By Brett Battles
I’m a strong believer in doing the right thing. From the little to the big, some times the choices we need to make aren’t necessarily the easy ones nor the ones that will benefit ourselves, but they are the right ones. We knows this deep inside.
I am, by no means, perfect at this. But I try.
I’ve been thinking a lot more about this because of several things. First, it’s a theme in my next book NO RETURN due out in early 2011. Second, the amazing response to the disaster in Haiti. And third, because of an email I received from the son of an old friend of mine. An old friend of mine’s son recently spent a month in Ghana teaching kids how to play soccer. While he was there, he saw what conditions the kids had to live and play under, that he decided to do something about it. With the help of his parents, he raise enough money to buy things for the kids they would have never had otherwise. His name is Tony Albina, and here is the letter I got from him thanking me for my donation – which was nothing compared to what he was doing…
Thank you so much for your donation to the children with whom I worked in Ghana Africa this fall. I want to express the gratitude that I felt from the children and send you a few pictures so you can see the difference that you helped me make. A positive difference in the lives of the children and a positive affirmation that, given an opportunity, people will help those who need it – and that the boundaries of geography, culture and politics are certainly no barrier to human compassion and generosity.
I’d like to tell you about my trip, share with you my experience and help you understand how much your gift meant to these children. I spent a month in Ghana Africa, helping underprivileged children in the city of Accra with a non-profit organization called Projects Abroad. I have been playing soccer since I was 4 years old and was the Captain of my varsity high school soccer team for the last two years of my high school career. In Ghana, I would be learning soccer coaching from a semi-pro team and then using those skills to teach in the under 12 children’s program. The city of Accra is located along the southern coast of West Africa.
When I arrived in Accra I was greeted by the unrelenting heat, followed by a tour through the city from my placement coordinator with Projects Abroad. When I sat down in the taxi, my coordinator turned to me and said, “Tony you may see some things that you are not used to seeing back home. Ghana is a much different place than where you are from”, and on that note we headed off into the city. First, we drove to the home of my host family where I would be living for the next month. After introductions were made, we stepped back in the taxi to go see the soccer field where my placement was to be, and I use the term “field” lightly. The pitch they play on was in the worst shape of any field I have ever seen. Instead of grass, the field was made up of a mixture of sand and clay, and was hardly flat. There were large raises and dips all over the field. Very different from the level, lush green grass I have played on since I was a kid. I can remember complaining about the condition of the fields in high school if mid-field was a little bare and worn down late in the season. However, as I soon found out, the condition of this field in Accra made no difference at all to the children here.
The next day I hopped on a tro-tro, which is a glorified mini-van, held together with bailing wire, that runs on a fixed route, and headed to the field. Riding in a tro-tro, you can never be sure that you’re actually going to make it to your destination. To say the ride is harrowing would be an understatement! When I arrived at the pitch, I met up with the semi-professional team with whom I would be training to learn the coaching skills I would be using to train the children. After seniors training, I headed back to my host home as the under 12 year old children’s training did not begin until the evening. Ghanaians try to avoid the mid day heat, for which I was very thankful! That evening I went back to the field for the kids training session. I was expecting young kids in cleats and shin guards ready to play soccer. I was mistaken; some kids wore cleats three times too big, and others played barefoot. A few of the kids had half decent cleats, without too many holes – which, I found out later, were donated by past volunteers. Most of them wore the same clothes every day and the majority of it was donated clothing that was passed down as children grew. The condition of the field, the garbage dump that bordered it, the raw sewage running in troughs through streets, the ill-fitting cleats and torn balls didn’t seem to matter to the children. They played with the same joy and excitement of any child. They seemed blissfully unaware of their circumstances. They were just happy to be playing soccer today.
The next few weeks went on like this. Senior training in the mornings, and under 12’s training in the afternoons. One day I was speaking with Ramma, the captain of the senior team, about some of the under 12’s children. He explained to me that nearly 10 of the kids were homeless and without families. Ramma went on to tell me that he has 5 of the kids currently living at his house, and 3 live in the team’s equipment shed located near the soccer pitch. Many of the children were abandoned at a very young age and were left in Accra with literally nothing but the shirts on their backs. Luckily, Ramma was able to take some of them in. These kids have gone through so much at such a young age but if you met them, you couldn’t tell that they have suffered more in 12 years than most of will in our whole lives. They look and act like regular fun loving kids with a truly amazing passion for soccer and life!
