Lehigh women's lacrosse senior Anna Patterson had the experience of a lifetime this summer, following in the footsteps of fellow Mountain Hawks Erica Prosser (women's basketball), Jessica Miller (field hockey), Angelo DiGiacinto (men's swimming) and Liz Lucas (softball) who all traveled abroad with SALSC over the past three years. Patterson was Lehigh's lone representative on this year's community service trip to Kenya where the group members aided in building a school.
SALSC stands for Student-Athletes Leading Social Change. Prosser traveled to Kenya in the summer of 2010 before Miller, DiGiacinto and Lucas went to Ecuador in 2011 and now Patterson, this past July.
"This trip was one of the favorite experiences I've ever had," said Patterson. "I probably got the most out of this opportunity as I have anything in my life. It was really cool to meet other Division I athletes who not only compete at such a high level, but are also so passionate about the things that I'm passionate about outside of athletics."
Lehigh is one of only four schools in the nation currently active with the organization, along with North Carolina, Michigan and Illinois. The Mountain Hawks have been critically important to the growth of SALSC and making a difference on the global scale.
"It was really gratifying to be able to help build a school. Obviously, you're not going to build an entire school in a week, which is the time we had," said Patterson. "But we were able to get a lot done. The people were so appreciative of our presence. I was in awe of them and how good their hearts were the whole time. They're very wonderful people."
Patterson has been involved with SALSC since her sophomore year when she heard about Prosser's trip.
"At that point, there were about five of us involved in SALSC," said Patterson. "We worked really hard all year and got to send three people to Ecuador. I wasn't one of them, but they had an incredible trip and I got to hear all about it. I was very inspired."
Patterson was voted to go on this year's trip to Kenya. For her, it was an easy decision and an opportunity she couldn't pass up.
"I was a little nervous about the traveling by myself, but I 100 percent wanted to do this," said Patterson. "I'd never flown internationally by myself. That part was a little bit scary, but being immersed in another culture, seeing and learning from these people, I was always on board and excited about it."
Patterson and SALSC worked with the organizations "Me to We" and "Free the Children," who made a significant impact.
"They are an incredible partnership continuously working to improve the lives of children and went absolutely above and beyond in this experience," said Patterson. "'Free the Children' works under specific pillars to create change and sustainability: education, alternative income, water, health and agriculture"
There was no such thing as a `typical day' in Kenya. The group worked on a school named Ngosuani. The members of SALSC (seven student-athletes along with SALSC coordinator Jeff Janssen) stayed in tents, approximately 200 yards away from the school they were building.
"In the mornings, we would wake up and sometimes go for a run with our Maasai Warrior Stephen," said Patterson. "Just get in our workout for the morning, come back and eat breakfast, then we'd get to work. There was a lot of brick laying.
"Before or after dinner, we'd get to hang out with the kids and play around," Patterson continued. "We played soccer, some volleyball and Double Dutch. I'm really bad at Double Dutch; they're really good at it. They're learning English and I know very little Swahili or Maa, so it was cool to learn from each other and act out what we were trying to say."
The purpose of the entire initiative was to raise the funds to build the school then travel to Kenya and begin building. But there were so many other benefits, which Patterson learned first-hand. Everyone got such an appreciation for the native people, ultimately gaining perspective on things in their everyday lives back in the United States.
"At the end of each day, we'd have a little activity reflection to learn more about their lives and how it's affecting us," said Patterson. "How we can incorporate what we learned there in our lives back home."
Patterson also talked about experiences with the Mama's (the elder women in the tribe), which included a half mile walk to get water.
"Their house was about two rooms," said Patterson. "All of her kids slept in one bed and she and her husband slept in the other. Then there was one room for everything else. It was very, very small. It was hard-hitting realizing that my house has two floors and I have my own room and a bed. My life is comfortable; it's very, very comfortable. It was eye-opening to see the way she and her family lives."
Patterson and the fellow SALSC members also beaded with the Mama's.
"Some of the Mama's came in to teach us how to bead; we made little key chains. I was struggling big time," said Patterson. "I'm pretty sure it took me about an hour to finish a key chain. I asked her how long it usually takes her and she said around 20 minutes. She's got skills."
Education in Kenya is not guaranteed past primary school, which gave Patterson some perspective when comparing to education in the United States.
"I have found the newest and biggest appreciation in my education," said Patterson. "Eighth grade through high school graduation is not a guarantee. A lot of times, it's private and the families pay for their kids to go to school, but for some families, that's not realistic. Having the kids work at home in order to get through the week is what they need instead of having them in school."
Patterson visited one secondary school called Kisaruni, an all-girls school for grades nine through 12. Some 10th graders took Patterson on a tour of campus.
"We were talking to the girls and they were so passionate about their education," said Patterson. "One wanted to be an electrical engineer and another would like to be a pharmacist. They set up their own schedule and plan for the day. Together, the students decided they'd wake up at 5:00. That's when their day would begin."
Their day would consistent of primarily class and private studies.
"They were so thankful for the opportunity to go to secondary school and have the option of going onto university," said Patterson. "Whereas I'm at a university now and I have not had the same appreciation for my education. I am so thankful that I'm here at Lehigh, which has phenomenal education. And I get to play a sport that I love here. I have a world of opportunity that I never truly appreciated before."