May 25, 2012

Phil and Sarah Torrens marvel at the awful symmetry. They lost a son, yet gained another.

They went from darkness to light. And, at the same time, with their help, so did Makorobondo "Dee" Salukombo.

When he was 12, Dee escaped with his family from the civil war ravaging his native Congo, eventually finding hope and a home in a new country thanks to the Torrenses and others who went a step beyond to help and guide the kid with the luminous smile. He got an education, and now - with the help of his track and cross-country coach and his wife - is returning to his homeland to try to save others.

"If you want to see things change, you need to do something about it," he said simply.

This is the story of how someone can flourish because of a strong will to live, and how others can crawl out of the depths of despair by helping others. It's also about the saving grace of people who aren't satisfied just doing their job but feel the pull to give a little extra.

It all begins in Congo, where a long war between rebel and government forces and its aftermath have left millions dead over the past two decades.

Fanchon Salukombo, who worked for the customs department, wanted to raise his family in peace. So he and his family took the first steps to get out of the country. But the rebels imprisoned Fanchon. It was only through kismet - a friendly guard allowed him to escape - that Fanchon was able to leave Congo and get to a refugee camp in Uganda where his family - a wife, Aimee, five daughters and five sons - soon joined him.

After three years there, they moved to suburban Cleveland in 2004, thanks to a Catholic organization dedicated to helping refugees find a home.

Dee had already beaten the odds. His mother had a difficult pregnancy with him. That's why she dubbed him Dee, short for "Diem merci," French for "Thank you, God."

At Lakewood High School, Dee thrived. No one was more captivated by the scrawny kid with the sunny nature than guidance counselor Jeanne Hoopes.

"That was the phenomenal part. He was a friend to everyone," she said. "Partly, it's because he just always has an easy way with people. Always smiling, optimistic, kind, gentle, interested in people. There's no one that I've ever met that was better at connecting with people in such a gentle, positive way."

He found he liked running distances. He joked that in the United States, you run for sport; in Congo you run for your life. By the time he graduated, he was voted the top athlete in the school. When the award was announced, he received a long, thunderous, standing ovation from students, parents and faculty.

His father went to community college and got a job as an instructor in Cleveland's school system for foreign students with language barriers. His mother works at a hotel. They knew the power of education, and wanted him to go to college. But how does a kid from a poor family of 12 pay for tuition?

Hoopes asked if he had gotten letters from colleges. He brought in hundreds in a large trash bag. They sat on the floor and went through them, looking for the right fit. Dee had letters from Big Ten and Ivy League schools. But Hoopes, who had talked to Phil Torrens, the cross-country and assistant track coach at Denison University, had a feeling that he could get the financial aid and nurturing he needed at the small school about 30 miles east of Columbus and two hours from Lakewood.

The first meeting was an eye-opener for Torrens.

"My impression was, wow. I mean, WOW," he said. Dee, prodded by Hoopes, had filled out every available form and application ahead of time.

"She (Hoopes) had taken him on sort of as a personal project," Torrens said. "I taught in the public schools for 19 years and I'll tell you what, I never saw too many guidance counselors who showed the interest in anybody like she did in him."

So Dee went off to picturesque Granville, Ohio, an institution known for its good academics.

Like a seed watered in rich soil and monitored closely, Dee grew. Now 23, he graduated on Mother's Day with a degree in chemistry with a minor in French. When Dee's name was announced that day, again, he was greeted with the loudest roar of the entire ceremony. He flashed that brilliant, breathtaking smile.

He also had flourished as a runner. At the conference track meet a few weeks ago, he won the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

Dee was encouraged by the Torrenses. They opened their home and lives to him, fed him, instructed him, loved him.

They had lost their own son, Joe, in an auto accident the summer before Dee came into their lives. In the midst of their grief, they found another outlet to help heal the open wound. They embraced a stranger, and were embraced in return.

"He makes our life very, very happy," Torrens said. "He's been a very positive thing since the death of Joe. Maybe that was meant to be, you know what I mean? I never really looked at it that way, but I do now."

Even as Dee's dreams were coming true, he was thinking about those who didn't have so many people watching over them, who didn't have a guidance counselor to push them, two different families to love them.

He began Project Kirotshe, named for his hometown in Congo. His hope is to build a learning center there, sort of like the local community library that Americans might take for granted. He has raised thousands of dollars from sponsorships for a run from Granville to Lakewood last summer, with many others donating money, books and computers.

Dee and his father will travel to Congo this summer. They will rent a building, begin training instructors, organize the books, set up the computers. Dee believes he'll be there for a year or two before he returns home. He may become a doctor; Hoopes thinks he could be a diplomat. He also hopes to start a running team to produce a Congolese Olympic team for the 2016 Games.

"We know that he's destined for bigger things beyond Denison," Sarah Torrens said from California, where Dee is running in the NCAA Division III nationals this week. "We truly believe that he was put in this position for a reason. He came to this country and has been able to use his running, he was never a runner before. He believes that God is using his talents in this way."

Dee is grateful for everything and everybody who has helped him along the way.

"That's one of the reasons why I want to go back to the Congo with all of this stuff we're collecting, to make sure that all the energy, all the hard work that people have invested in everything we've done here, that it actually touches people there," he said.

Funny, but if he eases the pain for some people, it won't be the first time that he's done it.

"I don't think there's accidents like that," Hoopes said, talking about Dee's relationship with the Torrenses.

Phil Torrens agrees. And his wife and her daughter will fly to Congo later this year to spend Christmas with Dee.

Joe's death "was a drastic loss to my wife and I and we've had some good times and bad times since then," he said. "But Dee always lights up the world for us. That smile he has is the greatest thing in the world."

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