From her time as a volunteer for crime victims to her tenure as an educator and school director, Tina Whittington is an example of how showing understanding for people and issues around us can contribute towards improving the world.
Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas - www.fjordfoto.dk
Text: Michaela Medveďová
When Tina decided school wasn't helpful, she left it behind. When she wanted to help people beyond her day job, she got a counselling degree and became a victim counsellor. When she wanted to experience the world, she moved to Denmark and participated in a volunteer project in Zambia.
Tina Whittington has always forged her own path and found a way to support others.
Tina was born in Machester – which is generally a very multicultural city. "You have a lot of first and second-generation people from African countries, Caribbean countries, India, China, or other Asian countries. But then, we went to live in a majority-white town and were the only black family in a relatively good-sized town. There were a lot of small racist comments and people crossing boundaries by touching my hair. I hated it!" Happily, since then, the town has changed, and whenever Tina returns for a visit, she sees many ethnicities in the town she grew up in.
At age 16, she went back to Machester to work. "There's much nightlife, and the daylife is exciting, too. It's not a beautiful city - if you want beauty, you must go to Bath, York, or other places. But I love the vibe of Manchester! People are very down to earth. It's not that I miss it now that I live in Denmark because I love my life here, but when I return, I can relax more when I communicate with the locals as it's my mother tongue. In Denmark, I have to make myself understood more clearly."
Sixteen might seem like an early age to leave school - but in the United Kingdom, that's when a young person finishes their exams. There are, of course, many people who continue their education and head for university. "I don't come from a background where my parents had been at university. I'm from a working-class family, growing up with my four siblings." But planning to go to university was the case for all Tina's friends, her older sister - and Tina herself. "But when I sat my exams, I felt I didn't learn anything. I left school without knowing how to open a bank account or other practical things about living in society. So at 16, I said this is enough and left school."
Her friends and family were surprised and said she might regret it and needed an education. "But, I've never regretted leaving school, and have been very lucky in my career - and also because I worked hard - to find companies who were ready to embrace me for who I was and gave me the room to grow, with lots of responsibility. My daughter is 16 now, and I think, oh man, I was her age once," Tina laughs.
For several years after that, she was doing administrative work. But when she was about 24, she did a counselling course at night school to support people with issues they needed to discuss.
At that point, she started working with women subject to domestic violence, rape, and other assaults at an organisation called Victim Support. "When I started doing my counselling, I tried with different organisations in the UK. Some required a 48-hour shift, but I was working, and I couldn't do that, even if it were only once a month. Victim Support was the most open for what I was looking for and what I could offer."
Victim Support is a charity that works with victims of crime. When people have given a police report, they are always asked if they want to speak to someone to share what they've been through. That's where volunteers like Tina come in. "I was always ready when they asked me. Some people said: I don't want to drive more than 5 miles from home, so I was ready to go where needed." Then she was asked if she would like some training to work with women who were victims of sexual assault and other crimes. After some deliberation, she accepted and went through the training. "Every time I met a new woman, I thought: How can I support this person in this very traumatic time in her life? Many times, it was people who needed to talk - and needed someone to listen. Unless it's a deep psychological issue, people can often find their solutions; and discover them just by hearing their words repeated back to them."
Some of the women she only saw once; sometimes, she saw someone once a week for several months. "The longest time I was with a woman was weekly for a year and a half after a violent episode. Then, at one point, she said she was ready to move on. It was very challenging - some of the situations people encountered were very distressing - but seeing how women managed to move on with their lives was also very rewarding."
Not walking down the same road
While volunteering, she was still also working as an office manager and working in a domestic violence unit on the weekends. By then, she thought she'd like to work with these women full-time. "However, my lack of qualifications often came up as many people said they would like to work with me - but they also had other people who were qualified and had lots of years of experience. At the same time, I wanted to travel, and then I saw an advert in a magazine for a school in Denmark offering a training programme and volunteer work in an African country." She kept the magazine but wasn't ready to give up her life, job, and house - until one day when she was walking home from work and thought: Will this be my life when I'm 50, walking down the same road, not having experienced something else?
So, in 1999, Tina took the opportunity to come to Denmark for six months, complete a training period at the DRH Holsted school, and then travel to a development project in Zambia for another six months. "I went to Zambia to work with DAPP (Development Aid from People to People) on an HIV and AIDS project, working with an orphan programme and starting clubs in schools for young people to learn about the disease. At that time, HIV and AIDS were ravaging parts of Africa, people were dying, and there was a big need for people to have more understanding about it - and a big focus on the youth."
