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UK football's Ethiopia service trip: Foster builds a special bond

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For a week in late May, a group of three Kentucky football players -- Bud Dupree, Landon Foster and Braylon Heard -- went one of two service trips to Ethiopia sponsored each summer by the UK Athletics Department accompanied by Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Jason Schlafer and Senior Athletic Trainer Gabe Amponsah. Foster, a junior punter, described his experience in a series of diary entries for Cat Scratches that will be published this week. Please note that these posts are Foster's personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics.

To start, Foster describes his first full day in Ethiopia, during which he met a special young man.


Writing this entry is going to be tough for several reasons. First, I am exhausted, mentally, physically and emotionally. It was such a long day that brought both tears of joy and tears of sympathy. We started the day with breakfast -- our typical order of French toast with scrambled eggs (with peppers), some tea and coffee, and of course Sammy bear (the syrup brand).

After breakfast, we were headed to one of the poorest sections of Addis Ababa. Here, many people are forced to scavenge through the dump for everything necessary to survive due to the poor health of many of the people that reside there - a mixture of leprosy and HIV infected populations.

Once we parked, we headed to a local community center. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I could tell that this area was even worse than the areas we visited yesterday, as these living conditions can't get much worse. It was hard to believe I was about to venture into a territory like this, but I put my personal reservations behind me and was ready to face the reality of survival for the 130,000 people or that live there.

We walked about 15-20 minutes through the village until we arrived at the community center. We were greeted with joy and much gratitude by the leader of the center along with several women and a young male teenager, Dejene. In a small lawn in front were about 30-35 widowers and lepers who clearly were uplifted as soon as we walked in. We entered a room and began an assembly line to make "goodie bags" of necessities that these men and women probably only see once or twice a year, like macaroni, rice, sugar, soap, matches and another item or two. We filled 30 or so bags and then took them out on the concrete porch in front of the crowded lawn space.

Passing out these bags, just as it was yesterday, made me think so much of what I have back home and what I deem a true necessity. When I walked out to hand some of the bags out, I was greeted by so much constant gratitude and love in Amharic that saying "you're welcome" just didn't seem enough to me, but that's all I could do. The language barrier is so tough when you have so much to say but there isn't a way to verbally say it all. This is where the nonverbal gestures became the primary source of communication. Just a smile from us put an amazing sense of security and gratitude on their faces. It was humbling being able to truly change someone's day, week, month and even year just by a simple smile and a bag of truly basic necessities.

Once we finished passing out the bags, it was brought to our attention that many of these people, due to their leprosy or weakness from malnutrition and their living conditions, could not possibly carry the bags back to their homes. Therefore, we carried the bags through the dump to their houses. I happened to be carrying two bags as two people lived near each other in the same area.  Remember Dejene, that boy that I met earlier? He for some reason tagged along with me and asked several times to carry a bag for me but I declined the first several times until about 20 minutes into the walk, I was getting a little sore and he could tell so he simply took one from me.

I found out he spoke English after trying to speak Amharic to him saying, "Hey, what's up, how old are you?" in Amharic. He simply replied in pretty good English, "What's up, I'm 15. How old are you?" I still answered in Amharic saying "Hiya (20)." It was pretty funny looking back at it, swapping the norm of languages. We finally arrived at the ladies house and her son, who spoke very little English, greeted me, but his gratitude was also easily expressed. The floor of her house was all mud. Mud walls reinforced by tree limbs created some shelter but there were many leaks that proved to be devastating during the rainy season. After saying a quick prayer for her safety, health and thanking Him for allowing us to be able to provide support to her, we said our goodbyes and headed back.

On our way back we passed what seemed to be tin/aluminum garbage receptacle, but I was then informed that is where the nightly guard sleeps. The box couldn't have been six feet long and four feet wide and tall. We eventually got back to the community center where we busted out some Ethiopian footballs (soccer balls) that we had brought with us. Myself, Gabe, Wario and Dejene began passing the ball and juggling in a circle until I worked up quite a sweat. My touch had pretty obviously gotten worse since the last time I had touched a soccer ball (four years ago) but there was so much joy playing a game that the locals and I all love.

