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The Coach

7 May

Mike coaching

Coach Mike 2

I can remember the first time I met Mike.  It was on a basketball court in Gulu, Uganda and he was a skinny little guy who obviously didn’t have as much talent as the other basketball players.  But his jump shot was precise.  I mean, it was the perfect L, he landed in the same spot he jumped from, he was grabbing the cookie jar at the top, it was everything that I was taught as a young kid at Hastings Basketball Camp.  I have to say I was shocked, as Mike wasn’t anything I had experienced in Gulu basketball.  For weeks I had been impressed by the pure raw talent in these Acholi men.  Power, speed, and aggressiveness had filled the court.  And Bricks.  I mean, serious bricks.  We couldn’t make a jump shot for the life of me and some of the technique looked more like an overhead soccer pass than a basketball shot.  Mike was the opposite, so I watched.

 

For the next hour and a half I was enthralled as Mike not only showed a discipline in his technique, but he showed a discipline in his spirit.  He seamlessly maneuvered between being a leader and a follower, a listener and one who would speak up, one who took control but also knew when to step back and push others forward.  He had coach written all over him.  But the thing that impressed me the most:  Mike was a giver.  Recently I read a tweet from Pastor Hank Fortner of Mosaic Church in LA.  Hank is someone I listen to on a weekly basis and he tweeted the qualities of a giver:  Listen, Adjust, Pursue, Remember, Offer, Invest, Coach, Invite, Forgive.  That is the core of who Mike is.

At the very end of 2012 the time Casey and I had spent in Uganda came to an abrupt end.  Of all the different programs that TRP does I had been the one really guiding our baseball program.  It was an opportunity that turned a lifelong dream into a reality, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it ending.  Mike had been a part of all the different aspects at TRP but he had latched onto the idea of coaching and leading our young kids in the sports activities with ease.  It’s hard to explain how difficult it was to leave Uganda, but I have to say one thing was very easy:  Giving full control of the day to day activities ofMike coaching TRP sports to Mike.  Everything from his attention to detail, his contagious energy as he guides young men on a baseball diamond, his always eager desire to learn more about whatever he is doing, it all gave our entire team great confidence that he would not only keep the program moving, but that he would push it further than we ever thought it could go.  But at the end of the day, it was this quality of being a “giver” that pushed us over the top.  This was what made Mike the perfect person to facilitate thousands of kids using baseball as a game to dream about being something bigger.  These kids wouldn’t be hearing a message of poverty or war, but one of hope and redemption built on a foundation of love and hard work.  We knew Mike would pour himself out for these kids, that he would put in the long hours of practice it took to push each one to their best, that he would be an example of the type of person these kids aimed to be, and that he would constantly believe in these athletes and subsequently invest in every step of their development.

Almost three years later Mike is still proving himself to us.  Tomorrow he is taking 18 young men down to the annual Uganda Little League National Tournament.  This is the third year that he has ran a league with 500+ kids involved that finishes with an all-star team from several schools around Gulu making a trip to the only baseball sports complex in the country.  I know, this isn’t a big deal for American kids, as it has almost become a right of passage to have this kind of opportunity, but I can tell you it means everything to our young boys in Uganda.  Even though we can roll a baseball out anywhere in the country and have 100 kids wanting to play in 5 minutes, they don’t have leaders who are able to facilitate the opportunity for them to use the sport to grow.  Teachers, adults, etc. just don’t invest the time or resources to make it possible.  It is almost incomprehensible to see this after living the childhood I did, and it can be downright discouraging.  But not for Mike, he refuses to let Uganda’s situation define him or his boys.  He believes with all his heart that we will eventually be watching one of the kids in Northern Uganda playing for the Cubs.  But more than that, Mike is doing the hard work every day to make it happen.

Good luck Boys. Mike Coach 3

As Another Season Ends, The Future Looks Bright

26 Sep

batting tee

Over the last month or two TRP sports has been wrapping up another successful year. Even though the students are on the calendar year schedule, we have our busiest time from September to July, culminating with our national tournament.  In August and September we take stock of where we have been, where we are at, and where we are going.  It has essentially been 3 seasons since we started baseball programming, and we want to give you a picture of where we have been.  A fun way of doing this will be to compare our work in Gulu, Uganda to the Chicago Cubs.  No, not the Cubs that are known as the lovable losers who haven’t won a World Series since 1908.  We feel a lot more like the Cubs of the last three years, who have patiently went on a journey to rebuild their entire team from the ground up.

