South Charlotte

Country Day athletes take service trip to South Africa

Nick Berman plays basketball and runs track at Charlotte Country Day School. His friend, States Lee, is a soccer player and also runs track.

Instead of spending the summer before their senior year playing club soccer or AAU basketball, the two put their love of sports to better use.

Berman, 17, and Lee, 18, spent about a month in South Africa this summer, using soccer as a means for community outreach with Ajax soccer club in Cape Town, teaching young children in the area about gun safety and drug and AIDS prevention.

"In the townships we went into, they don't really learn about sex ed or drugs because their school doesn't have the resources to teach it properly," said Lee. "I thought it would be really appealing to get a chance to make a difference in these kids lives by teaching them something at a young age that they would be able to keep throughout their lives."

Berman said he and his parents decided at the end of his junior year that he should do a community service trip over the summer. His parents, Helen and Clive, are from South Africa, so he wanted to do something there.

"We just thought it would be a great opportunity for the boys to go back and do something for the boys that don't have as much as them," said Helen.

Through a family friend, Stu McLeod, who works at a South African bottling company, Berman got in touch with Ajax.

Berman invited Lee to join him on the trip. The two have been friends since sixth grade and had been on school exchange trips to Chile and Mexico.

"I really wanted to do it because I had never been over there and it was going to be a whole brand new experience for me so I jumped on it," said Lee.

Before they left, Lee and Berman started a collection drive, amassing 300 pounds of soccer clothes to take to the students in Cape Town.

Berman and Lee took the 18-hour flight to South Africa June 5. Their first two weeks in Cape Town, the two worked with Ajax's Cape Town Community Scheme, led by Riyaad Khan, which includes a six-week course to teach elementary school-aged students life lessons about drugs, smoking, sexually transmitted diseases, fire safety and guns.

Berman and Lee traveled with other outreach workers to different schools in poor areas in and around Cape Town, spending an hour with each one. The first 30 minutes was spent talking with the kids and the rest of the hour was spent playing soccer.

Each week, Ajax also has a program for teenagers with the goal of getting them back in school.

"They're a little bit older so they've already made some of the bad decisions that we're trying to prevent the younger kids from doing," said Berman.

Lee and Berman said they were surprised at how happy they were despite their poor conditions.

"What kind of made the biggest impact on me is how easygoing and happy they were for how little they had," said Lee. "These were really poor conditions and like these kids weren't asking for pity or anything but just kind of happy, and happy to have the opportunity to play soccer with good equipment."

Lee said the poverty he saw in areas of South Africa is different than anything he's seen in the U.S.

People didn't have running water or toilets and had houses made of "old wooden doors or sheets of metal," he said.

Helen said that is why she wanted the two to do community service in Africa.

"I just wanted them to see how other people live," she said. "I know there's poverty in America but I don't think there's anything like what you see in Africa."

Berman said he was impressed with the sense of community in the areas he visited.

After working for the club for two weeks, Berman and Lee spent several weeks traveling around southern Africa, to Botswana and Chobe National Park. They also went to Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and went rafting on the Zambezi River before coming back to South Africa and going on a safari in Kruger National Park. Berman and Lee flew back to Charlotte July 9.

Berman and Lee said they came back inspired to continue traveling and help more people.

"I definitely want to go back and maybe stay for longer," said Lee. "If I stayed there longer, I'd be able to make a bigger impact and get to know these kids better."

Lee is in the middle of his college search. He hopes to study engineering and said that the experience made him want to study abroad in college.

Berman is looking at schools like UNC Chapel Hill, Virginia, Princeton and Oregon and hopes to study sports management and sports marketing. This summer, he got to see just how much of an impact sports can have.

"I feel like sports are a really good way, a good medium to teach these kids," he said. "It's a universal way to make a relationship with someone. I'm sure that could work just about anywhere. It would be nice to put it in practice somewhere else."