On a goodwill trip to South Africa, college basketball player Pat McDonald of Port Washington taught children the skills of his sport and they taught him lessons from a distant culture
Pat McDonald had mixed feelings as he readied to leave South Africa last month.
The Port Washington resident and Lakeland College freshman spent days learning about a new culture and country firsthand, making lifetime memories. Part of him didn’t want to leave.
But he was anxious to share his experiences with the richest country in the world.
“South Africa made me have a different perspective on life,” he said. “I wanted to take the things I learned from South Africa and just use them back here.”
The biggest lesson was “being appreciative of what we have here.”
Through programs called Zebra Crossing African Adventures and Hoops 4 Hope, McDonald taught basketball to a range of South African children, some with more of what Americans have, and some with less.
Some children had basketball jerseys and knew English. Others in the townships lived in shacks and communicated more with body language. Ceilings in their schools had cracks with insulation hanging out.
“You could just tell the difference,” McDonald said.
He made a special connection with a 9-year-old in one of the affluent communities. Ebony showed McDonald her ball-handling skills.
“I started talking to her. They call you ‘sir’ and I’ve never been called sir before,” he said.
“I’ll never forget her smile.”
South African children, as well as McDonald’s 11 fellow travelers, may not forget his, either. Each night after dinner, Zebra Crossing members would debrief and celebrate the day’s successes with one another.
“They celebrated my smile,” McDonald said, “because I was just cheesin’ away. The little kids’ smiles made the experience that much more special.”
Food made the trip all the more memorable. McDonald, a self-described “picky eater,” decided what he didn’t know couldn’t gross him out.
“What I learned was not to ask questions (about) what the food was and just eat it,” he said.
McDonald later found out what he consumed. One meal was octopus.
“Actually, I loved calamari,” he said. “The goat meat not as much. It was too dry for me.”
Children, especially in the poorer communities, gained a new experience as well.
“They never encountered white people before,” he said. “I’d come up to talk to them and they’d back away.”
Language translation came from Thabo Maratola, a member of Hoops 4 Hope, a not-for-profit organization supporting youth development in South Africa.
“He wants to give these kids a chance, show them that they do have a future,” McDonald said. “He cares for them all like they’re his kids. He’s a remarkable man.”
McDonald was invited on the trip by Chad Songy, an Austin, Texas, resident who runs Zebra Crossing and a few other nonprofit initiatives helping children, in addition to a point guard basketball camp McDonald attended a few years ago.
McDonald’s previous international experience had been a trip to Jamaica with his family. His parents, he said, nearly had a nervous breakdown upon learning their only son was heading to Africa. His basketball coach at Lakeland worried he’d lose his point guard right after the season.
“Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, what I was getting myself into,” McDonald said.
“I just went in with an open mind. Just have high spirits and bring my energy every single day.”
In addition to helping South African children, McDonald, a business major interested in real estate, learned leadership and cultural development skills.
“It was quite the experience,” he said.
It’s one he hopes everyone would have the opportunity to take.
“I honestly think that going to a foreign country is an experience that everyone should experience in their lifetime. It would open their eyes up to so much more in their life,” he said.
Except for the one incident in the parking lot at a nature preserve, which he wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
McDonald and his trip mates were checking out the preserve as baboons roamed the area. He and a teammate walked right by one of the beasts but neither thought anything of it.
Then, it happened.
“This baboon makes eye contact with me. I was like, OK, no big deal.”
But it was a big deal.
“He kept on getting closer and closer. I’m just standing there with my arms crossed and water bottle looking down at him,” McDonald said.
“He lunged at me, and I just bolted out of there.”
McDonald’s colleagues instantly provided emotional support. “Everyone was laughing,” he said.
McDonald now carries a new attitude toward the primates.
“I’m no longer a fan of baboons,” he said.
“That was the worst experience of my life. I was so scared.”
Another member of the group received a worse assault, sustaining a ripped shirt and stolen sunglasses.
Wild animal attacks aside, McDonald said he is committed to helping others learn firsthand about the rest of the world. Since he was able to take the trip in part on a scholarship from Songy, McDonald said he will someday provide a scholarship to someone else.
“That’s my way of giving back to the Zebra Crossing trip,” he said.
For more information on Songy and his nonprofit organizations, go to www.chadsongy.com.
For more information on Hoops 4 Hope, go to www.hoopsafrica.org.
Photo Credit: Lakeland College freshman point guard Pat McDonald of Port Washington had his eyes opened to a new world on a trip to South Africa over spring break. Photo by Sam Arendt