Making his way through the relentless heat that blankets the Central American country of Belize every August, A.J. Merriweather and his travel party approached the doors of an orphanage.
“What we saw when we got there was just incredible,” said Merriweather, a 6-foot-2 senior guard for the ETSU men’s basketball team. “We went through the doors and all the kids were just so happy to see us. They came running up to us and hugging us. It was unbelievable. This one boy named Jessie just wanted to be with me the whole time. We spent a lot of time together.
“That was the story the whole time we were there in Belize – just really emotional. It was the best trip of my life. It was life changing.”
Merriweather, a fan favorite among Buccaneer fans, was in Belize as part of a special mission trip planned by Sports Reach, a faith-based organization out of Campbellsville, Ky. The group arrived in Belize on Aug. 12th and spent the next 10 days playing basketball and spreading goodwill throughout communities where life is much different than back home in the United States.
“I left there feeling very grateful for what we have in this country, but also how people are able to keep their spirits up even when they are faced with hardships,” Merriweather said. “They live in so much poverty, but they still have smiles on their faces and they were always laughing with us.”
The opportunity for Merriweather to go to Belize was made possible thanks to a relationship started years ago between ETSU head coach Steve Forbes and Robby Speer, a co-founder of Sports Reach. Speer reached out to Forbes earlier this summer and asked if he had any players that would be interested in the trip.
Forbes wasted little time calling Merriweather.
"I thought this would be a great cultural and spiritual experience for AJ going into his final season at ETSU,” Forbes said. “I've had players in the past make the same trip and they came away a different person. I'm glad he had the opportunity to experience something that will be a part of him for the rest of his life.”
Speer said he was glad Merriweather was able to make the trip.
“AJ was a perfect fit for what we were looking for – both as a player and a person,” said Speer, whose organization has made trip to 20 countries on five continents during its 30 years of service. “One of the things that this trip is good for is guys are able to get away from their normal routines and aspect of life. They have a chance to take a new look at everything, see how others live, and experience a different culture. And, of course, they get a new spiritual perspective as well. It’s good for everyone on the trip.”
While there was time to enjoy some tourist attractions such as snorkeling, kayaking and visits to Mayan ruins, Merriweather said it was the time spent with the people of the country, talking about his faith and then observing the hardships that others in the world face that truly made an impression.
One story Merriweather shared from the trip involved a family of six that were living in a small home which consisted of a humble kitchen and a bedroom. One girl in the family had died of cancer and the poor living conditions were partly blamed for her death.
“It was heartbreaking and tough to see, but they were still together and taking care of each other,” Merriweather said.
Between those times spent visiting with people, touring the country, and sharing their faith, the Sports Reach group played Belizean teams in a series of four games that spanned locations from the north to the south of the country.
“The competition was great and a lot of people came out to watch,” said Merriweather, who was one of two Southern Conference players on the trip along with Mercer’s Cory Kilby. “We were able to share our message with them and also enjoy the game we love.”
Merriweather said the biggest takeaway for him was a new perspective on life.
“What I learned from this trip is any time I can tell someone about God and share my faith I’m winning,” Merriweather said. “At the end of the day, getting to heaven is what matters. Basketball is great and all, but that’s not all there is. I saw how important it is to give people hope.”
For more on ETSU men’s basketball throughout the 2016-17 season, visit ETSUBucs.com and click on the men’s hoops link.