Nathanael Gardner has never forgotten where he came from.
Adopted from Ethiopia at age 7 after both of his parents died of malaria, the memories of his home and of the family left behind are ever present.
He’s returned twice – once in 2013 to visit his older sister, and once in 2016 to visit a church. A church built with money he’d saved from summer jobs.
“I am very grateful for where I am,” said Gardner. “But growing up in a Third World country gave me a different viewpoint of growing up in the States.”
Adapting to his new life initially proved daunting.
“I’d never seen white people before coming here,” he said. “Often I was the only black student in the classroom. It was kind of weird.”
But adapt he did. From learning English, to perfecting his soccer skills, to taking the lead on Mead’s cross country team, Gardner has soared.
“He’s such a hard worker,” said Steve Kiesel, cross country and track coach. “He’s very determined in the classroom.”
The language barrier made English and science more challenging for Gardner, but he enjoyed learning about other cultures in history class and math came easier for him.
“Math I understood,” he said. “It’s an international subject.”
Gardner enjoys being active and has run cross country all four years at Mead.
“He has great leadership skills,” Kiesel said. “He’s one of the guys I relied on as a role model and motivator. Watching his work ethic is amazing.”
That work ethic is present outside of sports and academics. He’s been involved with the Bite to Go program, Secondd Harvest Food Bank and helped with Unified Basketball, a sports program that pairs students with intellectually disabled peers.
While many teens get summer jobs to save money for cars or college, Gardner worked at Riverfront Park, doggedly saving his earnings to build a church in his village in Ethiopia.
“I wanted to help people,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure how.”
The church project enabled him to help his village from afar. Each month, he sent money for the building, and last summer, he got to see the finished product.
“It was amazing to see it. I was there during a conference, and I got to see all these people there, worshipping in the church.”
As he looks to his future, he hasn’t yet decided which college he’ll attend. He’s been accepted at several universities, including EWU and Whitworth.
“I’m thinking about studying international relations,” Gardner said. “I’d like to get a job at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia.”
He remains profoundly thankful for his adoptive family and for his school family.
“The people at Mead are amazing,” he said. “I’m going to miss them.”
That feeling is reciprocated by his teachers and coaches who are eager to see where Gardner’s drive and compassion will take him.
“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he’s going to be successful – no doubt about it,” said Kiesel.
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