PITTSFIELD — If you ask the young women of the Rites of Passage and Empowerment, or R.O.P.E., Group what they'll remember from their spring trip to South Africa, they're eager to talk about the kids that they met at an orphanage in Boksburg, near Johannesburg. It was the kids' energy and smiles and longing for attention that prompted the teen girls' group to give up their plans for a safari so they could spend an extra day with their new friends.
"Here, we get so caught up in the things that happen with social media and celebrities that at the end of the day, we don't know what we want for ourselves. With the kids there, every day their goal is to do better than the next," said R.O.P.E. member Johnyce Lanphear.
"The girls were quieter, they just wanted to color and do crafts," said Anaziah Williamson, a sister member.
"They boys were less shy. After they got used to us, they were singing and dancing," another group member, Jordan Hamilton, said.
R.O.P.E. founder and coordinator, Shirley Edgerton, said her group of Berkshire girls connected with the kids in a powerful way.
"The girls won't tell you this, but they were so moved. They engaged really well with the kids and became so immersed that they took their own money and went to the mall to buy the kids gifts, dresses, shoes, toys, jewelry. Very generous," Edgerton said.
The group members explained that they were surprised to find that some of the children in the orphanage had family members, like older siblings, who would visit the kids from time to time, but didn't have the money or resources to take care of them because they had to work or were in school trying to get ahead.
Since their April school vacation week trip, some of the R.O.P.E. members have continued to keep in touch with some of the children. Over the summer, they plan to host a collection drive for new shoes to send back to the orphanage.
At 6 p.m. this Thursday, members of the community are invited to join them at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts for a free detailed slideshow presentation about the group's experiences. A total of 17 women, including the students and some mothers went on the trip. In addition to their personal stories, the presentation will also include highlights from their visits to the Maharishi Institute, a program that provides pathways out of poverty, Constitution Hill and the Winnie Mandela home.
R.O.P.E. is a mentoring organization that works with young women throughout the Berkshires. Now in its eighth year, the multicultural program provides workshops, projects and travel opportunities to help teens explore themes and build skills relative to self-worth, self-esteem, personal interests, resilience, cultural competence, women's history, the arts and college opportunities. Every two years, the group also travels to different parts of Africa to better explore the culture; the majority of the group's members are of African and African-American heritage.
"A lot of us don't know where we're from, about our roots," said member Kiiyah Johnson.
"It gets washed away," Hamilton said.
Previous trips have taken the group to Durban, South Africa and Ghana, West Africa. Next year, Edgerton said, she plans to help organize a pilot trip for for five young men and two male mentors to go back to the orphanage and lend a hand in helping to repair the aging buildings and campus.
"I believe that men need to work with adolescent males, so we're willing to help sponsor that," she said.
Much of the funds to support the trip come from charitable donations from individuals and businesses in the Berkshires and an annual fundraising dinner R.O.P.E. organizes to help reduce costs for the participants. The students say it's a big boost in getting them outside of their comfort zone.
"More kids need experiences like this," said Lanphear. "It helps bring them to a new place and helps us understand who we are, where we come from and what it might mean for us in the future."
If you go ...
"South African Journey," a presentation from the Rites of Passage Empowerment (R.O.P.E.) Group about their recent trip to the Johannesburg region. All are welcome to this free talk.
When: Thursday, 6-8 p.m.
Where: Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Ave., Pittsfield.