Putting muscle behind giving: From delinquent to champion bodybuilder to humanitarian, Joe Petrovic has made a powerful journey

  Kids from the village of Masese, a slum in Uganda, crowd Clear Creek residents Peter Vogel and Joe Petrovic in hopes of snatching half a gummy bear. 

By Adriennne Anderson
Editor, Clear Creek Courant
Wednesday, September 24 2008

With a gentle smile and a commanding build, 19-year-old champion bodybuilder Joe Petrovic stands out — in Clear Creek County or in Africa. 

After being arrested at age 13 for vandalism, Petrovic, a graduate of Clear Creek High School, has spent the last six years dedicating his life to Christ and helping others. With the help of mentor Peter Vogel, Petrovic is now a champion bodybuilder, a scholarship recipient and a recent humanitarian in Africa. He spent 10 days in the Jinja region of Uganda helping to stock a school with computers with the On Uganda charity.
“It was a whole other world,” Petrovic said. “I just saw a lot of poverty right away, and it was a culture shock.”

On Uganda was formed after Peter Vogel, a Clear Creek resident and the founder of the business Culture Prep, delivered the 1999 keynote address on the topic of unity and hope to 10,000 people at the largest youth rally ever held in Uganda. He and others have returned to Uganda each subsequent year to build friendships and to provide funding for small-business development.

In the slums of Masese, a Ugandan village, there is more homemade moonshine than drinkable water and more brothels than schools. Vogel has been trying to fund and build a vocational school in the village, where kids attend school only until age 12. 

“We are trying to build cross-cultural relations between Christians and Muslims and teach usable skills such as carpentry and sewing and computer skills,” Vogel said.

Beyond raising $3,500 for his trip to Uganda, Petrovic also taught himself a little Arabic to communicate with the Muslim youths his age.

The two visited a mosque and shared a meal of “culture cakes,” a high-protein, low-sugar pancake, with the members. Petrovic was able to communicate with one teen his age.

“He told me he went to school until he was 12 and that he wanted to go to a university,” Petrovic said. “It was just really sad, because I have all these opportunities, but he’ll really never have the opportunity to do what I do. It’s not really fair.” 

At one point, Petrovic and Vogel handed out gummy bears to the village kids. “We literally had to rip them in half; they swarmed us,” Petrovic said. “It was kind of scary.” Vogel said next time they will bring something other than gummy bears, maybe the culture cakes. “They don’t know what candy is,” Vogel said. “It wasn’t excitement; it was hunger.”

Petrovic was 13 years old when he started breaking car windows. After being arrested, he went to Kansas to live with other family members and put his life back together. 

Now he is guided by his faith and wants to dedicate his life to helping others.

“But it’s not like we are preaching the gospel,” Petrovic said. “If anything, they were trying to convert me.”
Since Petrovic returned from Kansas as a young boy, he has spent most of the last six years learning how to be a young man. He took home two trophies at the 2007 state bodybuilding competition in Denver, received the Metro Mayor’s Award, which earned him a one-year scholarship to school, and has been featured on Channel 9. 

He is enrolled at Red Rocks Community College this year and eventually would like to join the intelligence community. He plans to continue to learn Arabic and travel to Africa. 

“Joe is a man of deep faith and selflessness, work ethic and integrity,” Vogel said. 

Several images remain etched in Joe’s memory from his recent trip, one in particular: There is mansion with a big brick barricade surrounding acres of land. A gate with steel bars guards the entrance. Three or four kids from the poverty-stricken village are peering in at a group of wealthy white people gathered for a party. A trampoline is in the distance, and a Range Rover is in the driveway. 

The image is a study in contrasts — much like Petrovic himself. Despite Petrovic’s large physique, it’s his big heart that leaves the lasting impression.

by Frank Mubiru, CulturePrep/On Uganda partner in Uganda

During the first week of September 2008, the Masese community was blessed with the presence of Peter Vogel and Joe Petrovic, visitors from Colorado, USA, who are working with H.E.L.P Uganda to raise funds for, among other things, building a Vocational Training Centre.

Having been in Masese more than a couple of times, Peter is already a familiar personality in the community and most people know him by name. For Joe, it was his first time to come to Uganda. However, he was admired and swarmed by the youth and children who wanted to have a closer look at, and quite often, a touch of his muscles. In Uganda, it is not easy to find a teenager with that kind of athletic build that Joe has.

Everywhere we went visiting in the community, we were followed by children eager to be as close as possible to a “muzungu”, (which means “a white person”) touch his skin, hold his hands, or even, as Peter will remember, pull the hairs on his arm.

During their stay in Masese, Peter and Joe carried out several interactive activities with the youth and children as a way of raising awareness among the community of the ongoing work of H.E.L.P Uganda. One poignant moment was when they were handing out t-shirts and candy to the participants after a soccer game. Interestingly, every one of the spectators – children and grown-ups alike wanted to get a t-shirt too. Small a token as it may appear to be, in Masese, it is much more that. Most people can’t afford to clothe their children and getting a free t-shirt is an opportunity no one would want to miss.

Just over two months ago, the computer lab was opened and has been a centre of activity for the youth especially during the school term holiday which ended on the 15th September. The computers and furniture in the lab was part of a major shipment of assorted items donated by H.E.L.P International of Colorado.

Our next challenge is to set up and open a tailoring lab. In store, we have two electric sewing machines and an assortment of textiles for use during the tailoring training classes. We are also still looking for a volunteer to teach the first batch of youths. It is from this first batch that a trainer will be identified to continue with training subsequent beneficiaries.

As you read this, efforts are on-going to raise funds in various ways. To begin with, the youth in Masese make greeting cards with banana fiber artwork depicting the logo of CulturePrep. All proceeds will be used to finance the continuity of H.E.L.P Uganda.

Joe Computer
Joe checking out one of the computers in the new lab.

CultureCakes are a nutritionally rich pancake designed to build stronger bodies and communities. Through the power of the meal, CulturePrep’s On Uganda team serves CultureCakes to diverse groups in both Uganda and the USA as a means to feed hungry people and strengthen cross-cultural relationships.

To learn more about CultureCakes, watch this video: