These students aren’t interested in ‘voluntourism.’ They want to learn, and help.

Students from Heritage High School in Wake Forest share some school T-shirts with students from Wisdom Academy during a trip to Ghana in 2016.
Students from Heritage High School in Wake Forest share some school T-shirts with students from Wisdom Academy during a trip to Ghana in 2016. Operation Wisdom

Growing up as the daughter of American missionaries in Kenya, Jessica Yates saw “a lot of the bad side” of the United States’ well-intentioned but often poorly executed volunteer work abroad.

“Americans coming in and making those ill-chosen connections and hurting the economy without even realizing it,” said Yates, an English teacher at Heritage High School in Wake Forest.

She wanted that to change, although her ideas were met with some skepticism at first.

“When I was in high school, when my counselor was asking me what I wanted to do, I said, ‘I want to bring American teenagers to Africa,’ and she laughed at me,” Yates said.

The American teenagers she will take to Africa next month are pleasantly surprised by the turn of events.

The students are part of Operation Wisdom, a nonprofit started by Heritage High English teacher Miles MacLeod in 2012. It’s since turned into a club, a class and a biennial trip to Ghana.

Fifteen students and three teachers will go to the African nation next month. They are hosting a dinner and silent auction Friday, Feb. 16, to raise money for the trip and to collect supplies.

Kelsey Selna, Kara Haselton, Hope Farlow and Genna Weaver, seniors at Heritage, are among the students going on the trip. Their primary goal is to continue the work that has been going for more than a decade now: educating children at Wisdom Academy in Kitase, Ghana, and working with organizations in the region to help the Ghanian people.

They emphasize that this is not fly-by “voluntourism.”

“Poverty is like a business that people buy into,” Haselton said. “They think they’re helping them, but really, they’re just making them more poor, and they’re taking away the chances that they could have.”

This isn’t, as Farlow puts it, like buying a pair of TOMS shoes and feeling like you’ve helped a child. (The company promises to donate a pair of shoes to a child who needs them for every pair sold.)

“We’re taking away the shoemakers,” Farlow said.

Weaver saw this firsthand when she went on a mission trip to Grenada in the Caribbean before she started high school. She spent all week painting, not establishing relationships with the community.

“People there can paint. You can pay them and help the economy and create jobs, and not just go there and not meet anybody,” Weaver said. “I don’t remember anyone who I met there. I don’t. I just remember being covered in paint.”

That’s what makes Operation Wisdom different, students say: It’s service learning.

The students research local organizations and those in Ghana, vetting them before entering into partnerships. They immerse themselves in Ghanian culture, talking to Wisdom Academy students, visiting local markets and learning to speak Twi. They ask the organizations what they need rather than assuming they know best because they are privileged American students.

“Before we do any service, we learn,” Haselton said. “While we’re doing service, we learn. It can’t be one or the other.”

And they learn that it’s OK to fail. When students take the Global Leadership Seminar, MacLeod tells them he doesn’t care if they fail – he cares if they learn. That terrified Farlow.

“One of my projects absolutely crashed,” she said. “I’ve never had a project go wrong. But that taught me, ‘OK, what do I need to do next? Is there something I can fix?’ That really taught me it’s OK (to fail). I’ve never been taught it’s OK.”

Weaver went on the second Operation Wisdom trip, as a sophomore in 2016. She said, as cliche as it sounds, she feels like the trip changed her. She now has a clear sense of direction about what she wants to do in college and for the rest of her life.

Haselton, Farlow and Selna hope to have a similar experience. Selna plans to go to N.C. State University to study golf management, but he thinks this trip could change that – which makes him feel “wickedly scared” and excited at the same time.

“I have the ability to say, ‘Let’s take a gap year, not do golf management, come back and see how I really feel,’ ” he said. “Possibly this could change my college career and life career.”

Pressley Baird: 919-829-8935, @pressleybaird

How you can help

Operation Wisdom will host a fundraiser dinner and silent auction at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, at Wake Crossroads Baptist Church, 3328 Forestville Road, Raleigh.

The dinner will feature stews from countries around the world, donated by local restaurants. Auction items include golf packages at TPC Wakefield and Heritage Golf Club, restaurant gift certificates and massage packages.

Tickets are $15, and all proceeds go to the Ghana trip.

You can also donate items for the students to take to Ghana on March 23. Items needed include children’s picture books and chapter books, school supplies, feminine products, hygiene products and gauze.

To buy tickets or to donate, email