As she has done many times over the course of the last few years, Kelsey Owens '09 headed out to the track at the Nike World Campus in Beaverton towards the end of May for another session on the footwear giant's track.
Thanks in part to her friendship with her former Northern Arizona University teammate, Olympian Lopez Lomong, Owens, a 2007 cross country All-American for Pacific, planned to get in some speed work to keep in shape. What she didn't expect with a chance meeting with another Olympian whose story would affect her life forever.
Julius Achon is a two-time Olympian for war-torn Uganda, a rare hero from a country where success is measured in finding fresh water or basic medical care. Honored by Runner's World Magazine as one of its 2012 “Heroes of Running,” Achon has parlayed his dream into a chance to help people in his home village of Awake (pronounced Uh-Wah-Kee) know their dreams of water, lights and a doctor through his Achon Uganda Children's Fund.
Since that meeting, Owens has put her energy into helping put together a fundraiser to a complete a medical center named in memory of Achon's mother. The concert and auction, featuring Tom Grant, takes place Fri., Aug. 10, at the Arista Ballroom in Portland.
Once she saw the cause through the eyes of Achon, Owens was committed to making his dream a reality. Over the last two months, she has succeeded in rallying of members of the Forest Grove community around Achon's cause, securing silent auction donations from The Friendly Vine, Montinore and Patton Valley vineyards, Marcie Brown of Posh Premium Handmade Soaps, Frye's Action Athletics and Pacific University athletics. Other individuals have provided financial donations, including Pacific University President Lesley Hallick.
While that initial meeting between Owens and Achon appeared to be chance, both are convinced that they were meant to be working together.
“When God has favor in you to connect you with other people, it becomes a miracle,” Achon said. “Meeting Kelsey in this short time and introducing her to our team has been great. When we met and I told her about this project, she did not hesitate.”
Likewise, Owens believes that the struggles she has experienced in her college career and running career have led her to her work with the Achon Fund. “There are times in your life when you look back and you realize that all of those struggles, those bumps in the road, were all part of a larger plan,” Owens said. “This connection was meant to be. If I had followed a different path, what are the chances we would have met?”
A Career of Struggle
When Owens transferred to Pacific in 2006, she was an athlete looking for answers to a promising career that has mysteriously headed south. A good enough high school athlete to land a partial scholarship at Division I Northern Arizona, Owens came to Forest Grove full of potential.
But despite a high school best of 19:31 in the 5,000-meter distance during her prep days in Tacoma, Wash., the best Owens could manage was 20:59 for the same distance on a Willamette Invitational course in Salem known for producing fast times. She made it through the first two weeks of the 2007 track season before her junior campaign was completely shut down by injuries.
Not knowing what ailed her sent Owens into a tailspin. She not only considered leaving running behind, but also Pacific. “As a college athlete, you think that your training is so hard or you think that the schedule is so hard too. Yet you have a sense of entitlement, that everything should fall into place. When it doesn't, it's frustrating,” Owens said.
Offseason medical tests recommended by former Pacific coach Grier Gatlin and Head Athletic Trainer Linda McIntosh provided a life-changing discovery. Owens suffered from anemia, a disorder that reduces the amount of iron in one's blood stream. She was slow because her body lacked a key nutrient an athlete needs.
With treatment for her anemia, Owens flourished on the track. The 2007 cross country season proved to be her finest hour. She finished eighth at the Northwest Conference Championships and seventh at the NCAA West Regional Championships. That November, Owens became Pacific's first cross country All-American when she finished 34th at the Division III National Championships in Northfield, Minn. She cut her time on the Willamette Invitational course by nearly two minutes, finishing in the top-20 of a race laden with Division I runners.
Before her career was over, Owens would own school records in the 800 meters, 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters as well as Pacific's second fastest times in cross country at 5,000 meters and 6,000 meters.
Physical change and confidence came on the track, but it was on one of Pacific's well-known study abroad trips that Owens said her life was truly transformed. On a Summer 2008 trip to Ghana sponsored by Pacific's Humanitarian Center, Owens experienced first hand the plight of people in the third world. She witnessed first hand the effects of malnutrition, a lack of water and a lack of medical care. It was a baptism by fire.
“It absolutely wracked my sense of who I am in the world and what I am doing with my life,” Owens said. “When you learn how other people live, how other people get through their day and how they feed, or can't feed, their families, your whole compass changes. It reorients you.”
Since that time, Owens continued her work at Pacific as an administrative assistant in Pacific's School of Professional Psychology. She continued to run competitively and continued to take part in international humanitarian trips, including one in 2010 to Haiti. It was both passions that provided a meeting with Achon and a chance to learn a story that wracked her sense of being once again.
Running for His Life
Julius Achon's story is one of survival and subsequent success that wracks the imagination. A survivor of the continual civil war in Uganda, Achon was abducted at age 12 by the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group known for kidnapping children and forcing them to fight. He managed to escape three months later, but watched nine of his friends lose their lives after they were mistaken for rebels themselves.
