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Building more than just schools

It isn't a traditional tale about soccer bringing the world together, but it's the only one I have.

I am not a saint. I am not a perfect man. I certainly am not one to brag about anything I've done or to soak in praise for the things I've accomplished. I'd like to think my humility about anything I've done in my life is a good quality I have. In order to tell the story I write, however, I must reach back and tell you some things I've done in recent years that deal with charity work.

My trip to Kenya in the summer of 2014 is extremely difficult to talk about. It's something I am immensely proud of and something that is easily the greatest experience of my life. Yet, I always hesitate when bringing it up or even mentioning that I went. There is a personal issue within me that wrestles with the recanting of the experience I have. As proud as I am, when I talk about it, am I bragging? Maybe it's tied to faith. Faith is an expansive and complicated road to navigate and the trip, with its roots in faith and with my relationship to God, make the missions trip to Kenya a challenge to discuss. Mostly because of my inner desire not to bother anyone, rather than the actual outcome of speaking about it.

I always will try to make one thing known about my trip to Kenya when I do talk about it: My life changed quite a bit from that trip. A profoundly vague thing to say about a situation that very few of us have experienced. I went to Kenya, a decision I did not make lightly, in order to aid those who I truly believed were in need. It's very easy for us to sit back and assess the problems of the world from where we sit. I did this before I went and when the situation in Kenya was explained to me along with the plan of action for this trip, I seized the opportunity to go. If I didn't I'd be a hypocrite. I'd stand here today telling everyone there's a big problem here and there and wherever in the world, but I didn't go to stop it when presented with the chance.

This feeling of being overwhelmed by the problems of the world is not short-lived, but it's not something that is not to be overcame. My emotional roller coaster during that trip ended with hope and the idea that things can be done to solve such tragedies. I met man whose life had been a series of emotional, physical, and mental ups and downs. His name is Lino and he was among the group now known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Lino was helping with the local organization, Start with One: Kenya, to bring clean water to internally displaced persons who cannot access it. If I was capable of sharing his full story, the gravity and length of it cannot be captured by someone who's been a witness to him retelling it. I wouldn't be able to capture the story here. It's too long, and the road he's traveled so extreme in order to get to where he is today. There aren't words to describe this miracle.

Even after Lino told our group that I traveled with to Kenya, I almost couldn't believe it. It was such a tragic story, but he was such a jovial man. He told us on our last day there. Two weeks of bonding and two weeks of laughs with what I perceived as the happiest man alive, only to hear his life was a harrowing tale. I was stunned. You know the feeling when you think you know someone and then they completely flip the script and tell you something about their life that floors you? This is one of those moments, multiplied by numbers that don't exist.

I first interacted with Lino on our way back from an IDP Camp called Gituamba. The internally displaced persons camp was filled with people of Kenya who had their homes destroyed or were forced to abandon their homes during post election violence a few years ago. The IDP camps were set aside to give these people land in order to live on. The only issue with that is they were given no supplies, no shelters, and no skills in order to resettle. Dumped on this land with nothing to plant and nothing to build with, they were forced to survive. Our goal at this camp was to turn an abandoned and crumbling building into the village's school and church. After the day's work of being a masonry expert (I had never done any work like this in my life), we traveled back to where we were staying (the nearest major city Nakuru). I saw my friend take out an iPad and open up FIFA 14. I knew we'd soon be fast friends.

Although I wasn't sure exactly what to say to him, I knew I couldn't possibly let him get away with playing FIFA right in front of me without saying something. I finally said something, whatever it was that I said since I can't remember. It most likely was something dumb like, "FIFA, eh?" Smooth. As we got to talking, I discovered his favorite team was Chelsea. As an Arsenal fan, I couldn't let him slide and I didn't have to do much because that's who he was playing against on his iPad. I laughed and told him he'd probably win. He said that he couldn't lose to Arsenal. He lost 1-0 as I watched Aaron Ramsey score on poor Petr Cech. "See?" He said to me and continued, "The game cheats."

We didn't talk much about soccer while we were there. He had heard of the Philadelphia Union, but not a whole lot. He had more of an impression of Philadelphia after having spent 10 years in the United States, down in Atlanta. He knew enough to rib our group about being from Philadelphia and he knew enough about Philadelphia sports to manage to make fun of the Union for being bad. We talked about his time in the US, trying to get him to visit us after we leave, and other normal everyday conversations. The dosage of reality that even in this extreme atmosphere, there were the same basic ground rules for communication and friendships.

I went with the expectation that I knew what I was getting into. Expectations are a tough thing to manage. You begin to really understand the gravity of where you are and the difference between cultures the moment you arrive in a foreign place, but there's a strange comfort in knowing that on this Earth people are people. That strange comfort is a double-edged sword that makes the knowledge that others are suffering intolerable and painful. It's the emotional pain of seeing others being fed the only meal they'll have that day in front of you knowing you'll be eating your second within the next hour. Its pain knowing that a mother of three young children has to make the decision to buy chemical agents to clean water so she doesn't risk getting sick or to buy food so her family doesn't have to starve. That pain is real and cannot be replicated by the mere knowledge of its existence. It cannot be anticipated and prepared for.

I haven't seen my Chelsea-loving friend since 2014, but we have kept in contact ever since. It hasn't always been a steady stream of communication, but in a world with incredible access to technology the line is always open. And that line is typically used to tell me Chelsea is great and that Arsenal will always finish third and lose in the Round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League. The open connection to an area that is near and dear to me is always a relief. My relationship with him, through soccer, is what gives me hope that all of these problems can be solved. People like him are why I believe we can achieve something so great in places where it seems futile to even try. It's not just about Kenya or Nakuru or Gituamba. It's about all places like this.

Great people in places that can do good. And to all of you who sat through my story, I hope this has at the very least gave you hope and maybe inspired you to do something great. And to my friend: I'm glad Chelsea hired a manager who is as boring as Jose Mourihno.

If you would like to find out more about Start With One: Kenya please visit here.

If you would like to donate to the 2016 trip to Kenya please visit here.