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Originally asked to simply supply volleyball supplies for a Penn trip to Africa, coach Kerry Carr quickly became interested in making the trip herself, eventually opting to pay her own way to the distant country.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

For a typical head coach, summer vacation might signal the time to hit the recruiting trail, scheme for the upcoming season and enjoy the rare opportunity to unwind as the constant frenzy of the school year takes a brief pause.

But Penn volleyball coach Kerry Carr did things a tad differently.

In late May, Carr accompanied approximately 15 Penn students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Rwanda Gashora Program, a part of Penn’s Global Seminar Program designed to add an overseas experience to a seminar course. In the twelve-day trip, Carr and her colleagues primarily worked with the Gashora Girls Academy in an effort to implement solar energy and increase the usage of the Internet, while Carr also individually ran volleyball clinics with local children.

Though news of Carr’s involvement wasn’t revealed to the public until May, the program was by no means an arbitrary decision by the coach.

“You know, it was [Director for Global and Local Service Learning Programs for Penn Engineering] Ocek Eke — he e-mailed me about a net and balls to bring to Africa, and I kept saying, ‘Who is this person?’, but I finally found out he was from Penn,” Carr said on how she initially discovered the program.

“I talked to Ocek, and within five minutes of talking to the guy I was like, ‘I want to help dig trenches and help them find clean water and do whatever you want. Tell me how I can help; I’ll get you nets, I’ll get you balls, I’ll get you a volleyball coach.’ He said they could use a coach and I’m like, ‘What?’, and it turned out I could come and run a volleyball clinic, so he said, ‘Come with us.’ The more we talked, the more I said, ‘How can I help?’, and it ended up being amazing for both parties.”

Indeed, the list of potential pitfalls was formidable, with safety concerns, financial issues, the risk of missing out on key recruiting periods and the necessity to leave family behind for two weeks. But Carr would let nothing stand between her and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Family life [was the biggest obstacle]; I had to leave my kids for two weeks,” Carr said. “Penn Athletics was completely supportive of me taking off two weeks and doing that, and I actually just paid my own way since I didn’t want Penn Engineering to have to pay for me. For me, whenever I can do any kind of community service, I’ll put forth the money for that.”

Carr’s experiences – which she blogged daily for Penn Athletics – ranged from touring the local towns, working on projects to establish solar power and Internet access, visiting a memorial for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, bonding with the Gashora girls enough to be invited to their “International Idol” talent show and, of course, a decent amount of volleyball.

“Obviously it was amazing for me, but I think for the engineer group it was pretty cool to have sports as something else, because the kids there couldn’t see what they were doing with the Internet and lights as much as they could see a volleyball,” Carr said. “We’re still trying to raise money to finish the pipe installing [for the lights], so even after the project, it’s still our main goal to make sure that we finish what we started there.”

And as the time approaches for Carr to buckle down and focus on returning to the top half of the Ivy League, she’ll enter her 19th consecutive season in the cutthroat world of Division I volleyball with a new perspective altogether.

“Seeing kids enjoy the sport of volleyball no matter where they are was big for me; [competitiveness] is so ingrained in the college sport at this level and to see people just love the game at a very basic level was encouraging,” Carr said.

“To help others in any way I can is always going to be a positive ... It highlights that this is Penn; this is why you guys chose to come here, to get this worldwide view whether it’s of third-world countries or the global economy. So go experience this.”

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