UK athletes changing lives, including their own, on foreign service trips

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJuly 30, 2012 

They've never seen a down of football or a second of a basketball game, but there are hundreds of people in Ethiopia who love the University of Kentucky.

"We've got these huge pockets of Ethiopian Kentucky fans that don't even know what sports we play," said Jason Schlafer, a senior associate athletics director at UK.

A year ago, Schlafer led a group, including UK officials, football coach Joker Phillips and seniors Danny Trevathan and Stuart Hines, on a service trip to the third world country.

Earlier this summer, three more football players, Matt Smith, Mikie Benton and Larry Warford, went on a second trip.

This week, Schlafer is returning from Ethiopia with yet another group of athletes, this time eight women from various teams.

What started as an idea to build leadership within the football team has turned into a chance to build leaders across campus.

"I know the trip will have a dramatic impact on them," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in June. "It will help them lead their teams differently. There's no doubt in my mind of that."

It's helped him lead his athletics team differently.

As he walks out of his office door every day, he sees a picture on the wall of his hand holding the hand of a young Ethiopian girl.

"It's dramatically changed my thought process," Barnhart said of his trip last summer. "It changes your heart. It will change the way you think."

The trip earlier this summer changed everything for Benton, a senior safety on the football team.

"After being over there, it felt like I took everything for granted," Benton said earlier this summer. "I didn't expect it to hit home like it did."

While serving food at a soup kitchen, he saw a blind, elderly woman being guided by a 3-year-old boy.

"There's no such thing as a childhood for him," Benton said. "He has such a huge responsibility looking out for her. ... It's mind boggling to me."

On his trip with Smith and Warford, they painted houses and delivered mattresses to people who were sleeping on makeshift beds of hay and cardboard. They installed a sink at a watering hole to give the village safer drinking water.

Other UK contingents have planted vegetable gardens and fruit trees at orphanages and done odd jobs in a leper colony.

You won't ever hear Benton complain this season, he assured.

"How can you say you're running too much when you have legs to run?" he asked. "I'm sure those lepers we met with would give anything to be able to run until they get tired."

The stories and the images stay with the athletes who have returned.

Hines, the former UK offensive lineman, got word that one of the villages UK athletes helped was ravaged by a tornado.

"Stuart started collecting money from his teammates, and the football team bought a house," Schlafer said.

That's what Barnhart hopes UK athletes gain from these experiences: the ability to think outside themselves, their teams and their university.

"The next person who could change the world could be right here in our midst," Barnhart said. "I never want to lose sight of that. We're not just developing business people or athletes. We're developing people who might change the world for the better."

Barnhart expects these expanded versions of the service trips — which are paid for through the UK athletics marketing budget like all community service projects — to continue indefinitely.

"There's a limit to what we can do, but the important thing is for young people to understand the world is a pretty big place and we're in a pretty fortunate place," Barnhart said.

This latest trip included eight women from various teams across campus, including two from the Central Kentucky area in Versailles native Kayla Hartley (gymnastics) and Winchester's Grace Trimble (tennis).

Other athletes on the trip were Aubrey Lamar (softball), Megan Moir (golf), Kastine Evans (basketball), Emily Holsopple (rifle) as well as Brooke Keyes and Kayla King (soccer).

Before the group left, Schlafer said he wasn't sure exactly what work they'd be doing. But one thing is always standard.

"They look forward to seeing us," he said of the Ethiopians in the three villages UK has aided. "Our players go there and represent Kentucky; so now all of those people love Kentucky."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com; ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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