Achon made his way back to Awake, sneaking into the local elementary school because his family could not afford the $15 of yearly tuition. He kept the ritual up for a year until he entered a track meet at school, easily winning three events. Achon qualified for the district meet in Lira, covering the 42 miles on foot in eight hours because he had no transportation.
The next day Achon won all three of his events: the 800 meters, 1,500 meters and finally the 3,000 meters fueled by a lunch of sugar cane. From there it was on to the Ugandan national meet, and a victory in the 1,500 meters brought with it a scholarship to high school in the capital city of Kampala and a running career that made him a hero.
Achon represented Uganda in the 1994 World Junior Championships in Libson, Portugal, winning a gold medal in the 1,500 meters. Over 20 scholarship offers rolled in from U.S. colleges, with Achon choosing George Mason University in Virginia. He went on to set the NCAA Divison I record at 800 meters (which still stands) and represented Uganda in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney. He was the Ugandan flag bearer both times.
“Coming to the United States was like heaven,” said Achon, who will earn his U.S. citizenship later this month. “Anybody who goes to my village won't see buildings. They see grass huts.”
While completing a run on a visit to Lira in 2003, Achon came across 11 children lying underneath a bus near the city's central bus station. He thought the children were dead until one suddenly moved and looked at him, begging for money. Not wanting to leave the orphans behind, Achon brought them to his father's home, a straw-roofed hut on the edge of town. His father and brother agreed to continue to care for the children as long as Achon sent money from his $1,600 per month salary working as a pacer for Nike's Oregon Project.
“That's when I knew that God was watching over me, that's why I needed to survive,” Achon said. “That is why I need to take care of other people.”
With the help of his newfound friends in the Portland area, that proved to be the start of the Achon Uganda Children's Fund. Initially established to provide for the needs of those 11 children, the foundation's scope has expanded to make the lives in Awake better. In 2009, the fund provided for the construction of a church/community center and pit toilets and arranged for CARE International to dig the first permanent well. In July, the fund paid for the installation of solar panels in Awake in preparation for the clinic, providing the village with its first ever electricity.
While Achon appreciates the opportunities the U.S. has provided, he still lives on the shoestring that many current and former Olympians do in this country. With his job with the Oregon Project eliminated two years ago, Achon currently works part-time in the Nike Employees Store where he makes $8,000 per year. He and his wife, Grace, live in an apartment furnished with second-hand merchandise. Julius struggles to make ends meet, not only for he and Grace but for those at home he is trying to support.
There are no complaints, only gratitude. “I am so blessed to be in this country. I grew up without a bed. We slept on cow skins. I grew up without bed sheets, but now I can afford them. I don't have quality stuff, but I don't worry about it.
“God has favored me. I could have died so many times. I have been through so many difficulties. But to lift me to be a two-time Olympian, to be here now, that was a favor from God.”
What matters most to Achon is when the lives of those in Awake are enriched. A status update on his Facebook page from July 22, with a picture of a singular light bulb, says it all.
This is a photo of a light bulb. Kind of boring, right? Except this light bulb is the first interior lighting, utilizing the first electricity, that the village of Awake in northern Uganda has ever seen. And that's a big deal for us. Because this light bulb is inside the Kristina Health Clinic, illuminating a room where sick people will be treated and healed, powered by our newly installed solar panels. So it might just be the most beautiful photo of a light bulb we've ever seen...
The Kristina Health Clinic is named in memory of Achon's mother, who was shot by LRA soldiers and slowly bled to death because his father did not have the money to take her to the hospital in Lira. Julius and his friends are so close to assuring that not another person suffers that fate again.
After Achon's story was told in Runner's World, 450 of the magazine's readers donated more than $75,000, providing enough to complete the two cinder block structures that will comprise the clinic. Achon and volunteers from the foundation will travel to Uganda to dedicate the clinic on Aug. 25. With Saturday's concert, Achon hopes to raise enough money to purchase equipment and medicine and hire staff to bring Awake its first medical care.
For Owens, the chance to play a major part in Achon's fundraising concert is bringing her full circle. This fall, she will enroll at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She chose Fuller specifically because of the work of one professor whose emphasis is working with Ugandan children. She made her choice just weeks before meeting Achon and learning his story.
Now Owens' future career plans have a face, they are personal. “I want to specifically work with those refugees, displaced people and orphans that have been affected by the LRA,” she said. “I want to be part of the rehabilitation centers in that part of the continent so that those children can get healthy, find their families and be part of the community. I want to stay connected with Julius so that in the future, when I finish my education, I can look at how to help more.”
As Owens reflects on her path, she sees that her journey and her struggles are not coincidence, but part of a finely engineered plan. Without Pacific, without persevering through her anemia and continuing her running career, her meeting with Julius Achon would never have happened. Her world would have been different, and perhaps the lives of many others she has yet to meet.
“If it were not for my struggles with anemia, it would not have made my experience at Pacific what it meant,” Owens said. “If my struggles had not had such meaning, I don't think I would have continued running. If I hadn't continued running, I would never have met Julius.
“Running gave me character and Pacific gave me the education to be able to make a connection like this, work on this project and see it to fruition. In a very short time this concert is coming together and I hope it will be really blessed.”