As the Cubs bottomed out in 2010 with massive contracts for players who couldn’t produce much on a baseball diamond, they ventured on an innovative and aggressive rebuilding of their minor league system. They chose to value youth and long term gains over flashy contracts for flashy players who wouldn’t contribute much to a box score.  As a Cubs fan this has been rather painful.  About a month ago it looked like we were headed for a third straight last place finish and not a lot to look forward to.  But since then, the Cubs have started to call up to the Major Leagues a youth movement they have developed over these three years.  Javy Baez first, who homered in his first game.  Jorge Soler next, who homered in his first at bat!  And then there is Kris Bryant, who is still in Triple A Iowa but is arguably the best minor league player in the game, and will join the Cubs major league team in April.  This list goes on, with Kyle Schwarber, Almindsey Alcantara, and Addison Russell.  Cubs fans can certainly see the fruits of their patience, and a new season where pennants and world series titles can be legitimate dreams.  But it will always be important to remember what it took to this get in this position.  Having a plan, doing the hard work to execute the plan patiently, and waking up with hope each day that your future is out in front of you. dirt field

Plain and simple, three years ago baseball didn’t exist in Gulu. As TRP did its best to launch a program there was a strong push to see quick results.  Anybody who knows sports knows that’s not a sustainable path.  And when you are in the business of changing the life of kids strapped with decades of poverty and war, the quick approach only brings more risk of disappointment and discontent.  We had a volunteer named Chen, from Taiwan, come help us in those early days.  As the kids threw baseballs from long distances trying to impress with how far they could throw and catch, Chen stopped us.  He said, “You need to play catch from ten feet away until they are perfect, then move to 11 feet.”  Chen was right, we had to focus on doing things right from the beginning, trust the process, and give it time to flourish.  So we did that, as best we can.  But there are now big things on the horizon.  We feel like the Cubs a bit, that our planning is starting to pay off, that momentum is building, and that we are entering a season where we can truly start to see the program take off and reach our ultimate goal:  To watch northern Ugandans take the lessons they learn on a field and use it to create the life and community they desire off of the diamond.  So with that, I would like to leave all of you with some accomplishments over the last few years, as well as some of plans in the future.  We hope you all stay on the ride with us.

Big Accomplishments for TRP Sports:

  • 4 coaches have been trained and brought onto our staff in various functions, with 3 of them still remaining with us. Mike, Patrick, and Faith are ambassadors for our program and we hope they stay for many years!
  • We have grown from one school program at Bishop Negri Primary School to 3 school programs, adding Vienna Primary School and Gulu Primary School.
  • We have competed in 3 Uganda National Little League Tournaments, finishing as runner up in our second year! This was a huge accomplishment, and is something the kids look forward to every year. Many have never traveled out of the north, and this allows them to visit their capital and compete against others from across the country, stay in dorms, and just enjoy their youth experience!
  • Mike, our project manager, has implemented a values based training for all of our kids so that while they are on the field we maximize the lessons they are learning. From teamwork, to personal commitment, to how we should live in community and the importance of our spiritual lives, these lessons are vital to the success of our program, and more importantly to the futures of our ballplayers.
  • Weekly meetings with US Staff! Over the last year we have worked with Mike to set up weekly meetings to give updates on progress, ideas for improving programs, and planning for what we want to do in the future. These are so valuable for our team here in the US, and we hope for Mike!

Where we are headed:batting tee

  • We are looking to expand to 5 schools over the next year, including 1 secondary school, Gulu High School. This will allow us to continue working with the youth as they get older and move on to higher levels.
  • We are in conversations with the TRP board about adopting a full sports curriculum for our school programs. This would allow us to consolidate our lessons and make a replicable program where we can train coaches quickly and help them to see full impact. Many organizations have already done this, so we are hoping to collaborate with some of them instead of designing from scratch.
  • With that, we need to build a proper full baseball diamond. 330 ft to all sides! We are in the process of designing a fundraising campaign to challenge donors to be a part of this. Bishop Negri Primary School has already promised to provide the land.
  • Right now our leagues are inter school leagues. Over the next year we will be looking to run leagues that have the different schools competing against each other, which opens a world of possibilities when it comes to personal growth and developing community.
  • We want to be able to fund 4 full time coaches this year. We are right now creating a campaign which will help us reach this goal through monthly sponsorships.
  • Finally, we are hoping to bring Coach Mike over to the US for training in the next year. Our dream is to have him coach a little league team in the US, and also travel around a bit to introduce our program to a wider audience.

