For adoptee Thuy Williams, playing, coaching and being involved in sports has been a lifesaver. In the past year, Thuy has brought her talents to the Uganda Women’s National Lacrosse Team — with great success.
When Thuy Williams was 5, she was evacuated from Vietnam on an Operation Babylift flight and adopted by a family in Portland, Oregon. Even though she initially spoke no English and would eat only rice, Thuy adapted quickly to her new life in the U.S. Before long, she began eating foods like pizza, making friends at school and learning English.
The one thing Thuy continued to struggle with, however, was the trauma she experienced while living through the war in Vietnam. Before Thuy came to the U.S. in 1975, she lived in Saigon with her single mother and her grandparents. As a small child, Thuy heard bombs and gunfire around her, and saw people being shot to death. She was often hungry and scared.
In the U.S., Thuy often felt angry as a child and frequently withdrew from her family. “I didn’t want to join in activities and would rather be in my room reading,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to smile. My parents tried to talk to me and counsel me, but I wouldn’t listen.”
Trauma-informed adoption therapy did not exist at the time, so Thuy’s parents looked for physical activities to help her find an outlet for her emotions. They enrolled her in tap dance, ballet and gymnastics classes, “but it turns out I was pretty uncoordinated,” she says. Then one day when Thuy was 8, she joined a children’s soccer team. “I scored in the first game I played in — and that was it! I loved soccer. It gave me something to do and took my mind off things as I could totally focus on the game. It was [also] something I was really good at and enjoyed.”
From that point on, soccer — and sports in general — became an integral part of Thuy’s life, teaching her the values of teamwork, sportsmanship, camaraderie and setting goals. In high school, Thuy landed a spot on a Junior World Cup women’s soccer team. When she enlisted in the Army at age 20, and served for eight years, she played soccer on a men’s team, competing against other units around Germany, where she was stationed. “Whenever things were tough for me in the military, I always had soccer to look forward to,” she says.
When Thuy left the Army at age 28, she faced her next set of challenges: What direction would her life take? What would be her calling? One day, the answer came when she met a man named Don Brenneman who was involved with Sports Outreach, a Christian organization that does sports ministry around the world. In 1998, Don invited Thuy to join him on a trip to Kenya to conduct soccer clinics with children living in refugee camps and slums. Not only did Thuy love Kenya, but “it was like a light went off,” she says. “I realized that mentoring kids through sports — and helping them work through their trauma — was my passion. It would be my life’s work.”
Since then, Thuy has lived in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa, and traveled to 23 countries as a sports missionary, soccer coach, motivational speaker and mentor. Professionally, she has coached high school track and soccer as well as college lacrosse. She also started Breaking Boundaries, a nonprofit organization that brings kids from rural parts of the U.S. to Africa to do community service. And in late 2021, Thuy became the general manager of the Uganda Women’s National Lacrosse Team (UWNT).
How did this happen? In what seemed like a stroke of fate, Thuy was speaking at the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association convention in Dallas, in November 2021, when she met the head coach of the budding UWNT. The team was hoping to compete at the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship, to be held in the U.S. in June 2022, and it would be the first nation to represent Africa at this event. The coach wondered whether Thuy might be interested in helping out.
Thuy agreed, and before long, she was named general manager of the team. In the next seven months, Thuy would travel from her home near Portland, Oregon to Kampala, Uganda on several occasions to help make the UWNT’s dream a reality. The journey would take about 35 hours each way. Along with the coaches, Thuy amassed a team of 19 women, ranging in age from 16 to 31, and including three single mothers. Through a collaborative effort, about $80,000 in donations was raised through her nonprofit Breaking Boundaries for travel costs and other team necessities. U.S. companies and families also donated lacrosse equipment.
