Sometimes a zero means nada, nil, nothing. Three zeros might indicate zilch. And then again, there are cases when three zeros surprise, astonish and, perhaps, intimidate a person volunteering for one thing and learning it's actually 10 times more.
That's a true experience -- as far off the learning curve as life lessons can be -- and here's how and where it happened, to Dr. Valeria Watkins, advisor and support staff to Berea College's Black Music Ensemble.
Every two years, Berea College faculty and advisors take students to Ghana as part of its summer institute, and five years ago Watkins went along, too.
"I had wanted to go to Ghana since one of the churches I had attended went every three years to serve there, and I didn't have the resources to do it." However, two non-monetary resources served Watkins well: desire and patience.
Dr. Joseph Mante, who as moderator leads the Presbyterian Church in Ghana, is the liaison to Berea College and arranged where students stayed, the transportation -- "all of the logistics," Watkins said. "He selected Komfeuku, a village, a very, very, very, very small village where most everyone must walk three to five miles to market to sell what they grow in their gardens, pineapples, squash and other veggies, or to offer services, such as beading jewelry and sewing clothing."
Villagers and their visitors live on vegetables and fufu, a staple food eaten by hand that's made by mixing and pounding starchy cassava or plantain flour, then boiling it to a consistency determined by the maker's personal preference.
"You use your hands to pull a piece of dough and dip it into vegetables, a soup or sauce," Watkins explained. "I can still see it in my mind."
Watkins emphasized Ghana's poverty, and explained that St. John's Church is the village community center, as well as its religious one.
"It's up on a hill and people live all around it," she said. "When I saw it, it just had the rafter across. The new church is built out from and around the old one; the bricks are made one at a time, and the maker, who might have a helper, mixes sand and limestone and puts it into a mold, one brick at a time."
In 2014, the church housed the village's only indoor bathrooms, and when the Berea contingent arrived, workers were trying to finish them for the group.
"It had a dirt floor, though," Watkins said, a kind way of describing the building, the village and its people as poor, very, very poor.
The day Watkins, her colleagues and the students were leaving Komfeuku, "church elders called our group leaders and shared they needed help finishing the roof. It had been in its current state for two years, and they wanted the project to move forward. I heard them say $2,500 and I'm looking at my colleagues, waiting for someone to say something."
The Bereans were silent.
"I'm thinking in my mind that if I save a hundred dollars a month, in a year, it's halfway there. I knew I could help them." Watkins told them that, "and the elders were grateful, so excited." She grinned as she recounted the meeting and her decision to help; her smile was not one of self-satisfaction, but rather, one reflecting her naivety.
"On the plane coming back one of my colleagues asked how I was going to raise $25,000. I said no, I had to raise $2,500." That colleague asked another. And $25,000 was the answer. And yet another one agreed.
"Oh, my goodness, what have I done?" Watkins asked herself. "I had no clue how I'd raise $25,000. If I knew I had to come up with $25,000, well…" the sentence's end is obvious: she wouldn't have volunteered. And, had she not agreed to help, "I wouldn't have known that I could do it."
"I realized I was meant to hear $2,500 -- and that I was meant to help. So, I didn't worry about it or even think about it. I trusted some idea of how to raise the money would come," she said.
Among her many talents -- music, sports, life coaching, to name the tip of the iceberg -- Watkins is an artist. Her paintings and photographs have been shown widely in the Bluegrass, and they've raised hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for local charities. When she told her weekly painting group, Feminist Artists, the story, "they were astonished and asked how I'd ever raise $25,000. Guys, I said, maybe I'll sell some paintings." An understatement? Could be. Did Watkins intentionally paint herself into a corner? Possibly. Instead, one of her sister artists then another asked if she'd like them to help.
Who offered first? "Maybe Trish Ayres, or Jackie Pullum. Patricia Watkins or Pat Jennings. I don't remember. What I do remember is that everyone said they'd be willing to help, that we'd all use our art for the fundraisers."
Union Church in Berea sponsored the first exhibit and sale of paintings to benefit the building project in Ghana. Then, Berea College invited the artists to show -- and sell, of course -- their work in March 2015 during Women's History Month. "The project was getting a lot of attention and we're raising money and sending it every time we got $5,000."
No happy ending. Yet.
"The church beams were metal, and, when the monsoons came, the beams rusted. Well, they had to be cleaned and that took money we were going to use for the roof -- an added expense we hadn't counted on," Watkins recalled. Other unanticipated costs came up, too, forestalling getting the roof on the church.
However, in only 18 months, the women artists and, indeed, the Berea community that embraced them, Ghana and the church project, raised more than $25,000. In fact, at the end of the first year, St. John's Church received $20,000 of Kentucky-raised donations.
Was that the happy ending? Not quite. The women continued raising money for Komfeuku, and send about $500 a year to repair or replace school uniforms. The Berea women have sewn aprons, then bowties, to fill the coffers that pay for new zippers as well as up to 40 new uniforms each year -- 20 for boy students and 20 for the girls.
"Once we completed the roof project, the church became known as the miracle church," Watkins said. "Villagers couldn't believe what happened and came to participate. Even little children had buckets to break up bricks from the old church. Everyone pitched in and it brought the community together. There's now a church you just never see in a small Ghanaian village."
That could be a joyful ending. There's more to the story, though. Here's the quick version: St. John's Church elders told the archbishop what Bereans had done and he wanted to acknowledge the women painters, according to Watkins. However, Watkins is humble. Church officials really wanted to acknowledge her.
"I knew it would be costly to go, well over $5,000, and I thought if I sent them $2,000, that would make such a difference. Our contact, a man named Kwame, said no. It's really important that you come here, not just to recognize and honor you, but because your being here will allow the villagers to celebrate for three days." Watkins continued recounting the conversation: "You'll be dressed in native costumes, the chief will be here, there'll be games for students and the people. It's a big deal to them, everyone comes dressed up."
Watkins told Kwame her body "wouldn't do three days." Kwame wouldn't hear it. In fact, he won the debate. Watkins and Berea College colleagues from the Carter G. Woodson Center leave Aug. 2 and two days later are presenters at a professional conference. Two full days of events, all attended by dignitaries, follow.
That's not what Watkins wants, but it's what she's getting. That and having her eyes opened to what it means to be of service.
"If it had not have been for me saying yes, I wouldn't have known how to start something and get a whole community involved in it. If you don't try, you don't know it can be done. I'm so glad we were able to raise the whole $25,000, and the Komfeuku villagers could use what they had to finish up," she said.