The pursuit of true happiness is a subject that has always fascinated me. From an early age, children in America are constantly exposed to “happiness” on the basis of material items, and fiscal success. However, throughout my teenage years I always thought that there was more to truly enjoying life than what one’s money could buy. Last summer, in order to find authentic happiness in others and within myself, I participated in a three week, teen volunteer-run summer school in Ghana. The discoveries I made throughout those days have shaped me into the person I am today, and have made me much more aware of what being happy really means.
As I left my classroom in Ghana for the last time, one of my best students, Hope, motioned towards me and handed me a note. It read, “Dear Riley Michel, it is not a pleasure for me to write you this letter because of the pains I’m going to endure within my heart by missing you. Boy you are so kind, and precious….” At that moment I looked into Hope’s beautiful brown eyes, and they spoke to me, telling me the story of a young man who constantly smiled, was respectful, intelligent, and who had incredible ambition. Near tears, I promised him that I would never forget him, and the way he lived life.
Starting the walk towards my home base, two laughing young boys scurried up to me. What began as a cute gesture had turned into a sincere friendship, as everyday for three weeks on the way home from school these two boys, Rechard and Freeman, would hold my hand and pepper me with questions of America.
Looking at Freeman I had always felt a great amount of sympathy for a child who I feared had a very challenging future ahead. Covered with infected cuts and skin growths, Freeman was constantly ridiculed by his schoolmates, and he was one of the few children who rarely smiled. From the first day, I made it a point to get to know him better. I learned of his sickness that was untreatable, his parents who had no money, and his friends who had left him, based on his looks. However, I also learned that Freeman wanted to be a doctor in America. By the end of the third week at school, Freeman was dancing alongside his new friends, answering every question I asked, and most importantly smiling more than ever with his big beautiful teeth. Throughout the three weeks Freeman and I had many talks, and as the days passed I found that he had gradually become comfortable with who he was because he felt as if he had every opportunity to become a happy and successful adult.
Continuing my walk with Rechard and Freeman, I finally decided to ask them a question that had been on my mind since my first day in Ghana. I said, “What makes you children so happy all the time?” Their simple answer, in broken English, was “People like you.” Hearing this sincere response, I felt motivated to positively impact even more children’s lives. I was quickly discovering that simple interactions with children like these were what was also making me so happy at the time, and still are today.
Ghanaians carry an incredible amount of hope for the future. Growing up in suburban America, I thought I was well traveled, but became aware that I hadn’t experienced how much of the world truly lives. I realized that the differences between wealthy Americans and poor Ghanaians were deeper than money, cars, and houses. True happiness is incredibly rare, and when I found it within so many poverty stricken Ghanaians, I was finally proud to be myself; I knew I was truly happy for the first time, a moment that rarely occurs for many Americans.