|(Posted 5/5/2004) |
By Don Norcross San Diego * Union-Tribute Writer. Edited by Josh Rabinowitz for SkateboardDirectory.com
Tony Hawk * heard about Sierra Leone. Heard about how the African * country recently emerged from a savage civil war, one that left 50,000 dead in a war over control of the country's rich diamond mines.
How untold thousands more had legs or arms hacked off by machetes. How teenage boys were kidnapped and forced into combat or work camps and girls forced into sexual slavery.
That was about all the Encinitas skateboarding icon knew when Laureus, a worldwide organization committed to creating social change through sport, asked if Hawk would travel to Sierra Leone. Laureus wanted Hawk, selected in December as one of its ambassadors, to see for himself how children once living in fear are now reliving their childhood through organized play and athletic programs.
For two weeks, Hawk, 35, debated if he should go. Words from his brother helped make the decision.
"That's one of the coolest and scariest things anyone's ever asked you to do," said Hawk's older brother, Steve. "What a great opportunity."
Which moved Tony to ask himself, "Am I so self-centered that I'm above visiting children in genuine need?"
Hawk made the six-day trip last month and came back saddened but optimistic and enlightened.
"It opened my eyes to what need really is," said Hawk, the father of three sons. "A need to survive. And it made me appreciate my happy, healthy children infinitely more."
Hawk traveled with his girlfriend, a New Zealand * rugby star, three video crew personnel and a Laureus director. After a 30-hour trip that included a flight to Brussels, another to Sierra Leone, then a helicopter ride, the group landed in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital.
Hawk said the coastal town resembled Tijuana on a bustling weekend with people scurrying about and makeshift markets on the streets.
His hotel had no hot water and sporadic electricity. Compared to where the contingent would spend the next couple of days, Freetown was Paris.
After an overnight stay, the group chartered a helicopter about 90 minutes east to the Kono region. Sierra Leone's civil war lasted 11 years, ending in 2002 *. In Kono, the ravages of war were evident.
Few of the homes had roofs. Roofs had been burned, walls demolished.
"Literally, there was just a foundation where a home used to stand," said Hawk.
Hawk was so moved by the trip that he chronicled the stay with a 10-page diary. The most stunning aspect of the Kono region, he wrote, was this:
"Children were everywhere. In the gutted/burned houses, on the streets, in the diamond mines (which we could see from the road) and at the multitude of street-front retail stands.
"Most of them wore torn clothes. A few had shoes. I saw many kids wearing only one tattered sock as footwear. It was rare to see anyone who looked to be older than 30."
Hawk was told only two out of five children in Sierra Leone reach their teenage years because of AIDS, malnutrition and other diseases. He took two rounds of shots before the trip and carried malaria medication.
Hawk's skateboard videos have sold millions. He has done the "Got Milk" commercials and pitched for The Gap, Campbell's Soup, Pepsi and Quiksilver *. He has appeared in more than 10 movies.
In Sierra Leone, he was inconspicuous.
"As anonymous as a 6-foot-3 white person could be," he said.
Across two days in the Kono region, Hawk and company made five stops, visiting programs Laureus sponsors. Another organization, Right to Play, organizes programs where volunteers lead the children in exercise, sports and games. Laureus funds the programs, covering needs ranging from equipment to personnel.
What Hawk discovered in Sierra Leone was that despite the hardships their country has endured, the children have not lost their innocence and joy.
"The first thing I noticed when we pulled up in our caravan . . . was the abundance of happy faces on all kids," Hawk wrote in his journal. "They were some of the most well-behaved and engaged kids I have ever seen playing together.
"They waited for the coaches' instructions and made the most of whatever game they happened to be playing. It was a far cry from the too-cool-for-school kids that I'm used to seeing on playgrounds back home, kids who think following instructions is for dorks."
Hawk spent much of his time on the trip playing with children, joining limbo lines and soccer-dribbling races. Volleyball and tossing Frisbees were popular.
"Their balls get used 24/7," said Hawk. "Frisbees get used 24/7."
He said the kids freaked when they saw themselves playing on a video recorder.
"I don't think they'd ever seen video, or even pictures of themselves," he wrote.
"I grabbed one youngster and swung him around by his arms, making him smile immensely and getting us both slightly dizzy. It caused a chain reaction of requests for me to do the same for every kid in sight. As I tried to walk from one end of the field to the other, kids grabbed my hands from every angle in hopes of getting a ride on the Tony-Go-Round.
"It was fun making the kids laugh, until I began to get nauseous from so much spinning."
