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The last three weeks have been some of the most unforgettable experiences of my life and definitely a staple part of my summer. When I was on my recruiting visit to Duke, the ACE program was introduced to me as a way for Duke student-athletes to do good and make lasting memories in their off-season with the help of fellow Stanford student-athletes. I knew in that moment, before I had even stepped foot onto Duke’s campus that ACE was going to be a part of my life and an unforgettable experience at Duke.

This past summer I had the amazing opportunity, honor, and privilege of joining eleven other Duke and Stanford athletes in Cape Town, South Africa. The student-athletes varied in age from seniors (who were returning as 5th years) to first years (now rising sophomores) like myself.  Coming from all over the US and having a complete array of sports, our group of twelve quickly became a family. The love, friendship, happiness, and memories of the trip will be carried with all of us forever. However, the twelve of us are determined to not end the story of our South African family after three short weeks. I will have the pleasure and joy of seeing half the group around campus, at “TT” or Training Table, in the weight room, and maybe even in class. Whether I will see them often, or on rare and amazing occasions, the ACE group had an unforgettable experience that is one I hope all student-athletes can one day experience.

I believe that the ACE program could not have done a better job of creating meaningful work as well as allowing for cultural immersion, educational exploration, and self-reflection. Monday through Friday were our “project days.” They were the days that we spent our weekends planning for and waiting for eagerly. The work week was when we went on “project.” Throughout our three weeks we had three main partners that we teamed up with in Cape Town: VUSA, Bluemoon Projects, and Ladles of Love. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays we worked with VUSA within the Langa township. In the mornings, we worked with this organization to teach 3-5-year olds English.

The ACE in South Africa program created a very healthy balance between working on projects, cultural immersion and history, and team bonding.

– Mary Claire Morrison, Duke Rowing

In the afternoon, we got the opportunity to play sports with 8-12-year olds within VUSA Academy. We taught the 3-5-year olds different English words, from colors to directions to animals to fruits to body parts. To help the kids learn these English lessons we would sing songs, dance, read books, color, and we even played bingo. By the end of the three weeks, all of the ACE kids had about five different children’s songs stuck in our heads, for better or worse, especially the “bananas song.”

After the two hours with the children, we would eat lunch made by local restaurants in the Langa community. This allowed for us to become more familiar with authentic South African foods and to support the local community. After the amazing lunches, we would eagerly head outside to play various sports with the 8-12-year-old VUSA academy rugby players. We taught them many of our sports including field hockey, soccer, kickball, and softball. In return, they taught us how to play rugby, which I am now an avid fan of. Not only did I have real respect for these kids’ athletic ability, drive, and heart, I had tremendous respect for their willingness to show up and play sports with us on their three-week winter holiday.

While spending time with the VUSA kids all day was a big highlight of our project days, it was not the only activity we did. On Mondays, we worked with Bluemoon Projects to paint Early Childhood Development Centers and learn about the work that Bluemoon Projects is doing to create new places of education and safety for the kids in the township. We also got to learn a bit about the history of South Africa from the founder of the company, Hillary, who worked closely with Nelson Mandela.

On Fridays, we worked with Ladles of Love to package 1,000 sandwiches for kids in need and planted 150 different vegetables for the surrounding community. Through Ladles of Love we also learned of the work that is being done on Nelson Mandela Day, a national holiday in South Africa. This very important day was an opportunity for Ladles of Love to feed 4,000 hungry children in South Africa.

While me and my fellow ACE members poured our hearts and souls into the work that we did throughout the three weeks, I know that we learned and took away more than we could ever give. The most profound thing that I discovered day after day was the joy, happiness, and smiles on the faces of all that I met. From watching the ACE members playing soccer with the 12-year olds, to watching the 5-year olds laugh at the stories being read, to watching the workers at Ladles of Love smile as we danced making sandwiches, to being hugged by the teachers as we painted their classrooms, I have never seen so much love and happiness come so easily and be spread so quickly.

