looks,” Dadmun said.

After the fall these two had, it would be tough for anyone to second-guess their decision.

They returned last week from a 3 1/2-month trip that took them to seven countries on three continents, highlighted by five weeks of volunteer work at a school for orphans in Tanzania.

Governali and Dadmun, 2013 graduates of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland high schools, respectively, have known each other since they served in the same Girl Scout troop as second-graders. During their junior years, they both did semesters at the Chewonki school in Wiscasset, where their teachers encouraged them to consider taking a gap year before attending college.

They left home on Aug. 31 and did a whirlwind tour of England, France, Germany and Holland, before arriving in Arusha, a bustling, colorful, dusty Tanzanian city of more than a million people.

There they lived in a house with 18 other volunteers from across the globe and taught children ages 5 to 7 at Glorious Orphanage, a five-room schoolhouse on the outskirts of the city.

“Volunteering in Africa, I had the impression that I would go and feel so sorry for these kids,” Dadmun said. “And a lot of the kids, from our perspective, they had very little. But to them, they had everything they needed. They didn’t need our pity. They were really happy.”

Governali and Dadmun taught English, math, science and geography, and even did a lesson on Maine.

“We taught them about moose, blueberries, black bears, New England things,” Dadmun said. “Even though that might not be something that’s super important for them to learn, I think they really enjoyed it.”

Glorious Orphanage was founded by HIV/AIDS educator Alice Mathew. In addition to providing a free education and meals, Mathew helps students find foster homes and facilitates access to other social services.

The Mainers said they were struck by how grateful the students were to be getting an education. Many of the kids’ neighbors and peers do not attend school, they said.

“They were always so happy for any kind of help and support,” Governali said. “A lot of them were just so eager to learn.”

After their time in Tanzania, Governali and Dadmun traveled to Australia and New Zealand, before returning to the U.S. They are each sponsoring a student from Glorious Orphanage, and they will make a presentation about their volunteer experience on Jan. 8 at a meeting of the Cape Elizabeth High School World Affairs Council.

Governali will travel to South America in the spring for more volunteer work before enrolling at Dartmouth College next fall. Dadmun, who will matriculate at Whitman College in Washington next year, isn’t sure where this spring will take her; for now, she said she plans to get a job and start saving some money.

For both of them, this fall was filled with experiences they’ll never forget.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the gap year was worth it,” Governali said. “I know there’s a conception that if you take a gap year, you’re not going to go to college, or gap years are something you need to have a ton of money to do. And it can definitely be expensive, but there are so many opportunities out there, so many different things you can do, that there are ways to do it inexpensively.”

Dadmun said the four months abroad helped her prepare for college.

“After 12 years of school, I’d almost forgotten why I was learning,” she said. “It’s just something I did because I was told to do it. Now that I’ve left school, I’m so much more excited to go back. I remembered I was learning for myself.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.

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Francesca Governali, a 2013 graduate of Cape Elizabeth High School, with a student from the Glorious Orphanage school in Arusha, Tanzania.

Emma Dadmun, a 2013 graduate of South Portland High School, with students from the Glorious Orphanage school in Arusha, Tanzania.