Steamboat Springs When Lena Grout stepped off the airplane in Washington, D.C., she immediately noticed all of the faces.
They weren’t turned toward her, and they weren’t smiling back at her like they did in the village of Anloga in Ghana, where she had just spent three weeks.
In Ghana, everyone you met on the street was an instant friend, said Grout, a senior at Soroco High School in Oak Creek. You’d share a smile and the traditional Ghanaian handshake that involves a finger snap, almost like a secret gesture of friendship.
“It was really easy to adapt,” she said. “The people were so welcoming. They made you feel as though you’d been there forever and they’d known you their whole life even though you’d known them for 20 seconds.
“You’d know their life story by the way their smile is, their eyes.”
On her three-week trip with Global Leadership Adventures in early August, Grout said all of the Ghanaian children begged her to take them back to America with her. But she pleaded in return that all she wanted to do was remain there.
Grout returned Aug. 19, and started school a few weeks later.
On Thursday afternoon as she worked on her math homework in her father’s restaurant, The Oak, she said getting back into the swing of school and life in America was difficult.
“The more I talk about it and the more I think about how much I miss it, it keeps coming back to me how much the trip made a difference in my life and in their lives,” she said.
She officially committed to the trip in July 2010, but it was no small task raising the funds to make the trip. She held bake sales, worked extra baby-sitting shifts and saved all her money from waiting tables at The Oak. She pinched every penny for a year, and it was all worth it in the end.
“Without this community none of this would have happened,” Grout said. “I did think about that the whole time I was there. If it wasn’t for people in the town supporting me … obviously they wanted me to go and they wanted me to help out over there. They were there with me.”
Her father, John Grout, said Lena has been interested in traveling to Africa ever since she began donating to Invisible Children at age 7.
“She’s always had a broad global view, but it was good for her to experience a different kind of lifestyle and meet people she otherwise wouldn’t have,” John Grout said. “I think it gave her appreciation for how she can treat people now that she’s back stateside. She’s definitely going to take it and run with it.”
For most of the trip, Grout taught in an Anloga school where the children were fluent in English and their native Ewe. Grout was struck by how the children were so eager to learn: rushing to the board in groups to solve math problems and begging her to help them understand when they were lost.
“For us, going to the amusement park is cool, for them, going to school is very cool,” she said.
Grout’s group of 30 American students also made bricks to build houses and went on sightseeing trips.
But the most impactful moment of the experience was the 90 minutes she spent at the New Seed International Orphanage, which houses 76 children affected by AIDS.
“You would never ever know when you met those kids,” she recalled. “Their smiles were so crazy happy.”
She was chosen by her group to present the orphanage founder with a monetary gift, and the man was moved to tears and hugged her. Grout wants nothing more than to have that feeling again. Because of that moment, she wants to introduce her school and community to New Seed with a presentation and possibly a benefit dinner.
And the residual feelings from her trip don’t stop there. When her English teacher, Jenny Lewis, said she had a pile of old, outdated textbooks, Grout decided to send them to Africa through a charity book drive.
“She’s got an uncommonly big heart and a sense of social justice beyond her years,” Lewis said. She has taught Grout for two years and has chosen her as a classroom aide.
“I think it changed her in that she matured a little bit,” Lewis said about the trip. “It’s strengthened her resolve to light a fire in other people.”
Lewis said Grout already has taken half a class period to share photos and stories from the trip, and she’s told friends and family about her desire to go back.
“It’s on my bucket list to visit every country in Africa,” Grout said. “Maybe I can leave a mark there.”
— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com.