This year, as the MLB playoffs begin, and you watch the players take the field and compete, we hope it reminds you that kids half way across the world are being transformed by this game.

The Thread, reflections by Zach and Casey

1 Apr

Boys holding trophy

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among

things that change.  But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost…

William Stafford

 

To say the past few months at The Recreation Project in Gulu has been challenging, has stretched us personally and organizationally would be an understatement.   A long-time champion and friend of and for TRP, Sister Mary Carla, suddenly passed away this month.  Not only has she loved us and our vision from the time it was but a dream, she has encouraged us as the building and growing has occurred – rejoiced with us in our successes – and the loss of her and her beautiful smile is felt deeply here in the forest.

Times like these, you have but a thread – and at TRP that thread is, and has always been, each other.  The relationships we have with one another, and with you, are the ties that bind our work and mission and make it whole.  We hold onto that thread, when what we’re doing and how we’re doing it seems strange and unusual – when people don’t ‘get it’.  We hold onto that thread when we lose someone who does – someone like Sister Carla – we hold on tight.  We hold onto one another.  We believe in one another.

Which is why it is so important to us to built TRP as an organization with a vision that most, if not all, of the activities conducted here might one day be handed back over fully to the Ugandan community in Gulu, to the Sisters, to the staff who have worked beside us to catch that vision.  This is our hope – that the relationships – and the local people we build into and who’ve built into TRP will one day fully embrace the key that they have been the keepers of all along.  The key to redemptive, holistic, pluralistic change in region and a people that have been historically marginalized and mistreated.

Mike leading young men from Bishop Negri Primary School

Mike leading young men from Bishop Negri Primary School

This vision is already coming to fruition in ways – at the turn of this New Year TRP birthed a local community-based organization called Waveland Academy which will be the umbrella under which all of the youth sports programs will fall under.  Waveland is 100% locally staffed by Ugandans who run day to day activities at the local partner schools where we have baseball and softball programs.  Zach will oversee the operation from the United States and this will continually be an important program that TRP supports – but the staff here in northern Uganda: Goofy, Mike, and Lenny will be ultimately responsible for making the wheels on the Waveland bus go round and round.

The belief we have in one another is the thread that we hold onto – which is why we are so excited and trusting that this step, to send a small group of staff out there to do work on TRP’s behalf, is exactly the right one we need to give TRP, and the youth in northern Uganda, their wings.  It’s funny that by holding on – so many broken things and broken people might be set free.  Thank you for continuing to dream and ‘hang on’ together with us.

–  Casey and Zach

The reason why we do what we do.

The reason why we do what we do.

 

If Trees Could Talk. A Forest Story

19 Oct

italy and trp 298

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One of the initial couples to come help start The Recreation Project was the Kurtz family.  Since they have moved back to Denver they have stayed involved and are the primary people helping to put together our Denver Fundraiser this weekend (with the help of a few of their good friends!).  Read this from Kel.  We hope it inspires you to come this weekend, whether in Omaha or Denver, to see how you can add your name to this story.

Imagine if the forest could talk.  If the trees could give testimony to what they have seen, we might fall silent.  This forest has grown-up under the vast blue African sky, been sustained by the heavy seasons of rain, and survived the heat of the scorching sun.  As the trees grew, children played in their branches and the weary found rest in their shade.

But twenty years ago the story of this place began to change.  As the conflict in northern Uganda reached its violent peak, this forest’s story became one of survival; bearing witness to the pain of the Acholi people.  It stood tall during the nights when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) roamed through it, creeping their way towards town to wage their violent political campaigns and abductions.  On occasion, it provided a hiding place for the rebels to rest and regroup.

The forest sits next to St. Mary’s Lacor Hospital.  During the height of the conflict the hospital was one of the largest “night-commuter centers” with tens of thousands of youth gathering every evening to seek refuge.  On their way, they passed through the shade of the forest but no longer to play in its branches or find rest.  Instead they walked fearfully, rushing to try to make it safely to the hospital in hopes of escaping the dangers that came with the night.  If they didn’t walk they could be abducted by the LRA, forced to join its ranks and lose any fragmented piece of childhood that remained.

So they walked.  And the forest witnessed every devastating moment.

Seeds of fear were planted.  Violence scattered.  It’s a wonder the trees themselves didn’t shrivel up and die.  But no… trees have something deeper rooted in their being.  In the midst of this shattering, they spoke the language of restoration and life.

