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Former Coug star’s camp focuses on skills, service

In town for his third annual basketball clinic, former Mountain View, Utah Valley and BYU star Travis Hansen is helping local youngsters focus on more than their basketball skills.

Each of the 260 participants of the three-day camp, which is held at the Flash Factory in Lehi, stayed an extra half-hour on Thursday to help assemble supply kits for a school in Mali, West Africa. The campers, who range from third-graders to high school seniors, were encouraged to donate school supplies such as pencils, erasers, paper and backpacks, along with other items such as flip-flops, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

“For the younger kids, we hope they learn where Africa is,” Hansen said with a smile. “And the older kids can learn what kinds of opportunities they have here in America – how blessed they are to have parents who pay for them to come to a basketball camp and for a facility where they can play basketball. They also realize how rough other people have it and how a little act of service goes a long way. All these kids are heroes because they are willing to come and help others.”

This service project is a continuation of another that was recently completed by Hansen’s Little Heroes Foundation, which raised funds and built a three-room school in a village in rural Mali. Hansen’s foundation, along with the Mali Rising Foundation, another non-profit organization based in Utah, partnered to improve the educational opportunities for children in one of the poorest countries in the world.

“We just barely opened the school in Mali,” Hansen said. “The kids there were dancing and so excited for the opportunity to go to school, and we just wanted to show the kids here how lucky they are and also give them an opportunity to help the kids in Africa.”

The Little Heroes Foundation was started by Hansen and his wife, LaRee, three years ago after they witnessed the poor conditions of an orphanage in Russia, where Hansen was playing professionally at the time. Wanting to do what they could to help, they subsequently renovated an old hospital, which now serves as an orphanage with sanitary conditions, as well as a staff and professional medical volunteers.

“Being in Russia and volunteering in the orphanages and seeing how tough so many people have it was really where it started,” Hansen said. “Some people are blessed with great situations and some people are blessed not at all —  they’re born into impossible situations. It’s really up to us, those who are born into good situations or have been blessed throughout our lives, to help them out. Otherwise they have no opportunities and it’s tough to find joy and happiness.”

The Hansens’ work has since spread across three continents — they fund a children’s hospital in Russia where kids can have liver transplants or surgery to repair cleft palates; they build schools to foster education in Africa; and they work to fight cancer in the United States.

Hansen, whose mother died of pancreatic cancer when he was in high school, teams with non-profit organizations such as Operation Smile and the Children With Cancer Foundation in addition to corporate sponsors like Nature’s Sunshine and Nu Skin to accomplish these projects.

For his camp, he recruits local players and coaches to run the activities and serve as mentors to the kids.

“There’s no obligation to be here, but it’s for a great cause and it’s a lot of fun to interact with the kids,” BYU junior guard Jackson Emery said. “Travis called me up and asked if I’d be able to help out and I told him I’d be happy to do it. The kids gain a good work ethic and have fun, and learn that there’s other things to life. They get to do a service project here, which they don’t get at many other basketball camps.”

Hansen was a second-round pick (No. 37 overall) of the Atlanta Hawks in 2003, where he spent one season after graduating from BYU. He has spent the past two seasons in Russia, where he became one of the country’s most popular players and was even granted Russian citizenship so he could play on the Russian national basketball team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The former BYU star is now weighing his options for this coming season. He opted out of his contract with Dynamo Moscow and said he has four offers on the table – two from east-coast NBA teams (reportedly Toronto and New York) and the others from teams in Spain and Greece.

Hansen now must decide between continuing his success in Europe or taking a pay cut by signing with an NBA team.

“We’ve got a couple of contract offers from different places,” he said. “So we’ll probably make a decision here in the next week or two and then move forward with that.”

The business side of basketball, though, is currently secondary to the various service projects Hansen has undertaken in the past few years.

“In life I think about how many days and minutes and hours we have here on earth, and how we spend that time,” he said. “You spend time with family and have fun, but I also think you need to work to make a difference. My wife and family and I are dedicated to helping others, and we’ve found that we’ve been blessed more than we could ever imagine.”