Riley Ferguson and Sarah Stroup, two Southeast Missouri teens who have seen more of the world than many adults, keep with them images of Swaziland that will be hard to forget.
"You drive down the road and see kids on the side of the street that have hardly any clothes on or have ripped clothes, little 3- or 4-year-olds who had no home, no parents, just walking down the streets," said Ferguson, 16, a sophomore at Cape Girardeau Central High School. "The first day, I couldn't help myself, I cried. It's not supposed to be like that."
Ferguson and her good friend Stroup, a 15-year-old freshman at Notre Dame Regional High School, spent two weeks in the African nation this summer as part of a mission trip with Heart for Africa, a Christian charity. They planted gardens, taught vacation Bible school and connected with scores of young children who seemed fascinated with just about everything they did.
"They loved us, and they loved our hair," Ferguson said.
Despite the abject poverty, families living in trash hovels and worn mud huts, Stroup said she was struck by the ability of the people to rise above.
"The thing I noticed when I was there is I didn't even notice the poverty because of how happy they were," she said. "It [outweighed] the poverty."
Mission work has been a big part of Stroup's life since she was a little girl, when she and her family built a house for a family of four in Tijuana, Mexico. She has visited orphanages in Guatemala, where her adopted siblings are from. Closer to home, she went on a mission trip to Birmingham, Ala., with her church teens group.
So did Ferguson. She has also been to inner-city Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. on mission work, and plans to head back to Swaziland next summer.
Last week, the teens took a whirlwind trip to Taiwan. A Heart for Africa exeuctive nominated the girls to attend the world conference on changing the world. They were the only American delegates among 2,000 students.
"Taiwan is a lot different," Ferguson said. "There are all kinds of cities and skyscrapers and tons of cars and mopeds. The people are so nice. They never see Americans. Everywhere we went we got our pictures taken. A couple of people asked us for our autographs."
They each wrote and presented an essay on how they can change the world. The answer, the teens said, is lending a hand and making friends -- something they're getting familiar with on their travels.
"The more I go around the world, I know it may sound like a cliche, but it just makes the world smaller," Stroup said. "I have great friends in Swaziland and Taiwan, I know people from Guatemala, my new best friends I met at the conference.
"I realize even though we're different, we're pretty much the same."