One brought home a painting from Haiti.
The other two brought home a wooden giraffe from Namibia.
Three Georgia Tech athletes spent part of their summer vacation learning that happiness doesn’t always come from having.
After seeing children in Africa wearing the same clothes day after day, or others in the Caribbean whose stomachs were distended because of malnourishment, football player Chris Tanner and volleyball players Jordan McCullers and Alison Campbell learned that sometimes contentedness can be found in difficult circumstances.
The hard part was when McCullers and Campbell had to tell some children that they were out of food.
Several days a week for a month, they drove from McCullers’ brother’s home to a youth center in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to prepare food in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet for the 200-400 children that would show up each day.
One of the children, just 5 years old, would come in carrying an infant in a pack on her back because her parents weren’t around.
McCullers and Campbell would put rice or noodles into a stew and work on preparing the meat that would eventually be doled out in cube-sized portions to the children, most of who wore the same clothes every day for a month.
On their first day – the hardest day – they said 400 kids showed up. There simply wasn’t enough food. After feeding the youngest first, the oldest came through the line. All that was left was a bit of the stew.
“They were just looking at us,” Campbell said.
But it got better…for everyone, at least for a little while.
Despite Namibia’s official language being English, most of the citizens in Windhoek speak a regional dialect, making communication difficult.
But the Americans had two things in their favor: McCullers’ blond hair, which fascinated the children, and sports.
They said in Namibia, which is located on Africa’s southwest coast, men play sports and women don’t. McCullers saw some boys playing soccer, one of them wearing a single dress shoe because that’s all he had. She wanted to play.
The boys wouldn’t let her.
Finally, one of them, Phillip, relented and waved her over. After a few minutes, in broken English, he paid her a compliment:
“You play like a man!”
The Tech players taught the kids volleyball and made friends. Two children in particular won’t be forgotten: a little girl named Oma (it’s hard to tell ages because of malnutrition) and a girl named Kennedy who liked to play a never-ending game of tag.
When and McCullers and Campbell weren’t helping the children they were able to go on a safari. Seeing a bull elephant, ears flared, standing a bit too close to their vehicle made McCullers’ legs go numb.
But it was a giraffe that serves as an example of a lesson learned.
Before they left in June, Campbell bought the wooden trinket in a marketplace for $10. They named it Herald.Though it’s one more object they have, it reminds them they they don’t need everything. The children taught them that.
“Be happy with what you have,” Campbell said. “Don’t always want more.”
The painting is full of colors, reds, blues and whites that sparkle on the parchment. They are so pretty that it’s easy to miss the face, a self-portrait of the artist, that forms the left edge of the artwork.
It’s an image of a Haiti that the painter, a boy named Junior, hopes to see one day. Complete buildings along a clean beach with a sunset in the background bringing another day in paradise to a close. It’s a far cry from the devastation caused by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12.
Tanner bought the painting for $50 at a market. He has no idea where Junior got the paint.
But after spending a week in Haiti this summer on a mission trip, he said it’s amazing what the people can do with so little.
He and 14 people from his church went to the port city of Jakmel for a week this summer to teach children how water affects their daily lives.
On the first day they taught the children the importance of washing their hands before meals. One boy had lost an arm. He stood at the bucket and rag, not sure how he was going to clean himself so that he could eat. Tanner said a little girl came up, washed his hand and took him to get the meal that had been prepared: a broth with a few ounces of meat. It was a feast for the children, who can go days without food unless they scavenge for something.
Tanner said every day in Haiti is about living to see the next. The parents don’t have much time to spend with their children because they are trying to survive. The children want affection.
“If you didn’t have five Haitian kids on you then something was wrong that day,” Tanner said.
Tanner said many of the children would walk 2 ½ hours each way to get to the camp for the 7:30 a.m. start.
Tanner’s group taught the children about earthquakes.
Tanner said they had the kids lock arms and then try to pull apart. When a gap occurred they explained that is like an earthquake. They showed them safety positions should another quake occur. At the end of the session, a few of the little girls practiced what they were supposed to do.
“They have a desire to learn,” he said.
Before he left, Tanner drove through the capital of Port-au-Prince that was near the epicenter of the earthquake.
He said he wasn’t sure what he was going to see. The devastation, well-chronicled, was there. But what he didn’t see was the most eye-opening.
Despite the rubble and the challenges of just trying to live, the people were friendly. They may have been washing their clothes in pools of water formed in pans, but they would take the time to wave as Tanner’s vehicle drove past.
“That was my biggest surprise,” Tanner said. “It went against everything that I had been introduced to by the media. Not a single positive spin. The negative was the earthquake happened. The people there are great.”
Much like Junior, Tanner said he hopes to one day see a Haiti that’s brand new. As an economics and international affairs major, he hopes to have a hand in the rebuilding.
Tanner is building a frame for the painting. It’s at his parent’s house now. It will eventually hang in his room. Campbell keeps the giraffe on a nightstand, a few inches away from where she sleeps.
But it’s the kids who are thousands of miles away that Tanner, McCullers and Campbell remember the most
“It really is a beautiful thing,” Campbell said. “They are so happy, and they don’t have anything.”