Martin spent February 19 through March 5 volunteering at an orphanage in Ghana. On her fifth day at Bethel Daycare orphanage in Akropong-Akuapem, Martin noticed a girl whose shoe was broken. “Her shoes kept falling off,” said Martin, “so after school I went and bought her a new pair of shoes.” The shoes cost Martin one cedi, which equals about 70 cents in U.S. dollars. The little girl was so happy, said Martin, that she bought shoes for some of the other kids the next day.

Martin volunteered through Projects Abroad, an organization that specializes in facilitating volunteer opportunities for high school students through retirees, primarily in Central and South America, Africa and Asia.

“One of my friends did it a few years ago,” said Martin. “I always knew I wanted to volunteer somewhere. I wanted to do it now before I have a career,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go somewhere that was going to be warmer than Maine this time of year.”

One would think a parent of a high schooler might experience a little trepidation at the thought of letting his or her teenager travel to Africa on her own. Martin’s mother, Debbie Moore, felt only passing anxiety. “She seemed really determined,” said Moore. “It seemed to be something she really wanted to do, so we supported her.” Moore admitted that she did get a little nervous when she didn’t hear from Martin during her second week in Africa. It turned out her daughter was just too busy to update the blog she used to keep friends and family abreast of her activities. Moore’s fears were allayed upon Martin’s arrival home. “When I picked her up at the airport she looked wonderful, glowing and happy,” she said. “I’m glad that she went. It seems like it was a very positive experience for her.”

While at the orphanage, Martin worked with three and four-year-olds. Upon arriving each day, her duties included helping the children change into their school uniforms. Once all the children were dressed, the day included singing, learning simple English vocabulary, coloring and drawing and creativity time, which usually meant playing with Legos. At the end of her workday, Martin helped bathe the children and dress them in their street clothes.

Martin described the experience of standing out as one of few Caucasians in the area. On her first day at the orphanage all the children yelled out “abruni”, which is the Twi word for “white,” when they saw her. (Twi is the native language spoken in Akropong-Akuapem. Children begin learning English at age two or three.) Two of the children actually cried. “This little girl came in and started bawling her eyes out with the sight of me,” said Martin. “She sat as far as she could away from me and continued to cry.” The girl cried until later in the day when she saw the other children playing happily with Martin.

 “It was kind of nerve-wracking,” said Martin. “I wasn’t sure if they would get used to me.”

Conversely, Martin wasn’t sure she would get accustomed to hearing “abruni” either. She turned out to be noteworthy in the village as well, and heard adults say it when she passed by. “It was strange getting used to hearing it wherever I went,” she said.

While in Ghana, Martin stayed with a host family with whom she became close. The family included three brothers and two sisters, as well as two other Project Abroad volunteers who were being hosted by the same family. Martin’s host mother, “Mamma” Mercy “showed the greatest hospitality anyone could ever show,” said Martin. “She is so sweet and very kind.” Just days after leaving Africa Martin said “I miss them already. You can tell they get as attached to us as we do to them.” On the morning Martin left, “they were all practically crying too,” she said.

Travel anywhere, but particularly to a foreign country, is bound to be eye-opening. For Martin, visiting Ghana “made me realize how materialistic the U.S. really is,” she said. “The kids over there were always happy. For kids that don’t have much, you would have never realized by their little giggles and soft touches. You could give them something as simple as a new coloring book or a pack of crayons and they’d be happy for hours.”

One day Martin brought her sewing kit to work at the orphanage in order to mend some of the kids’ shirts and dresses and to replace missing buttons. “They had such happy faces,” she said. “They were so happy to have a good shirt again.”

Now that Martin is home she will work on finishing her senior year. Next fall she expects to study nursing at St. Joseph’s College in Standish. No doubt she will take Ghana with her in her heart.

Kris Osgood is a freelance writer living on Vinalhaven.