WAKE FOREST — While kicking a soccer ball with dozens of students on a bumpy field in the village of Kitase in Ghana, three Wake County high school students noticed that the two goalies were using gloves that were falling apart.
The following day, the boys bought gloves for them at the market, but realized that the students were also playing in the only shoes they owned broken flip-flops.
Peyton Cabot and Parker Savage, both 17, and Martin Bell, 18, are back in North Carolina now, with a plan to raise funds at Heritage High School for soccer equipment cleats, vests and gloves to send back to Ghana.
For three weeks, 12 Wake County high school students traveled to various regions in Ghana visiting both cities and villages with goals of learning and serving. No day was the same, except in the growing realization of the distance between their daily reality at home and their African experiences.
In Mole National Park, the six boys and six girls stood 30 feet from wild elephants and warthogs.
In between dishes of ground-nut soup, or chicken and rice, some tried bites of fist-sized snail or fish heads.
One of the coolest parts for me was to see the students go from a general state of helplessness to becoming leaders comfortable in any environment, said Miles Macleod, an English teacher at Heritage High School and co-founder of the service-learning program Project Wisdom.
Each day, the students fulfilled a role on the team: fetching water, preparing meals or cleaning up.
Although the students mostly enjoyed chicken and rice, some nights they assisted in mashing steamed cassava and plantains with a wooden pestle to make the native dish fufu.
They mastered washing their own laundry some for the first time by purchasing bars of soap from the local village and fetching buckets of water.
For about half the trip, the students slept in the village where they volunteered. One night, they stayed in a traditional mud hut covered by a thatched roof and showered with a bucket of rainwater, their heads peeking over a shoulder-height cement wall.
Those days, some students slept on a mattress on the floor or in a bunk bed, dealing with spotty bathroom facilities, no electricity and 100-degree temperatures.
By the end of the trip, the students had learned to finesse the market crush in the capital of Accra, facing frantic sellers who grabbed their arms as soon as they stepped off the bus.
They can see the fear in your eyes, said Heritage student Parker Savage, 17, who later bartered a flash-drive for a shirt.
Although they were surprised by the pollution-littered beaches and sheepish about dancing in front of county chieftains, nothing struck them as much as the poverty they encountered.
In the northern regions, the students met tiny children with swollen bellies.
I see that on TV, but I never thought Id have a child holding my hand and walking around the village with me, said Heritage student Victoria Nguyen, 17. It really hurt.
One of the main goals of the trip was to create a service-learning project for Heritage High School students in the coming school year.
As well as buying gloves, Cabot, Savage and Bell exchanged contact information with the Dutch coach, a man who has dedicated his life to assisting Ghanaian soccer players.
Not having that equipment is holding them back from being good, Savage said. If they are good players they can go to the best schools.
Nguyen plans to join with three other students to create a Ghana-themed field day at Heritage after school starts. Participants will earn a spot by donating canned goods or an article of clothing.
She had to step outside during a classroom tour, overwhelmed by the passion students had for learning. Several third-graders pored over homework while sitting on the cement floor.
The students will work for the next year or more to establish their projects. Many desire to return for the next trip in two years as college-age counselors.
Heritage student Emily Orander, 16, found a dramatic difference in Ghanaian students versus her American peers.
Bullying happens to me all the time, she said. We were telling one (Ghanaian) girl about bullying and she didnt even know what it was. Thats just how kind they are.
On June 30, the Americans split into groups with students at Challenging Heights a school and rehabilitation center for more than 700 young people who survived or are at risk for slavery.
One of the Ghanaian students asked about high school break time in America. One of the American students mentioned how he drives off-campus for lunch. The Ghanaian students eyes grew wide at the prospect of a student owning a car.
Its like saying here, Oh yeah, I drive my helicopter to work, Macleod said. The Ghanaian students couldnt believe it. My students never would have fathomed that an everyday fact of life is such an immense privilege.
Bettis: 919-829-8955; Twitter: @whatakaracter