During one stop, Hawk found some cement at a demolished school and gave a skating exhibition. The children reacted as if they'd never seen a skateboard. When Hawk pulled his board out of a car, the kids called it "a rollerboogie."
After his return, Hawk said of his exhibitions, "The people just freaked. They'd never seen anything like that."
The kids wanted rides on the "rollerboogie" and Hawk gladly obliged.
"It was fun to see the amazement and confusion of these people who had never seen such a thing, and most likely won't again for a very long time," he chronicled. "It was kind of like traveling from the future to show what will be possible, and quickly leaving before anyone has a chance to figure it out."
On Hawk's last day in Koidu, the only town in the Kono region, Right to Play volunteers gathered at the town soccer field and put on a play day for children throughout the region. Hawk estimates 500 children showed up.
Here, Hawk got another view of the civil war's atrocities, seeing kids who were missing limbs. Playing a game called parachute ball, where people grab the end of a parachute and wave it up and down, making a ball atop the parachute fly through the air, Hawk stood next to a boy missing one leg at the knee.
"He had a crutch and somehow he positioned it like a prosthetic," Hawk said. "It was amazing the way he used it."
Hawk said he saw "quite a few" children missing limbs.
"They didn't sit on the side feeling sorry for themselves," Hawk said. "I (personally) had a sense of sadness, but mostly the mood was hopeful. These kids have been through all these adversities, but still they just want a chance to be kids and play."
Hawk said two images from the trip will remain with him. When positioning some of the kids for rides on his skateboard he noticed "indescribable sores" on their legs.
"You can read (medical) statistics all your life," he said. "But when you see this up close, it hits you much harder. These kids were malnourished, (had) diseases beyond a doctor's care, but at the same time they were excited about riding a skateboard."
Few girls joined the usual activities, but at another playground there was a hall where girls practiced aerobics.
"We were feeling optimistic after this display of revelry," wrote Hawk, "but then we stepped outside and met a girl who appeared to be about 12 years old – and pregnant. She was knitting a baby pouch for her future newborn like it was a duty she knew was coming sooner or later.
"It was unnerving, not because of the babies-having-babies aspect, but because everyone took it as normal, like this is just what happens once you're old enough."
Hawk loved interacting with the children and says he would visit Sierra Leone again. (An avid surfer, he was piqued by potential undiscovered breaks.)
But he wants the purpose of his trip to be more far-reaching than putting a smile on kids' faces for a few hours. The hope is that his experience will bring awareness and potential funding for what Laureus is trying to accomplish worldwide.
"I certainly don't see Sierra Leone as a potential future market for skateboards," he wrote. "But I would feel like I accomplished something if my visit opened some eyes and more kids got soccer balls in the process.
"They're just kids, after all, and they just want to play."
Laureus is the brainchild of Johann Rupert, a South African * entrepreneur. A former club-level cricketeer, Rupert is chairman of Richemont, a luxury-brand corporation whose product lines include Cartier.
Wanting to form a worldwide organization that could use sport to create social change, Rupert and a business associate formed Laureus. In Latin, laureus means "laurel wreath" or "one who receives the laurel wreath."
Members of Laureus World Sports Academy serve as ambassadors, visiting projects to encourage young people to participate in sports.
Members of the academy include Pele, Katarina Witt, Sebastian Coe, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Nadia Comaneci, Martina Navratilova and Michael Johnson. Tony Hawk was selected to the academy in December.
The organization has held a luxurious sports award banquet since 2000 *. This year's program will be held May 10 in Portugal *. Actors Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are expected to attend.
The Laureus Sport For Good Foundation funds 23 projects around the world where sport is used to help better the lives of those less fortunate.
Among the projects:
The Midnight Basketball League in Richmond, Va.: Aimed at tackling drug and crime problems, basketball games are held from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., when vandalism is most prevalent.
After-School All-Stars of NYC: Activities such as basketball, volleyball and taekwando are offered after school as an alternative to drug abuse and gang involvement.
Fight for Peace in Rio de Janeiro: Based in a drug-trafficking area, the Brazilian * project uses boxing to create alternatives to crime and armed violence.
Daimler-Chrysler, whose product line includes Mercedes-Benz, and Richemont jointly donate $1 million annually to fund Laureus.
"These are not self-congratulatory organizations that are going to be gone in a few years," said Hawk. "They're in it for the long haul."
This article was originally sublished as "It Opened My Eyes" and "Laureus seeks change through sports" and was found at http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/20040505-9999-1s5hawk-jp.html and http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/20040505-9999-1s5hawkside.html
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