I’ve been to Africa dozens of times. However the trip to Sierra Leone was unique. Why? We went to cover “good news,” make that “wonderful” news stories. We did a story about a professional athlete from the States born and raised there, who returns every year trying to help more kids get an education. Another story is about the US Peace Corps, that nearly 50 year old idea of President Kennedy, that just sent the first volunteers to Sierra Leone in 16 years. The Peace Corps, like just about every other western organization, had fled Sierra Leone’s decade long civil war and its lingering aftermath. And finally, there’s a story about an old slave fortress, Bunce Island, and an American professor trying to get it the recognition and attention it deserves for its inhumane and brutal contribution to history.
This was my first trip to West Africa. I’ve been all over the continent covering wars, famines, floods and various other disasters, natural and man-made. This was a trip about Americans in a far flung corner of the world doing incredibly selfle ss things. First up, was Madieu Williams. He’s number 20 on the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, a free safety entering his 7th season, who plays the game in a solid and unspectacular way. He’s a guy who doesn’t crave the limelight. He’s not a self promoter. He’s humble. He’s so many things the stereotypical brash, multi-millionaire, egomaniacal professional athlete is not.
Williams was in Sierra Leone during the off-season doing his life’s work. He was born and raised there until he was 9. He then came to the US with his family, and has been living the American dream. He returns to Sierra Leone each year. He’s built a school on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic coast on the outskirts of the capital Freetown. It’s a school in a community where none had existed before. The staff had to turn students away when it opened, so many wanted to attend. The teachers either volunteer or earn very little money. That’s the way things are done over there. Williams was visiting with a group of volunteers from a foundation called Healing Hands, based in Baltimore, teachers, doctors, dentists, even a business man and a civil engineer, there to help. They brought school supplies like books, pencils and rulers. Many schools don’t have many or even any. They brought expertise to help train the staff. And mostly they brought big open hearts, and tried to show the people in this desperately poor nation that somebody cares.
That’s the kind of thing that Madieu Williams makes happen, when he’s not banging heads with the best of them in the NFL. He also recently gave his alma mater the University of Maryland two million dollars of his own money. It’s the largest gift ever from someone so young. He’s 28. The money has helped start a global health initiative. Williams hopes the research will help find ways to improve health care and education in places like Sierra Leone. All that is pretty telling about what kind of person Williams is, a guy who gives millions from his own pocket, because he’s concerned about poverty in the developing world.
Williams says his family instilled in him early the importance, make that the necessity, of giving back, and often putting other first. He took us to his old neighborhood. I was expecting more. The family home is a rundown two story structure that looks like it might get washed away by one of Sierra Leone’s monsoon afternoon rains storms this time of year. But the family had more than most, Williams explained. They had TV, a phone, even running water, which they shared with neighbors. Williams mother lived the lesson of helping others. She was a nurse, who often took her son with her through the hospital wards. Williams named the school he built to honor her. Sadly, she is no longer with us, a life cut short a few years back. Abigail D. Butscher was just 45.
During this visit, Williams returned to some of those same hospital wards his mother used to take him to. The foundation he’s teaming up with on this trip, Healing Hands, does most of its work in pediatric centers around the world. The story of how this partnership came together takes us briefly back to football, and the University of Maryland. Dr. Jamie Flores, a plastic surgeon who volunteers for Healing Hands, was once a defensive tackle for Maryland’s college team. A few years ago, the school honored him for his humanitarian work. Williams was another honoree. They met, hit it off, and now they’re standing together in a dingy children’s ward in the hospital where Williams was born, trying to figure out what’s needed most and how to get it here.
This is a long-term commitment. And in fact, that’s how Williams answers the inevitable question about, how can you be optimistic and hopeful in a place full of so much misery and despair? His answer, “small victories, patience and time.” It’s a pretty remarkable story about a man who never forgets where he came from, a talented, successful pro athlete who could be almost anywhere else he wants to, but chooses to spend so much of his time, thoughts, money and effort in a place few Americans ever will go.
We hope you’ll enjoy our story on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and the extended interview, video clips and pictures linked here, as much as we enjoyed the actual time spent in Sierra Leone..