A shared passion for sports is an ideal way to close the gap between cultures.
Charlie Bridge III discovered that as he bonded over basketball half a world away last fall.
The Sackets Harbor native and former Jefferson Community College mens basketball and softball coach spent more than two months in the West African country of Ghana volunteering with DUNK, a youth developmental basketball program.
He embarked on the adventure in October after searching for an opportunity like this one for years.
Traveling to Africa has always been a dream of mine, Bridge said. To combine it with coaching basketball just fit perfectly.
DUNK, an acronym for Developing Unity, Nurturing Knowledge, is based in the Nima community of Accra, the capital city of Ghana. The program impacts hundreds of deprived children by using basketball to help empower a transition out of poverty. DUNK promotes education and prepares the kids to take leadership roles in their community. It does this with the help of local staff along with volunteers from many parts of the world.
The beauty of basketball is that it is a very simple bridge that can bring people of different backgrounds and cultures together very easily, Bridge said.
Nima is one of the most impoverished communities in Accra, which is located along the Atlantic Coast. Most people live in shanty-type houses with no running water or toilet facilities. Illiteracy is high in the community, and the kids are typically malnourished.
The experience was very eye-opening, Bridge said. The things we take for granted in the United States are luxuries in Ghana. Simple things such as running water and constant electricity are things they go without. It definitely makes you appreciate everything we have here.
The youth in Nima are often unsupervised. They roam or work on the streets selling items to help support their families. There arent many safe places for them to play, and they often get in fights with each other.
DUNK provides these kids with an escape from all this and an opportunity to simply have fun being kids, Bridge said.
In addition to basketball activities, DUNK, which operates every day except Sunday, provides tutoring sessions and life-skills education. It has also established a mobile basketball program, which travels throughout Ghana hosting clinics and building basketball courts. All of these services are provided free of charge to the kids. DUNK operates solely through fundraising and grants.
The youth involved in DUNK are divided into teams, including Magic Boys, Golden Boys, Shining Stars and Lady Soldiers, according to age and gender. The Lady Soldiers is the only girls team as most girls in Ghana are expected to help with chores in the home, and parents are reluctant to let them join. However, DUNK is seeing a gradual increase in the number of girls participating.
Involvement in DUNK has resulted in better performances in school and improvements in behavior. Some kids are taking on leadership roles within the organization.
While Bridge was in Ghana, DUNK hosted five other volunteers for different periods of time. Two volunteers were from England, while the other three were from the Netherlands, Japan and Italy.
DUNK allows volunteers to commit for any length of time and assist with whatever tasks they feel comfortable doing. Some volunteers spend their days exploring Ghana and come to help with practices and study halls later in the day. Others spend the days helping out in the office and later assisting with the practices, which run from 3-5:30 p.m.
While the kids were in school, Bridge and the DUNK staff worked on administrative duties, including fundraising projects, developing a coaching DVD, structuring tutoring sessions and developing a basketball and referee coaching association.
The kids started arriving from the local schools around 2 p.m. Bridge and the other volunteers helped them with individual basketball skill-work or assisted with homework until practice began. Two teams are scheduled to practice each night, while other teams travel together to a local library to study.
On Saturday mornings the kids participate in some form of learning activity such as a chess tournament or a game of Scrabble, followed by basketball practice. Games are scheduled on Saturdays during the school year.
Teaching basketball in Ghana wasnt much different than coaching at JCC, according to Bridge, but he did have to adjust to international rules. Coaches arent allowed to call a timeout from the sidelines. Instead, they must walk to the scorers table and ask for one.
That was the hardest because in the heat of the moment Ive always just been able to yell timeout, Bridge said.
International rules also permit an extra half step when a player stops dribbling, to establish his pivot foot. This allows players to be more creative and effective.
SAMPLING LIFE IN GHANA
Bridge has always enjoyed working with people from different backgrounds, cultures and religions. Ghanas population is split, roughly in half, between Christian and Muslim faiths. While he was there, Bridge lived in a small apartment in the back of a Muslim family compound.
It was an absolute pleasure to get to know them and observe their culture, Bridge said. Watching their daily prayers and getting a chance to visit some of the different mosques in Ghana was great.
Bridge didnt get adventurous sampling the local cuisine. His diet consisted of a variety of rice dishes, usually with chicken, but occasionally with goat meat. Fresh fruit is available, including pineapple and apple. Banku is a favorite food among the kids, but Bridge only tried it once. Banku is dough that is pulled apart and dipped in pepper sauce. Its swallowed without chewing.
The temperatures during the day reached over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and it cooled down only to the lower 80s at night. Bridge didnt mind the heat during the day but found it difficult to sleep in such warm weather.
