Two brothers spread lacrosse from Towson to South Africa

From left to right, Kip Hart, Phinius Sebatsane and Harrison Hart are pictured. The Hart brothers and their mother, Barb Cox, started the South African Lacrosse Project in 2007 to introduce lacrosse to the children in that country. Sebatsane was in the first group.
From left to right, Kip Hart, Phinius Sebatsane and Harrison Hart are pictured. The Hart brothers and their mother, Barb Cox, started the South African Lacrosse Project in 2007 to introduce lacrosse to the children in that country. Sebatsane was in the first group. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

Kip and Harrison Hart sit at the kitchen table in their Towson home, along with their mother, Barb Cox, and their South African "brother," Phinius Sebatsane, pondering how they're going to handle the massive amount of donations filling the dining and living rooms.

Through the doorway looms 1,400 pounds of donated lacrosse shoes, uniforms and equipment, coming from Friends School and Hereford High, as well as other schools around the country. In Wisconsin, the St. John's Northwestern Military Academy collected another 2,500 pounds of donations, packed in 50-pound boxes.

All of these donations are for the South African Lacrosse Project that Kip and Harrison started five years ago in Vaalwater, a small town about 150 miles north of Johannesburg. The family and 11 other volunteers leave June 22 for the camp that runs from June 25 through July 4.

The program started when Cox and her two sons took a trip in 2007 that planted a lacrosse seed in South Africa, a country that had never seen the sport. That seed has taken root, with about 150 children currently playing lacrosse on a weekly basis. More than 4,000 children in the country have been introduced to the sport — although not all of them play — since the initial visit.

One of the stops on their trip was South Africa because the boys, then ages 12 and 15, wanted to visit their former au pair, Joy Baber, who served as the program director for the Waterberg Welfare Society.

When they arrived, Baber, who died last year, asked the boys if they could play soccer with the kids from the society, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of orphans and people affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"We did it," said Harrison, 17, who just graduated from Towson High, where he played lacrosse. "But they spend their whole day playing soccer. It was quickly obvious we weren't going to teach them anything."

"We thought, 'What about lacrosse?'" said Kip, now a rising senior at Maryland. "It's so local to our area. It was something we had grown up with, and the kids there were so eager to learn. They ranged in age from 8 to 18 and they were focused the entire time. No one ever [got out of line], which I think is amazing."

Sebatsane, 24, was in the first group of 30 at the camp. At the end of the visit, he read a letter to Cox, Kip and Harrison, expressing his feelings for them that "captured our hearts," Cox said. "He's become my third son and the boys' brother. I tried to figure out if I could legally adopt him, but it is very complicated. … But official or not, he is definitely one of my sons."

Sebatsane recently visited the family for three months, returning to South Africa over the weekend. While here, he gave presentations on the South African Lacrosse Project at area schools and throughout the country. He also visited colleges, looking for a school that he can attend beginning in the fall of 2013.

"When I first came here, I wasn't aware of the differences in education," Sebatsane said. "But now that I am here, I see. I want to major in communications, earn a degree and then take all that I learn back home to help my people."

Sebatsane has been filling the gaps between his Towson family's visits to Vaalwater by continuing the program in their absence. He has taken lacrosse to five other schools — three high schools and two primary schools. This year's camp will include 120 to 150 children from the society and those five schools. Other children who have come through the program also help to teach.

As the Lacrosse Project has grown, so have its aspirations, expanding beyond sports to health and to the classroom. They have a doctor come to the camp to test for AIDS. Cox said they also are in "a full court press" to improve math, English and science skills for those associated with their project.

"We're now talking to different universities — Towson, Maryland, the College of Notre Dame among them — about sending their [English as a second language] majors over to help our program," Cox said. "We've managed to put one teacher, Kwasi Ansu, in place to start a homework club that has attracted 150 kids after school, to focus on math and science."

The Project, which has a website at http://www.southafricanlacrosse.org, raises money to help its lacrosse kids through high school and college. There are currently five, including Sebatsane, who are in college or taking college courses.

Sebatsane, who speaks six languages, has taken online courses, while two others — Sina Motshegoa and Thomas Seema — are both in South African colleges and have also become part of the Cox-Hart family circle.

"I have five children," Cox said. "They post all the time on Facebook, and it's wonderful to get their messages to Mom."

Sebatsane said for an orphan to call someone "Mom" is a sign of respect.

"If someone says 'Mom,' it is because you deserve to be called that," he said. "When you work with orphans, they want to know who is sponsoring them. When I knew who was sponsoring me, I wanted their email address so I could have a relationship. It's more than money that is needed; it's love and relationships we need."

Kip and Harrison said they had no idea what they were getting into or what they could do when they started the project. They didn't realize kids, many who have no shoes, would walk three miles in winter (July is cold in South Africa, with temperatures dipping into the 40s at night), or that the meal they serve at camp may be the only meal many of the participants get each day.

"When we started, we just wanted to teach lacrosse," Kip said. "We didn't understand the full impact we could have. The kids are very happy, and we're able to work in things that help kids in need — like life skills, teamwork, setting goals, scholarships. "

Cox, a real estate agent, looks at her sons and sees two totally different personalities — Harrison is artistic, into photography and music, while Kip is an aerospace engineering student interested in rocket science. The South African Lacrosse Project has been something they all do together. And she sees it as a life-changing experience for her children.

"Every year volunteers that go with us say they are coming back again the next year," she said. "But then they get home and life happens. Every year we get maybe one or two repeats. But Kip and Harrison keep going back. Six times. And theirs is the only project there that works directly with the kids."

Sebatsane, listening to the conversation, smiles and nods.

"Just the impact of these guys, they've made such a difference to my community," he said. "But the reason they come back is not just that they change our lives, but it has changed their lives, too. They see what they can do."