Choosing the Challenge – Aber’s Leap of Faith

27 Jun

People ask me all the time if I really believe our program makes a difference, especially when we see some of the kids for only 8 hours.  Does the program put youth in a place to walk away with brand new ideas and a belief that they actually CAN change the direction of their lives?  Why is this program different than other programs?  Why should I give my time, energy, and funding to supporting your project?  DOES IT WORK!?!

First off, thank you.  We want these questions, they are what makes us tick.  Ben and I along with countless others who are involved with TRP are CONSTANTLY talking about the programming, how to make it better, how to fit it to our beneficiaries, how to make it work for youth from northern Uganda.  So keep asking, we want it, and even throw us an idea if you have one.

But for one second here, I want to let the story of a girl named Aber give you some insight to our program and just how powerful it can be.

Aber was one of 100 girls to take part in “Camp Build/Glow”, a 5 day camp sponsored by Peace Corp for youth in northern Uganda.  They spent day 3 at the camp going through a teambuilding day at the ropes course.  Aber was on team “Zebra”, around 13 years old, quite small, very quiet, but always smiling.  All the youth who were part of this specific camp had been severely affected by the war.  They could have been abducted, had family members who were, or maybe they were placed in an IDP camp.  We didn’t know the individual stories, but we knew all of them had some portion of their life stolen by a violent conflict.  Aber was no different.

Peace Corp Camp, the Zebra Team

The day after these girls came to the ropes course Peace Corp was sponsoring HIV/AIDS testing for the youth.  This was an additional part of their programming that they felt was needed.  Many are affected with HIV/AIDS and a volunteer told me the percentage is higher for those subjected to the tragedies of war.  Peace Corp did an entire presentation on the value of knowing your status, that it was the first step to becoming healthy.  The reality is it terrifies youth here to get tested.  They feel it is a death sentence and that if the disease itself doesn’t kill them the stigmatization provided by the community will.  So most just don’t want to know.  But you can’t get better if you don’t face your fears and find out if you need the help.  The Peace Corp volunteers said it was a difficult day trying to get these youth over the fear they felt in order to take the leap of faith.  Peace Corp was in no way mandating the testing, the youth had to choose whether or not they wanted to do it or not.

When Aber first came to the “Leap of Faith” at the ropes course she moved herself to the back of the line.  In this activity individuals strap into a full body harness, climb 25 ft in the air, balance on a tree stump with approximately the same surface area as the top of a telephone pole, and then leap to a trapeze with nothing but air between you and the ground.  TRP is guided by the principle of “challenge by choice” on high elements.  Participants choose whether they want to do activities or how far they want to go.  For instance, if Aber didn’t want to do the whole Leap of Faith, she could simply put on the harness.  We would then encourage her to go further the next time she went, but we at least want them to take the steps they can take, and then ask if they are interested in going further.  We are constantly asking, “Are you ok?  Have you finished or do you want to take the next step?”  After that question we don’t push any further, we simply listen to the desires of the participant.

The Leap of Faith, standing a mere 25 feet off the ground.

Katie, the Peace Corp volunteer helping me, immediately noticed Aber had sunk to the back of the line.  As we put the rest of the girls through the element, Katie tried to talk to Aber.  At first it was a chore just to get her to put the harness on.  We talked her through what the outcomes would be, assured her that she was safe to do the whole activity, but that it had to be her to choose if she wanted to or not.  Aber finally agreed that it would be a good idea to put on the harness.  Once she had it on, we asked if she wanted to climb up the tree just a few notches.  A nervous Aber nodded yes.  So she did, and then the courage started to kick in.  We didn’t have to ask another question.  She made her first goal and then proceeded  to push herself to the top.  She delicately balanced herself on the pole, then on the count of three, took the leap, grabbed the trapeze, and provided us with a once in a lifetime smile.  I looked over, Katie was beaming with joy.

Youth in northern Uganda are resilient.  It makes sense; they have endured things I can’t even imagine.  But I have noticed they also fear taking steps.  Too many times they have been disappointed by the end result.  In my last blog I wrote about losing, and trust me, one of the biggest lessons to be learned here is how to deal with loss.  It is everywhere.  But, they also need to experience a win, they deserve a chance to shine.  On this day Aber felt what it was like to face her fears, to push herself farther than she thought possible, and the end result was an experience she can hold onto forever.

So although we are constantly tweaking programs, daily we see healing and change come to the youth.  And the best part is they are the actors.  It is not as if we are preaching about it, they are actually living it.  They live it through games, activities, and most importantly opportunities that our wonderful facilitators put before them.

