Finding Plenty of Reasons to Smile

A pre-med student finds his life’s passion and purpose in Ethiopia.

By Beth Lueders
Photos Courtesy of Keaton Garrett and Heartland Racing Co.

Triathlete and ultrarunner Keaton Garrett never expected to be knocked off balance by the poverty he encountered in Ethiopia. The college freshman didn’t expect a 3-year-old boy to dash his way into his life, either. But God had another course set out for both Keaton and the little boy, Christian.

Perhaps it was Christian’s beaming smile that stopped Keaton in his tracks. Or maybe their bond was sealed when Keaton first held the Ethiopian boy.

Keaton looks back on his first medical missions trip to Ethiopia with joyful fondness. The spring 2018 trip with about 10 others from James River Church in Springfield, Missouri, introduced Keaton to a new frontier of God’s loving care for those less fortunate.

The group first set up health checkups for sponsored children at a Hope Center in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia’s far north. A week later in Addis Ababa, the team offered health monitoring for the kids at Addis Ababa Hope Center. Keaton measured and weighed kids, took their pulses, and checked their blood oxygen and malnourishment levels. What he saw inside and outside the clinic affected his compassionate heart.

“The crowd of kids was singing and dancing, but this little boy near the back was just standing there,” Keaton recalls. “We locked eyes a little bit and he was just smiling away at me.”

Later when Keaton played with the kids, he noticed the same little boy off to the side smiling. He walked toward the youngster and the boy sauntered toward him.

“He raises his hands up. I pick him up and he just smooches my cheeks, stares in my eyes, gets right face-to-face with me,” Keaton says. “He wears my hat, wears my sunglasses. We were attached to the hip from there!”

That instant connection led Keaton to inquire why the boy wasn’t in classes or playing with the other children. Despite his sweet grin, young Christian and his brother were facing immense anguish at home. Christian’s widowed mother, Kidanwa, was near death from an unknown illness. But the boy’s mom was determined to find help for her two sons.

The children were admitted into the program. A few months later, God arranged for Keaton and Christian to meet, and Keaton quickly signed up to be Christian’s sponsor. Keaton also met Christian’s mother when he visited her home. A sewage ditch flows next to her tumble-down cement and sheet-metal house and inside there are two small couches and one bed that all three family members share. Keaton bought new clothes for Christian.

While Christian excitedly tried on all the clothes, Christian’s mom shared about some hard health realities Christian has had to face in his young life. “When Christian was a baby, he fell into a fire,” Keaton explains. “From the neck down on one side of his body he is scarred. He wears a jacket most of the time, so you don’t easily see his skin.”

Before the home visit ended, Keaton shared the gospel with Christian’s mom through an interpreter. “She cried,” Keaton recalls. “And I tried very hard not to cry in front of them.”
But tears of gratitude come naturally when Keaton describes his relationship with this family. A few months after first meeting Christian’s mom, her health improved and she started working again.

Keaton and several of the same church friends returned to the Addis Ababa Hope Center in May 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed a visit the past two years, but the group is planning a May 2022 trip.

In the meantime, Keaton exchanges letters with his now 6-year-old buddy. Keaton rests easy knowing that his sponsorship gifts are providing schooling, Bible-based learning, health care, and nutritious food for Christian.

In the cherished letters, Christian expresses his ups and downs. “Last year was hard for me because of the corona pandemic. Schools were closed and I couldn’t meet or play with my friends,” Christian writes. “I look at our picture when I miss you. … I love you so much.”

Keaton also stayed alert to Ethiopia’s recent civil unrest. He was glad to see that, despite the disruption caused by rebel forces in some regions of the country, all the OneChild Hope Centers in Ethiopia – including Christian’s – were able to remain open and continue providing care and stability for the children during uncertain times. And he was relieved when calm was restored throughout much of the country.

When Keaton returned from his second Ethiopia trip, he switched his major from pre-med to a general business and nonprofit administration degree. Already the CEO of his race event production company called Heartland Racing, the 22-year-old wants to graduate and apply his business acumen to assist more children in poverty. Between schoolwork and running his company, the seasoned athlete is staying in stride with his faith and his sponsorship commitment to Christian. “Christian and I have this incredibly strong bond that even though we’re thousands of miles away and can’t speak to each other, we’re still super connected,” Keaton says. “I’m continually praying for Christian’s family, for their safety, and for his mom to seek the Lord. She does go to church now, which is incredible. And I always tell Christian that I love him and pray for him.”

Christian and I have this incredibly strong bond that even though we’re thousands of miles away and can’t speak to each other, we’re still super connected.”