HEBRON — Oxford Hills Middle School soccer coach Josh Kennison and Tre Kayumba, a former exploited South African orphan with ties to Hebron Academy, recently spoke to Hebron Academy students about challenges they have faced in their lives.
Kennison, who grew up in the Oxford Hills region and coaches girls soccer at the middle school, is an accomplished athlete. Born with no forearms, lower legs, jaw or tongue, he broke the world record in long jump at the Paralympics Trials in London this past summer.
Kayumba, a college senior studying history at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in what he called “a seemingly God forsaken country” fraught with instability, violence and corruption. He was orphaned at age 6, spent much of his childhood in and out of orphanages in South Africa and was subject to abuse, neglect and extortion before fleeing to the United States.
Kennison and Kayumba say they faced their challenges with an attitude centered on survival and a refusal to accept the status quo, which they attribute to their mothers.
Kennison said that from an early age his truncated limbs were rarely viewed as a means for coddling. His mother told him, “'When you were born, I promised myself I would treat you like any other child.'”
Kayumba, who was charged with the role of patriarch at 6 years of age, echoed his mother’s words, citing a “devotion to and willingness to live” that fueled his flight from the Congo and later from South Africa to the United States.
“The chance for our students to hear first-hand, in-person stories of heroic lives and accomplishments like Josh Kennison and Tre Kayumba gives us all the greatest education in humanity and the power of human will,” said Hebron Academy Head of School John King. “Those conversations enrich our entire community experience and reinforce the values and spirit that form the core of Hebron Academy; they are especially pertinent to this year’s focus on personal expeditions.”
Academy officials said the school is exploring the academic and personal theme of journeys, culminating in Integrated Curriculum Day on Nov. 7, which will celebrate learning across disciplines through seminars and activities.
Kennison, who holds the world record for a disabled athlete at just 23 years old, will enroll at Penn State in January 2013 with a track scholarship. He said he never received additional or supplementary academic support while a student, but devised a way to write perfectly using both his partially developed arms and walks seamlessly on prosthetic legs.
He flourished in athletics, namely soccer, track and even football as a kicker. He ran for four years in high school, competing in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter events, but excelled at the high jump and the long jump. His mantra is, “You can do anything you set your mind to as long as you have the right mindset.”
Kayumba's childhood was characterized by rebel ambushes on his village and family, and witnessing and falling victim to abuse and abandonment by loved ones. His mother fled to the United States when he was 6, forcing Kayumba and his sister to stay with an abusive uncle until they escaped to an orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa. They survived their journey by subsisting on candy purchased by redeeming recyclable cans and bottles they scavenged.
After enduring years of abuse and exploitation at South African orphanages, Kayumba made his way to an independent school in southern New England.
Hebron Academy teachers Tim and Emily Bonis, who there at the time, took legal guardianship of Kayumba to ensure he graduated and went on to college. He has established a nonprofit dedicated to the welfare of orphans called the South Africa Youth Health Initiative. It offers representation and services to those at risk of abuse. He said he hopes the organization will “combat the notion that orphans are nothing more than a menace to society.”
Kayumba’s parting thought crystallized themes of loss, hope and personal journeys: “If we care to take a sincere look at each other, we will realize that we are all interconnected.”