July 17, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin
NCAA.com

Before even entering high school, University of Tampa women’s volleyball player Kaleigh Cunningham has been on a mission.

The rising junior from Winter Park, Fla., has been on several mission trips since the age of 14, and her latest was a 21-day excursion to the African nation of Ghana earlier this summer.

Cunningham has traveled on three mission trips to Mexico and two to Costa Rica, as well as a service mission to New Orleans to help following Hurricane Katrina, but this summer was her first visit to Africa.  She was a part of a 32-person group representing Campus Crusade for Christ, which spent the majority of the journey evangelizing at the University of Cape Coast and visiting remote villages to share the Gospel.

“(In the villages) they don’t speak English, or have running water or electricity or a sewage system,” said Cunningham.  “There are mud huts and no roof over their heads with malnourished and diseased children – that was probably the hardest thing to see and endure.  It was an eye-opening experience that we really saw how blessed we are here in the United States even though we complain about our economy.

“The culture (in Ghana) is awesome.  The people there are amazing – they are so kind and caring.  They want to help in any way – they are pretty much the definition of a servant – humble and want to help in any way possible.”

The process to be a part of the trip was extensive with a 16-page application, while having to undergo several shots and raising thousands of dollars in support.  Cunningham did not know any members of the group before her trip, and was the only student from Florida.

“It was a very humbling experience to be over there and be with 32 other solid college-aged Christian kids that were uniting for one purpose,” said Cunningham.  “I’ve been on a lot of mission trips, but I really feel like the Lord changed my heart and a lot of my heart was left in Africa.  I definitely will be hoping to go back some time.”
Cunningham continues to go on mission trips because she feels when she returns she has a totally different perspective on life. 

“Not only am I humbled, but I am much more grateful for the blessings I have here with my family and school and education and our government,” said Cunningham.  “Just to see how content and satisfied and really joyful the people are that have nothing – they could question why we complain so much about the little things.  It’s not a big deal compared to these people that are starving and diseased.  It gives you a totally different eternal perspective, because life is short and will come to an end and you just have to choose how you have to live.”

Before she plans her next experience abroad, Cunningham will be concentrating on keeping the Spartans’ volleyball team one of the top in the nation.  Tampa finished last season ranked No. 10 in the nation, but does not have any returning seniors.  Cunningham will be one of four juniors on the 14-man roster in 2009.

“I’m excited to take more of a leadership role,” said Cunningham.  “Our team chemistry is awesome and I’ve never been closer to a team.  We have a lot of talent, but we’re young and the team is spunky.  There is not that much experience on the court, but we all really want to work hard.”

The Spartans will host the Tampa Classic on Aug. 27-29 to open the 2009 schedule.