While the six months spent on the project were very rewarding, Tina also enjoyed her time in Denmark. "I did many things for the first time. I never had to hitchhike before because I always had a car. And I performed in a theatre production for the first time in front of 900 people that was 2 hours long, and we had ten days to learn the lines and practice. After I'd been here for three months, I thought, think I would like to stay."
She didn't know exactly what she wanted to do in Denmark - but she knew she enjoyed her time in the school with an international atmosphere and pushed her to be more courageous, and her teachers inspired her. "After returning from Zambia, I was asked if I would like to be a teacher at DRH Holsted. I said no because I thought, me, a teacher? But then I thought: Well, what else will I do? I can always go back to find a job in England. But I decided to stay and give it a try. And that was a good choice because here I am after 23 years!"
Doing something new, doing something good
When Tina started her tenure as a teacher – it was a bit of a struggle initially. "I think it was one of the hardest years of my life because I didn't have a clue. We have a unique school as the students are very much a part of decision-making during the programme. I had to find a balance because I was the teacher and working with adults; I couldn't just tell people what to do. We had to make agreements and find ways to make the programme challenging, too."
Luckily, she had much support around her - other teachers, the head of the school at that time - and she found her footing. So much so that after a couple of years, she was asked to become the school director - a position she has also held at DRH Lindersvold since 2013. "It's 24/7. I live with the students and eat together with the students. My two teenagers are also part of this life, where they meet so many amazing people from all over the world. What I love about my work is that people come to this school because they want to do something with their life – and most times, it's to give back. Or, perhaps, they want to learn new skills - but they all come with a good heart and a desire to contribute to positive change in the world." They work with students, primarily internationals, over the age of 18. The average age is around 24-25, although Tina fondly remembers a student who went to a project in Malawi at age 65 and is still very active in supporting the schools she worked at there.
Through the programmes, students can contribute to and support communities by building schools, training teachers, or helping with curriculums. Tina also appreciates the impact the projects have on their students. "We have a divide between rich and poor. There's a divide between where you can go with different passports. There are so many things in this world that make it unjust.
One of the things we aim for is to support our students to become able to work towards some of these significant issues in the world, like poverty and climate change. We always talk about global warming like it's the future, but it's happening now. The communities in the countries we visit suffer droughts and floods, weather events that don't usually happen in those places. So many students go through a massive transformation in understanding the life of people who live in different parts of the world - and understanding what they can do, not just themselves, but when they work together – this is why the training programme at the school is so essential before they go to the projects."
"I'm learning every day from my students and my colleagues. We do what we love so that many people can have this experience and contribute something good."
Understanding the world
While teaching and later leading the school has undoubtedly impacted Tina's professional life, it impacted her personal life, too.
"My partner and I have been together for 23 years. He's from the Netherlands, and I met him when I came to the school. We had so many similar interests, and being born only a year apart, had much to share with each other". She continues to work together with her partner daily at the school where he is a teacher.
Now, they have two teenagers, a son, aged 14, and a daughter, who is 16 and preparing to move on to an international efterskole next school year. "I'm just happy that they're nice people because that's important in this world, to have empathy. They understand people, and they understand the world." She can see how growing up around the students in the school has impacted her kids. She remembers a question her daughter asked her when she was six and came home from school. "She'd been sitting in my classroom, colouring and drawing while I was discussing Africa and injustice in the world. She asked me one day: Why don't we learn everything you teach at your school? They have heard many things about the world. My kids have heard from our students who come back from the projects in different countries of Africa and India, so they benefit greatly from this atmosphere in the school." Who knows, maybe they'll go on a project of their own one day!
Tina would love to see her school full of students again after the pandemic derailed their travel plans to different projects. "Recently, our first team of students returned from one of the projects in an African country. So I would love to fill our school again - and love it when there's life with all the highlights and challenges.
At first, I said I would be in Denmark for only two years. I thought I would have learned everything I needed to know back then. But I'm learning every day from my students and my colleagues. We do what we love so that many people can have this experience and contribute something good."
Currently, DRH Lindersvold is running one ten-month programme (Volunteer For Change) where the students start with a three-month intensive training programme at the school followed by six months on a community development project in Malawi, Zambia, India, or Mozambique, and a month of analysing and concluding their experience. Afterwards, they travel and present their experience in schools around Denmark or their home countries. This year, the school has started two more programmes - Nature Now, a seven-month climate programme in the Caribbean, and a twelve-month programme called Action Volunteer. For more information about the school and their programmes, visit: www.lindersvold.dk