CFLers say off-season humanitarian missions were ‘life-changing’

By Salim Valji

Several Canadian Football League players say they gained life-changing perspective during overseas humanitarian missions to impoverished communities in the off-season.

Nine CFLers, including Edmonton Elks receiver Eugene Lewis, Calgary Stampeders receiver Reggie Begelton, and BC Lions linebacker Bo Lokombo, served as World Vision Canada ambassadors in March.

World Vision is a global relief, development and advocacy organization that focuses on helping vulnerable children overcome poverty. The CFL and World Vision Canada announced an official partnership in 2023.

Lokombo and Lewis went to Kenya, while Begelton was in the Philippines for a week.

Henoc Muamba (retired), receiver Dominique Rhymes and linebacker Tyron Vrede (both Ottawa Redblacks) and defensive lineman Miles Brown (Saskatchewan Roughriders) also participated in the mission to Africa. Montreal Alouettes safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, and receivers Tim White (Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Nic Demski (Winnipeg Blue Bombers) were on the mission to the Philippines.

The players spent time at the refugee camps, volunteered with locals, and taught sports to kids at schools. It’s been months since they returned, but all three still get emotional when talking about their experiences.

“It was life-changing because you got to see some people who are going through a lot of things that we take for granted,” Lokombo said. “[In North America] we have an almost unlimited amount of water. People in Kenya have to run and hustle just to be able to have clean water, just to be able to have some money to feed their family.”

Lokombo, who was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo and hadn’t returned to the continent since his family left when he was a child, said his roots made the trip that much more meaningful.

“It gave me an opportunity to go back to Africa,” he said. “Go back to the motherland and see it with my own eyes now that I’m an adult.”

Lokombo and Lewis flew into Nairobi, Kenya, and then visited Mathare, a collection of settlements in the city that is home to 500,000 people. They also went to Kakuma, in the north part of the country, which is home to a United Nations refugee camp.

What was the first thing that went through Lokombo’s head as he stepped out of the plane in the continent he was born on?

“My first thought was, ‘Man, it’s hot here,’” he said with a chuckle, adding that he came with no expectations and a “blank canvas.”

“I went in to this trip with an open mind and open heart.”

Lewis witnessed poverty where he grew up in Philadelphia and said the trip “filled a void.”

He remembers how people in Kenya struggled every day for life’s basic needs.

“Somebody has to go get water,” Lewis said. “Somebody has to go try to find food. Somebody has to find a way to grow some type of crops. Every day, there’s something that they have to do.”

Begelton, who visited rural parts of the Philippines, said the trip is something he’s “always going to appreciate.”

“They can be happy with a lot less than what you have,” Begelton said. “A home was literally a hut with no floor and trees on the roof…just a pallet and kitchen area and mud floor…they’ve been living in that same, exact house for 36 years as a family.”

The players also noticed the strong sense of community in the places they visited. That different perspective of teamwork, togetherness, and individual sacrifice for the greater good is an element they want to bring back to their CFL locker rooms.

“Everybody in those communities, they help each other,” Begelton said. “It’s a team effort…those communities are so tight-knit. Everybody wants to see everybody succeed.”

Lewis noted how different the mentality of individuals chasing success in North America is. In Kenya, he observed, the success of the collective is far more important.

“When there’s somebody that finally gets to a place where they’re in a good situation, their next objective is that to help everybody that’s next to them reach the same level,” Lewis said. “In North America, it’s more, ‘If I get to the top, I’ve got to stay at the top and don’t want anybody to be up here with me. I’ll help people get up higher, but I’ll never help them get to where I am.’

“It should always be about bringing the next people up and helping them get to the point that you’re at, because you’re better when everybody’s at the same place.”

All three raved about how the experience changed them.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and I’m super grateful to be a part of it,” Lokombo said.

They live their lives with far more gratitude now than before. A dropped pass or missed block doesn’t matter as much, given that they’ve seen how fortunate they are to be in this position to begin with.

“When I came back home, I just appreciated things a lot more,” Lewis said. “God just wanted me to understand, ‘This is really where you come from…you could have born in this. You could have woken up one day and you could have been in Kenya and lived this type of life.’…it just makes me want to go back to Kenya and help so much more.”

All three said they’d like to take part in more missions and hope that other CFL players follow suit.

“If you can go abroad, take the opportunity,” Begelton said. “It will change your life.”

Read the original TSN article.