For months, the Mercer University women’s basketball team has been planning the team-building trip of a lifetime — a three-week trip to Ghana where they will not only play international exhibition games but also will change lives by building homes with The Fuller Center for Housing.
But the planning stage is nearing an end as the Bears’ trip begins July 27. Last week, the players returned to school from their summer vacations and this past weekend got insight on what to expect on their trip to Ghana — on Saturday from Fuller Center Director of International Field Operations and recent Ghana visitor Ryan Iafigliola and then on Sunday from President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
The team was in Sumter County to visit Fuller Center headquarters and the roots of the affordable housing movement. Few people are as closely associated with the movement as President Carter, who met with the team privately after they joined his Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains.
“It was amazing,” Mercer Coach Susie Gardner said. “He was so gracious, not only listening to the Sunday School class, but the fact that he spent another 20 minutes with us, with our team — he and Mrs. Rosalynn both. He knew all about Ghana and had been there six or seven times and was very informative about some behind-the-scenes things to think about and look at.
“I think it was obviously a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He was so down to earth that it’s hard to explain because it’s like being in the presence of greatness but at the same time talking to your next-door neighbor because he was just so humble. It was like he was so appreciative to talk to us, like he was as happy to be there as we were.”
Not only is President Carter closely associated with the affordable housing movement started by Fuller Center founder Millard Fuller, but also he recently was named to the Mercer University Board of Trustees. And, apparently, he’s paying close attention to what’s happening at the Macon-based school.
“He knew about what our basketball team had done last year,” Gardner said of the team’s 20-12 mark that was one of the school’s best seasons in decades. “He was caught up in what we had done — the improvements that we made, the fact that we’re moving to the Southern Conference — so he knew about Mercer women’s basketball. It did kind of tie it all together.”
While the trip has been on the minds of the players and coaches for months, the excitement has now reached a fever pitch — especially for the head coach, who knows something about excitement having played for a national championship as a player with the University of Georgia in the 1980s.
“I think it’s all becoming real whereas it had been just something to talk about,” she said of the trip. “Now, it’s really, really happening. We’re so excited. The coach is as excited as anybody. I was nervous early on, but I’m good to go now.”
While Gardner is thrilled the team will be able to change the lives of families in Ghana, she is a basketball coach and hopes that the experience will translate into success on the court this coming season. She believes the team-building experience of this trip will do just that.
“I hope the players can get to know each other on a different level than just bus and locker room level,” she said. “We’re going to be the only people that we know over there, and we’re going to have limited communication with our families and friends back in America. So I think it’s going to be a time for them to get to know each other on a totally different level.
“When you have a team that really cares and knows about each other, you work harder for them on the court, as well, when there’s that respect level. Also, from a coaching’ perspective, I hope they get to know us better as human beings as opposed to just coaches. It’s just kind of a deeper love and appreciation for each other as people.”