Photo from The Blade/Lori King
Reprinted with permission of The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, Sept. 23, 2010. Copyright 2010 The Blade
By Mark Monroe, Blade Sports Writer
Beaming with a million-dollar smile from ear to ear Edwin Mbuthia becomes animated, pumps his fist, and thrusts it into the air.
Mbuthia, a 15-year-old foreign exchange student from Kenya, re-creates the reaction he had to scoring his first goal for the Waite soccer team. The sophomore, who has been deaf since age 7, must convey his thoughts by sign language.
The formidable communication and culture barriers placed before the young foreigner are met with pure exuberance and energy.
He communicates through his host parents, Denny Seger and Shannon Godwin of West Toledo, who he will stay with through the school year some 8,000 miles from his home.
Mbuthia mouthed the word “Woo!” after showing how he celebrated his first goal. He also repeatedly tapped himself on the head when explaining his teammates’ reaction.
“They all messed with me,” he signed to his host mother. “I really enjoy soccer and the challenge. I like my teammates.”
Mbuthia is in northwest Ohio through the American Cultural Exchange Service, a nonprofit organization that brings foreign students to the United States for educational and cultural development.
Valerie Virag, who is a regional director for ACES, said the group encourages the students to get involved in sports and other activities.
“For them to come all the way around the world and not know a person, if they get involved in a sport, they make friends and are a little more comfortable,” Virag said. “We also try to match kids up with schools that have a sport or activity they enjoy.”
The West Toledo couple also are hosting another deaf exchange student through June. Jeremiah Bartelome is a 17-year-old from the Philippines who also is attending Waite, which has programs geared toward deaf students. Bartelome hopes to try out for the basketball team.
Mbuthia said he plays for his school soccer team in Kenya. Mbuthia, who has been playing since he was 7, is a midfielder for the Indians.
Mbuthia is fluent in four languages including his native Swahili and English.
“I wanted to learn about America,” Mbuthia said. “I want to go back and be able to teach about American culture.”
On the field, Mbuthia emphatically claps to indicate to his teammates that he’s open.
“I do have one teammate that knows a little bit of sign language,” he said. “Coach has a board and he writes things down and he shows it to me. Sometimes I can read lips.”
Waite coach Shaun Hoover said the young Kenyan has actually become a team leader because of his skills and knowledge of the game.
“Even though he doesn’t speak when we’re on the field, he’s still one of the louder players because his hands and his body movement do a lot of talking for him,” Hoover said. “He commands how to play the game. He will indicate with his hands where he wants the ball. He leads the other players by the way he knows how to play soccer. It’s a universal language.”
Hoover said his players seem to intuitively know where Mbuthia will be.
“Sometimes they have a second sense and they connect better than people who would be speaking to each other,” Hoover said.
Senior Ron Cornelison communicates with Mbuthia by motioning with his hands.
“It’s fun and it’s been a great experience to play with him,” Cornelison said. “He has a good personality. But he also brings explosiveness when he is on offense. He definitely has played before.”
Cornelison, who is the team’s sweeper, said Mbuthia has helped improve his game.
“He uses hand gestures,” Cornelison said. “He’ll point to his feet if he is open.”
Cornelison said the entire team shared in celebrating Mbuthia’s first goal.
“It was great for him,” he said. “It’s amazing for him to come to Toledo and be playing here.”
Just like any American kid, Mbuthia said he corresponds with his friends through Facebook. He can’t speak to his parents by phone, so he also talks with them and his two siblings through the popular social Web site.
When asked what he’s liked the most about America so far Mbuthia said the food.
“I like pizza, chicken, and especially hot dogs,” he said.
Godwin said the cultural gap sometimes results in amusing situations.
“One day he asked me about the creamer for my coffee,” she said. “He tasted it and thought it wasn’t too bad. One morning he poured a whole glass of it and was going to drink it all. I said, ‘No, no, no!’”
Godwin said every country has its own form of sign language so Mbuthia must also learn American Sign Language.
“I went to a deaf high school that had a lot of exchange students. There are similarities,” Godwin said. “My job is trying to help him pick up ASL and the American culture. He’s picking it up real fast. And he writes English very well.”
Mbuthia, who lost his hearing to a loud noise, arrived in Toledo Aug. 10. He has volunteered at soup kitchens. Mbuthia also will entertain for groups, performing a native dance.
“They are so passionate about being here and making this community better,” Godwin said.
Mbuthia also may play basketball in the winter.
Hoover admitted it’s been a rough season for the Indians soccer program.
“But this is one of the benefits of keeping sports programs around,” Hoover said. “I know Ed would probably be OK here without this sport, but this just perpetuates his ability to make friends and get noticed around school in an expedited way.”
Virag said ACES, which is sponsored by the U.S. government, has 600 students in the country. Only 30 of them are disabled.
“I’m just totally blown away by them,” Virag said. “They come from very poor nations. They are here to learn our culture to improve their country’s situation. They are future leaders.”
Hoover agreed Mbuthia has the makings of becoming a great leader.
“With his willingness to engross himself in a whole new culture, his disability has become his strength,” Hoover said.