On top of that, Thuy and the coaches located practice fields for the women at schools around Kampala — a task that was not always easy. In Uganda, men’s sports are prioritized over women’s, so the UWNT had to practice on whatever fields they could find. “We moved around a lot, practicing wherever we could,” Thuy says. Those practices took place over three weekends a month, from Friday to Sunday. Some of the women lived in Kampala, but others needed to travel, taking time off from work or school. “The women made a huge sacrifice to be on the team,” says Thuy, but it was a sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of their future.
In Uganda today, nearly 20% of the population lives in chronic poverty, meaning they experience deprivation over many years and often over their entire lives. In many cases, children often struggle to escape the cycle of poverty in their families. Beyond that, women are more vulnerable to poverty then men, a situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic:
• According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 650,000 teen pregnancies — or 32,000 pregnancies a month — were recorded between early 2020 and September 2021. The uptick in pregnancies was due in part to school closures during Covid-19. When schools are closed, girls are more susceptible to sexual violence and unintended pregnancies.
• Covid-19 also led to a rise in child marriages. As families living in poverty face increased economic pressure and food insecurity, they sometimes marry off their daughters to relieve their financial burdens. Each year, more than 34% of girls in Uganda are married before their 18th birthday, and 1 in 10 is married before turning 15.
In addition, education in Uganda is expensive, and families living in poverty are unable to afford the cost of books, supplies, uniforms and other school fees. Families who have multiple children will often prioritize educating their sons over their daughters if they can afford to send only one child to school. As a result, girls in Uganda have a lower literacy rate — and ultimately fewer economic opportunities — than boys.
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The women who tried out for and were ultimately recruited for the UWNT came from low-income backgrounds, with the majority living in slums. Without an involvement in sports, their future could certainly be bleak. But inspired by athletes who’d come before them, the women recognized that sports could be something that could lift them out of poverty, Thuy says. In Uganda, top athletes, including those who have won Olympic medals, are treated like legends. They are elevated in society and given more opportunities.
Knowing they had the chance to showcase their talents on a world stage in the U.S. motivated the women of the UWNT to work hard and envision a brighter future. Miriam, 28, is one of seven children raised by a single mother. Being on the UWNT has been a dream come true, she says, as she loves the game of lacrosse and feels “I’ve reached somewhere I’ve always wanted [to be] in my life.” The opportunity to travel and play in a world championship has also given her “big hopes for the future” — and a dream that she might help her family live a better life.
In the spring of 2022, Thuy and the UWNT coaches applied for the team’s U.S. visas, and final practices were held. The team photo was printed in the world championship catalogue and on its website. Anticipation grew as the women were set to make history as the first African team to participate in this event. But just days before the group was set to travel, their visas were denied, due to unforeseen and heartbreaking circumstances. The coaches were already at the world championship site in Maryland, getting ready for the team’s arrival, when they got the devastating news.
After more than a year of hard work, the women’s dreams were crushed, but their spirit and love of the sport were not dampened. On the day the UWNT was supposed to begin their quest for world championship glory, they gathered as a team in Kampala for one final practice. Later, they put on the colorful dresses they intended to wear at the opening ceremony in the U.S. and sang the Uganda national anthem on the practice field. They sang for their hopes, their dreams, their shared purpose and their connection with one another. They also sang for their future.
Though it’s uncertain at the moment where the UWNT might play next or what their immediate future will hold, Thuy recognizes what this experience has meant for the women. “Not only did they have pride in themselves for making the team, but they’re also looking ahead to the future,” she says. “They’re setting goals and thinking, maybe we could play in the Olympics?” (Women’s lacrosse may be added as an Olympic sport in the 2028 games.) “They see themselves as role models for younger girls in Uganda — and they’re looking at ways to get themselves out of poverty.” For many of the women, sports may be the ticket.
As for Thuy, her goal is to keep coaching and mentoring women through sports, whether it’s in Uganda or anywhere else in the world. “For me, coaching sports creates friendships,” she says, “and through friendships, it’s possible to be a mentor and impact lives for the better. That’s my heart’s goal and what I hope is my lasting legacy.”
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