UK Football

Boy's life of desperation changed forever by UK football player's act of love

Landon Foster and Dejene ate a cold treat before Foster said goodbye. He thought he'd never again see the impoverished and determined 14-year-old, who yearns to be a cardiologist. He was wrong.
Landon Foster and Dejene ate a cold treat before Foster said goodbye. He thought he'd never again see the impoverished and determined 14-year-old, who yearns to be a cardiologist. He was wrong.

Landon Foster did everything he could to shake the pesky boy following him around as he delivered bags of food to lepers in Ethiopia.

"Mom, they're pushy here," Tina Foster recalled her son telling her of the people around him on his service trip with fellow members of the University of Kentucky football team.

Tina replied simply: "They're desperate, Landon."

Spending days in villages filled with people eating from a nearby garbage dump, the trip felt overwhelming for the UK punter.

Foster tried to construct an emotional wall to steel himself from the sights, sounds and smells of poverty all around him.

He tried to think of the poor as a collective group, not put names with faces that might haunt him later.

"He kept following me and trying to get to know me, and I was trying to be considerate but keep my distance as well," Foster recalled of the boy, terribly small for his age of 14.

So Foster did everything he could to shake the malnourished boy following him around the streets of Korah.

But when Dejene grabbed some of the bags from Foster's shoulder and helped deliver the food, too, Foster knew the emotional walls had been forever cracked.

"He had nothing and he was helping others," Foster recalled of the kid living on the streets. "Just selflessness when he had less than nothing."

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For the next few hours, Dejene followed the Kentucky punter and his group around the town, situated just outside the main garbage dump where the boy had foraged for his breakfast that morning and his dinner the night before.

They stopped at a restaurant in the city and bought Dejene a warm meal. The group's tables were full, so Foster ended up sitting at a smaller one alone with his new pesky friend.

That's where Foster realized he wasn't going to be able to shake the boy. Not ever.

"I got to know him," Foster said of Dejene. "It was probably one of the most special things to sit there and get to know this 14-year-old kid so self-driven, so motivated, but literally came from nothing."

Despite not having much formal education, the boy spoke excellent English even though he'd been living on his own in the streets of Ethiopia for nearly five years.

Dejene had been in and out of schools there, but soaked up every minute of education he had received.

"He'd spent much of his time digging through the dump for food to live on and then he tells me he wants to be a cardiologist," Foster said, shaking his head. "It struck me as such a perfect metaphor for how big of a heart he has."

The two continued their conversation outside where they got a cold treat from a street vendor. As the day drew to a close, Foster gave Dejene his shirt and his hat. The two took a picture together as a keepsake.

The van door closed and Foster watched his new friend fade into the Ethiopian landscape.

"I thought that would be it," Foster said quietly.

Little did the punter know, it was just the beginning.

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As Kentucky takes the field at the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, Foster's friend will be there with a new name, "Josh," wearing a bright blue "Stoops Troops" T-shirt to cheer on his friend.

"All I wanted was to see him again," Foster said. "Never in a million years did I think it would be in Commonwealth Stadium. ... It will be a special night for a bunch of reasons."

'All in it together'

That night in Ethiopia, Foster tossed and turned.

He went to find pastor Tesfaye Tekeste and ask about personally sponsoring Dejene, to get him back in school, to make sure he didn't have to eat from the garbage dump, to make sure he would have clean water to drink.

"He had huge aspirations for himself and struck me as such an intelligent kid that it's just so tough seeing people that are that bright stuck in a place where it's really hard to move up," recalled Foster, who sent the organization $50 a month out of his own pocket to support Dejene.

For months, Foster kept up with Dejene via Facebook. Even the impoverished have access to the worldwide social media network via burner phones with extra minutes given out at various charities.

Foster's mom, Tina, connected with Dejene in the same way.

Via the messaging function on Facebook, she also fell in love with the boy with the gigantic heart in the most heartbreaking situation.

She learned of the terrible abuse Dejene suffered at the hands of his father and stepmother, how he ran away at age 9 because the streets were safer than his home.

