When John was 9, he started as a ball boy at Lugogo Tennis Club in Kampala. It was a chance to earn some money and to be around what he loved… sport. The ITF Development Program that aims to ensure tennis at the highest level involves many nations. In 2009, an initiative focused on offering young people living amongst the ghettos in Kampala, Uganda, offered an unsuspecting young man the chance of a lifetime.
After a year of hard work and dedication to both sport and education, John was awarded a scholarship to the Sadili Tennis Academy, part of the Malezi School located in Kitui Ndogo Slum, Nairobi County.
Eventually, his hard work paid off and the East Africa ITF called on him to play tennis on behalf of Uganda in East Africa U12. “My first year I played nationals… I was ranked #3 in singles and #1 in doubles over the next three consecutive years!” John proudly recalls. He shone as a star in that tournament.
Unfortunately, Uganda was dropped from the ITF Development Program due to membership debts, leaving young aspiring players with a feeling of uncertainty and fear as they desperately attempted to cling to the fleeting opportunities available for a chance at a better life.
Despite such a predicament, John remained at Sadili Tennis Academy, and started looking for other sources of funding in Nairobi. His days there were very hard; his daily reality included a struggle to purchase food. He faced so much uncertainty for his future, and was only able to return home to visit with his family once each year due to the expenses. John needed ongoing support and reached out to John Nagenda, one of the advisors to the President of Uganda, and somehow convinced him to provide resources for his day-to-day needs. Mr. Nagenda became John’s savior during those times.
Although John now had his basic day-to-day subsistence needs met, he lacked assistance to continue his education. The average school fee for non-government secondary schools in Uganda is 300000UGX ($88USD) per term, a number unattainable by most of the poverty stricken families. However, in 2007, the Government of Uganda introduced free Secondary Education but the students would have to pay 100000UGX ($29USD) per term for basic amenities like uniforms, meals and stationery supplies. The unfortunate reality remains that the standard of education in government schools versus non-government schools differs vastly, and the majority of young people yearn to study in non- government programs.
Devastated by his circumstances, John was not able to find funds for school. He went to home schooling for 4 years after primary school because it was cheap and offered more time for tennis training. Teachers from Malezi School would come and teach students for 5 hours a day. Dr. Odera kindly sponsored John and several other students allowing them to share books. The long-term effects of this reality seemed insurmountable…
John was never able to take the exams required to continue his education at the university level in Uganda. Even if he had been able to take the exams, John knew the University fees were far too high for him to afford. On average, a student has to pay 4500000UGX ($1,315USD) per semester to enroll in University. John struggled for the 15000UGX ($4.5USD) needed everyday for his 3 meager meals and to pay for his transport to play tennis.
John’s mother always encouraged him to go to school and she urged him to create opportunities for his future because she was not able to provide for him, as she had wanted. She was not able to complete her secondary education. John’s father did indeed go to University but lived as a polygamist leaving his mother to raise John and his sister. While growing up, the family struggled day to day. John remembers Christmas day to be very special because his mom would save all year to provide John and his siblings with some new clothes.
He was given the opportunity to work part-time at Sadili Tennis Academy as a tennis coach, lifeguard, and on the maintenance staff in order to support himself and help to support his family. He would send close to half of his earnings, 100000UGX ($29USD) to his mother in Uganda. After taking care of his modest needs, he would save close to 50000UGX ($15USD) for his future.
John soon realized that one of the best things about Sadili Tennis Academy is that they have built relationships with coaches all over the world. With continued encouragement from his family, John pleaded with officials at Sadili Tennis Academy to help with any further opportunities for him, so that eventually he might travel to the United States and make a better future for himself and his community in Uganda. Sadili recommended him to a program in South Carolina.
William Blick, President of the Uganda Olympic Committee had taken notice of John and his talent. Mr. Blick set to work raising $1,000 for the travel expenses that would allow John to go to the United States to train. This experience would allow him to continue growing as a tennis player and pursue his academic goals. John eventually settled in South Carolina where Coach Jon Prenelle encouraged John to work hard and pursue his dream of going to college.
John indeed worked very hard to learn, improve and create new opportunities for himself. He trained day and night but unfortunately, not a single opportunity came to him in those three months in South Carolina. His training ended and he was to go back home to Uganda. In desperation he asked Coach Prenelle if it would be possible to extend his stay. Coach Prenelle called Ryan Segelke, his friend and CEO/Co-Founder of High Altitude Tennis, LLC in Colorado, and asked if he could help in any way. Later that evening, Ryan spoke to his wife, Leslie Segelke, Founder and Executive Director of The HAT FUND and just like that, John found himself on a plane to Colorado.
Training at High Altitude Tennis Academy provided another level of tennis training and experience for John. “This is the place where I have heard information that is not common to the many places I have been to. It is always more than tennis at HAT because I even learn stuff outside tennis and this creates success both off and on the court,” explains John.
Mr. and Mrs. Segelke worked with John to create an action plan that would lead to fulfillment of his dream. First of all, John needed to take the SAT exam, an essential step on his road to a college scholarship in the U.S. HAT arranged for John to work with a tutor and Susie Watts of College Connection donated her time end expertise to work with John.
John felt he was back in school again, as his tutors would direct him and lead him through his studies. Preparing for the SAT was not easy as the grammar taught in the United States was very different from that taught in Uganda. He indeed struggled with the studies but his tutors never gave up on him.
HAT arranged for John to visit several Colorado Universities. Upon his visit to Colorado Christian University, John felt an immediate connection. He felt like the environment at CCU was calling out to him and this was a huge motivation. With true enthusiasm he devoted more time and more focus toward his goals.
John was extremely excited to meet John Goodrich, the Head Tennis Coach at CCU. Coach Goodrich was the first college coach he had ever met and actually spoken to in person about the possibility of playing tennis on their team. He was glad that John found him. John regularly updated Coach Goodrich about his progress, as he was afraid he would change his mind about having him on the team. John had experienced many disappointments in his life but he was overjoyed by the coach’s reassurance.
HAT created a second family for John. His new teammates and their families in Colorado spent time with him on and off the court. He started to make friends in order to feel at home. He began opening up with them more and more, so that they could know him and he could know them. Being there never felt foreign to him, as he had the place to share his stories, and traditions from back home.
John’s dream became a great inspiration for the entire HAT family. They rallied around him offering support however and whenever they could. The HAT Staff made sure John had everything he needed to feel secure and be able to focus on his training and studies. Mr. Segelke worked closely with CCU to complete the requirements for admission. The HAT FUND provided John with the funds to travel back and forth to Uganda in order to satisfy all of the immigration requirements. Even Mr. Sadu, father of one of his teammates, after seeing him struggling with his preparation for the SAT offered to spend extra time working with John in his studies. A true team effort!
The road to his dream of a college education will continue to be difficult. However, John will not face these difficulties alone. The HAT FUND and its partners will continue to support John and the many other deserving young people struggling to change the course of their lives.
“The HAT Fund has changed my life, I will be forever grateful,” says John. In the fall of 2016, John will hopefully be starting college. For his goal to be accomplished, he needs your support.
Join us in offering children the power to transform their lives through sport and education.
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Be a support to John by becoming a part of John Lutaaya’s #GivingTuesday Campaign. Here’s the link, https://www.razoo.com/us/story/Hat-Fund