Thursday, February 9, 2012

From a mud hut in Ethiopia to a home in Oak Park, life has been a journey for one OPRF student-athlete

This is not an ordinary story, simply because Sintayehu "Ty" Fleming is not an ordinary teenager.

OPRF student-athlete Sintayehu "Ty" Fleming says participating in sports such as wrestling, football, baseball and hockey has helped him adjust to life from his days as an orphan in Ethiopia.
To start from the beginning would be too conventional, and there's been nothing too conventional about the first 18 years of this kid's life. We begin here and now with Ty in his senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School. He has just finished placing second in his weight class (138 pounds) at the junior varsity conference wrestling meet.

"It's satisfying," he says, "but not too satisfying. I could have done better. Overall, I'd say it was a successful season."

Before long, he'll go home and help get his three younger siblings fed and put to bed. He'll clear the table, wash the dishes, take the trash out, walk the dog. He'll prepare the medicine his brother and sister must take every day because they're HIV positive. He'll plug his mind into a book on philosophy (John Locke) or a medical journal. He'll then go to bed and be up again at 5 a.m. to walk to school, work out, and receive extra help from teachers. If it's the weekend, he'll take his siblings to the park. Ty Fleming is not your average teen.

While others listened to their iPods or chatted up the latest pop culture craze on the bus trips to wrestling meets throughout the season, Ty would usually be busy studying.

"He would have his face planted in a book between matches if he could," says OPRF head wrestling coach Mike Powell. "He's got grit. He's a true survivor. And the best thing about it is he knows where he's going."
Ty is going to college and then, hopefully, medical school and then, hopefully, back to Ethiopia, where he was born and spent the first six years of his life — a difficult six years. Back then he didn't have any idea where he was going.

It is custom in Ethiopia for a young son to wash his father's hands before a meal. Ty remembers doing this in the hut made of mud and straw where he lived in the village of Bahir Dar. That's about it as far as any memory of his father, who died in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 1990s when Ty was 4. His mother remarried but died a year later while giving birth in the hut made of mud and straw. Ty remembers this too.

He had just four years with his biological parents. He spent a year living with his stepfather and his stepfather's girlfriend, but it was a rough go.

"I was afraid living there and it was very lonesome," he recalls. "I had one friend and he had a club foot. We would go about stealing wood, but he would always get caught because he couldn't run well."

Ty was placed in an orphanage at the age of 6. He played soccer on a small enclosed driveway to pass the time.

"In the orphanage there was little schooling," he recalls. "We had a 10x10 room we sat in, but we didn't do much in there."

After a year, a woman named Margaret Fleming and her adopted son, Nathan, showed up. A former social worker and founder of Adoption-Link in Oak Park, Fleming had seen a photo of Ty in a newsletter. "It was kind of mystical," she says. "Something just said I need to do what I can for this child."

But her age, 65, was a problem. She was thought to be too old to adopt Ty. "I refused to give up," she says. "I wrote letters and sent packages, and then one day we received a call to come get him."

It was a cold, dark night, she recalls, and the little boy was shivering under a big coat.

"He knew no English whatsoever," she recalls. "He was withdrawn, wouldn't hold my hand, scared and confused. He was so beat up. He had been scalded by his [stepfather's girlfriend] with burning oil, bitten by dogs and had tics embedded in his fingernails. He was seriously malnourished."

On the way home, they stopped in Germany, where Ty celebrated his seventh birthday. "That night he got to pick out a present and he chose a little Volkswagen match-box car," Fleming remembers.

But as soon as they pulled up to her home on the 900 block of North Taylor Avenue in Oak Park, things got bad. Ty felt as if he had been kidnapped.

"He panicked, kicking and screaming. He was grief stricken," says Fleming. "He missed his friends at the orphanage. It was a hard adjustment, it took more than seven months and it nearly tore the family apart. He was hitting, kicking, screaming and spitting. He was intolerable."

Ty's behavior got him kicked out of Hatch Elementary School, and Fleming came to the brink of rescinding the adoption. "Luckily," she says, "we persevered."

And then Ty found sports — a release, a distraction, something that helped him realize he was in a better place with a better opportunity.

He began with baseball. "I walked up to the batter's box for the first time, got ready to hit and I had the bat upside down," he remembers. "But I loved playing baseball. I was on a traveling team for a while and we went everywhere."

Similar to understanding and speaking English, which began by reading Itsy Bitsy Spider, sports had to be learned, and Ty, as mentioned earlier, is a voracious learner.

He stayed with baseball all the way up to his sophomore year of high school. Hockey he played until his freshman year, soccer from third grade to fifth grade, football from fifth grade to junior year. He's been wrestling for the last three years.

Ty's an ardent Red Wings fan — "I get a lot of criticism for that," he says — and a devoted Cubs fan. "It's gonna happen," he believes.

His goal right now is to get into a good college where he can study hard and realize his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. He's applied to 10 schools and has been accepted at three thus far: Ursinus College (Pa.), Bradley and Indiana. He's leaning toward Ursinus and also Cornell, which has yet to reply.

Fleming, now 75, has this to say about Ty leaving for college: "I am tearful when I think about it. He is the heart of this family, but we love him enough to know we must let him go."

Ty on leaving his mother and his siblings: "My mom is one of the most important people in my life. I tell her every Mother's Day that she saved my life. It will be difficult to leave her and my brothers and sisters, but it will work out in the end."

As for a return to Ethiopia, Ty says he had the opportunity to go back for a visit last year but wasn't ready.

"There will come a time when I will go back to help people," he says.

And you believe him.