Sports Business Journal – May 29, 2017 – By Michael Smith –
It’s 7,547 miles from the University of Kentucky’s campus to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia.
Until six years ago, there was practically no reason a Kentucky athlete would have ever made that trip or gotten to know the people in the impoverished parts of the city. Chances are, they would have never broken bread with a woman suffering from leprosy or helped build a roof over a mother and child with HIV.
But in 2011, Jason Schlafer, the athletic department’s chief revenue officer, set out to change that by establishing what he calls annual foreign service trips to Ethiopia for the school’s athletes. Schlafer got the idea when he and his wife visited the African nation to adopt a child.
“We saw the debilitating poverty in that country,” Schlafer said. “That sticks to you. When we got back, it didn’t take me long to realize that there would be a tremendous benefit for our athletes to experience something like that. It’s the kind of experience you can’t get from the practice field.”
Mitch Barnhart, Schlafer and then-coach Joker Phillips, started inauspiciously. Their van was looking for a community center next to the U.S. Embassy. They slowly drove back and forth enough to draw attention to themselves.
“Military personnel surrounded our van with weapons drawn,” Schlafer said, chuckling as he reminisced. “It was a pretty frightening experience and that was day one, hour two, of our trip.”
Despite the rocky start, UK’s first service trip with football players Stuart Hines and Danny Trevathan, now a linebacker with the Chicago Bears, created a stir back on campus. When they returned to Lexington, they shared stories about distributing supplies and food, repairing homes and playing soccer with children in an orphanage. Athletes from other sports wanted to get involved, too.
UK’s first trip to Addis Ababa in 2011, with two football players accompanied by Athletic Director Schlafer expanded the program to twice a year and broadened its scope so that athletes from every team could go. UK now sponsors a May trip and a July trip. The May trip is typically for about three football players, while about 10-12 athletes from other sports take the July trip.
The selection process has become more competitive and athletes must be recommended by their coaches. Athletes are encouraged to volunteer in Lexington as a way of showing their commitment to service.
In its seventh year, Kentucky’s program has taken more than 70 athletes to Ethiopia. With the State Department issuing warnings about travel to Ethiopia this year, Schlafer detoured earlier this month and took a group to the Dominican Republic.
He hopes to return to Ethiopia next year if it’s safe.
“You can’t go to Addis Ababa and see those people without being affected,” Schlafer said. “You go over there trying to impact their lives, but what happens is that you see these people who have nothing and they’re the most joyful people. It ends up impacting us more than it does them. To the person, you see a level of empathy, compassion and emotion from the athletes that you wouldn’t see otherwise.”
The athletic department uses money from the NCAA’s opportunity fund to pay the $3,000 or so in expenses per athlete. UK covers the costs for staff travel separately.
Schlafer organizes the trips through organizations like Score International, which arranges missions and service trips globally and has worked with other athletic departments on similar service trips.
Jarrod Polson, a member of Kentucky’s 2012 national championship basketball team, was among those on the 2013 trip to Ethiopia and he blogged about the experience for the school’s website. “Sometimes it feels like we’re in a completely different world,” he wrote.
“It was shocking to see the conditions they lived in, but how they still managed to have such joy and happiness in their outlook,” Polson said last week. “So many people think of the American dream as making a lot of money, but what a trip like this reminds you is the importance of loving God and loving other people.”
Polson, now a financial planner in Lexington, is a popular speaker at schools and churches in the area. He always references the Ethiopia trip and was so inspired that he has gone back to Africa, and twice traveled to the Dominican on mission trips.
Courtney Love, a current UK linebacker and team captain, went to Ethiopia last year. He helped some of the Ethiopian children build shoe-shine boxes and create crude weightlifting equipment by pouring concrete into soup cans.
Motivated by the trip, Love has decided to mentor children and teens from broken homes in Lexington.
“A trip like that, it changes you,” Love said. “I love sneakers and I used to have, like, 50 pairs of Nikes. When I got back, I gave away half of them. It just changes the way you think about material things.”
Danielle Fitzgerald, a former UK soccer player who went to Ethiopia in 2014, said she’ll never forget the village built next to a trash dump, where people slept 10 to a room, yet “they’re so grateful for what they have, which is almost nothing,” she said. “It just made me think that I don’t have to go around the world to serve; you can serve every day.”
Barnhart, who made the inaugural visit to Ethiopia, said the service trips have become a vital component of the college experience that UK offers, calling it a bedrock of the department.
“The athletes come back having done real work, making a real impact. And it changes their heart,” Barnhart said. “Part of the college experience is that I want our people leaving as givers, not takers. If we can do that, it’s every bit as meaningful for me as any of our championships.”