By Jennifer Smith |

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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