The epiphany arrived in the airport in Addis Ababa.
Two years ago Mike and Beth Hamilton were awaiting their flight to return from Ethiopia to the United States with two of their three newly adopted children.
Hamilton was chatting with an elderly Ethiopian woman about the world into which the children, Nate, Kiya and Kalu, had been born.
It was a world in which something as fundamental as clean water could be a near-priceless luxury. It was a world ravaged by HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that had recently left the three young siblings motherless.
The conversation turned to the culture of the tribe the newest Hamiltons were from, and the meaning of their names.
“I asked about Kalu, our youngest daughter,’’ Hamilton said, “and she told me it meant, ‘get the word out.’
“It just hit me in the face from that moment on. There are incredible people 6,000 miles away from America suffering in so many horrible ways and we can do something about it.’’
Doing something about it is now Hamilton’s next calling after 25 years in college athletics.
Four months removed from his eight-year tenure as men’s athletic director at the University of Tennessee, Hamilton has been named president of U.S. operations for Blood:Water Mission, a nonprofit organization that addresses life-and-death issues in sub-Saharan Africa.
Raising funds still will be a major part of Hamilton’s job. But instead of providing posh amenities at a football stadium, his sales pitch will be to help connect Africans with basics such as clean water and prevention from HIV/AIDS.
The Hamiltons, who also have two older children, Madison and Matt, will be moving to Nashville, Blood:Water’s base.
He has been on the organization’s board for a couple of years. His position running a $100 million athletic department at UT ended in June, amid an NCAA investigation into violations in the football and men’s basketball programs. All of a sudden Hamilton had free time to become more involved in Blood:Water Missions
“Having seen it firsthand and living it with our three youngest children, our hearts have really been pulled toward Africa the last couple of years,’’ Hamilton said. “I’m in a season of life when I can do that.’’
He will travel throughout the United States, raising funds and awareness. As little as $1 can provide a year of clean water for an African, he said. Two-thirds of the world’s HIV/AIDS sufferers live in the region.
He also will escort potential donors to Africa a couple of times a year for a firsthand view.
“I’m not painting Africa with pity,’’ he said. “They are just folks who need our help.’’
After 19 years in Knoxville, Hamilton is glad he’ll be based nearby in Nashville.
“Frankly, I struggled with this decision because it’s putting 25 years of college athletics on the shelf,’’ Hamilton said.
He still will keep up with the events that transpire in Neyland Stadium, Thompson-Boling Arena and the other athletic venues on campus. And he will take pride in his role in helping make them attractive and viable to UT’s success.
“I loved my time here,’’ he said. “But this (Africa) has become more important once I got engaged personally in the issue.
“To see if I can have some effect on it, I feel obligated to try.’’
So he’ll try to get the word out.