By ANTHONY LIFRIERI
International lacrosse star and 2007 Smithtown West graduate Rob Pannell returned from Uganda where, for the past week, he helped build a classroom for Ugandan children while teaching lacrosse to some of the nation’s elite players. Mr. Pannell, 23, spent the week in the developing country with Fields of Growth, an organization dedicated to helping improve the lives of those in need while spreading the game of lacrosse.
Rather than spending a relaxing week at home while continuing to train for his upcoming redshirt senior season at Cornell, the Tewaaraton Trophy candidate decided to make the 23 hour journey to Uganda, which involved two flights and a long car ride, according to Mr. Pannell.
Once he reached the Fields of Growth House, Mr. Pannell was thankful for the amenities. “We had running water most of the time but sometimes it ran out,” Mr. Pannell said. “We had electricity and WiFi.”
Although Mr. Pannell spent four nights in the Fields of Growth House, the other three nights were spent in the Ugandan village of Kindu. “We had no running water or electricity,” Mr. Pannell said. “We just sat in the living room and talked. We talked about Uganda and its history and I answered lacrosse questions. It was cool to have to talk and learn about each other.”
Mr. Pannell’s first day was spent working with the Uganda Lacrosse League’s six teams. “They’re awesome,” Mr. Pannell said of his proteges. “They’re athletic and extremely eager to learn. With the right coaching, they can be very good.”
The Smithtown lacrosse star also spent time observing Ugandan youths playing lacrosse. “It was exciting to see the younger kids play,” Mr. Pannell said. “Their (Uganda’s) future is bright in lacrosse. It’s great working with people who are passionate about the game and give 110 percent in everything they do.”
Following his lacrosse work, Mr. Pannell helped dig trenches for the foundation of a kindergarden classroom. “It was nice to see the guys working there and give them a break,” Mr. Pannell said. “We were able to do some manual labor and it felt good at the end of the day helping out people who need it. To work up a sweat and do something they do on an everyday basis made it more memorable.”
Aside from building and teaching, Mr. Pannell and his group also took time to spread goodwill to the people of Uganda. “One day we met with families who had nothing. They had one set of clothes and ate the same food everyday. They walk miles to get anywhere and have no water or electricity,” Mr. Pannell said. “We brought them gifts like food and clothes and they were extremely thankful.”
Among the donated gifts Mr. Pannell brought to the people of Uganda were donation from the HEADstrong Foundation and shorts from the Flow Society, Mr. Pannell also herded and gifted goats to the villagers, something that could provide goods they wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain. However, it also put the Cornell senior in an awkward position.
“We were bringing gifts to people who have nothing. In Uganda, the people feel they have to give something in return,” Mr. Pannell said. “It’s disrespectful not to accept a gift in return. A villager came up to me, bent down and handed me a live chicken. I was confused, but I knew I had to take it.”
While a live chicken was not an ideal gift for Mr. Pannell, he did receive something he enjoyed. “They also gave us jackfruit. It was one of the best fruits I’ve ever had,” Mr. Pannell said. “It kind of feels like taking the gifts was wrong, but we would have been disrespectful in their culture not to take it.”
Back in Smithtown, Mr. Pannell recognized he will never forget his week in Uganda. “It was the most unique experience lacrosse has ever given me,” Mr. Pannell said. “Being a part of something bigger than me and putting so many smiles on faces is extremely rewarding. It’s by far the best thing lacrosse has ever allowed me to do. How many people can say they traveled to East Africa, lived there for a week and were able to change the lives of many people? It was amazing and I’m truly thankful for it.”
Mr. Pannell said he went into the trip with an open mind, but it far exceeded his most optimistic expectations. Mr. Pannell’s experience was so positive that he will continue his involvement with Fields of Growth.
“I’m going to be busy with lacrosse for the next couple of years but If I do get the chance to go back, I’m going to bring people with me,” Mr. Pannell said. “I definitely plan to keep fundraising, stay in touch with the people over there and continue to send them things.”
Mr. Pannell, the son of Susan and Robert Pannell, of Smithtown is still accepting donations for the Ugandan school on his website.