As peace has now come to Acholiland, the children continue to commute through the forest, but not seeking safety.  They commute to school, to fetch water and maybe even to climb some of the forest’s branches again.  And something mysteriously beautiful has taken place.  The very spot where seeds of fear were planted, a reaping of hope is beginning to rise.  The harvest is being transformed; violence to peace, fear to love…joy, freedom, forgiveness, faith, kindness, laughter.  They are sprouting their heads.  And Oh my!  They are spectacular.

This forest is now the home to The Recreation Project. With TRP, youth that were once forced to walk now have the opportunity to play, to run and even fly!  The same soil that unwillingly harbored the LRA is becoming a place where students will learn valuable life skills in a safe and unique environment. A zip-line, challenge course, climbing wall and leap-of-faith will provide opportunities to soar to new heights.  A meadow of nightmares is being transformed into fields of dreams as kids gather to play baseball and basketball.  Dirt stained clothes are no longer markers of toil and strife, but of homeruns and downright childhood romping.  Intentional healing spaces, such as a tree house for processing the day’s events give the Ugandan community a place to mend broken childhoods and restore hope for a war-torn people.

This Sunday, we gather to celebrate all that has been done with TRP over the last 3 years.  We gather to bear witness like those tall eucalyptus trees and mutter what they speak so clearly, “Look!  Beauty from ashes!  Life from death! It’s possible!  I see it!” We gather to support and come behind the community and restoration of northern Uganda.  We gather to see to it to that the seedlings of hope, have a chance to grow into big, tall, strong trees…strong enough to support the dreams, pictures and lives of even the little ones that will come behind them.  Join us!

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Food by Olivea, Desserts by Wooden Spoon & Happy Cakes!  Fun and life changing experience by YOU!

Picture This…

20 Sep

italy and trp 224

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a picture as “A description so vivid or graphic to suggest a mental image or give an accurate idea of something”

Many “pictures” of northern Uganda focus on fear, trauma, hopelessness, joblessness, and lack of opportunity, and many organizations use those pictures to compel partners to act.  We choose to focus on different pictures of northern Uganda.  Here are a few images we have seen at The Recreation Project recently.  Picture This…

An empty forest transformed into a place of exhilaration and rest.

An outdoor adventure and sports staff.  We now have 16 meaningfully and gainfully employed staff and facilitators: an image we are very proud of.

 

Facilitator Nyeko Patrick leading a group through the ropes course.

 

Northern Uganda’s first baseball field and a team that looks like they’ve played for years.

 

Kids playing on Gulu’s first baseball field, built by The Recreation Project

 

A basketball team.  Acholi girls getting their first opportunity to show their skills on a consistent basis.

A young guy in a wheelchair climbing the Leap of Faith, with the help of his classmates, and living what it means to be included.

 

Ben and Robert, staff at The Recreation Project, strap in Dennis to the Leap of Faith. An inspiring moment in the forest.

 

The first climbing club in Uganda, giving a weekly opportunity to recreate, learn climbing techniques, and socialize.

BUT the internal pictures we see in the kids resulting from these activities are even more valuable.  We see them building confidence, we see them trusting one another, we see them overcoming fear, we see them dream.  Youth in Uganda rarely have a chance to experience these pictures .  But as they are exposed to The Recreation Project’s programming they provide images of what it looks like to be resilient.  It’s inspiring and we want you to be inspired as we have been.

That is why over the next 4 months The Recreation Project is launching its “Picture This” campaign.  Its focus will be to share these images and what it takes to produce them in northern Uganda.  Our hope is that people will be compelled to join us in multiplying these pictures in coming years.

By the end of 2012 The Recreation Project needs to garner support from 50 individuals who can make regular commitments to our programs, ranging from $25 to $100 per month.  We will also have certain expenses that require a one-time gift and an opportunity to join our team in this way will be presented.

Picture This:  Hundreds of people from around the world, who have seen how recreation in its many forms has changed their own lives, joining in the process of offering this to Uganda’s youth.

 

Faces in the forest, the ones which inspire us to keep providing recreational opportunities to Ugandan youth.

 

What is your picture for northern Uganda?  (please comment below)  We think it can be big.  Join us in seeing it come alive.

“After all, where do dreams start?  They start when we’re playing, when we’re free to run and romp around.  That’s when we imagine we’re something bigger than we are.”-Kevin Carroll