BLUE LAKE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — You wouldn’t think of a homecoming in the middle of a pandemic, especially not when home is more than 10,000 miles away.
But if it weren’t for the coronavirus, John Waller wouldn’t have been able to travel back to Liberia; he would still be in season, playing soccer as a semiprofessional footballer for Atlantic City FC in New Jersey. He’s making the best of the worst, something he has been able to do his entire life.
Waller, born Tucker Vaye, in Peace Island, Liberia inherited near-impossible circumstances. His birth mother left his family at a young age. His father had no job and traveled into the third world country’s interior looking for work, leaving Waller to the care of his older sister. With two other mouths to feed aside from his own, the pair were often hungry. They had little but hope for better days to come.
“This is what I always tell people. When I talk to people in America who are always complaining that they don’t have much, they don’t have this, they don’t have that and I always tell them the poorest person in America is richer than 90% of the people here in Liberia,” Waller said. “Because remember, you get welfare in America, the government helps you in America. Even right now, I heard they just passed the stimulus check to help people. Here, the government doesn’t do that. You’re poor, you’re poor. You’re starving, you’re starving.”
At 12 years old, this was a reality for Waller. No food, no clothing, no education. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
“One day I was just thinking to myself, you know, what can I do to help my situation and I kept thinking, so I decided, you know what? I want to seek help,” John said. “I need to do something to better myself, and I was thinking what can I do? Who can help me? Who can I find to help me?”
So, he wrote a letter. Inside it, he pleaded to anyone to help give him an education — a chance at a better life.
“I wrote this letter and I walked to the U.S. embassy. I walked from Peace Island to the U.S. embassy which is almost like leaving East Lansing, Michigan to Grand Rapids, to go to Grand Rapids, OK?” Waller said. “Mind you, the whole day I haven’t eaten anything. I’m wearing a slipper on my foot that has broken and I’m starving. The U.S. embassy here in Liberia is on top of a hill — 12-year-old kid, starving hungry.”
Tired, hungry, alone. Walking for miles on end, Waller nearly quit.
“But there was something in me kept telling me just to keep walking up the hill, just keep going. And I kept walking,” John said. “As soon as I walk up that hill, a green Jeep just pulls up in front of me and in that Jeep was Darin and Angela Waller.”
John didn’t know it yet, but the Whitehall couple, who was in Liberia to adopt two other children, would soon change his life.
“Your heart breaks because these people living there have to either give up their kids for a better life for themselves or they starve and they’ll die cause when we say we don’t have anything, that means oh we still got a car, we still got a place to live. When they say they have nothing, they literally don’t have food. They don’t have water. They don’t actually have a place to live and some of them don’t have clothes on their back,” Darin Waller said. “So, when we met John we felt that God put it on our heart to adopt him too.”
After giving the couple the letter, he begged them to put him in their suitcase to bring him to the U.S. After a yearlong process, the Wallers were able to come back and bring John home where they gave him food, clothing, education and most importantly a family.
He eventually graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in political science — he even played college football for the Spartans for a time.
“I loved football, but it wasn’t the best fit because you know here in Liberia, we don’t know anything about American football,” Waller said. “The only thing we know is soccer.”
This brings us to, today. Waller started his own charity, Summerplace FC, all while working towards his ultimate goal of playing Major League Soccer, and giving back.
“The reason I started to do this is, you know, I can relate to those kids that we help. That’s the reason I started this,” Waller said. “I connected so well with the kids because I knew where I came from, the struggle I had to go through, I was just like them.”
That struggle eventually brought him back home to a hero’s welcome.
“They had posters of me. They had pictures of me on their shirts. They were chanting my name when I walked out of the plane,” Waller said. “It brought tears to my eyes because when I left here, no one knew who I was, I was just a poor starving kid with no shoes on his feet.”
Home with soccer balls and equipment to share, but more importantly with food, cooking oil, clothes, school supplies and hope.
“That’s what I brought, that’s my mission while I am here in Liberia. Back in Liberia, even though I’m here and I came back here after 16 years, my mission, my main goal coming here was to work with orphanages,” Waller said. “These are the things I want to do with my life because my mom and dad, Darin and Angela Waller, blessed my life. They changed my life for the better and now I can do the same for others.”
To be proud of just how far John has come, wouldn’t accurately explain Waller’s emotion.
“Everybody asks me, are you proud? No, I’m not proud. I’m thankful, and I want them to know to give that back to God because he gave it to you,” Waller said. “Don’t give up. Continue to believe. Continue to have faith.”
Before Waller makes the trip back to the United State to prepare for the upcoming soccer season, he wants to build a well for the orphanages he’s helping. You can help him achieve his goal by donating to his GoFundMe page.