This past season, Northern Illinois sprinter Kaylee Walters got to enjoy a brand new track at NIU made of state-of-the-art materials, with the angles perfectly measured and the lines neatly painted.
For a two-month period this summer, Walters has left that track behind in DeKalb for a much different track to help train and teach underprivileged children in Saint Louis, Senegal.
The junior-to-be helps train the children at a soccer/track stadium about 20 minutes from her host family's home. The track, used by children from age 10 to 18, is simply sand with no lines, no marking and no equipment.
Yet the attitude of the children Walters helps train is an inspiration, summed up to Walters by a man named Cheikh Camara, whom she teaches with. Although Walters said the translation of his message is rough, he told her that if the kids don't play soccer, they don't have anything and "'this track program helps those kids find something fun, interesting and rewarding to do to keep them preoccupied and off of the streets.'"
"The kids don't have shoes, yet there are rocks in the sand," Walters said, communicating via e-mail. "At the same time, the kids are young, and more than anything this program is about what Cheikh Camara said, so as long as it happens and the kids are happy and improving, it works more than well."
Walters, who is a dual major in biology and French, said she always has wanted to go to Africa and live in a francophone country for some period of time. Senegal, a country she learned a lot about in her classes this past year, offered both and she continues to be thrilled with her decision since arriving this month.
She said her host family has been "amazing," and one of the interesting aspects of it is that there is no traditional man of the house and people come and go so often it's hard to tell what the relation is and how many people are actually in the family.
"They always are encouraging us to learn Wolof (Senegal's official language), and they are constantly telling us we aren't eating enough, so they push more and more food from the bowl in front of us," Walters said. "They've been so welcoming and a great help in getting to know the culture."
Walters went through all of the normal preparation for a trip to Senegal, including multiple immunizations. But when it came time for packing, her suitcase was surprisingly light.
"If I'm going to go to Africa, I wanted to be realistic about it and try to leave behind more than just the physical luxuries, I wanted to leave behind the materialistic lives we live in the U.S.," Walters said.
NIU women's track and field coach Connie Teaberry was hardly surprised that Walters decided to go on the trip.
"She has such a big heart and this is going to be a great experience for her," Teaberry said. "It's almost like an internship with what she'll experience."
When she arrived, what she had been told about music in Africa turned out to be true. The man who took her from the airport in Saint Louis had Senegal-native and popular U.S. rapper Akon on the newest version of the iPod.
"Everyone seems to have the latest iPods and technology, so it's an extremely interesting contrast to the rest of the way the Senegalese live, especially when you still see so many people living in huts along the sides of the roads in their small villages and wearing traditional African clothing," Walters said.
She said she was told to be prepared to be unprepared before she arrived, something she said has been true so far. After studying francophone culture for years, Walters gets to immerse herself in it every day for two months, making this voyage a trip she won't ever forget.
"I kind of believed it, but honestly, just being here and knowing what they mean by that advice and being able to live and see and smell everything is the best part about being here," she said. "It's absolutely impossible to describe this place in enough detail so that someone else could understand."