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“It Was Deeply Inspiring.” Coach Humbled By Immigrant Student’s Daily Struggle To Get To School. “Today, I Decided To Walk In The Shoes Of One Of Our Students.”

Coach Schipper and MJ

We tend to expect a lot from teenagers, and it’s easy to forget that some of them have real-life struggles that rival those of any adult.

Leland Schipper is a soccer coach at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa. When he recently called out a 15-year-old student for being late to practice, the teen challenged him to “do what I do” for one day. To the teen’s surprise, Coach Schipper took him up on that offer.

MJ Mangok is Sudanese, but his family fled civil war to Egypt when he was a baby. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2021, and they’ve been working to learn the language and make friends ever since. MJ’s life revolves around family, school, and soccer.

As Coach Schipper learned, MJ’s days are long, exhausting, and centered around navigating the city by bus. By the end of the whirlwind day, he was filled with a new appreciation for all his students’ struggles. The coach wrote about his day on Facebook, and the post went viral.

“I’m writing this before I go to sleep after one of the longest days I’ve ever experienced,” Leland began. “Today, I decided to walk in the shoes of one of our students at North – one of the young men I get the privilege to have on my soccer team. MJ gave me permission to share about our day together and about some of his story.”

Leland explained that he knows MJ through soccer, and described how the youth told him “You couldn’t do what I do.” At first he scoffed at that idea, but he was quickly proven wrong.

“While I knew MJ, and many kids I work with face real obstacles, I was relatively sure I was fully capable of doing what MJ does,” he wrote. “By the end of the day, it was clear to me that MJ was right, I wasn’t.”

Their day started shivering at a city bus stop at 6:30 a.m. MJ lives very far from school, and he takes two buses to get there.

“Throughout our bus journey, I followed MJ like he was my guide in a city I have lived in most of my life,” the coach admitted.

While waiting at the DART station for their second bus, MJ displayed wisdom beyond his years in very adult situations:

We got to the school by 7:40. That is about 45 minutes before school starts. MJ pointed out there was no one else there yet and told me his choices are either to be this early, or to be 5 minutes late. I started to understand why he chose 5 minutes late so frequently.

Leland stuck by MJ’s side all day long, attending classes and eating both breakfast and lunch with him. Throughout the day, the coach learned a lot about how hardworking and resourceful his student is, and what a ray of light he is for those around him.

The pair separated briefly while MJ took a 2-hour round-trip journey home to grab the sneakers he’d forgotten that morning. They met up at the YMCA downtown, but not before Leland had to navigate the city’s bus system on his own.

I had no car and had to get myself to the YMCA on my own with very little MJ facilitated DART training. I missed the bus. It was a cold mistake. The soccer team sent pictures of me in the group chat with captions “Coach is going to freeze” and “RIP coach.” MJ just laughed at me when I finally made it downtown to meet up with him and another player at the YMCA.

The YMCA is safe, warm, and gives MJ a place to be alone with a soccer ball. He sometimes plays with friends, but usually, he just listens to music and plays with a soccer ball in a racquetball court–often for hours. In his words, “I just like being alone with a ball.”

Their marathon day didn’t end there. Leland and MJ caught yet another bus and went back to school for Open Gym from 8 to 9:30 p.m. As the exhausting day caught up to him, the coach realized he’d been too hard on MJ and others who can’t make it to after-school activities.

There have been nights where MJ didn’t make it to Open Gym at 8 PM on weeknights. He often does, but he sometimes would tell me he was too tired and didn’t have a ride. I regret that my response had often been, “Come on man, the DART bus is free for students this year. You’ve got no excuse!” It is free, which is incredible, but it’s a lot more complicated than that; I see that more clearly now.

MJ played with more joy than anyone, joking with teammates, scoring goals freely, and looking at me after each goal.

At the end of the night, they caught the bus back downtown, chatting for half an hour about his time as a refugee in Egypt.

He showed me videos of him playing soccer as a 12 year old at his refugee camp in Egypt … They were fascinating glimpses into the formative years that created such an incredibly resilient and joyous kid.

It was after 11 p.m. when they arrived home at MJ’s apartment complex. They shared a hug, and the coach joked that he still can’t be late to first period even now that he knows how hard it is to get there. Leland was emotional when he sat down to write about his day on Facebook.

All that to say this: In three months, when you see a post on the North High School Boy’s Soccer page about MJ scoring a goal in a big game, it will represent a lot more than most Iowa high schoolers scoring a goal. And in two and a half years, when MJ walks across the graduation stage, it will mean even more. MJ turns obstacles into skills and finds joy in every moment of the process. It was deeply inspiring to have a front seat to it today.

We’re tired just reading about this long day! Walking in someone else’s shoes really does change your perspective, doesn’t it? Our hat is off to MJ and all of the dedicated students who literally go to great lengths just to make life happen.

Share this story to thank Leland for being willing to step into someone else’s shoes!

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