The Winchester Rotary Club collected nearly 300 old soccer uniforms from the town’s plethora of young Tanzanian athletes in a very successful inaugural campaign.
Tiny and shy, the young Tanzanian boy approached Gail LaRocca with caution.
Years earlier - long enough for the charred skin to heal, budding scar tissue fusing each little finger together - 5-year-old Endulen fell into an open fireplace as his grandmother cooked a meal.
His future looked bleak. The boy’s family knew their son, with two badly damaged hands, would never be able to work long hard days, the way Tanzanian men must, in order to survive.
So they gave the child up to a priest from Vermont, who had settled in the African nation three decades earlier and founded a mission for endangered boys and girls.
“Endulen was so shy,” LaRocca recalled from her 2004 trip to Tanzania. “Another boy helped him into the uniform, and suddenly, he was transformed into a Winchester soccer player. He looked so different.”
The Winchester Rotary Club collected nearly 300 old soccer uniforms from the town’s plethora of young athletes in a very successful inaugural campaign. And then, in a feat of unmatched kindness, they helped pay LaRocca’s way to the struggling nation, where she passed the shirts and shorts out to eager, blossoming African footballers.
Three years later, the club has launched another uniform drive. LaRocca will travel back to Tanzania on July 16, with a heavy cargo of cardboard boxes packed to the brim with unwanted uniforms.
Hand-me-down soccer outfits can still be dropped off through the end of the month at Fresh Touch Cleaners, 757 Main St. The Rotarians ask only that jerseys and shorts be cleaned in advance, placed in a one-gallon Ziplock bag, and marked as either “adult” or “child,” small, medium or large.
Lindsay Van Gelder, 10, of Winchester, parted with her outgrown uniform at a recent Rotary Club pancake breakfast. The Lincoln Elementary schooler has been playing soccer for the past six years, more than half her life.
“They’re going to Africa,” she said. “I feel really happy that I know I’m giving to a worthy cause that will make other kids really happy. It’s a really good program and I think other people should definitely participate.”
The Rotary Club is also collecting deflated soccer balls, which will be given new life once they’re tossed onto the dusty playing fields of the Serengeti savanna.
Covering 60,000 square kilometers, across Tanzania and Kenya, Endulen’s people named the wondrous Serengeti, using the word from their Maasai language meaning “Endless Plains.”
“The villagers live in semi-nomadic (tribes),” explained La Rocca. “They wear mostly red cloth robes, tied around one shoulder, and often carry spears and walking sticks.”
July will mark the Winchester woman’s seventh trip to the continent. Stateside, she works as an interior/exterior house painter, aerobics instructor, and part-time lecturer on African culture.
On her next excursion, she plans to once again meet up with Father Ned Marchessault, the Vermont native whose mission has been to clothe and feed Tanzanian children for more than 30 years.
On her last visit, Father Ned threw a party in her honor. She and 70 boys crowded into a tiny room, equipped with a solar-powered television set. As dusk set in, the aging priest retired for the night, leaving LaRocca with the swarm of energetic youth.
Like most children, armed with a TV and minus adult supervision, they took turns channel surfing. Finally, they stumbled upon the 2004 Summer Olympics. A hush swept the room as all eyes became glued to the track and field medal round.
“For the first time, these children saw other Africans running and jumping, participating in organized sport on television,” said LaRocca. “All these children in such a small room, and you could hear a pin drop.”