By By Earl Vaughan Jr. |

Cape Fear High School soccer player Taylor Grace says it’s one thing to see a television commercial making an appeal to send money to a child in a distant country. But it’s different when coming from Ashe McKenzie, a native of Ethiopia and Grace’s soccer teammate at Cape Fear.

“When Ashe talks about it, it makes me realize how really lucky I am,” said Grace, one of his teammates. “It’s just hard to wrap my head around it at times.”

“We live in dirt houses,” said McKenzie, a 15-year-old sophomore on the Colts soccer team. “All the ground is stone. Our clothes are cut up. We have to wear them all week.”

And then there are the shoes. Forget expensive cleats for soccer. Forget even a soccer field. Or grass. “There is no grass at all,” he said. “We have to play in dirt or a stone place.”

The price of playing the game he loves is high in his village. “When we kick some balls, we get blood on our legs,” he said. “It hurts really bad.”

But McKenzie, his teammates at Cape Fear, and the entire school community, are trying to do their small part to help McKenzie’s village in Ethiopia. Through the efforts of first-year soccer coach Sara Bandurraga, they’re gathering donations of clothes, shoes and school supplies that will be sent back home to McKenzie’s village.

Bandurraga, a former soccer standout at Terry Sanford High School, was named the boys’ soccer coach at Cape Fear just before the beginning of this season.

During a team meeting in her classroom, she challenged her seniors to come up with a service project that could involve the entire team. It was after the meeting that Ashe came to her and told her about his village.

Bandurraga asked Ashe to speak to the team.

“I was in tears because it’s horrific,” she said.

PHOTO: Johnny Horne

PHOTO: Johnny Horne

This is Ashe’s third year in America. He and his sisters Rachel and Hannah and brother Brice were all adopted by the McKenzie family, Bryan and Julia.

The McKenzies already had four adult children and two other adopted children. Julia McKenzie said four years ago they looked into adopting another child. Their search led them to Ethiopia where they found Ashe and learned he had brothers and sisters.

“We couldn’t imagine our four biological children being separated, so our hearts went out to them,” Julia McKenzie said. “We felt blessed and felt investing in the life of a child is more important than things. These kids are amazing. We are the ones that got blessed beyond measure. Ashe has overcome incredible hurdles.”

But Ashe still has powerful feelings for the trials the people of his village face daily. And that is why he approached his coach about the needs of his village.

Julia McKenzie has been to Ashe’s village and puts life there in words people in this country can understand.

“The majority of people I know wouldn’t let their animals live in the conditions that children live in daily,” she said.

Julia McKenzie can’t say exactly where Ashe is from, just that it’s a village somewhere in the vicinity of the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa.

“Food is limited,” she said. “Jobs are limited. Medical care is limited. Really, nothing is in place to break the cycle of poverty or instill hope in everybody.”

Even the land is hostile. “The terrain is horrible,” she said. “Extremely uneven. Rarely a patch of grass, sharp rocks and hard clay. Holes are everywhere. It’s not a pleasant place to run and play as a child.”

If there is one shining moment, McKenzie said, it’s during the time the World Cup soccer matches are broadcast on television, and people of the village gather to watch.

“There is no Superman or Batman, no heroes here,” she said. “They see athletes make it out and have hope and have a future. Every little boy is dreaming of making it to the World Cup.

“A real team. A real field. Real goals. A real jersey. A ball that’s a good ball.”

Now Ashe, with the help of his teammates and the Cape Fear family, is hoping to bring a piece of that dream to his village.

Bandurraga and her players, along with the rest of the school, have been collecting clothes, shoes and school supplies that McKenzie and her husband plan to take to Ethiopia when they make a return trip there later this year.

Bandurraga said donations of almost any kind are welcome, from all sizes of gently worn or new clothing, to all manner of mainly athletic shoes that are also either new or gently worn.

They will take almost anything, from tennis shoes to Crocs, even shoes for babies as young as 1 or 2.

“Anything that’s good on rocky surfaces to protect the feet,” Bandurraga said.

If you don’t have clothes or shoes to give, Bandurraga said monetary donations would be helpful. The McKenzies are planning to pack all the donations into suitcases and take them on the plane to Ethiopia. The cash will help cover the cost of all the additional luggage, Bandurraga said. For specifics on how to deliver donations to Cape Fear, call Bandurraga during school hours at 483-0191, ext. 127.

Hearing Ashe’s story firsthand moved his Cape Fear teammates, most of whom weren’t aware of how difficult things were for him before he came to America.

“He’s been one of my greatest friends,” Grace said. “I’m talking to the principal about starting a shoe drive, finding ways to raise money so we can buy more shoes and help pay for the suitcases. I hope everyone can know in their heart they helped a community struggling just to live.”

If there is one Cape Fear teammate who has some appreciation of what Ashe’s village faces, it’s Andrew Goncharov. He is a first generation American with roots in Ukraine. He’s visited there over the summer and said it’s given him a different perspective on the blessings of living in America.

“In Ukraine, there are some villages that don’t have running water,” he said. “People have to walk miles to pump water.”

But Goncharov was touched by Ashe’s story. “The fact they don’t even have shoes to walk in, don’t have clothes,” he said. “They have to fight each other for food. It’s hard to comprehend people have to live like that every day.”

Aside from the fact that Ashe is a real person that Goncharov knows, he said what makes giving to Ashe’s village special is everyone knows that what they give is going to get to the people that need it. “It encourages people to help more,” he said. “Gives you a feeling of satisfaction.”

Kory Hussey said one of the biggest messages for him in reaching out to Ashe’s village is not taking for granted the many blessings we have here.

“We can go into our closet and search and pick out what to wear,” he said. “They throw something on and it’s what they’ve got to wear for the week.

“I couldn’t even fathom walking out of my house without shoes on, wearing the same stuff every week. It’s hard to comprehend and understand.”

Ashe remains quietly humbled by it all.

“I’m thankful for my mom and dad bringing me here,” he said. “I’m thankful for God for doing all this. And thankful to Coach B, and for people that bring stuff.

“It means a lot to me.”

Source: Fayetteville Observer
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