I followed up with the Peace Corp camp directors a few weeks back.  They booked more groups with us for August and are going to do the camp again next year.  They said the youth couldn’t stop talking about the day.  They also told me that almost every kid went through HIV/AIDS testing.  I like to think that the activities they did the day before had something to do with that.  It was a day where they practiced facing up to challenges, not knowing if it was going to produce a good result or something that might be damaging.  But they learned that facing them was the only way to move forward.  When I think about our program and what impact we are leaving with the youth of northern Uganda, this quote comes to mind:

“Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be Afraid.”

Frederic Buechner

Thanks Aber, for not being afraid, and for showing us what true courage looked like that day.  It was a beautiful thing that happened, you shined.


4 Jun

(Authors Note:  This is the 3rd part of a blog series about baseball and TRP.  I wrote this a few months back, and have changed a few things, so some of the events are from the past)

Yesterday we had the second game of Gulu’s first ever baseball league.  The Yankees made a valiant comeback but were stopped short by the Cardinals 11-10.  It is really amazing how far the kids have come in 3 weeks.  It speaks to the resiliency of youth and there unbelievable knack to adapt.  They are hardly stuck in their ways at 11 or 12 years.  We as adults could learn a lesson when looking at their flexibility.  Maybe this is why Jesus always says you must become like a child to understand the kingdom of God.

The Yankees hit a home run to make the score 11-10 with two outs in the last inning (meaning the right fielder missed the ball and Augustin was able to run forever).  It was a beautiful moment as I watched the kids get so excited about their comeback.  On the other side I could see the Cardinals realize they needed to get serious and make the final out to preserve their victory.  The last batter came up and went down on three strikes.  Elation for the Cardinals and disappointment for the Yanks.

At that point I started to see the Yankees pointing at each other and instantly their mood of joy changed to major disappointment and blame.  All game they had worked through their mistakes and accomplishments with joy but as it came to a close and they realized the loss a new attitude swept over them.  This is the main reason that international sports development likes to “stay away” from competitive atmospheres.  I believe it is the exact reason we must play these games.

My brother-in-law Bret was able to teach our catchers a few things on his trip

My brother-in-law Bret was able to teach our catchers a few things on his trip

We could all use a lesson in losing.  Nobody likes it, it is not what we strive for, but someone is going to lose.  Whether it is in sports, school, business, relationships, or any other aspect of human life it will happen.  How the world deals with loss might just be what is keeping us from seeing true peace and love.

I walked over to the Yankees with Coach Kenneth (I needed a translator for this).  I spoke briefly about how important it is to learn how to lose.  We talked about taking personal responsibility and not blaming others.  We talked about working on ground balls and fly balls so that we would get better next time.  And I might have got a bit over their head with the last one, but I said it anyway:  How you lose in life and what you do with that loss will be an extremely large factor in whom you are as a person and where you take this journey.

This flies in the face of a lot of cultural values both in Uganda and the United States.  In the US we are built on being the best.  Our losses do extreme damage to our pride and to our sense of security.  Our life is built on getting ahead of others.  In work, in life, in the global world, we are always trying to lead out and be the winner.  This in itself is not a bad thing, I get it.  God wants us to shine; I believe that with my whole heart.  But our motives in wanting to pursue greatness are key, and I would also say that the actual outcome is much less important than the journey (thanks Tom Osborne).  Also, what you sacrifice along the way might actually make the win a lot less valuable (relationships hurt, integrity lost, etc).  If were on the wrong journey with the wrong heart than winning will either disappear, mean nothing, and certainly will never satisfy the best parts of us.

In Uganda losing is different.  During the war losing wasn’t about pride or ego or disappointment, it was about your entire livelihood, or even your physical life.  Losses here could easily mean you lost one or both of those things.  Although peace has returned to the north losing still has devastating effects.  Losing a crop for a farmer, losing a job that supports 40 family members, losing a baby because of inadequate health care, or losing a friend to aids.  All of this has devastating affects that go well beyond our “feelings”.  It isn’t the same ballgame; in lots of cases here it literally is a battle for survival.

We can’t escape losing on either side of the ocean nor anywhere in the world.  In my personal experience I see a lot of giving up in Uganda, and I would probably do the same if faced with these circumstances.  I sat in a room with 6 Gulu Hawks basketball players about a year ago and listened to why they had stopped looking for jobs at 25 years old.  It was everyone else’s fault about why they couldn’t find work and they were done wasting time.  25 and the system had already dealt them enough losses that they had given up.  By the way, all of them had university educations.  As the Yankees lost yesterday I could see the beginnings of slipping into a routine where blaming others and just giving up seem like the only response.