After learning what these kids go through, I wanted to help them somehow. That is right about the time when my parents called me and told me that there were people who wanted to donate money for the kids. I had no idea that friends, family and many people that I’ve never even met could be so generous! In just a week, $1,300 dollars was donated. I was so excited – so much could be done for the kids. I started throwing around some ideas with the coaches and we all agreed that personalized team bags and new soccer balls would be a great help. While they were coordinating to have the bags made, I took some of the senior players out into the market with me buy some new balls, and professional jerseys, shorts, and socks for each child to put in their bag. The bags arrived during my final week in Ghana. I took them back to my host family, and put the gear for each child in each of the 22 bags. Looking down at this massive pile of bags and gear, I was amazed at how much I was able to buy for the kids.
With the money left over after purchasing all the equipment, I organized with some of the coaches, a trip for the kids to go to a professional soccer stadium. I called a security guard that the coaches knew at the stadium and organized a tour. So the next day, I arranged for a mini-bus to pick us up and take us to the stadium. The kids were told they had a game that day, so they thought that’s where they were headed. But when the mini-bus turned into the stadium entrance, the kids went crazy! We met up with the security guard and he led us inside the stadium. We went up into the VIP seating section, and he told us about the history of the stadium. The security guard then said to everyone “Ok lets head on down to the field so you can take some pictures, then we’ll take off”, but I had different plans. As we were walking down to the field, I asked the security guard to let the kids actually play a little on the field. After some monetary convincing, a way of life in Ghana, he accepted my offer. When we got down to the field, I took out a ball I had been hiding and kicked it onto the field. “Get on the field! Go play!”, I yelled –and I didn’t have to say it twice. The kids, in total disbelief, sprinted onto the field with huge smiles stretching across their faces. For most of them, it was the first time they had stepped foot inside the stadium, and it was definitely the first time any of them had played on real grass! They ran, carefree as children do, jumped, laughed and played in bare feet on the cool grass probably for the first time in their lives. I wish you could have seen their faces light up with joy. It was a tremendous gift from you to them.
The next day was my last in Ghana. Half way through the under 12’s training session, I rounded all the kids up, and told them to follow me. Ramma came with us as well. We got to the equipment closet where I was hiding their bags of gear, and I turned the kids and said, “As you guys know I’m leaving tomorrow. But I have a surprise for you all. There are a lot of generous people back home that gave me donations for you and with that I was able to get you all some gear. Some things that will make you look more like a team.” I pulled out the first bag and tossed it to one of the children. He caught it with a look of astonishment on his little face, and realizing what it was, let out a shriek of joy. I grabbed another bag, and threw it out to the group of now jumping, excited children. Then another, and another until all the children had one. It was joyful chaos as all of them rifled through their bags pulling out a jersey here, and a pair of socks there, some shorts waved in the air. All of them were smiling, and cheering the whole time – happy for themselves and happy for one another. One young boy came close and said a quiet thank you to me, and through teary eyes, I told him he was very welcome. Ramma turned to me and said, “In all of my years working with this team, and seeing volunteers come and go – I have never seen so much generosity towards the children. I can’t find the words to describe how happy I am right now.” He reached out, gave me a hug and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.” I said, “Rama I can never give these kids what you have given them. I gave them a jersey and shorts, you gave them food. I gave them a bag with socks, you gave them a home. I should be the one thanking you.” He gave me another hug, and said, “I’m going to really miss you Tony, and I know that the kids will too. You will never be forgotten.” And with that, I picked up my bag, and walked away. Tears rolling down my face, I looked back, to see all the kids waving good-bye. I gave one final wave, then turned back around and headed for a plane that would take me home to New Hampshire. Never to forget the little faces, the friends, the memories. I will never forget your generosity and neither will the young lives that you have touched. Thank you.
I know Tony’s dad Adam must be immensely proud of his son. But I also know there are other “Tonys” out there, people who are doing the right things both big and small.
In the comments, feel free to share some of your stories about people doing the right thing.