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Coach Cal makes emotional journey to Haitian orphanage

By: Sam Dick - Email
By: Sam Dick - Email

When an earthquake ravaged an already poverty-stricken Haiti last January, University of Kentucky Coach John Calipari quickly organized "Hoops for Haiti" which raised more than a million dollars. Last week, he invited WKYT along as he visited Haiti to see firsthand how the money is being used.

"I'm anxious because I've never been to the country," Coach Calipari told WKYT’s Sam Dick as they traveled by plane to Haiti.

The coach’s first views of Haiti in the West Indies were beautiful as mountains cover two-thirds of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As the capital city of Port-au-Prince appeared, the coach noticed splotches of blue everywhere. Months after the massive earthquake hit blue tarps still cover the tops of homes or serve as tents to more than a million homeless people.

“We make this trip, and we see with our own eyes, and feel with our hands, let it touch us, and then try to bring it back to the people of Kentucky, and say, you done good," said Coach Cal as he arrived in Haiti. Joining the coach for the trip were friend Royce Pulliam -- who first suggested to the coach they do something to help the Haitian people -- and Martin Newton, the director of basketball operations at U.K.

On the short ride over to an orphanage, it's quickly clear the Haitian people are just hanging on. The Red Cross tells us when the sun goes down, it's not safe on the streets where gangs roam. The New Life Orphanage is behind high, concrete walls. A guard with a shotgun opens the steel gate.

Coach Cal helped deliver a new pair of athletic shoes for each of the children. A non-profit called Samaritan's Feet helps give out shoes to thousands of impoverished children. What Coach Cal didn't know until his arrival at the orphanage was that each volunteer would be asked to wash the child's feet first. It’s a sign of respect and service.

"To be able to do it is a privilege and an honor,” said Coach Cal about the Haitian tradition. “When they told me they were going to do it, I said, I'd like to do it, bonjour! That was probably the biggest thrill for me, that will stay with me."”

“I talk to my team all the time about service leadership. You serve others, if you want to lead, you serve," Coach Cal told WKYT’s crew during his brief but moving journey to Haiti.

With the help of WKYT and less than 48 hours to plan and execute it, Coach Calipari and the U..K. basketball team raised more than a million dollars during the “Hoops for Haiti” fundraising telethon on January 17.

During the four-and-a-half hour telethon, Coach Calipari and WKYT’s on-air staff talked with other University of Kentucky coaches, current and former players, local and national celebrities, the collegiate coaching community, and local and national business leaders. With current Kentucky basketball players answering phones, callers donated more than $501,000. With matching funds and auctions, the “Hoops for Haiti” effort raised more than $1,300,000.

To express his admiration and thanks for the “Hoops for Haiti” telethon, President Obama personally called Coach Calipari and the Kentucky basketball team on January 26. "I just want to let you guys know that I am very, very proud of what you guys did," the President told the team. "It shows a lot of character, and I hope that carries over."

After Coach Calipari finished at the orphanage during his journey to Haiti, he and his entourage drove to a camp and see the conditions there. Tonight on 27 Newsfirst at 11, we'll show you what happened on the rest of his tour of Port-au-Prince and hear from Red Cross workers about the generosity of Kentuckians.


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