Not only did we spend our weeks helping and learning from those in different township communities, we also learned about South Africa and Cape Town’s history and culture on the weekends. We explored the beautiful geography of Cape Town when we took a cable car up to Table Mountain and took a boat on the Peninsula Tour of Cape Town, to the Cape of Good Hope. We were also able to learn about the incredible, insightful, and powerful history of South Africa through the exploration of Robben Island, the District Six Museum, and tours of Bo Kaap. On our adventures we were able to see penguins and ostriches on the beach and seals in the ocean.  We were able to watch a few U20 international rugby games and watch the South African national team beat Australia in the semi-finals of international rugby. We also did a lot of shopping in various markets where we devoured amazing South African foods, bought soap, jewelry, coffee, and enjoyed our time in an amazing country with very warm and friendly people.

One of the most unexpectedly eventful things of the trip was what happened every night. Over the three weeks, ACE members rotated between cooking our own meals for each other and going out to try different restaurants. As we cooked different meals or tried different restaurants the ACE members were able to create lasting memories filled with laughter, jokes, and even memes. However, the most memorable thing of every night was “sweet treat o’clock,” where we would get ice cream, followed by warm tea and heated games of werewolf.

Over the three weeks, the ACE in South Africa program created a very healthy balance between working on projects, cultural immersion and history, and team bonding. I truly believe that I have taken away something different from each day that has profoundly changed the way I see and think about the world around me. Even now, as I have entered back into the life that I have always known, I know that I have changed. Every day, I talk about my experiences with my inquisitive family or I look at pictures from the trip and smile ear to ear. There are countless lessons and takeaways that I have from this trip.

The biggest challenge that I faced during my time in South Africa and even now is leaving. As student-athletes we are often plagued by the idea of legacy or being remembered. I found this especially interesting, as the ACE group was all student-athletes. Not only did we have this question of “if we were going to be remembered for our sport,” but I often wondered “if we were going to be remembered for what we did in South Africa? Was our work beneficial? Did we leave a positive impact on others like it left on us? Was I ever going to see these amazing people, both ACE and otherwise again?”

I realized that the same gifts that we had received from the experience, we had also given. I realized that to make an impact it does not need to be grand or perfect.

– Mary Claire Morrison, Duke Rowing

As I went about the last few days in South Africa, I asked this question and was met with two answers. One from Mec, the head coach of the VUSA rugby team, and one from a bar of soap in the market. Mec said that while it may not have felt to the ACE kids, that we have done a lot or made an impact, the time we have spent with the kids have been so influential because it has given them a different perspective, outlook, opportunity, and allowed them to feel that they are loved and important. As Mec spoke, I realized that the same gifts that we had received from the experience, we had also given. I realized that to make an impact it does not need to be grand or perfect. The key is that you showed up, put forth effort, and give love and joy.

My biggest challenge or worry about leaving the people from ACE and within Cape Town was also answered through a bar of soap that I bought in a market. Many of the ACE participants all bought soap from this same market vendor because it smelled good and was a great present for family members. However, as we were leaving the vendor having purchased our soap, the owner stopped us and asked if we went to Duke and Stanford, having seen our various labeled gear and clothing. He then went on to say that he had gone to Stanford and lived in Cape Town. This funny soap story also answered my question. We don’t know what the future holds and who we will meet in the future or how our paths will cross, so love now and love as hard as you can, and who knows who you will see again in a market in South Africa.

The most striking and most impactful lesson that I learned from my time in South Africa is that happiness does not take much to give but it can do so much. Every single day, every kid that we would meet would run up to us with huge smiles on their face excited to see us another day. The instant an ACE kid was greeted with a smile or hug, I watched my fellow ACE participants light up with smiles of their own. These infectious smiles continued as we jumped around, sang songs, played games, and made jokes. For those amazing but brief hours each day, every person forgot about their worries in the outside world and was living in the present moment with others sharing in happiness. Happiness was the first and most lasting connection that I made with every experience on my trip to South Africa.

Regardless of background, history, future, or experience, happiness connected all of us together to live life to the fullest in the present. I will forever be grateful for the lessons learned and life experiences created. Thank you ACE for this amazing experience. This trip truly has changed my perspective on life and I have loved every second of my three weeks. Happiness connects all of us and my memories of my time in South Africa are full of it.

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