SEATTLE, Wash. — She had just spent 19 hours in the air, eight hours waiting around airports between flights and two hours on a night-time ferry that she wasn’t fully confident could make it across the water.
When she awoke the next morning in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone in Africa, Josie Graybeal didn’t know if she was stepping into reality or into a movie scene.
“It was just absolutely mind-blowing – the most eye-opening, life-changing experience,” Graybeal said. “Buildings that are still standing are very tattered from the war 10 years ago. There’s been no new construction since then. The rest is cardboard, tin-roof, wood shacks. I felt like I was in the movie Slumdog Millionaire – shacks as far as you can see up the side of the mountain.”
Not exactly a location of choice for spending part of a summer. Yet, through a series of circumstances and through the Christian-centered outreach group Children of the Nations, that’s where Graybeal found herself drawn for 17 days in July, helping give physicals, playing some soccer and breathing in a completely different outlook than she ever imagined.
“I was mind-blown by the poverty,” Graybeal said. “But everyone is so alive. There was music blasting, everyone was smiling, people were dancing. Everything is so colorful there.”
“There” is a tiny country on Africa’s northwest coast. Crammed with a population of approximately six million people it is still reeling in many ways from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002.
All of that aside – not to mention being so far removed physically and culturally from her accustomed Seattle and American lifestyles – Graybeal started to feel comfortable almost right away.
“I’ve got this weird sense of that’s where I need to be,” Graybeal said. “There were people on my team who will never go back. It’s 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity, and the spiders are bigger than your hands. It’s not for everyone. But for me, I feel I need to spend an extended period of time there.”
The story of how Josie came across this life-changing opportunity was not a happy one. As a solid defender for the national-caliber SPU women, she not only played in all 20 games last fall, she started all 20 – one of just three Falcons to do so. For the last 18 of those games, she was playing with a bone fracture in her left foot.
“At that time, it was two-thirds fractured. They told me, ‘If you can play through pain, you can play until it breaks or until the season ends,’” Graybeal said. “Right after we lost [the NCAA West Regional semifinals], I had surgery in December.”
Graybeal was eventually cleared for practice with contact. But during her very first spring session, she broke the foot again.
“I took two days to be depressed. I didn’t come out of my room,” Graybeal said. “This was while I was planning an SPU meal-packaging event [for Children of the Nations]. After the second day of eating a tub of chocolate ice cream was over, I was like, ‘If I can’t play, I’m not going to sit here crying all summer. I’m going to go to Africa.’ It was that simple.”
Well, not quite that simple. She contacted her church in her hometown of Gig Harbor, a city nestled on Puget Sound southwest of Seattle. But by then, the only opportunity remaining was a July trip to Sierra Leone.
“I sent my reply back in 10 minutes,” she said. “They said, ‘Wow. OK, you have eight days to raise $2,500′. The total cost was $4,000.”
With help from her church, and from family and friends, Graybeal raised it.
By July 3, she was on her way.
The lengthy trip from Seattle notwithstanding, Graybeal and the other members of her team got right to work after arriving in Banta, Sierra Leone. It was a 10 and a half hour journey from Freetown and through the jungle.
“[We were] 11 people in the back of a Land Cruiser on a road that was the worst pothole you can think of.”
They gave approximately 500 physicals. Graybeal doesn’t have any formal medical education as an accounting major, but helped out with eye tests and measuring height and weight.
“We hiked out to the villages and did some medical tests there,” she said. “And we went to church in a village one Sunday, which was awesome.”
The school year was just winding down at the time of Graybeal’s visit. So she had a chance to attend the graduation ceremony.
“I’ll never complain about another American graduation again – it was seven hours long,” she said, laughing. “It was a festival. Every single person got a diploma, everyone got to make a speech, every class did a skit. It was awesome.”
In addition to the outreach efforts, there was another magnetic force of sorts that pulled Graybeal to Sierra Leone.
His name is Munuru, an 11-year-old boy whom she sponsors through Children of the Nations and through her church.
“I’m not a crybaby, but this was like instant tears,” Graybeal said, pausing for a moment as she said it. “He was an absolute angel. I brought him a Manchester City jersey because that’s my favorite team. Even though he lives in a village outside the grounds, he came back to see me, and we got to hang out. It was fun to interact with him.”
Graybeal brought more than just herself to Sierra Leone. Making the trip with her were dozens of uniforms donated by the Seattle Pacific soccer teams, balls, ball pumps, cones, and 47 pairs of cleats.
It was a treasure trove unlike anything the kids had ever seen.
“We set out the uniforms on the porch of the guest house,” Graybeal said. “The looks on their faces … it was like handing out a $100 bill when I handed them cleats.”
Now properly outfitted, a three-day soccer camp ensued – and Graybeal was totally in her element.
During a three-day soccer camp, the skills of the Sierra Leone players were very evident.
“We would warm up like SPU, have a practice like SPU, then stop and have a devotional message of some sort,” Graybeal said.
“The best part of the whole thing, which I didn’t realize until after the first day, kind of broke my heart. We had raised enough money to provide dinner at the end of every day of the camp. These kids came because they knew they would eat. It might be the only meal they would eat the whole day.”
On the final day, the teams – one of which decided to name itself after Graybeal donned their Falcons uniforms, Graybeal set up a tournament bracket, and they played all day. Her team made it to the championship, ultimately losing in penalty kicks.
“The kids are so skilled,” she said. “There was one guy there who, I kid you not, could start for the SPU men. He’s one of the best players I’ve seen in my life.”
Eventually, Graybeal’s schedule said it was time to come back home. Her heart and emotions weren’t ready to leave.
“I was very torn. While I was there, I missed by team so much. I just wanted to come home and play soccer,” she said. “Now that I’m back, I miss the kids so much.”
“There were maybe 100 orphans, and I heard just six or seven of their stories,” Graybeal said. “The suffering they have experienced is unimaginable. But they are the happiest, most smiling, beautiful children I’ve ever seen.”
By her own acknowledgment, that happiness and those smiles have altered her in some ways that very possibly will last forever.
“You have to wean your way back into America – it’s so different,” she said. ““There are things here that I’ll never whine about again. I’ll sit on I-5 for 10 hours and not complain, because I’m on a paved road, and eventually, some government-funded person will come to relieve the issue.
“It makes you appreciate things so much more.”