For the last six years, that young man, Edward Cheserek, has broken track records from the East Coast to the Pacific as a New Jersey high school distance runner and now a top collegiate competitor. “He became the number one (long distance) runner in high school of all America,” Father Quinn says.
Cheserek, the fourth of seven children, grew up in a circular mud hut in a village in the Great Rift Valley, about 300 miles west of Nairobi. Like many other children in his village, he often missed classes to help his struggling family look after the farm.
That all changed in 2009, when the Stadi za Maisha Educational Trust, a non-profit organization founded by Father Quinn, identified Cheserek as a candidate for a scholarship at St. Benedict’s Prep High School in Newark, N.J.
“It changed my life,” says the 5-foot-6 athlete who is now a junior at the University of Oregon. “Back home, life was very difficult for everyone. This gave me a chance to come to the U.S. and an opportunity to make a life through schooling and running.”
Founded in 2006, Stadi za Maisha—which means “life skills” in Swahili—works with local Kenyan schools and the country’s Education Ministry to create opportunities for gifted and talented youth, especially those orphaned or disadvantaged.
“The goal is to cultivate and equip children and young people, develop personal and social skills necessary for lifelong learning and encourage healthy living in society,” says 89-year-old Father Quinn from Passaic, N.J.
Cheserek had become the 10,000-meter-champion of his province in Kenya when his high school principal recommended him to Stadi za Maisha.
Cheserek is a member of the Marakwet people, part of the Kalenjin ethnic group, renowned for producing great distance runners. From first through eighth grades, Cheserek would run four miles each day to and from school. He began running competitively in eighth grade.
Being an extremely strong runner helped save the day for Cheserek when he was scheduled to take an academic examination requested by Stadi za Maisha. But because of recent rains, mud covered the roads and prevented vehicles from traveling the route to the exam site. So, the 16-year-old ran from his hometown to take the exam at a school 60 miles away. He was awarded a scholarship to St. Benedict, which had sponsored another Kenyan student through the organization the previous year. Cheserek traveled to the United States, started his studies as a sophomore and began running for the school.
“He became better day by day, winning most of the races,” says Father Quinn, who keeps in touch with Cheserek via email and Skype.
Noting that long-distance running requires stamina, endurance and mental strength, Father Quinn says Cheserek has all these, plus a work ethic that keeps developing his potential. Cheserek not only worked hard as an athlete but has also done well in school and has grown comfortable speaking English, the missioner says.
“After three years at St. Benedict’s, everybody knew how amazing he was. He was well-respected,” says Marty Hannon, teacher and track coach at the high school. “Even though he is so famous, he is a very caring and humble person.”
At St. Benedict’s, Cheserek broke records in 12 of his 21 races. One of those records, for the school’s indoor two-mile race, had stood for 49 years.
While several universities sought to recruit him, he chose to attend the University of Oregon, where he became the first freshman in Oregon history to win an NCAA National Cross Country Championship. Last November, he captured his third NCAA Championship win for cross country, becoming the first Division I athlete to win three consecutive cross-country titles. He holds six other NCAA track titles.
“The goal is to cultivate and equip children and young people, develop personal and social skills necessary for lifelong learning and encourage healthy living in society,”
Helping youth such as Cheserek to nurture their gifts is Father Quinn’s passion. For 27 years he directed a faith-based video ministry, Ukweli Video productions, in Kenya that created nearly 300 programs and documentaries on health issues, values and faith. Stadi za Maisha grew out of this video ministry 10 years ago when parents asked Father Quinn for videos on how to dialogue with children. “Parents were feeling that they were not understanding their children,” he says.
Father Quinn says education for Kenyan children is impeded by prohibitive tuition costs, disruptions such as teachers’ strikes and a pedagogy that emphasizes memorizing topics instead of identifying students’ gifts.
“Everybody has a talent,” Father Quinn says. “Take Cheserek; he grew better and better in his talents through his work and the encouragement of others.”
For more than six years, Stadi za Maisha has worked mostly with elementary school-age students. Its staff has organized conferences and workshops in collaboration with Kenyatta University and the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development so schoolteachers can have the tools to help gifted students unlock their potential. Currently, the organization is helping the Kenyan government to develop a curriculum on talent development.
“The area of giftedness and talentedness has lagged behind for years,” says Edward Mokua, Stadi za Maisha’s program manager. “Many gifted and talented persons have been wasted in our system and this translates to immense loss for our economy.”
More than 5,700 children and youth in the Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Mombasa have benefited from these program initiatives. Even though Father Quinn is now living back in the States, the organization he founded continues to involve parents and teachers in helping young people nurture their skills by constantly challenging them, just as Cheserek challenges himself through disciplined training that helps unlock his potential. The Maryknoll priest hopes to build a center for talented and gifted Kenyan youth in Nairobi and is working now on fundraising for the project.
Edward Cheserek passes on the benefits he has received by encouraging other Kenyan youth to try their hardest to achieve their dreams. The sociology major and star runner tells them to work hard and to “know where you come from and what you want to be in the future.”
Cheserek dreams of one day competing in the Olympics, possibly for the United States, and running professionally. A 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal said, “Cheserek is well on his way to becoming one of the best college distance runners ever, a combination of talent, confidence, dedication, patience and humility whose potential looks limitless.” For now, though, Cheserek is focusing on training for the next season and getting his degree.
“He is our pride and joy,” says Father Quinn. “We are hoping to do the same thing with other youth in Kenya.”
Featured Image: Edward Cheserek crosses the finish line at the 2015 NCAA Division 1 Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., last June. (N. Barrett / U.S.)