OLEAN — Rafiki Village in Ghana is a destitute place by American standards.
Yet it’s a safe haven for dozens of children whose parents have died from disease or abandoned them for lack of money.
Olean’s New Life Christian School traveled some 5,300 miles this spring to help out.
Having returned from the third world April 8, the 11 students and three staffers who went to the orphanage outside the capital city of Accra recounted the school’s third missions trip to Ghana in a presentation to the Times Herald on Thursday.
“We drove by, and kids were ripping through the garbage looking for something to eat,” said Dr. Sarah Hutter, New Life Christian vice principal. “It just breaks your heart. You see children and dogs fighting over the same bit of garbage out of a dump.
“It really makes you re-evaluate your life and what’s important.”
The group stayed in a small house near campus and performed a variety of daily tasks, including teaching, cooking, cleaning, renovations and religious devotions.
New Life student Morris Taylor lived 14 years in the beleaguered West African nation.
“For the third time, I returned to my native land, not as a son returning home but as a servant to my own people,” said Taylor, who is entering his senior year.
Though he knew an unforgiving class barrier existed, Taylor said he led a “highly sheltered” city life away from the rural villages where peasants scrape for a meager agricultural existence. Returning to help each year is gratifying, he said.
“I’m humbled by the fortunate circumstances in which I was born and the contrast between the circumstances of most of those in my nation,” Taylor added. “I think, ‘Why me?’ and even more so, ‘Why them?’”
The poverty is deadly.
Each year, 55,000 children under 5 in Ghana die of various causes, Taylor said, citing the most recent statistics.
Those who can work?
“Their dark-fleshed faces, blood-shot eyes and stained, dirty clothes symbolized their toil and sweat off their brow for just a day’s wages to care for a family,” he said.
Back at the orphanage, there are lighter moments.
The kids cherish their education.
“It’s their path to freedom,” Hutter said, noting most students drop out earlier than 10th grade — when they might not even be at a sixth-grade level — to work on farms.
Rosa Harvey, who is entering 11th grade, remembers fondly her 4-year-old friend, Angel, from her first trip.
“I will always treasure the moment that she fell asleep in my arms one day as the sun was setting,” she said, “so I carried her into her room, laid her on her bed and gave her the biggest hug.”
Recent New Life graduate Brittinni Swartwout spent much of her time tutoring at the orphanage’s school.
“Some mornings as I would sit at my desk and watch the kids as they colored,” she said, “I would think about the reality of their little lives — so young, so full of life and personality, yet so bound by the chains of poverty and hardships.”
A language barrier was difficult to break at times, Swartwout added. While most eventually learn to speak English, the younger children speak a tribal language called Twi, Taylor said, reciting several native words recalled from his childhood.
The group each year brings gifts of books and clothing. They took roughly 100 pairs of shoes from the Payless this spring. Next year, the may do another clothing or shoe drive, Hutter said, noting many of the kids at the orphanage could go naked without.
This year’s trip cost approximately $17,500, a total raised over a period of months by selling Bon-Ton and Dominos coupons as well as homemade reheatable corn bags.
“That was almost every day,” Harvey said.
New Life Christian School has already begun its fundraising efforts for next year’s missions trip.
“All these children could very well be dead, rotting in the dirt of Ghana,” Taylor said. “… But we managed to give attention to these needy children, put a smile on their beautiful faces and bring love and hope into their precious lives, all in the name of Jesus.”
(Contact reporter Kelsey Boudin at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)