Derrick Brooks (far left) and his group of travelers had to sort through bags of souvenirs upon their return to Tampa on Wednesday
Derrick Brooks said he was grateful that the 'Brooks' Bunch' made it home in 'one piece.' He was referring to the individual safety of the party's 39 travelers, but he might as well have meant the group as a whole. A life-changing event, Brooks' 'Africa 2000' journey united this professional athlete and a group of ambitious youngsters into a tight-knit family.
On Saturday, July 24, Brooks, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, left Tampa with an entourage of 39 people, including 20 local kids, mostly from area Boys & Girls Clubs. The deserving youngsters had spent the better part of a year studying, preparing and qualifying for the trip which, amazingly, would take them to about a half-dozen locales in Africa in 12 days. Their adventures were thoroughly chronicled on Buccaneers.com.
Those adventures came to an end on Wednesday when Brooks' Bunch touched back down at Tampa International Airport after a very lengthy series of flights. Even as the young men and women were reunited with their families, and even as many of the weary travelers fought to keep their eyes open, it was clear that they had all forged a bond with Brooks, and vice versa. Brooks mingled through the crowd as they sorted out their luggage and bags of souvenirs, dispensing hugs, orders, luggage and last-minute lessons in equal measures. He gathered up each of the 20 kids' journals for a closer look later and gave each of the kids parting words.
It was far from a sad parting, however. These members of Brooks' Bunch know that their hero will remain in their lives, visiting them at their Clubs and encouraging them in school. Next year, there will be another trip, the destination sure to be remarkable once again.
Brooks contemplated next year's journey even as he wrapped up the trip to Africa.
"It was great, truly a great experience," said Brooks. "I'm grateful that we left here in one piece and came back in one piece. I think all the kids, including myself, enjoyed ourselves. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We did a lot, from going on safari to visiting Robben Island and Table Mountain…three different countries and five cities in two weeks. It was a lot. We had fun. It was an education not only about Africa but about life. I think all of the kids really took something from this trip that will affect their everyday lives.
Brooks insists on calling his trips educational experiences, and his primary goal is to bring back changed men and women who will work to change those around them. "Anytime you go through something that's different, you're going to grow," he said. "The way these kids will take this experience and spread the news about what they saw is going to get other kids excited about becoming a part of our group. I look forward to the challenge."
The 20 Brooks' Bunch kids on this year's trip will probably need some time to fully determine how they have been affected. However, some of the trips lessons were easy to grasp.
We went to Soweto and visited a little shanty village," said Irene Monroe, 16, of Evans High School. "There were little kids there that we were taking pictures with, giving them t-shirts and pencils and stuff, and it just made me feel really good to help them. I cannot complain about the way I live, because they live in worse shape than I do. I have a good roof over my head; their roof is whatever they can find off the street and put together. I live in a nice, big house and I have all this stuff and they don't. It made my problems seem so little."
Brooks has been working with this particular group of kids since last October, preparing for such an enormous and important undertaking. That means he will probably need to decide on next year's destination before too long. After previous trips to Ft. Lauderdale, Africa, Washington D.C. and now Africa, there is little doubt that it will be a special journey. Brooks will get his inspiration the same way he always has.
"We take an educational trip every year; Africa just happened to be the chosen place this year," he said. "As I did with all my other trips, I'm going to pray, and wherever we decide to go next year, I just ask for the Lord's blessing.