In 10 minutes I am going to jump on a boda boda, plug in my earphones, and take the 20 minute ride to Bishop Negri Primary School for PE.  I usually play the ESPN Radio show “Mike and Mike” as I ride over.  Today I am sure I am going to hear about Peyton Manning going to Denver while the Broncos look to trade a guy who led them to a playoff win last year, Tim Tebow.  I haven’t seen Tebow’s response but my bet is this guy is going to give us a tremendous example of how to lose a job.  I will venture out there and say that he will take it with an extreme amount of grace and let it motivate him to work even harder to achieve success in the NFL.  Will he get a chance to be a starting quarterback again?  Who knows, maybe not, despite all the hard work he will put in.  But I am also sure that this move will not define one bit of who Tim Tebow is.  He won’t throw blame at John Elway for disloyalty or blame anyone else.  Remember, this is the guy who meets with people in life-threatening situations before and after each game to remind him of how “unimportant” his job on a football field is.

My hope, my prayer, is that through some of these baseball leagues we will encourage these kids to believe in a new story.  This new story is about empowerment, that they can control their next steps.  It is also about working hard and getting better, not giving up until you have pushed yourself as far as you desire.  And most importantly, it is about understanding that loss doesn’t define who you are.  This world is brutal and people can lose things in an instant.  But one thing people can’t take from you is your character, integrity, and desires.  We want our youth to not only believe that, but to live it.  For now that starts on a baseball diamond.

I want to wrap this up by going back to my point on the flexibility of kids.  After our little pep talk after the big Yankees loss all of the kids snapped out of their attitudes.  They went and greeted the winners and joined in their celebration.  They walked back and talked about how Dennis hit a ball that almost knocked over the first basemen.  They were laughing about Okello’s foul ball that drilled Coach Mike in the chest.  They had moved on, and were looking forward to practice the next day.  This is where my hope springs up.  The Lord wishes all of us to have the joy of a child, and I think he would like us all to have the perseverance and short memories of them as well.  A situation that could have turned into hate, competitiveness, and greed was transformed to one of joy, laughter, and peace.  By both the winners and the losers.

Early morning training in Mpigi

Youth at the forefront!

25 May

 Determining the destinyWhen debriefing the Train Track, this was one of the most powerful question that we asked the participants – “Where were you going and how did you work together to reach there?” a participants responded to the question by telling his group that “as young people we need to know who we are and what we need to achieve. For my case this is first time to participate in such activity, it has inspired me and I think there is something better ahead of me which I need to stand and walk towards it, I also understand that I need to work hand-in-hand with others to reach there. This was the strongest response I have ever come across since joining the project.

Given the current situation that youth are in, in northern Uganda, I am excited that the Project is helping the youth to determine their destiny. Today we need leaders who are trusted, honest, and respectful and people who can think creatively. Among others these are the issues The Recreation Project is addressing. As we are trying to settle in our original home land, conflict is high among us example are; conflict over land, domestic violent, stigmatization and mass demonstration. At the forefront of these conflict are youth.

Therefore, whenever youth are working together in solving whatever conflict that arises in their group while at the project I really feel “we are doing something for the community”.  

Thanks to all TRP supporters.

Covering the Bases

15 Apr

Last week we introduced you to some new programming at The Recreation Project. Here is a detailed look at what has happened, where we are at, and where we are going.

1st Base – The Idea •

  • Last year we heard about Uganda qualifying for the Little League World Series. This shocked us. First off that there was baseball in Uganda, and secondly how successful it had been! We also learned that the visas to the United States were denied, which again sheds light on how difficult it can be to achieve your dreams in the current setting of Uganda. There is a good video about this whole situation by Jay Shapiro here: Baseball in Uganda
  • Upon learning these facts I did some research. It is here that I found out about a baseball complex 40 minutes outside of Kampala ran by Richard Stanley, a part owner of the Trenton Thunder in the New York Yankees organization. While working for Proctor and Gamble in Uganda in the early 2000’s he noticed the potential talent for baseball and built a beautiful yet simple baseball complex to start Little League. More on Little League Baseball Uganda here: Uganda Little League Baseball
  • I visited the complex for 2 weeks in January. I left with 10 baseballs, 8 gloves, a catchers mit with equipment, 2 bats, and a dream to start baseball for the first time in Gulu.

2nd Base – The School

  • Bishop Negri Primary School: Upon reaching Gulu we met with this school and their Head Teacher, Brother Santo. He introduced us to the PE teachers, Benson and Kenneth. Instantly we knew this was going to be home to our first league. Brother Santo and his staff have an incredible focus of providing the best opportunities for their students.
  • Coach Leni and Coach Mike: Once we found the school, we searched out some help. We brought two coaches on as work/study interns. We pay their tuition for plus a monthly stipend and they donate their time to help us coach the youth. We were lucky because we found two individuals who believe in these kids. Their time and effort has made this whole thing possible.
  • PE Classes: To start we introduced the game to all the PE classes at Bishop Negri. We are there daily and reach around 200 youth each morning. This consisted of many stations as the school has 90 students per class! Previously these students were all taught by only BENSON with no sports equipment! Now we have 3 coaches (plus Ben and I have snuck over there a few times). We do basic drills and have also progressed to playing some games.

