Jeff Cummings, the women’s soccer coach at Thomas More College, was having a tough time connecting with Emilee Buchanan.
Buchanan, a 2011 Columbus East graduate and one of Cummings’ starting defenders who helped the Cincinnati-area team to a 19-2-2 record, simply has been unavailable.
Cummings knows the Columbus East graduate has bigger priorities than soccer.
“She is the kind of student-athlete that any Division III school dreams of getting,” Cummings said of Buchanan, a junior. “We know she has interests other than soccer.”
Buchanan just returned from a spring break that had nothing to do with beaches and margaritas. She spent her “vacation” in El Paso, Texas, working at the Annunciation House, a shelter that benefits refugees and the homeless.
“That kind of work is the mission of the school,” Cummings said. “It is what we are all about.
“Emilee always is balancing things, and that’s OK. Most of the students here do the kind of work she was doing (in El Paso). How much she does is what’s rare.”
The summer of 2012, Buchanan spent two weeks volunteering at a medical clinic in Guatemala, and the past two spring breaks she has worked at the Annunciation House. This summer she will join her boyfriend, Columbus North and Wabash College grad Dylan Andrew, who works with the Peace Corps, in the Dominican Republic teaching preventative health for two months. Closer to home, she is working at Thomas More to take leftover food from the cafeteria and donate it to an organization that would make it available to the homeless.
And, by the way, she has to carve out time for a two-week trip this summer to Costa Rica with the Thomas More soccer team.
She accomplishes everything while handling the rigors of being a college athlete and taking an 18-unit course load in her nursing major. Despite that schedule, she was a Presidents Athletic Conference Academic Honor Roll student this past season. It should also be noted that she works as many hours as possible in the concession stands at pro sporting events in Cincinnati to pay for her altruistic trips.
“I think I changed when I took my first sociology class in college,” said Buchanan, who graduated from East in 2011. “People don’t do things because they don’t have the time. I started asking myself, ‘Do I have the time?’ There are injustices in the world.
Is it a priority really to help people who are poor and marginal?’”
Her answer was yes. She got busy.
Working on the United States-Mexico border, where El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are separated by a line, has made a huge impact on her life.
“It’s a border awareness experience,” she said. “Oh my gosh, they teach you a lot about immigration policy and the laws. You learn about why people come over (from Mexico). We would go into Juarez. There is violence there, drug cartels and economic injustice.”
In her trip to El Paso earlier this month, she worked on the renovation of two rooms of the century-old, red brick Annunciation House that is 10 blocks from the border. “We painted and re-did the floors and windows,” she said.
That wasn’t all.
Those who live at the Annunciation House are responsible for preparing meals as are the volunteers.
“Meals are a big deal because there are so many people,” Buchanan said. “We did a Thanksgiving in March. There were about 55 people living there.”
The steady work load makes the time pass, but it’s hard to ignore the suffering that refugees endure.
“A lot of people are hurting,” Buchanan said. “My heart, my passion, goes into these people. I know the feeling is that these people are a drain on our economy, but we learn. We know that people turn their heads to immigrants. Each year I’ve gotten close to a different set of people there. There is a huge communication barrier. They do not speak English, and my Spanish isn’t the best.
“But after two days they will tell you they love you.”
Refugees from Mexico, Central America and other places around the world wait at the Annunciation House for their asylum cases to be heard. Buchanan checks back. “I ask volunteers what happened to people. Some have been granted asylum, more haven’t had their case heard yet because it takes a long time, and most are sent back.”
It’s a lot for a 21-year-old to take upon her shoulders.
Her mother, Brenda Buchanan, has watched as her daughter’s college experience has changed her.
“Boy, did it ever,” Brenda Buchanan said. “With each new year, I still continue to see the changes in her. She seems more dedicated to her studies now and is very disciplined when it comes to homework. She’s always been a good student, but always had to work hard at getting good grades. It didn’t come natural. She seems to care much more about what kind of grades she makes now.
“She gets more involved in activities, too. She is more eager to learn and is like a sponge, absorbing as much knowledge as she can. She worked on her Spanish all last summer on her own. She was never like that in high school.”
Brenda Buchanan isn’t surprised to see her daughter packing so many things into each day.
“She hated being bored,” Brenda Buchanan said. “She had to have something to do at all times. Keeping her entertained was a bit of a challenge. And she always loved reading. Instead of sleeping with stuffed animals as a toddler, she slept with books.”
As a soccer player at East, Emilee Buchanan dominated in the midfield, eventually being named to the All-State First Team her senior season.
“Emilee was a fabulous player,” said East coach Ilya Schwartzman, who coached her all four seasons of high school. “She was very unselfish and team-oriented. And she was just a wonderful person. It was part of her character.”
Although Emilee Buchanan said she learned to be more concerned with what was happening in the rest of the world when she reached college, Schwartzman could tell she was a person who could make a difference.
“All individuals go through changes in life and develop as people,” Schwartzman said. “But you get a sense about what kind of human beings they are. She was a very unselfish, caring person who didn’t just focus on herself. She was open and supportive of her teammates. She took players under her wing. I think the world of Emilee.”
Although Buchanan didn’t play Division I soccer in college, Schwartzman noted that it’s a tremendous success story.
“We emphasize that our players’ future life is not about soccer,” Schwartzman said. “Soccer can be a part of their life, but we advise them that soccer just helps them grow. When they choose a college, it’s got to be a college they really like for academics and how they feel in that environment. For Emilee, Thomas More was a great fit for her. The soccer program was just an absolute bonus, a place she could play and contribute as a freshman.”
MainSource Market President Charlie Farber worked with Brenda Buchanan when he moved to Columbus is 2002 and met her family.
“I’ve had the pleasure of watching Emilee grow up,” Farber said. “She has an amazing attitude, and her outlook on life is very positive.
“She is someone who is committed, and she brings out the best in people. I have written letters of recommendation for her various programs where she has volunteered.”
Her parents, Brenda and Larry Buchanan, will continue to worry about her as she volunteers in poor communities and third-world countries.
“It does get easier with each one she takes,” Brenda Buchanan said. “I remember the summer between her junior and senior year in high school, she flew to Boston all by herself to attend a youth leadership forum on medicine. She was only 17, and it terrified me. It doesn’t bother me as much now, but I always will worry about her no matter where she is. She never has let the fear of the unknown keep her from doing anything. That’s what I really admire about her.”
Emilee said she will continue to push forward.
“It is physically tiring,” she said of her schedule. “You are extremely exhausted, but you come back (from an altruistic trip) with a renewed sense of gratitude. You are spiritually uplifted.”