"There were nights when I chatted with him that I couldn't sleep after," Tina Foster remembered. "I worried about him like I worry about Landon, like my own child."

Dejene would message her that he was starving, and not just for food, but for a family, for a safe place.

The Foster family was working through details to get enough money to Dejene to pay for a nearby boarding school where he could get the basics and some more education.

Turned out they weren't the only ones falling in love with the little boy with the haunting brown eyes.

The Shropshire family of Charlotte, N.C., whom the Fosters had never met, also came across Dejene on a mission trip to Ethiopia. They had heard about him from a family at their church who adopted a different boy from Ethiopia.

Dejene had been that boy's friend.

"Can you pray for this boy?" the church friends asked Patty and Todd Shropshire, who already had a full house with sons JD, 14, Ben, 12, and 8-year-old Kaya, who was adopted from South Korea.

"We're really praying for him to get a family," their church friends said.

Once she met Dejene, Patty Shropshire couldn't shake him either.

"He has an amazing heart," she said. "He really cares about other people, so much so that it hurts him when he sees other people hurting. Great heart. He's extremely smart."

The Shropshire family eventually connected with the Foster family (via Facebook) and the groups worked together to get Dejene to the United States.

"They were our biggest support, rallied with us to get Josh here and they rallied and supported us in every way," Patty Shropshire said.

Tina Foster's family bought Christmas gifts and helped out financially. Her sister, who owns a jewelry store in Nashville, donated some pieces to the adoption fund.

"It felt like we were all in it together," Patty Shropshire said.

Dejene — now Josh — got straight A's last semester at a high school in Charlotte where he plays soccer and has lots of friends. His new family is in the process of formally adopting him.

After all of these months communicating via social media, the Fosters and the Shropshires will meet for the first time in person on the Kentucky campus this weekend.

"Tina and I are going to be a mess," predicted Patty Shropshire. "We're all going to be emotional messes. We already feel like we're family."

Tina Foster, who bought UK T-shirts for all six of the Shropshires to wear, was trying to imagine what it will be like to see Josh in person for the first time.

"I've shed tears in fear for him; I've shed tears in sadness for him and I've shed tears of utter, complete joy for him being able to come here," she said this week. "And all I can think is that when I see him and hug him for the first time, I can't imagine anything but just tears coming out."

For Josh, the chance to see his friend Landon for the first time since he pulled away in that van more than a year ago is emotional.

Foster supported him when he had nothing and no one.

"He has done a great thing for me," Josh said. "He was like a big brother to me. Just talking to me every day and helped me by sending money for food and bedding. Still talking to me and encouraging me."

While Foster struggled to imagine a time when he'd ever see Dejene again, the once pesky young boy said this week that he knew all along that he'd see Foster again.

"Yep," Josh said. "I knew."

"He's just that determined," said his new dad, Todd Shropshire.

"It was his dream," Patty chimed in.

The thought of seeing Josh on the field before the game had Landon Foster rubbing his arms to calm the goose bumps.

"Just being in camp and everything, I hadn't had much time to really think about how it will be," the punter said recently. "It will be emotional.

"I thought once I left Ethiopia that I'd most likely never see him again. It was just one of those things that he changed my life in such a way that I can never really thank him."

But it's Landon Foster and his family that the Shropshires want to thank.

Some of the loudest cheering in the stadium on Saturday likely will come from the Shropshire family, who say they are Kentucky fans for life.

Patty Shropshire said it's hard not to get behind a school that sends athletes to do work in Ethiopia every year.

The University of Kentucky is now on Josh's list as he starts thinking about colleges to attend.

"You never know," Josh's new mom said.

"How cool would it be one day for Josh to lead that trip to Ethiopia?" Patty said, her chipper voice quivering slightly as the magnitude of that idea hit her. "He's got an amazing story to tell."

Tina Foster knows exactly what kind of story it is.

"It's a love story," she said. "Love is what it's about and the power of what love can do."

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