Brems at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish Youth Day Celebration in Kkindu village.

A Student-Athlete's Summer of Service: Lacrosse Junior Jake Brems Volunteers In Uganda

Sept. 30, 2010


Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series about Monogram winners’ humanitarian work in Uganda. To read the first article about Kevin Dugan ’01 (lacrosse) and Oscar McBride ’94 (football) and their work with the “Play Like A Champion Today” athletic ministry, click here.

Jake Brems Uganda Photo Gallery

The typical college student spends summer vacation at home, utilizing free time to lounge by the pool or at the beach, while earning some much-needed cash at an internship or full-time job.

For Notre Dame junior lacrosse defenseman Jake Brems, however, the summer of 2010 proved to be anything but typical – a month of humanitarian work that the student-athlete will not soon forget.

Partnering with Fields of Growth International and the Center of Concern in Washington D.C., Brems dedicated much of his time off this past summer volunteering to help poverty-stricken families in the African country of Uganda, improving agricultural systems and building homes while teaching lacrosse and leadership fundamentals to children in villages around the third-world nation.

Brems learned about the opportunity from Fields of Growth International founder Kevin Dugan ’01, who is also the director of lacrosse operations for the Fighting Irish. Dugan founded the organization to foster friendships and raise awareness about education and healthcare for children living in third-world countries, and decided Brems would be best served working in Uganda, where Fields of Growth is devoting much of its support.

After their meeting in the spring, Dugan contacted the Center of Concern, the Catholic Church’s think tank for economic and social justice, and set up a series of summer meetings for Brems at the organization’s offices while the Kensington, Md., native was home on break. During these meetings, Brems met with Washingtonarea officials who were knowledgeable about cultural issues facing the people of Uganda, including disease, poverty and hunger.

While in Washington, Brems also learned of his primary assignment for his Uganda trip. In addition to the lacrosse teachings and other humanitarian work he would be experiencing, his main task involved helping a widow of an AIDS victim care for her family’s poultry farm and brainstorming solutions to help make the process more efficient for the widow, who has seven children, and is also infected with the disease.

“I researched poultry as much as I could before leaving for Africa,” said Brems, who is a science-business major at Notre Dame. “I went out to a chicken farm on the eastern shore of Maryland during my break to learn about raising chickens and running a successful farm.”

Once Brems arrived in the village of Kkindu on July 14, he discovered a serious issue with the widow’s farming system that he attempted to troubleshoot. In addition to a number of environmental concerns that could disrupt the egg-laying process, Brems realized that there was a major problem with getting proper hydration for the chickens.

“A chicken will drink about a liter of water a day and they have 100 chickens, but don’t have plumbing,” Brems said. “So Mama Fort [the widow] and her children have to walk to the well a half mile away, multiple times a day and carry all the water back everyday. We designed a rainwater collection system that will make it easier for her to run her family business, because she’s HIV positive and doesn’t have very much strength.”

Brems’ assistance in designing the irrigation project meant more to Mama Fort and her family than simply solving the water issue with the chickens. According to Dugan, the process served as a powerful symbol of what a relatively simple task can mean to underrepresented individuals in impoverished nations.

“Women are so devalued in this region of the world and it’s just really special to see a Division I male athlete like Jake serving a marginalized woman in rural Uganda,” Dugan said. “When you think about it, that’s a really, really powerful thing. Jake stepped in as a voice for the voiceless and that’s what it means to be a man of Notre Dame.”

Brems, shown here learning how to hunt with a spear, had a full immersion experience with the Batwa of Southwest Uganda.

In addition to helping develop the irrigation system during his trip, Brems also traveled south to the village of Mukono on the perimeter of the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest where he, along with five other American college students helped mud houses for the Batwa Pygmies, a group of people who have been displaced from the nearby rainforests. The project, which Fields of Growth oversees with the Batwa development program in the Bwindi region, aims to uplift and empower pygmy families in the village.

While in Bwindi, Brems also got an up-close and personal look at some of the incredible wildlife that call Uganda home.

“While we were down there, we had the opportunity to see some mountain gorillas,” Brems said. “We were 10 feet from a family of them walking by, which was a really cool experience.”

As well the service projects Brems undertook while in Uganda, Jake also worked with Fields of Growth to promote the game of lacrosse to children in Kkindu and gave presentations to large groups within the village.

While teaching the sport to the kids was an extremely enjoyable experience, Brems also found the lessons challenging.

“The toughest part was definitely the language barrier,” Brems said. “The teachers acted as the translators, so it was hard to teach the sport to the teacher who then had to teach it again to the kids in Luganda. So we mostly taught them the basics like throwing, catching, how to pick up the ball, how to shoot and how to score goals.”

Now, looking back on his trip, Brems is grateful for the opportunity, which opened his eyes to how faith and a sense of community often inspire the people of third-world countries to make the most of what they have.

“You hear a lot about how there’s so much poverty and disease in Africa, but the people are spiritually richer than those in more developed parts of the world,” Brems said. “It’s amazing how happy everybody is and it’s refreshing to see that kind of happiness you don’t always find here in America where we tend to take things for granted.”

As Brems trains this fall to prepare for the 2011 lacrosse season in which the Irish will look to reach a second-consecutive Final Four, he intends to carve out enough time in his schedule to keep in touch with the friends he made while in Uganda. Jake also hopes to convince some of his teammates to make the trip to Africa next summer.

Dugan will join Brems on the sidelines in training sessions this fall, knowing that the junior defenseman spent his summer personifying exactly what it means to be a Notre Dame student-athlete.

“I think Jake is a perfect example of how student-athletes can use their talents and abilities to serve and uplift people in developing nations,” Dugan said. “Jake used his education as a science-business major to improve the lives of others while sharing his lacrosse skills to enrich their lives as well. I think that is what the spirit of Notre Dame is all about, finding that place where your talents intersect with the world’s need.”

To read Jake Brems journal entries from his trip to Uganda, click here.