Finding Purpose Through Service

June 26, 2024 by Kristin Carroll
NATA 2024: Keynote Recap

The 75th NATA Clinical Symposia & AT Expo kicked off June 26 with a dynamic keynote address from Justin Wren, a humanitarian and MMA fighter with Bellator MMA.

Wren challenged NATA 2024 attendees with the question: “What meaningful impact would you make if only you knew you could?”

Justin Wren and Rob Marshall

He said that during his career as a fighter in the UFC and today for Bellator MMA, athletic trainers changed his life, acting as “career-makers, career-savers, caregivers and part-time therapists.” He likened the athletic training facility to a barbershop for athletes, where they would hang out and catch up with their ATs and each other.

Wren shared that he was bullied as a child, culminating in a moment in middle school where his crush invited him to a costume party. Wren said he and his mother spent hours on a Dr. Pepper-box Optimus Prime, only for him to show up at a gathering simply meant to humiliate him.

After moving schools, he discovered wrestling. His high school coaches were Olympic gold medalists Kenny Monday and Kendall Cross, who coached him to several national championships and All-American titles.

In 2005, Wren suffered a broken arm. During his treatment and rehab, a physician told him he had a 30% chance of returning to competition. It was during this time Wren’s addiction to opioids began.

His career in UFC began when he stood, from the audience, to take on the heavyweight champion after the scheduled opponent didn’t show. That move got his foot in the door, and his career took off. As his addiction worsened, Wren said he felt more alone, even as he won his matches.

“Every time they held my hand up, I thought, ‘Is that it? Is that all?’” he said.

After his training team voted him out of his gym, encouraging him to get help, Wren had to train with a high school wrestling team for a big title match. He won that match, but went on a two-week bender, culminating in an attempt to take his own life in Mexico.

When he woke up from the pills and alcohol, he had a new purpose. After undergoing addiction treatment, he began visiting children in the hospital, taking with him members of the team who had voted him out. During his very first visit to a child with a traumatic brain injury, he said he felt like he wasn’t making a difference. A chaplain told him that his visit wasn’t about him, but about the boy and his family. At 23 years old, Wren said, he was finally clean and happy, with a new attitude on life.

When an opportunity for a fight came after almost a year of sobriety, Wren said he wasn’t sure if that was his purpose anymore, “But volunteering doesn’t pay the bills.”

Challenged by a friend to pray about it, Wren had a vision of people living in the jungle in poverty. He wrote down several words, but at the top was “forgotten.” A few weeks later, Wren would sit in a volunteer meeting where the keynote speaker was a man who had served the Maasai people in Kenya and Tanzania. He shared his vision with the keynote, hoping for answers.

“He said, ‘I know who they are. I’m going in three weeks, and you’re going with me,’” Wren said.

The people in Wren’s vision, and those he has since dedicated his life to helping, were the Pygmy people of the Congo Basin. “Pygmy” is an umbrella term for many tribes scattered across the rainforests of central Africa. They’re primarily hunter gatherers and, in recent years, many have been forced from their traditional rainforest homes.

On that first trip to the Democratic Republican of the Congo, Wren said he felt overwhelmed by the need he saw.

“They needed land, water, food, health care and education,” he said. “It was like trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper. I was at a loss on how to help.”

The chief of the tribe told Wren, “We call ourselves ‘the forgotten.’” Wren said it was like a bolt of lightning, spurring him to action. He found an expert on the Pygmy people to help better understand their needs and culture. That expert challenged him to create four goals for his next trip. Those goals were:

  • Live with them
  • Listen to them
  • Learn from them
  • Love them

Wren stepped back from his career in MMA to take on the challenges in the Congo Basin, starting the organization Fight for the Forgotten in 2013. He appeared on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, where Rogan asked him why he stepped out of the ring on a winning streak.

“I found my fight,” Wren said.

That appearance, and several others, led to Fight for the Forgotten raising $78,000 to drill wells for the Pygmy people. However, Wren said, it wasn’t that easy. He and his team experienced six months of failure with well after well collapsing. It wasn’t until Bitek Jibidaya Opii joined the team that they drilled their first successful well, providing clean water for more than 100 people.

This moment was illustrated with the help of Rob Marshall, ATC, NATA vice president and District Five director. Marshall was called on stage to stand in for Opii, demonstrating the action of the hand augers the team uses to drill wells. Wren then asked Marshall to roar in triumph, the way Opii did when they hit water the first time. The moment was met with applause from NATA 2024 attendees.

After that first well, Fight for the Forgotten has gone on to drill 85 wells, providing water for more than 50,000 people. They have also purchased 3,000 acres of land, built 35 family homes, taught tribe members beekeeping, replanted tens of thousands of trees, built four sustainable farms and freed 1,800 people from slavery. The foundation also recently received its first $1 million matching grant, which will help build a new, sustainable community, with a hospital, school and guest houses for volunteers.

Wren shared that village children banded together against him in tug-o-war. Even the heavyweight could not defeat 20 Pygmy children, he said. With this, Wren challenged NATA 2024 attendees to work together to take on the challenges facing the profession.

Wren left attendees with these Swahili proverbs:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” and “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.”