We then walked out of the church and saw some local kids (around 8-12 years old) and asked them if they wanted to play. They took us to what they called a field, but I would call it more of a rock-filled dirt patch that was on a slope and had several boulders sticking out of the ground. Goals were set up using bigger rocks and we had our makeshift field set, home-field advantage clearly going to the locals. The teams were quickly set with Gabe, Wario, Girma, Dejene, Bud and me making one team and what seemed to be at least 10-12 local kids making up the other. Seeing and playing soccer with Bud is one of the highlights in my life. Seeing a 6-foot-4 275-pound future NFL defensive end hesitate to go up for a header against some 5-foot, 120-pound kids is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. He eventually got the hang of it and started playing like a natural, other than the fact that most soccer players are as gigantic as he is. I hadn't had that much fun playing soccer, or any sport for that matter, in a long time. It truly is amazing how we as Americans can travel thousands of miles into Ethiopia where there is no common verbal communication, but the game of soccer itself becomes the form of communication and forms a bond with the local Ethiopians just by playing with them and sharing our time and love for them.


After we won the soccer game, we headed back to the church to meet up and get ready for lunch. Dejene was always right by my side everywhere we went, and it gave me so much time and opportunity to break him out of his shell. He was very shy at first, which made me have to keep the conversation going. I completely understood though, and I was starving for his life story and getting to know everything about him. We invited Dejene to come out to late lunch with us, so he followed us back to the bus and again, was never more than 3 feet away from me. From the bus ride to the restaurant, to the one-on-one "lunch date" with Dejene, to the bus ride back to take him home, there was some quality bonding time. I genuinely respect him and his story to the utmost extent.

This is a boy who never met his mother and lived with his father until he was around 8 or 9 years old when his father married. The woman he married had something against Dejene from day one. She would beat him and deny him any food or clothing or any level of caring for him. He was forced to move out on the streets around a year later just to survive.

It was there where he found his way into and out of an orphanage and being taken in by his best friend who is a few years older than him. He was then fortunate enough to be able to be sponsored, which gave him the funds for a private education along with guaranteed meals for the month. During his time at school, through all of this adversity, he achieved and maintained a 3.6 GPA until his sponsorship was abruptly cut. He was in 11th grade when his sponsorship was stopped, so he still needs two more years of school before he can take the Ethiopian national placement exam to see if he can go to the University. He loves biology and wants to be a cardiologist!

After the way he made me feel safe on our walk to deliver supplies earlier in the day, Dejene's name fittingly means "protector." We found a big-time common ground in our favorite TV show -- Prison Break. We also found similarities in our internal personal drives to succeed in life. Dejene fills the room with happiness and contentment every time he shows his huge, beautiful smile, even though it is tough to get it out of him sometimes.


I can't express how much Dejene already means to me and how much I care for him and want to return the favor and be his provider and protector. It brought me tears of joy when he told me how much he loved me and considered me family and how comfortable he felt around me. I really hope I am able to see him again, but we are already Facebook friends I am positive I will keep in touch with him, and hopefully I will be able to sponsor him, so he can go back to school and graduate. I see an amazing kid, with an amazing drive and work ethic who has lived through so much adversity, literally having no one to care for him. No mother, father, brothers, sisters or cousins. Obviously, I haven't had to live through anywhere close to the kind of adversity as he has, but I do understand the sense of loneliness that he has to be feeling. Being an only child, I missed out on being with brothers and sisters, and I truly wish I had a sibling to have that type of relationship with. I feel so remorseful, sympathize for him and empathize with him. I hope I will someday be able to bring him over to the United States to give him the opportunity of his life that he deserves to become the best cardiologist he can possibly be. Meeting Dejene and getting to know much of his story truly has inspired me to become a better person.

On our way back to the Addis Guest House, we stopped at a shoe store run by a woman who came through one of the programs at the community center headed by our friend and host, Mark. The shoes' soles are made from old tire treads, so they are very environmentally friendly.

With such an emotional and amazing day behind us, Bud provided us with humor throughout the day. Miscommunication due to the language barrier is expected, but the fact that there needs to be an intermediary translator to get from Bud's dialect to English that our translator friends can understand makes us laugh every day. However, today provided the best quotes by far.

Quotes of the day by Bud: 1) At dinner, Bud informs us that his last name isn't spelled Dupree, it's DuPree. His response "Yeah, I just found that out a few years ago."
2) After dinner tonight, our waiter comes to our table after being called over by Mark. We had just finished talking about room towels. Bud thinks Mark is calling him to inform him about our towel problem, but is in reality calling him over for the bill. Bud raises his hand and says to our waiter "Yeah, were going to need three regular towels and two hand towels." The waiter walks away puzzled. We all laugh.


Bud's quotes aside, it was an emotionally, physically and mentally draining day, but such a great and fulfilling one for me personally. Dejene will be a part of my life forever, and hopefully I can find a way to financially support him to continue and finish his schooling to give him the opportunity to become the cardiologist he dreams of being. As exhausted as I am, I still need to get these push-ups, abdominals, and squats in before I can get some much needed rest.

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