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Normal West Soccer Teams Give Back During Jamaica Trip

The Normal West head soccer coach says his teams’ recent trip to Jamaica will prepare his players not just for next season—but for the rest of their lives.

Coach Val Walker and 36 players and their families recently returned from their soccer-and-service trip to Jamaica. Walker was born, raised, and began his teaching career in Jamaica. He met his wife there (a Peace Corps volunteer) and came to the U.S. in 1997

“Sometimes putting students and people in a situation where people are so much happier with so much less, it really gives you a sense of how appreciative you should be with with what you have,” Walker said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

While in Jamaica, the Normal West players visited the schools where Walker attended. The players from West spent time donating books, soccer equipment and shoes to local kids. Most of them were in primary (or grade) school, but one girl wasn’t able to fit in the smaller shoes the players were donating. West girls team captain Bekah Nielsen knew what she had to do.

Credit Facebook / Val Walker
Val Walker
Between cultural experiences and sightseeing, the Normal West students also played a lot of soccer against their Jamaican peers.

“I gave her my shoes and another teammate gave another person her shoes, so I was really touched when she was like, ‘I've never had a pair of shoes like these before,’” said Nielsen.

Nielsen said the girl politely tried to return the shoes, but Nielsen wanted the girl to keep them. Later, Walker noticed Nielsen on the playground without her shoes.

“It took everything for me to hold the tears back because that’s exactly what we were trying to do there, is really serve these people selflessly,” Walker said.

Walker, the son of a school principal, showed his players where he grew up -- all around poverty. Through hard work, he moved to the U.S., earned his doctorate from Illinois State University, and became a teacher at Normal West and Heartland Community College.

Credit Facebook
Normal West soccer coach Val Walker.

The life lessons Walker hoped his players would learn in Jamaica appeared to stick. Both Nielsen and Walker’s own son, Jordan, told GLT how their perspectives had changed.

“If we don't see how the rest of the world lives, then sometimes we forget how fortunate we are,” Val Walker said. “From very humble beginnings, you can achieve a lot if you work hard at it. And so that's one of my main goals here is to get our students to understand that.”

Jordan Walker, the coach’s son and captain of the boys team, had visited Jamaica before with his family. But he said this trip was different.

“Being there with a group of people that you know you're going to be bonding with and playing with for the season ... is something that really benefited us,” Jordan said.

Between cultural experiences and sightseeing, the Normal West students also played a lot of soccer against their Jamaican peers.

“We all were shocked by how fast and physical it is. And that took some adjusting, and it's definitely going to help us whenever we play,” Jordan said.

You can also listen to the full story:

GLT's story about Normal West's trip.

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Maddie is a social media and online writing intern at GLT. She's a student in the School of Communication at Illinois State University.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.