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.