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UK group received just as much as it gave in life-altering trip to Ethiopia

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Joker Phillips was one of seven people on a UK-sponsored trip to Africa last month that learned about the culture of Ethiopia while doing community service for five days. (photo courtesy of Jason Schlafer, UK Athletics) Joker Phillips was one of seven people on a UK-sponsored trip to Africa last month that learned about the culture of Ethiopia while doing community service for five days. (photo courtesy of Jason Schlafer, UK Athletics)

Press conference transcript & video

The conscientious decision to say phrases like "it changed my life" are made as easily these days as the effort it takes to voice the sound and form the words. The notion has become more a cliche than a true life-altering experience, a throwaway phrase, if you will.

Watching Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, football head coach Joker Phillips and two of his players, seniors Danny Trevathan and Stuart Hines, talk about last month's service trip to Ethiopia, one doesn't get the feeling that their travels to Africa was just any other experience.

Seeing the four talk at a podium about the love, gratefulness and warmth the people of Ethiopia showed them in a poverty-stricken, disease-riddled country that features dilapidated living environments, homeless children, bad drinking water, scarce food, rolling blakcouts and a life expectancy of less than 50, there's a genuine feeling of a new appreciation for life in America and the privileges of being at the University of Kentucky.

As Barnhart said Friday in the opening minutes of the media availability, what they saw over in Ethiopia was "not good," but it no doubt served as an eye opener and a life changer.

"It was overall an unbelievable experience," Phillips said. "If you have any heart or anything in your soul, you can't go over there and it not change your life."

Barnhart, Phillips, Trevathan and Hines went to Ethiopia last month on a UK-sponsored trip to lend a hand to people in dire need of help. The group did plenty of charity work while they were there, but the four received just as much in return.

"We went over there to serve all those people and we really got a lot more out of it than they did, I'm sure," said Hines, an offensive lineman.  

That tends to happen when you see children without shoes, running water and barely any muscle to cover their bones digging through a landfill to find food and tradable goods. That's what happens when you see people that have next to nothing look past bitterness and open their arms to more fortunate people. That's what happens when you see starving children smile and laugh over the simple kick of a soccer ball or the throw of a football.

The four, particularly Hines and Trevathan, came back from Africa with a different view of the world.

"We are here playing football and on scholarship, have our school paid for and have a roof over our head and food provided for us," Hines said. "It is not like that at all in some places. There are 500,000 kids that live on the street in Ethiopia. That could have easily been one of us that ended up in a life like that, but we are blessed enough to have the opportunities that we have had."

Jason Schlafer, associate athletics director for marketing and licensing , who has an adopted child from Ethiopia, concocted the trip during the 2010 Gam3Day Ready Tour.

The idea behind the original Gam3Day Ready Tour, a five-city trip last summer through the state of Kentucky, was to show kids across the state the importance of getting out in their communities and staying active. During each stop, Phillips and the UK marketing team hosted a free mini-combine at local parks for boys and girls eighth grade and under to teach them more about the game of football.

On the way back from one of the stops, as Phillips and the staff rested, they decided to watch "Invictus," a film that chronicles Nelson Mandela's unification of his apartheid-torn country of South Africa through the enlistment of a national rugby team. In the movie, the Gam3Day Ready staff watched closely as the 1995 South African rugby team went into the communities of South Africa to promote a foreign game and inspire unification.

As Schlafer observed the film, he realized they were doing something of similar motivation and wanted to take the tour to the next step. Eventually, it evolved into May's trip to Ethiopia, a summer mission that Barnhart hopes to expand into an annual program that could feature up to eight student-athletes from UK's various sports.

One thing it is not, Barnhart said, is a recruiting ploy.

"Our goal, as a department, is to educate," Barnhart said. "We get to play a lot of games and do a lot of things that you guys count in Ws and Ls, but at the end of the day, our job is to educate young people and to expand their horizons and their minds and their hearts. This is part of that process."

It was a trip Trevathan and Hines will never forget, both good and bad.

They delivered food to 48 families in Korah, a village near a landfill where residents sift through garbage to find food and the life expectancy is 37. They dug ditches, planted trees and flowers, painted an outhouse and visited an orphanage.

The group laughed at the podium as they reflected on the NASCAR-like driving of one of their tour guides and talked about a mix-up with the military, a misunderstanding that resulted in three AK-47s being pointed at them.

While learning about Ethiopia, its people and their struggles, Hines and Trevathan gained lessons they said they could apply to their upcoming football season. Hines said he learned about leadership through local village leaders, and Trevathan gained a better understanding of unification and coming together after watching the people of Ethiopia work together through near-unbearable conditions.

Of his experience in Ethiopia, senior linebacker Danny Trevathan said, Of his experience in Ethiopia, senior linebacker Danny Trevathan said, "People over there are so happy for what they get and they have so little. They appreciate you for a lot of things that we take for granted." (photo courtesy of Jason Schlafer, UK Athletics)

Maybe their most rewarding work was just playing soccer with the kids or teaching them football. Many of the kids were diseased and hadn't bathed, but Hines tickled them and Trevathan hugged them anyways.

They hardly flinched, Phillips said, in relating with kids they could barely understand or hardly relate to. Phillips said he learned that Hines has a great sense of humor and a great personality. Trevathan, he found out, "is a hugger." And of Barnhart and his wife, Connie, Phillips learned they don't mind getting their hands dirty to help out others.

All four shared a bond that's carried over from the trip.

"What I was most proud of was the guys here on the end (Hines and Trevathan) and the way they conducted themselves and the way their hearts reached out to a country of people and the things that they did to help," Barnhart said.

"Stuart had an unbelievable ability because of his size that kids were attracted to him. He would play ball with them and we took a bunch of Nike balls and football and they played not knowing the language. It was fun to watch them play. Danny has a way with little babies and children like you can't understand. He has a great heart for that. He was in a nursery doing stuff and holding them in his arms and rocking them and playing with them and sitting on the floor with them. You never knew he could be that kind."

Two moments that may forever live with Trevathan and Hines happened in Korah, particularly when Trevathan watched a 35-year-old lady die right before his eyes.

The UK linebacker was delivering food in a tent no bigger than a trailer when a woman, shaking, caught his eye.

"I felt like something was wrong right then and there," Trevathan said. "At first I was taken back and then I looked up and she looked right at me and looked like she wanted my hand. I have her my hand and she said thank you. After that, I turned around and shook my head and was walking back and someone told me that they thought that was her last breath.

"She found time to say thank you for me with her last breath and that is what touched me the most. We live good every day and sometimes we can't find the time to say thank you, but she did."

The other moment, a telling sign of what the four got out of Ethiopia, came when the UK party met a woman suffering from AIDS who had recently given birth to an HIV-negative child. The woman had to make a choice between feeding her starving child with her breast milk and possibly passing on the disease or not feeding the child at all.

Phillips and Barnhart refused to leave until they could gather enough money to pay for some formula.

"That, in a nutshell, shows you what kind of people they are and what it was like to be around them," Hines said. "They are extremely caring and generous."

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