3rd Base – The League

  • League Games: Our plan included creating a league where kids had something to do after school. We made 4 teams out of the 11 and 12 year olds and during March and April each team played a 12 game season, the first of its kind in Gulu. This program was set up exactly how little league programs are set up across the world.
  • It has proved to be an excellent opportunity for the kids to be that, just kids, who are out enjoying a game. But along the way we have seen them stride out and really try to better themselves in the physical and mental aspects of baseball. All of them have improved so much when given the opportunity to do so.
  • We have got the help of a number of volunteers in town for things such as pitchers training, hitting clinics, and umpiring games. Most of these volunteers are people who come from a baseball background of some sort, but some are jumping in and learning for the first time!
  • Last week we finished the league, and the Cubs ended up taking the title. To bad the major league Cubs can’t be as successful.

Home Plate – A Chance to Shine

  • Each year Uganda hosts an 11 and 12 year old national tournament for Little League Baseball. Quite frankly I was very skeptical about how quickly we could put together a team. Kids at the school touched a baseball for the first time on March 3rd.
  • As of last week we selected 18 players to travel to Mpigi, Uganda to compete! They just picked it up so quick, and although they might be behind the rest of the country, we are going to give these kids a chance to find out.
  • Goals are important and being able to shine in the areas where you have worked so hard is a common bond we all share. We are heading down on May 7th and will stay at the baseball complex until the tournament is over on May 18th. For 13 of our players this will be their first trip ever outside of northern Uganda. Our first 5 days will be a training camp of sorts. We are very excited to get to spend some quality time with these players and I hope this week will have a major impact on how they see and pursue their bright future.

So this has been what we are doing with this first sports program at TRP. After it is finished we will stop and evaluate what was done, how well it worked, and what our plan moving forward would be. If you have any questions/suggestions about all of this please feel free to contact us!

Swinging for the Fence

5 Apr

This is the first of a four part blog series that will shed light on The Recreation’s Projects newest adventure, little league baseball in Uganda.

“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, “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball”

Roby’s Cubs was the first baseball team I ever played for.  My dad was the coach and we played our games in a beat up field across the street from Dairy Queen.  This team gave me meaning in life at 7 years old, and I ran with it.  Daily you could find me outside of my house throwing a baseball against a wall and having it bounce back to me so that I could pick it up cleanly and throw it back to the wall.  All by myself I would play a World Series in my head and dream about where this sport could take me.  I wanted to be Shawon Dunston, the short stop for the Chicago Cubs.  My dad went ahead and named the field outside our house Hoins Stadium and mom chose not to get mad when I killed her grass where home plate and the pitcher mound stood.  It was quite the little make shift baseball field.  They told me I had to do well in school in order to make it to the big leagues.  They could have said I needed to clean the house 5 hours a day, and as long as it gave me the chance to play I would have done it.  I played, worked, hoped, and dreamed whenever I had a baseball in hand.  At seven years old no dream was too big, I was swinging for the fence.

As most of you know I didn’t make the major leagues.  I actually was cut from my 9th grade baseball team.  But those trials helped me realize that sport was an avenue, not a dead end.  They revealed my joy in working with people and this became a driving factor in my career choices.  They taught me diversity as I always saw a picture of people who looked different playing together, another factor that has resulted in moving half way across the world.  They taught me to lose, but more importantly, get back up again.  They taught me there was always another season, and time to rebuild.  They taught me hard work, you get what you put in.  They also taught me that spending time with people is God’s greatest gift.  I can’t tell you what happened in the Nebraska/Oklahoma game in 1994 (that is not true, but most people can’tJ), but I can tell you that I went with my Grandpa.

Coach Mike lining Gulu's first baseball field

So you can imagine the disappointment I feel when I see that kids in Uganda don’t have the opportunity or chance to let sports drive them to a better future.  We at TRP think that is not okay.  So we are doing something about it.  Recently an opportunity jumped up to run a Little League Baseball program at Bishop Negri Primary School in Gulu.  It has me jumping out of bed in the morning.  Why?  Because it is a chance to combine my current passions of providing youth sporting opportunities in Uganda with where it all started for me:  on a make shift baseball field.  And my hope is that through this experience, that we will see these youth start to believe and dream of a life in which they can overcome boundaries that others put on them, or if they so choose, to alter the course of life that sometimes seems predetermined here.  My hope is that they will swing for the fence.

“Never accept the boundaries imposed upon you.  To truly honor your red rubber ball, you must alter the course when necessary”

Ready to go

–          Kevin Carroll, “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball”

This was the first in a four part blog series on The Recreation Project’s newest adventure, baseball in Uganda.  Stay tuned for our next update called “Covering the Bases” which will take a deeper look at the specific programs being implemented on the ground.