Sara Pimentel

When Dominican University of California soccer player Sara Pimentel stepped off a bus in Uganda during the summer of 2011, she never anticipated that she would receive a hero’s welcome. She never felt so much admiration or heard so many cheers for any goal she ever scored.

Pimentel, a Nursing major at Dominican, was part of a group of 18 Modesto area students representing Plant-A-Seed Foundation that had come to Africa to support a school and farm in Uganda. But when Pimentel arrived in Kabale, she was treated like royalty.

There was a marching band, all dressed in red, playing the instant she and her group opened the door to their bus. There were dozens of students lined on both sides of a dirt road, providing a human tunnel leading up a hill to the chapel’s doors where there were hundreds of students waiting and watching their every move, fascination written all over their faces for as far as the eyes could see.

“It just takes your breath away,” Pimentel said. “It’s weird. I went there expecting to help them but I got way back more than I expected.”

The Uganda trip was a cultural awakening for Pimentel, a pretense to her desire to be community service oriented at Dominican where she is majoring in nursing. In her three-week stay in Uganda, she quickly came to appreciate the passion and uniqueness of its people, their devotion to family and religion and their spirituality.

Pimentel wants to go back for more.

It wasn’t so much an once-in-a-lifetime experience as it was “door-opening,” she said.  For years, Pimentel had fantasized about going to Africa, especially after her brother’s friend in high school had raved about time she spent there.

One day last summer, Pimentel was having breakfast with Gabby Gini, a soccer teammate and classmate at Central Catholic High School. Gini said she had committed to a Plant-A-Seed Foundation mission to Uganda and asked Pimentel if she had any interest in joining her. Never mind that Pimentel knew absolutely nothing about Plant-A-Seed or Uganda.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” she said. “It’s one of my goals.”

Pimentel jumped at the chance. She met with Rick Gray, CEO of the non-profit foundation whose principle is minimize expenses and maximize contributions. Based in Modesto, Plant-A-Seed has been donating money and manpower to causes home and abroad for seven years.

Initially, Pimentel didn’t think there was a vacant spot for her on the Uganda trip, but Gray informed her there had been a last-minute cancellation. However, he needed a financially commitment from her and her family to cover her airfare and lodging and he needed it within 24-48 hours.

“It was so emotional. I wanted to go so bad,” Pimentel said.

Her father, Philip, had a change of heart and made it happen.  He said she had to choose between visiting a friend in Sweden or volunteering to go with a Plant-A-Seed Foundation group to Uganda.

 Pimentel had been to Sweden. She had only dreamed of going to Africa and basically the trip came together in a weekend.

“It was happening so fast,” she said. ““It’s something that has never been real to me.”

In Uganda, Pimentel helped teach English and tell stories about America and its government to students at Kabale Trinity College. She also poured and carried cement up a hill to a chicken ranch where Ugandans were trying to create a sustainable food source to supplement their normal diet of beans and rice.

There was some play time, too. Pimentel went rafting down the Nile River and saw silver-back gorillas after climbing mountainous paths that were so straight and steep, she said, “I thought I was going to die.”

And, of course, Pimentel managed to play a little soccer. Rick Gray kept introducing Pimentel as “the football player” and the Ugandans were amazed to see a female in a skirt playing soccer. Pimentel, in return, was stunned by how some children in an orphanage were playing soccer with a ball that consisted of plastics bags tied tightly together.

But what struck Pimentel the most was the spirit of the Ugandan people. When she returned to California in August of 2011, she had a Uganda flag, other Ugandan trinkets, a list of students who wanted to be her friend on Facebook and memories that will last a lifetime.

You might say Pimentel came back with way more than she expected.