Realizing true merritt

In a California hotel room on a recruiting trip in November 2007, Robin Merritt, assistant coach for the UVM field hockey team, was asked a surprising question from a fellow field hockey recruiter: “Do you want to go to Africa?”Merritt was asked to take part in a coaching clinic for athletes in Zimbabwe as part of the Africa’s 1000 program. Intrigued and excited, Robin asked her friend, former UVM tennis coach and current Physical Education professor Muff Parsons-Reinhardt if she would like to join her at the clinic coaching tennis.The only catch? They would be leaving in less than two weeks.Before Parsons-Reinhardt had a chance to say ‘yes,’ two plane tickets for Zimbabwe arrived in the mail. A week and a half later, the pair found themselves in Zimbabwe deciphering what exactly their role would be at the athletic clinic.”We went on the faith and trust that it would all work out,” says Merritt. “Everything sort of fell in to place.”Upon arrival, the two coaches were informed further as to what the Africa’s 1000 program actually was. Founded by Zimbabwe native Munya Maraire, CEO of World Wide Scholarships (WWS), the program serves as a platform for African athletes to showcase their talents in front of college recruiters from the United States.According to Africa’s 1000’s official website, “the aim of the program is to develop and link African nations’ talent with the vast amount of opportunities available to them overseas, mainly in the USA.”Maraire took advantage of his exceptional athletic and academic talents and found himself at Penn State University on a full scholarship. It was there that he excelled at track and field and as a walk on to the football team. Three years ago, Munya connected WWS with the Africa’s 1000 project as a way to give back to his country.”Munya is an inspiration to all the kids in the program,” Parsons-Reinhardt said. “He is proof to the kids that it is possible to achieve their dreams.”From day one at the clinic, both Merritt and Parsons-Reinhardt were introduced to the hardships the people of Zimbabwe live with every day. Zimbabwe is currently in the middle of a food shortage, which is a product of flawed land reforms at the beginning of the decade, a lengthy drought and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As a result, the coaching clinic lacked simple things that many take for granted, such as working athletic equipment.”It was a huge challenge for me,” Parsons-Reinhardt said. “On the first day, I was the only coach there, there were 33 kids, it was raining, they had no tennis balls and very few rackets.” Luckily, Parsons-Reinhardt had brought some equipment of her own, but already she was gaining perspective of the obstacles these promising athletes had to overcome.Merritt, too, found the clinic challenging in different ways. Though some of the athletes Merritt instructed were members of the Zimbabwe National Field Hockey Team, she was forced to tell the male prospects the harsh reality of field hockey in America. “It was so tough to tell the kids that the United States has no male field hockey,” she said. Merritt’s female players, however, took advantage of the knowledge the instructors provided. “They were showing their stuff,” Merritt said. “The girls were very excited – they would ask me, ‘What do I need to do to become a success?'” Immediately, the athletes and coach?es developed a strong bond. “They saw us as the people who would help them reach their dreams,” Parsons-Reinhardt said. The two coaches were particularly touched by the gratitude and respect the athletes showed them throughout their stay. Despite Zimbabwe’s current struggles, both Merritt and Parsons-Reinhardt agreed the athletes were very proud to be from Zimbabwe. “The kids are very optimistic and hopeful good days are ahead,” Parsons- Reinhardt said. In addition to coaching the athletes, Parsons-Reinhardt and Merritt also instructed other coaches, opening them up to fresh ideas and methods that have been developed in the States. Though the two coaches do not plan on returning as instructors to Africa’s 1000, they are not finished with the program. Their objective now is to spread the program to those with a greater means of helping the athletes. “I want to share my experience with others and get people involved who can do more than I can,” Parsons-Reinhardt said. “It was a wonderful experience and I’m so glad we got to share it together,” Merritt said. “Munya [Maraire] is definitely on to something.”