By Ron Allen, NBC News Correspondent
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – I've been to Africa dozens of times. However, my reporting trip to Sierra Leone earlier this summer was unique.
Why? We went to cover "good news," make that "wonderful" news stories.
We did a story about a professional athlete who lives in the United States – but was born and raised in Sierra Leone – and returns there every year trying to help more kid get an education.
Another story is about the U.S. Peace Corps, President Kennedy’s nearly 50-year-old idea, which just sent the first group of volunteers back to Sierra Leone in 16 years. The Peace Corps, like just about every other Western organization, had fled Sierra Leone's decade long civil war and its lingering aftermath.
And finally, we did a story about an old slave fortress, Bunce Island, and an American professor trying to get it the recognition and attention it deserves for its inhumane and brutal contribution to history.
This was my first trip to West Africa. I've been all over the continent covering wars, famines, floods and various other disasters, natural and man-made. But this was a trip about Americans in a far flung corner of the world doing incredibly selfless things.
From the football field to Freetown
First up was Madieu Williams. He's number 20 on the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, a free safety entering his seventh season, who plays the game in a solid and unspectacular way. He's a guy who doesn't crave the limelight. He's not a self promoter. He's humble. He's so many things the stereotypical brash, multi-millionaire, egomaniacal professional athlete is not.
Williams was in Sierra Leone during the off-season doing his life's work. He was born and raised there until he was 9 years old. He then came to the U.S. with his family and has been living the American dream. But he returns to Sierra Leone each year.
He's built a school on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic coast on the outskirts of Freetown, the capital. It's a school in a community where none had existed before. The staff had to turn students away when it opened, so many wanted to attend. The teachers either volunteer or earn very little money. That's the way things are done over there.
Williams was visiting with a group of volunteers from a foundation called Healing Hands, based in Baltimore. The volunteers – teachers, doctors, dentists, even a business man and a civil engineer – had all come to help the local community. They brought school supplies like books, pencils and rulers and they brought expertise to help train the staff. But mostly they brought big open hearts, and tried to show the people in this desperately poor nation that somebody cares.
That's the kind of thing that Williams makes happen, when he's not banging heads with the best of them in the NFL. He also recently gave his alma mater, the University of Maryland, $2 million of his own money. It's the largest gift ever from someone so young – he's 28.
The money is to help start a global health center at the university. Williams hopes the school’s research will discover ways to improve health care and education in places like Sierra Leone. All that is pretty telling about what kind of person Williams is – a guy who gives millions from his own pocket, because he's concerned about poverty in the developing world.
Williams says his family instilled in him early the importance, make that the necessity, of giving back, and often putting others first.
He took us to his old neighborhood in Sierra Leone. I was expecting more. The family home is a rundown two story structure that looks like it might get washed away by one of Sierra Leone's monsoon afternoon rain storms. But the family had more than most, Williams explained. They had TV, a phone, even running water, which they shared with neighbors.
Williams’ mother lived the lesson of helping others. She was a nurse, who often took her son with her through the hospital wards. Williams named the school he built to honor her. Sadly, she passed away a few years ago – Abigail D. Butscher was just 45.
During this visit, Williams returned to some of those same hospital wards his mother used to take him to. The other foundation he was teaming up with on this trip, Healing Hands, does most of its work in pediatric centers around the world.
The story of how this partnership came together takes us briefly back to football, and the University of Maryland. Dr. Jamie Flores, a plastic surgeon who volunteers for Healing Hands, was once a defensive tackle for Maryland's college team. A few years ago, the school honored him for his humanitarian work. Williams was another honoree.
They met, hit it off, and this summer they were standing together in a dingy children's ward in the hospital where Williams was born, trying to figure out what's needed most and how to get it here.
This is a long-term commitment. And in fact, that's how Williams answers the inevitable question: “How can you be optimistic and hopeful in a place full of so much misery and despair?”
His answer: “Small victories, patience and time."
It's a pretty remarkable story of a man who never forgot where he came from. A talented, successful professional athlete who could be almost anywhere else he wanted to be, but chooses to spend so much of his time, money and effort in a place few Americans ever will go.
We hope you'll enjoy our story on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and the extended interview, video clips and pictures linked here, as much as we enjoyed the actual time spent in Sierra Leone.
Stay tuned for more of Ron Allen's reports from Sierra Leone on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams.