Today is Flag Day. Did you know that? There’s an outside chance if your kids are still in school, they may participate in themed units, writing patriotic essays, holding an assembly or even having a school picnic. This makes perfect sense since the fist celebration of the U.S. Flag’s birthday was actually held on June 14, 1877 by a Wisconsin school teacher. A personal movement all his own, he publicly advocated for an official flag day for years, joined by another school teacher in New York who carried the same cause. Eventually state and local governments individually adopted the observance until it received an Act of Congress designation in 1949.
For U.S Olympic athlete Lopez Lomong, Flag Day means so very much more! A lost boy of Kenya who escaped certain death in his war ravaged home country of Sudan, Lopez’s story truly embodies what the American Spirit is all about. Thanks to my work with the Tide Gold Medal Blogger team, I was honored to interview him recently and hope that as you read these words, you’ll be inspired about our American Flag and what it means to you in ways you’d never expect.
Me: You were taken from your birth family at just six years old and lived most of your childhood in a refugee camp. What does family mean to you?
Lopez: To me, family is #1. Its love is meant to be unconditional. After we escaped Sudan and while living in the refugee camp in Kenya, we were all orphans and older children took care of younger ones. As I grew, I became a father to the younger children around me just like the boys who had taken care of me. When I was 16 and came to America, I thought I was coming to work very hard to earn money to support my “family” back in Africa. When I got to Syracuse and was welcomed by my American family, hugging me and taking me into their home right away, giving me everything I could need, it was overwhelming. All I could think was this is my own bed, these are my own clothes, this is my own food. It was incredibly generous and I could not believe it was also meant for me.
Lopez shared that he felt like he had to pinch myself to realize he could live in a house, not a hut, and didn’t have to worry about being moved or having it taken away. That he could eat as much food as he wanted and there would be plenty more always in the refrigerator and cabinets was surreal compared to choosing to run 18 miles every day to keep hunger at bay as they survived on refugee camp rations. To believe that he could have new parents who would share all that they had never having even met him before, that they would always love him, was monumental. It took two weeks to open up and being to speak, to begin to accept that this was where he was going to be.
Me: You seem like you have an unshakeable inner strength and humble yet very positive outlook in all things. Where does that come from?
Lopez: My Catholic faith. I was at church when I was kidnapped but miracles happen at church. While we were in the refugee camp, church became a place for us to communicate with and to the world. It was the only place we could reach out or where organizations who could help us could reach out to us. It became our post office and it was how my American family knew children were there and needing to be adopted. We are all connected in God every way because things happen for a reason.
Me: You spent your childhood acting as a father figure to fellow refugees. How do you keep the your connection to children in Africa and share your story to positively impact children in the United States who don’t even have to wonder about their basic needs?
Lopez: When people done’t see the abundance of their blessings they can’t see those in need. Children overlook the need to be grateful to the have the simple kiss of love from a Mom and Dad, for all the security and comfort that they offer. Children don’t realize how precious this is and how important it is to take advantage of their education. Every day a child goes to school with a teacher waiting to teach them. Waiting to help them learn, explore the world, use their talents, and improve their mind. This simply isn’t the case in so many other countries. So I tell my story to look back. My foundation is centered on helping others in Africa. Simple things like pencils and paper so children don’t have to write their ABC’s in the sand as I did. I give back as much of myself as I can through raising awareness and resources so others have the same basic opportunities to learn. I tour our colleges to speak with students to encourage them to get involved as well.
On His Foundation:
Me: You started a foundation to give back. What is its mission?
Lopez: 4 South Sudan is a partnership with World Vision and our mission is to change the future by providing water, healthcare, education, and nutrition. The daily walk for water is time consuming and hard work. Imagine walking 5-15 miles while carrying that water and for girls and women this is truly life threatening due to violence and rape. It all begins with bringing water to to the villages so this daily, time consuming, life threatening activity can disappear. For these people, its about learning skills so they can work in other ways to support their families and improve their communities. The #1 cause of death in Africa is some form of disease tied to contaminated water. Having clean water and the skills to increase food production will liberate villages from dependence on the United Nations to sustain them. This all goes back to making that shift to teach the knowledge and the skills to make change possible and changing the future by starting with children.
On Working with P&G
Me: Your success has given you the opportunity to work with sponsors. What is special about your partnership with P&G.
Lopez: P&G is a fantastic sponsor and makes it possible to pursue my dream of changing the future for children in Sudan. Because of their support I have a platform that is so much greater than what I can do on my own. To be able to share the message that $50 can change lives of a family of 5 starting with clean water totally pumps me up! Realizing that by sharing this message, together we can change an entire continent ~ its SO amazing to do this! When you see the smiles of these children its amazing. I’m so blessed to have this platform to help them and to share their story. God told me I matter. Every child matters. That’s why I was given this opportunity.
Me: Can you imagine your life NOT running?
Lopez: If I had not run, I would not be alive. God was there to protect me no matter what danger surrounded me. No matter how great my pain during those 3 days, with the feeling of knives cutting through my legs, God carried me. God gave me the courage and faith at the end of each do to know that I would be fine and that I needed to listen to the children who brought me with them to survive. Running became my everything after that. It was how I survived. Every child is born with God given talents. Its our job to multiply those talents. Running tells my story and speaks for me. Even from the moment I was born, I was in danger in my home. Through running, God took me from darkness to light, despair to happiness. But I won’t hold onto running as mine. Its not about me. Wear your colors is what defines you as a person and opens doors to how you can multiply your talents, use your gifts, for other’s good.
On The Flag and Competing
Me: Because my children are athletes, I asked them what they would ask you if they had the chance to meet you in person. Their question… “What is running through your mind when you walk into the stadium on a world stage?”
Lopez: The only thing I see is the American Flag. It communicates strength to me. I came here to represent my country as an ambassador of freedom. I belong to that flag and the country it represents. It’s my God given responsibility to model all that it stands for, to contribute to its meaning, to keep its spirit alive.
Needless to say, I was left speechless, inspired, and my personal faith world rocked solid. I hope this interview touches you to follow Lopez’s journey not only through this summer’s 2012 Olympic games but life long as he changes the future of his home country and continent, one child at a time. If you are looking for a fun Flag Day Activity, stop by the Tide “My Story. Our Flag” Facebook App. Fans 18 and older can share their story about what the American Flag means to them and it will ‘sewn’ together both digitally and physically. The digital flag will live on Facebook.com/Tide and the physical flag will be unveiled in New York City’s Bryant on July 3rd, just in time for the 4th of July!
So tell me…
What does the American Flag mean to you?
Thanks for stopping by today ~ we’ll see you next time!
Disclosure: Special thanks to Tide for engaging me to serve in a professional capacity for this campaign. A lifelong Olympic fan I proudly sported a Dorothy Hamill bob in 1976 and drew a picture of myself on the podium winning the Gold medal just like most every other little girl that magical year. I am honored to participate and humbled to be witness to such inspiring faith and as always, my opinions are entirely my own.