Brad Laughlin Mendham Basketball

The website for Seeds of Light is:
seedsoflight.org

Former Mendham Basketball Captain's Journey: Helping AIDS Orphans in South Africa.

by Mark Kitchin, Daily Record

Athletes at a basketball camp expect to learn about passing lanes and ways to improve their shooting skills. They don't expect to get lessons about apartheid, Nelson Mandela and the poverty of South Africa.

However, some of the future Minutemen were in for a surprise when former Mendham athlete Brad Laughlin talked about lessons in life that go far beyond hitting shots and winning basketball games. He gave a 15-minute talk on the importance of believing in yourself, being unselfish and being grateful for what you have and, in the process, relayed some experiences he had trying to help South African orphans battling to overcome a dire situation in their country. Brad Laughlin

"Unless you see something like that you don't necessarily understand that money doesn't buy happiness," Laughlin said. "Being rich in spirit is really what happiness is all about."

The 44-year-old Mendham and Duke University graduate works hard to fundraise for Seeds of Light, a non-profit organization working to make big changes in the Acornhoek district, a cluster of Third-World villages of about 60,000 people in the northern part of South Africa that was once a "homeland" area trapped in the throes of apartheid. In recent years the AIDS/HIV epidemic has created an overflow of thousands of orphans with little infrastructure set up to take care of them. In part of his talk, he focused on the difficulties of children who have lost their parents and have no one to look after them, have very little food and have to walk miles just to find drinking water.

"It's really hard for kids to know," Laughlin said. "Unless you go there, you can't know. How can you ever know? ... I always encourage people to travel as well. When we take people on tours, we go into the village to see Africa so they can really get an appreciation of it."

It's not the typical speaker that Mendham High athletic director and boys basketball coach Jim Baglin brings to his basketball camps. However, Laughlin was one of the captains on the first team Baglin coached at Mendham in 1980. He also played on a freshman team that was coached by former Mendham girls basketball coach Fred Corona. Both have gone on to have eventful high school coaching careers.

Baglin kept up with Brad over the years with the help of his father, Jim. The Laughlins still live in the community and are fervent Mendham supporters.

"He was really an unselfish kid," Baglin said of Brad. "He bought into all of the little things like screening, defending, passing the ball for other guys to score. He was totally selfless. ... It's his character. For him to do what he's doing and his connection to our program -- you can't put a price on that. He's been the greatest guy."

As a player, Laughlin recognized the qualities Baglin brought to his teams from the very first day.

"We thought coach Baglin was the best thing since sliced bread," Laughlin said. "He really taught us to be a team. He provided all kinds of opportunities for us to get to know each other better. He motivated people. You looked up to him. He really instilled confidence in the players. I felt that."

Upon graduating from Mendham, Laughlin attended Duke University and was team manager for the school's basketball program when a popular and ultimately successful new coach, Mike Krzyzewski, joined the Blue Devils. Although he wasn't around to be part of it, NCAA tournament championships soon followed.

"We didn't know it at the time," Laughlin said. "He was tough. He was somebody you respected. He also had so much integrity and fantastic leadership. He's someone I really admired as well."

Laughlin's odyssey from Duke University to helping orphans in South Africa is a winding one. He earned a degree as an electrical engineer but tired of the business while working at Westinghouse in Los Angeles. An occasional actor at Duke, he started parking cars at the Beverly Hills Hotel while finding time to take acting classes and go on auditions. He landed jobs in commercials and a sitcom or two and had a brief recurring role in the daytime soap Santa Barbara.

"It's my big claim to fame," Laughlin said. "I had fun. The big dream was to be on a soap opera. Once I got on it was the worst acting experience of my life. At that point I realized that I wasn't really fulfilled."

Seeking to nurture his spiritual side, he attended Yale Divinity School for a time. He learned meditation and yoga and explored a variety of religious teachings. Laughlin now earns a living through writing books and giving lectures on the subject.

He eventually met and married Leslie Temple-Thurston, a native of South Africa. When the rigid regime of apartheid fell and Nelson Mandela arose, Temple-Thurston returned to her homeland. Around 1994, the couple started conducting tours of the nation to groups in the U.S.

"It's such an amazing country anyway," Laughlin said. "We would take people to Kruger Park where all the wild animals are. We took them to Capetown. We led retreats to South Africa for years."

Eventually they noticed how the devastating ravages of HIV/AIDS created the dramatic increase in South African orphans. The result was the creation of Seeds Of Light in 2000, a non-profit corporation to help in the emergency.

"It's getting a lot worse," Laughlin said. "There are 1.5 million AIDS orphans and its growing. We wanted to support the orphans but we didn't know how. We started with fundraising. We moved into the idea to have our own orphanage. We grew enough. We decided we would do other projects. Helping orphans isn't enough. It's not going to fix the problem. We looked beyond that and what we found was that we needed to do a lot of work in the local communities in our area just to start there."

The organization's wish list of $250,000 is ambitious. They hope to raise close to $160,000 for a community center. Other expenses are to keep some current projects going like the Esperado Children's Haven, which is farm for 20 orphaned children and the Amazing Grace Children's Center which also provides counseling for battered women. Anyone interested can go to www.seedsoflight.org to find out more about the organization.

Laughlin did not ask for donations from the athletes but he talked about South Africa to help increase awareness and get them to understand that even a basketball player from Mendham can go on to make a difference in another part of the world if he wishes.

His talk touched on a lot of different things and the 100 or so campers ranging in age from 9-16 each took something a little different from it. Dan Vallacchi, a 14-year-old player, learned how important it is to believe in yourself and got a better appreciation of living in America.

"There are a lot of poor people there," Vallacchi said. "They have to go a long way just to get water to drink."

"The kids in South Africa don't have as many good things as we have," 14-year-old Alex Miller added. "We should donate things and help them out and a lot of people are."

Suddenly the talk was over and the kids were split into groups for more drills and competition but for at least a few minutes the basketball players were reminded that life means a little more than a bouncing ball.

"I could bring somebody in to teach the kids about free throws or crossover dribbles but this is much more important," Baglin said. "What Brad is doing, giving of himself to help others is what we try and teach our teams to do. You hope that some of these lessons might carry over later in life."