The official national language of Ghana is English, but many native dialects are spoken. The most common dialect is Twi. Nineteen different languages are spoken among the kids involved in DUNK, but the players are required to communicate in English during DUNK activities. This is meant to help prepare them for their futures since English is the primary language used in the workforce.
Most of the kids parents dont speak English so the DUNK staff and volunteers relied on the kids for translation.
Because there were so many different languages, Bridge said it was difficult to pick up any words or phrases. However, obruni, a word for white man, is very similar across every language.
All the neighborhood kids yell it out with big smiles on their faces every time they see a white person, Bridge said.
The highlight of Bridges experience in Ghana was helping coach the Golden Boys U13 team to victory in the Grassroots Basketball Development League (GBDL), which was established by DUNK within the last year. Its the first youth basketball league in Ghana.
Just watching the boys win the championship and seeing all their hard work pay off was incredibly rewarding, Bridge said.
He enjoyed interacting with the kids, who he said were always so upbeat despite their circumstances.
They are always smiling and just so happy for anything that you can provide them with, especially just the simple act of talking with them, Bridge said. They are also extremely generous and sharing even though they have so little themselves.
One of Bridges favorite holidays is Halloween, which isnt celebrated in Ghana. On Halloween night, he was working with the oldest boys, the Shining Stars U16. At the end of practice he had them play a game of Knockout with the winner getting a package of Twizzlers candy that he had brought from the states.
At the end (of the game) the most remarkable thing happened, Bridge said. Jesse, the winner, took the Twizzlers and broke them up into roughly 30 equal pieces to share with all his coaches and teammates. That kind of sharing and unselfishness is something that you rarely see in the United States anymore but happens on a daily basis in Ghana.
Bridge brought back a basketball in the colors of Ghanas flag (red, yellow and green), which the kids signed for him. They also borrowed his iPad on his last day there and left him personal videos to thank him and say goodbye.
Bridge returned to the states in December and now lives in Florida where he intends to go back to school this fall to earn his Florida teaching certificate. His parents, Marcia and Charlie Bridge Jr., moved from Sackets Harbor to Fort Pierce, Fla., a few years ago, and his sister Tisha, a Captain in the U.S. Army, bought a vacation home in Florida and plans to reside there upon retiring from the Army.
HOW DUNK TOOK ROOT
DUNK was founded in 2011 by Marie-Eve Lemieux, a native of Quebec, Canada, and Mohammed Khaled of Accra, Ghana. Their efforts initially involved 80 children in Nima, and now the group is reaching out to more than 600 children in five communities, including the Krisan Refugee Camp in the Western region. DUNK also employs eight staff members from the local area.
Mohammed and Eve work daily with DUNK and are the driving force behind everything, Bridge said. They are amazing and so dedicated.
Bridge helped Khaled get set up with a basketball counseling job this summer at Camp Seneca Lake in Honesdale, Pa., in what will be Khaleds first trip to the U.S.
Bridge discovered DUNK while searching for similar opportunities online and was drawn to the organization and its mission. His friend Eyo Effiong runs the African Basketball Organization (ABO) in Nigeria that targets underprivileged youth. Effiong offers week-long basketball camps, and Bridge had talked with him several times about running a camp, but they werent able to fit it in around Bridges schedule at the college.
ROOTING FOR JEFFERSON
Bridge was head coach of the JCC mens basketball team for seven years and the softball team for five years. Giving up his coaching jobs at JCC was difficult. He informed his players in person at the end of the spring semester last year.
JCC had become such a part of me, it was very hard to make the decision of stepping away, Bridge said. The players themselves I always considered family and to tell them I wasnt coming back was extremely hard.
Joe Vaadi is the new head coach of the basketball team, while Lyndsay Rowell-Grandjean took over coaching duties for softball. The softball team concluded its season recently, finishing 20-9 overall.
Being in Ghana I was able to get my basketball fix, but I sorely missed softball, Bridge said. I stayed in touch with and followed the players and teams, though. This spring I was the (JCC) softball teams biggest fan from all the way down in Florida. It was great to see them have such a great season. ... I am so proud and happy for the girls.
For the fourth-straight summer, Bridge plans to help run an overnight youth camp called Camp Kennybrook, which is located outside Monticello in the Catskill Mountains. He expects in some form he will return to coaching basketball, and he would love to volunteer again in Ghana. He still communicates with many of the kids via the Internet and plans to continue to help raise money and awareness for DUNK and its mission.
For more information on DUNK and the Grassroots Basketball Development League, visit www.dunkgrassroots.org.