Their faces run through my mind like a silent slideshow that never stops. Whenever there is a gap or quiet moment in the day, I see their exuberant faces, and actually feel their incredible optimism. It is hard to believe that a little school and clinic in Ghana can change a person as much as it changed me, but it did. One of the most transforming experiences of my life was visiting and working in an impoverished school and clinic in Ghana where most of the children are orphaned and have AIDS. As I write, I realize it is a challenge just to express in words how deeply this experience affected me.
As I stepped out of the air-conditioned van and into the hot African sun, I was greeted by a hundred smiling children, all waving at me. I took a deep breath of the dense and heavy air, waving back as the school’s principal and clinic director led me on a tour of the clinic and the school. As I walked through the small stuffy clinic, I saw two nurses standing in the doorway. They were the only staff members on duty. The clinic was hot and dark, with barely any light in the main entrance area. We entered a room with only four small beds, one without a mattress. The clinic director told us a story about a mother who died recently on that mattress-less bed from AIDS. As we moved into another room filled with children lying on hospital beds, I tried hard to control my emotions, but had to turn away before they could see my tears. I saw children lying helpless and sick, without parents or comfort of any kind. The image of two little girls sharing one bed, both looking deep into my eyes as I stood there, remains vivid in my mind.
We stepped outside onto the dark red dirt that led to the school next door. It was lunchtime, and I helped serve the children their meals. Entering one of the dark classrooms holding bowls of rice, I saw there were no desks inside, only chairs. All the children were sitting in a circle, quietly waiting to be fed. I sat on the concrete floor of the classroom, just watching them eat. Nobody spoke; the only sound was the scraping of their spoons against the bowls as they devoured every last grain sticking to the sides of their bowls. I tried to ask for their names in their local language, but they did not understand my poor attempt. Instead, our exchange of smiles became our mutual language. When lunchtime was almost finished, I saw a little girl trying to steal more rice from a classmate. Another little boy begged his teacher for more water. The room grew louder, and finally all the children began to play. One little girl clung to me. I asked what her name was, but couldn’t hear her mumbled response, so I just smiled and told her I was Ruby. Now friends, she held my hand and we danced and laughed as other children started to surround us. They each begged for my attention. They grabbed at me, gesturing for me to pick them up and hold them. As I hugged the first one, and then another, I stared deep into all of their eyes and I saw the warmth there, despite their meager circumstances. That image, of their big bright smiles and their eyes filled with love, holds a place of honor in my heart.
The impact of this experience on the person that I am today is profound. This journey showed me two sides of life. On the one hand, I witnessed how unfair life can be. Yet on the other hand, I saw children playing and enjoying life despite very serious hardships. I am still inspired by the love these children found in their hearts for a complete stranger. I came to help and teach them, but they taught me to search for that same inner peace and joy no matter what challenge I may face. This was the greatest lesson of all.
I feel proud and fortunate to have taken this unusual journey, to have had this meaningful experience at my age. It has so far, been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Without taking this journey with Global Leadership Adventures as a high school volunteer, I would not have had this incredible opportunity. This experience allowed me to really test my boundaries, make new friends, see a whole other side of the world, and make a difference in someone’s life. The incredible journey I had is, and always will be, a part of me.