When Susie Gardner became the 10th head coach in the history of the Mercer University women’s basketball program in 2010, she tackled a rebuilding challenge of epic proportions as she inherited the third-youngest team in NCAA Division I women’s basketball.
Three years after taking the job, Gardner will take her team on a building challenge of epic proportions as the Bears’ players and staff head to Ghana to build homes and immerse themselves in African culture on The Fuller Center for Housing’s first-ever Global Builders trip to Ghana July 28 to Aug. 17.
Meanwhile, as details for the trip have been hammered out, the Bears are now riding an eight-game winning streak — as many wins as the Bears had in Gardner’s first two rebuilding years. They will try to make it nine in a row — which would be their longest winning streak since 1985 — this Saturday when they host North Florida.
Among those in attendance will be Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell and other Fuller Center staff members. They will be rooting for a ninth straight victory, but their main reason for going is to support the women as they announce their Ghana trip to the fans at halftime of the following men’s game. They also will collect donations throughout the game as they strive to raise $12,000 to cover costs of the historic trip. (Click here to donate toward the Mercer team’s trip to Ghana.)
“I can’t wait for the game,” Snell said. “I’m going to be able to shake hands with some of these folks who are going to make a huge difference in the lives of people in that faraway place.”
The trip is part of the Mercer On Mission program, which has sent teams of students to work with Fuller Center covenant partners in places such as Peru, Armenia and India. In keeping with Mercer On Mission’s goal of learning by serving, the trip combines a series of basketball exhibition games with extensive community service in partnership with The Fuller Center.
“We love partnering with the Mercer on Mission program to help make the world a better place,” Fuller Center Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola said. “Every Mercer group has been special, but none has done anything like this. As we celebrate 40 years since Millard and Linda began building homes in Africa, there could not be a more fitting time for us to send such a notable work team. If they show the same energy on the work site as they do on the court, getting these homes built should be no sweat!”
“The Fuller Center and Millard and Linda Fuller have a long history with Mercer, and our international work started in Africa,” Snell added. “So it’s a coming together of two great traditions, and we’re very excited about that. This year is the 40th anniversary of Millard and Linda starting their work in Zaire, which opened Africa to their lifelong ministry. We hope this leads to even more great experiences between us and Mercer.”
Snell agrees with others who believe this unique trip has the potential to attract a great deal of media attention — hardly the reason for the trip, but something that would have the potential to benefit both Mercer and The Fuller Center.
“I’ve never heard of any sports team taking a trip like this in the first place, and then devoting so much energy to making people’s lives a little bit better by getting them into a decent house,” he continued. “This is truly an innovative undertaking.”
‘ONCE IN A LIFETIME’
Coach Gardner is happy that her Bears have put in the hard work that has turned the program around, sending them into second place in the Atlantic Sun Conference and into a contender for a berth in the NCAA Women’s Tournament. But she is just as thrilled for the upcoming summer trip. Such a trip is rare, as NCAA rules permit Division I schools such as Mercer to participate in just one out-of-season trip abroad every four years.
“This is going to be one of those experiences that is once in a lifetime,” Gardner said. “Our staff is excited, and I can’t even imagine how our players’ lives are going to be changed forever by this trip. They may decide to change their major, or they may decide that the course of their life goes in a different direction after such an experience. It is such an amazing opportunity for our program.”
Kendra Grant is a junior guard for the Bears. She is playing college basketball in the same town, Macon, Ga., where she played prep basketball at Rutland High School. She has been involved in many service projects in her hometown and knows that the trip to Africa will take team-building to new heights.
“Well, we do a lot of team-building exercises daily here at Mercer, and we also participate in a lot of local community service projects, as well,” she said. “I think the experience we have gotten working on projects locally and the fact that we are planning to help with a house restoration here in Macon after the season will help us prepare for what we are going to be doing in Ghana when we go over there for three weeks.”
Junior guard Briana Williams, whose hometown of McDonough, Ga., hosted the U.S. portion of the Millard Fuller Legacy Build last year, is looking forward to gaining a more worldly perspective.
“Well, for me personally, I have never been out of the country, so for my first time going out of the country, to be able to go to Ghana for the sole purpose of helping people is what I am most looking forward to,” Williams said. “I think what I will get out of this is that I was able to help somebody and to help improve someone’s life when my time there is done.”
Snell said that the team has picked a great location in which to serve others and experience a thriving culture.
“I’ve traveled a lot in Africa, and Ghana is actually a very good spot to visit,” he said. “It’s very stable, and it’s a little more advanced than places like the jungle of the Congo. But it is Africa — it’s busy, there are people everywhere, the traffic is awful, and it’s just a whirlwind of light and color and sound. It’s a great experience, a cultural adventure.”
The Mercer women host North Florida at 2 p.m. Saturday, while the Mercer men play North Florida afterward at 4:30 p.m. For more information on Mercer University athletics, visit www.mercerbears.com.