May 23, 2013 at 3:28 PM ET
On a recent Friday, two hours of unpaved roads outside of Accra, Ghana, 17 girls laced up their cleats. Through the thick air of the late afternoon, their nervous chatter could be heard in the surrounding village and across the soccer field they call “the pitch.”
The scene may seem like a typical after-school activity for a group of preteens, but for the young women just beginning at the Right to Dream Academy, it was unlike any afternoon they had spent before.
The girls, who range from ages 10 to 13, were recruited from all over West Africa based on their soccer ability (known there as "football"), as well as their performance on a variety of aptitude tests. The majority of their female peers from their villages will never have the opportunity to go to such a school, which is the only scholarship-based sports academy in Africa.
“We’re creating an opportunity that, as far as we know, does not exist in Africa for young women,” said Tom Vernon, who founded the Academy in 2000.
The school, which only recently began accepting girls, has been home to over 100 boys and young men, whose enrollment —funded by scholarships and donations— is based on similar criteria to the girls.
The Academy was founded on the principle that excellence in soccer, when combined with a strong focus on education, could give children who come from extreme poverty the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families.
Graduates of the Academy follow one of two paths: they receive scholarships to private high schools and universities in the U.S., or they are recruited to professional soccer teams worldwide.
In recent years, Vernon and his staff, as well as the organization’s U.S. Chairman John Powers and the group's New York-based chapter, decided it was time to give girls a place at the school, too.
“We cannot fully achieve our goal of improving young lives in Africa if we are not factoring girls into the equation,” Vernon said.
In their first weekend at the Academy, the girls were asked to prepare for a debate they would have with the boys on the first official day of school. The motion they were set to argue: “What boys can do, girls can do better.”
“Behind every powerful man, there is an even more powerful woman,” one of the girls, Gifty, 12, pointed out, to which her female peers erupted in cheers.
“Boys may be stronger in a fight, but girls are stronger in their minds," added Adelaide, 13.
It's responses like thisthat haveinspiredthe Academy’s staff to continue to grow the girls' program, which will offer even more outlets for them to succeed.
“We have worked to ensure that the [Academy] boys leave us with strong values...goals, and dreams,” said Harry Adekpui, the Academy’s head of Pastoral Care. “Now we can do that for these young girls, too, who have even fewer opportunities than boys do."
He added that the presence of the girls also allows the Academy to build an environment based on gender equality — a concept still developing across almost all of the continent.
“By introducing the girls to the Academy, the boys now leave with even more than they have before,” he says. “They will learn the skills necessary to become good colleagues, partners and collaborators. With boys and girls at the Academy, everyone wins.”
Winning is important at the Academy in many respects — it’s one of the eight principles that students focus on throughout their studies. The other seven are self-discipline, passion, initiative, integrity, social intelligence, and giving back. The hope is that after they achieve their own goals through both their achievements in soccer and academics, the students willreturn to make an impact on Ghana, and Africa as a whole.
“We are the lucky girls, so it is our job to help all the other girls who are not as lucky as us,” said 11-year-old Zinatu.
“We’re creating a tradition of giving," Vernon added. "And after knowing these girls for only a week, I have faith that that tradition is in good hands.”
Amanda Sidman is a TODAY producer and a member ofthe New York board of the Right to Dream Academy.