Recent from Features
By Keri Straub
Like many college soccer coaches offices, Elizabethtown College Men’s Soccer coach, Skip Roderick has soccer pictures, team flags and soccer balls filling his shelves and walls.
But, what stands out, sitting on a table in Roderick’s office, is a soccer ball made of plantain leaves. The unique leaf ball—a grocery sack tightly wrapped with leaves from a banana tree—was made by E-town senior and standout soccer player Gilbert “Jilly” Waso. The ball, not much bigger than the size of a grapefruit, symbolizes much of Jilly’s journey from Africa to the United States, and now serves as an everyday reminder of the challenges and tragedies he’s overcome.
“When I was around six-years-old, we left my country (Democratic Republic of Congo) because of the war and went to live in Rwanda,” Jilly said.
It would be the last time Jilly would ever see his father. Jilly, along with his mother and four siblings—three sisters and one brother—all lived together in Rwanda. His father chose to stay in the Congo. No one has been in contact with him since.
The Waso’s mother worked hard to provide for her five children who all attended school during the day. It was at school where Jilly would first be introduced to the game of soccer. He spent many days playing with his friends, using plastic bottles, or if they were lucky—banana leaf balls—on a bed of stones. Grass was nowhere to be found.
But, tragedy would strike the family just a few years later when the family’s matriarch suddenly passed away at work.
“I don’t remember that day well,” shared Jilly as he sat in Coach Roderick’s office on a sunny, brisk winter afternoon in early December. “We always rushed off to school in the morning because if you arrived late, you could be beaten.”
The 5’5, 140-pound soccer player smiles as he reflects on the short time he had with his mother, “I still remember my mom,” Jilly said quietly staring at the ground. “She was funny and friendly, and she loved to cook.”
It was 2009 when Jilly and his siblings were sent to a refugee camp in Rwanda with no running water or electricity. Each day, the children picked up water at a nearby community watering center and gathered sticks to be able to make a fire and cook their food. Jilly’s oldest sister took over caring for her siblings at the age of 14. The U.N. would provide rationed food, but often times it was not enough so she would braid hair for money.
For several years the family checked daily to see if U.N. officials had written their last name on a window for the opportunity to be granted permission to go to the United States. It’s estimated Rwanda hosts more than 127,000 refugees with nearly half of them coming from the Congo.
“When we saw our name on the window one day, I remember feeling … hopeful,” Jilly said.
In September of 2013, Waso and his siblings were flown to the U.S. and dropped off at The Lutheran Services Refugee program in Lancaster. The city of Lancaster has sometimes been referred to as the “refugee capital” of the world with several organizations proactively helping refugees get acclimated to the U.S.
As quickly as the family reached American soil, they almost immediately had to learn how to function in the new country, and in the small Lancaster apartment the siblings shared.
“We didn’t know there was food in the cabinets for us when we arrived,” Jilly recalled. “We had never seen canned food so we didn’t even know how to open it.”
The siblings learned to speak English—their primary languages were Swahili, Kinyarwanda and French. Since there were no school records from Africa for any of the children, they attended the Phoenix Academy, in the School District of Lancaster.
Jilly and his younger brother, Yves, still yearned to play the game of soccer. They would walk around Lancaster to find pick-up games to join. One day, they found a group of soccer players that regularly played on the same fields and soon the brothers became regulars themselves. One of his soccer pals, Peter Ogilvie, befriended Jilly and invited him to his family’s home for dinner in Elizabethtown.
“I immediately thought he was very kind and was always smiling and laughing,” Peter’s mother Sharon Ogilvie shared.
“When all the siblings get together they laugh a lot—they’re very happy, grateful people.” – Sharon Ogilvie
While Peter couldn’t always communicate clearly with the boys, they did have common ground in prayer so he took them to weekly Bible study classes. Eventually, the Oglivies, who have hosted international students for the past 17 years, opened up their home to all of the siblings, inviting them regularly for dinner and connecting them with their church, Hope Community Church in Mount Joy.
Eventually, the Ogilvie’s would help the Waso’s find an apartment closer to them in Elizabethtown. It happened to be in a great spot—across the street from Mount Calvary Christian School—which opened its doors to assist with schooling for four of the siblings.
“All these neat little miracles happened for them to be taken care of,” Sharon said. “Doors just kept opening, and that’s when Jilly knew he wanted to play soccer at the collegiate level, and again things worked out for him to attend Elizabethtown College.”
With financial assistance, Jilly was juggling a full-time student academic schedule, soccer practice six-days a week, and working at Hoss’s Steak & Seafood restaurant to help his family pay bills.
“As his coach, Jilly’s academics always came first,” Roderick said. “My goal for him was for him to leave E-town with a degree so he would have the opportunity to pursue the American dream.”
Jilly started his freshman year with the Blue Jays men’s soccer team eager to play with teammates, but also nervous to be playing in an organized league at the collegiate level.
“It was the first time I was ever on a real soccer team,” Jilly said. “At first, it was overwhelming, but all of my teammates and coaches were very supportive.”
During his rookie season the speedy forward would lead his team with eight assists, tie for second in the Landmark Conference with 26 goals, and was honored as the Landmark Conference Offensive Athlete, Rookie of the Year, NSCAA Division III All-America First Team and All-Mid-Atlantic Region First Team selection.
“He had never been coached before,” Roderick said. “He taught himself to play soccer by using plastic bottles and banana leaf balls, but we quickly established a connection and he was very coachable.”
Jilly’s love for the game was also shared by his church family. Each Sunday, the church’s weekly bulletin would post his game schedule and many friends from the church would attend his games to cheer him on.
“We got instant fans because of Jilly joining the E-town soccer team,” Roderick reflected. “It was an added bonus.”
The dynamic soccer star would also play an incredible sophomore season, being named, once again, an NSCAA Division III All-America First Team recipient and an All-Mid-Atlantic Region First Team selection.
Because of Jilly’s incredible talent, Roderick also placed him on the Reading United AC soccer team in the Professional Development League, affiliated with the MLS Philadelphia Union team.
Back in E-town, Jilly’s junior year would be hampered by several injuries, though he still captured an impressive season securing his third All-Landmark Conference first team honor. In his senior year, he would shine again on the field. He was awarded the All-Mid-Atlantic Region First Team honor for the third time in four years. The senior forward also was voted Landmark Player of the Year by the conference’s coaches and finished his final season with 23 goals in his last 12 games. During a six-point game, Waso became the 12th player in E-town soccer history to eclipse 100 career points.
“He quickly realized his calling was dealing with refugees, who like himself, were trying to find their way in the U.S.,” Roderick said.
Now in his final year at E-town, Jilly spends his days interning with refugees at Bethany Christian Services. He helps families—just like his own—acclimate to life in the U.S., and specifically in Lancaster.
“All of the trials and tribulations he has gone through, he is now paying forward through his love of social work,” shared Roderick.
Jilly will graduate in May 2019 with his social work degree and a minor in peace and conflict studies.
He’s come a long way from learning the English language in 2015,” Roderick said.
He also met the love of his life, Andria, through his church family. Recently, they got engaged and will be married in September.
Back in Roderick’s office on that chilly December afternoon, Jilly and Roderick both fall silent and stare at the banana leaf ball sitting on the desk in front of them. Tears fill their eyes and they grasp hands as a quiet way of showing their lifelong appreciation for one another.
“He’s my best friend. He’ll always be in my life.” – Jilly Waso
It’s a story about what our whole philosophy is at the college,” said Roderick. “If we are going to live by our motto—Educate for Service—we have to do by it too.”