PROVO, Utah — It was around 1 p.m. on a Wednesday when I walked into the third floor office of the Little Heroes Foundation. I found Travis Hansen, the CEO, engaged in a conversation with Katie Ironz, the foundation’s executive director.
He appeared to be the same slender 6-foot-6, 210-pound blond-hair guy I spoke with at the Chile Santiago West Mission reunion we attended two years ago in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“Katie, do you want to know the worst thing about Trent Toone?” he started. “He went to Utah.”
He grinned so I would know he was joking. Even so, it was spoken like a former player and now a true-blue, season-ticket holding Cougar.
With introductions out of the way, we moved to his office and the reminiscing began.
We had a lot of catch up on.
Our growing families and the latest buzz on his professional basketball career started the conversation. Then he reflected on four years of success with the Little Heroes Foundation. With the rescued Chilean miners in the news, it was a perfect opportunity to rehash the good old days we shared as LDS missionaries in Santiago, Chile, more than 12 years ago.
Few probably know about Travis Hansen the missionary.
Because the majority of Chileans slept in and stayed out late, the mission rules allowed for us to work until midnight and wake up at 7 a.m. As a personal sacrifice, he made a goal to arise 30 minutes early for extra exercise and study time. It also helped that Spanish came quickly to him.
When he wasn’t dunking over the rest of us in a preparation-day pick-up game, “Hansito” was fearlessly challenging everyone he met to be baptized. He loved to stand up on a crowded bus, boldly declare his testimony and invite people to church. Within months of his arrival in Chile he became a leader in the mission and enjoyed tremendous success.
Hansen’s dynamic personality and charisma drew people to him. Some mothers adored him so much that they begged him to take their daughters to America. The people were fond of his playful personality and responded to his love. When his mission was over, he came home with great memories and gratitude for lessons learned.
“My mission shaped my life. It put me in the direction I am today,” he said. “On a mission you learn to sacrifice, get out of your comfort zone and have no fear. My mission experiences have been a perfect fit for humanitarian work.”
Hoops and family
When the conversation hit a lull, I mentioned the numerous articles and photos of his basketball career I had reviewed over the years.
Since his mission, much of Hansen’s time has been spent on basketball courts from Provo to Spain and Russia. While overseas, he played in many big games and several former teammates are now on NBA rosters, including Jose Calderon (Toronto Raptors), Luis Scola (Houston Rockets), Andres Nocioni (Philadelphia 76ers) and Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs).
While playing for Real Madrid last year, he suffered a herniated disc in his back and returned to Utah for surgery and recovery.
It was during his recuperation that something remarkable happened in the Hansen family. After a difficult year-long battle, they adopted a baby girl from Indiana named Halle. She legally became a member of the family at the end of November and in December was sealed to her parents and two brothers in the Salt Lake LDS Temple.
“We feel really blessed to have her in our family,” he said. “The adoption process is a pile of paperwork and a ton of money, but LaRee (his wife) fought for it, and because of her desire I believe we were blessed with a little girl.”
Russia and Little Heroes
Hansen paused to glance at his vibrating cell phone. He punched ‘ignore’ and set the black device aside. I asked if he was done playing basketball.
At the time he didn’t know. A few weeks after our visit, however, he e-mailed me to say he had signed with BC Khimki, a team in Moscow.
“Apparently we missed the feeling of the freezing cold, frozen food, traffic and the mafia,” he said. He previously logged three years in Moscow playing for Dynamo Moscow.
While in Russia in 2007, he and his wife felt inspired to establish the Little Heroes Foundation (http://www.littleheroesfoundation.org/). It’s a subject he could talk about for hours.
Two unsuccessful fertility treatments and a miscarriage led LaRee to research the adoption process in Russia. When she learned how many countless children were suffering, her heart ached with a desire to do something.
Four years later, Little Heroes, sponsored by Nature Sunshine, has offered humanitarian aid to children in Russia, Mali (Africa), Connecticut, Colorado and Utah. Travis draws inspiration from LaRee and his late mother, Laurie Hansen, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994.
“We have remodeled a portion of a hospital in Russia,” he said. “We have helped kids get life-saving surgeries. We’ve organized volunteers to hold babies and play with them. We have built two schools and pay extra teachers to be there. We make sure they have supplies and books. We have helped adoption exchange and a foster care program for older kids. … We make sure every dollar gets to the kids.
“My mom was the most compassionate person I know. I am sure she is smiling down at what we have done, and I am sure she is saying, ‘Do more.’ There are more people to find who need help.
“We’re not going to change the world or fix Russia or Africa, but there might be one or two kids that we can help change the direction of their lives,” he continued. “Right now I feel like a missionary in Europe who hasn’t baptized anybody, but if we keep working, pushing and doing our best, our hope is that 30 years down the road we will have made a difference. Hopefully these kids will be able to go to college.”
Little Heroes has already made a difference for one boy and his mother.
When the Hansens were just getting Little Heroes going, they were touring a baby hospital in Lyubertsy, located 45 minutes from Moscow, when they bumped into a woman in tears. Her name was Ludmila Volcow.
Hansen didn’t understand Russian, but learned that her 2-year-old son, Artem, had cirrhosis of the liver and needed a liver transplant soon or he would die. Hansen wanted to help.
“He looked so horrible. His skin was almost gray,” he recalls.
But transplants are hard to come by in the United States, let alone Russia. Russian law also dictates that only blood relatives can give organ transplants, Hansen said.
The tall American called everyone he knew. He eventually located Dr. Igor E. Cojocaru, who just so happened to be a liver-transplant specialist. He agreed to help.
In May 2008, Hansen was at a basketball game when Cojocaru called to inform him there had been an accident, and a liver was available for Artem. The boy endured four operations and eventually returned home healthy.
“In Russia you have to have connections and Igor made it happen,” Hansen said. “Artem Volcow is 5 now and lives with his mom. She is Igor’s secretary. It all came together.”
Back in his office, Hansen grins and counts his blessings. Life is good. He loves helping people — especially kids — whether through Little Heroes or at basketball camps.
Leaning back in his chair, he expressed gratitude for all the people who ever showed up in his life — parents, siblings, friends, teachers, coaches, home teachers, church leaders, mission companions and on and on.
“I feel extremely blessed,” he said. “The church and basketball have given me everything in my life, and I want to give back. I also want to say that if you ever have feelings to do this or that, stop and do it. We felt inspired to start a foundation. What a crazy thing to do, but we did it and amazing things have happened.”
He looked at his watch and announced he had to bounce, “I got a thing I need to be to.”
Translation: He was off to help somebody else.
I was grateful for the visit.