Students and adults from Richmond, VA teamed up with DC’s School Without Walls students and traveled to San Martin, Costa Rica for a week they’ll never forget.
To say I was changed by this experience and the community of San Martín is an
understatement. I do not think there is anything that could have prepared me for the magnitude
of impact that this trip would have not only on my perspective of the world, but on my everyday
life. This trip was so much more than building a sport court; It was a cultural exchange that
uniquely impacted each individual who was involved. I think I can speak for all twenty of us
when I say that we arrived to the airport unaware of the physical toll this week would have on
our bodies; but I can also say that the physical ailments of the week were trivial in comparison
to the relationships and the accomplishments that resulted from our time in San Martín.
After thirteen hours of travel, our group of 15 from Richmond finally made it to San Jose
and met four additional volunteers who came from Washington D.C., accompanied by our
Courts for Kids representative Jordyn. We were anxious to see what the week had in store for
us, so we loaded a bus and headed for San Martín, four hours north of San Jose. We were
greeted by Sarah, the female leader of the community, who cracked a joke about how they had
been waiting for us, which they had due to some maintenance issues and an ultimately delayed
flight. Still we were welcomed with smiles, an authentic Costa Rican dance performed by
students from neighboring towns, and of course food.
At about 9:30 p.m., which felt like 11:30 p.m. to all of us, we were given house
assignments and parted ways for the night. I think staying in a stranger’s home was the aspect
of the trip that I was most apprehensive about, but it quickly became one of my favorite parts of
the entire experience. I, along with what eventually became six others, stayed with a lovely
couple who greeted us with open arms and immediately treated us as their own family. Each
morning Eida, who we called Abuela, made us breakfast even though it was also provided at the
worksite, Carlos greeted us with his sense of humor, and together they sent us off to work.
Our first day of work was a bit rocky as many of us had never done manual labor before,
or at least at this level of intensity. The contractors were ready to work and we were slow to find
our bearings, which caused some frustration along with some unconventional methods of mixing
and pouring concrete, proposed by the contractors, but the group persevered and we were able
to finish one row on the first day. What amazed me the most about the first day was the support
from the community: the women in the kitchen came out and shoveled after they were done with
the dishes, men came after work to help mix concrete and lift heavy buckets, and even the
children came to help, some of them just wearing crocs.
After a long day some of the students organized a soccer game with the children from the community. Although we were tired and it was rainy, we played our first of many soccer games that week. The post-work soccer game
became one of the highlights of the trip for me because each day more people joined and it
became a way for me to connect with community members without a language barrier.
My greatest frustration after the first day of work was the language barrier. I took six
years of French prior to the trip, which was not helpful in this Spanish speaking country, but with
the help of some of the other volunteers and community members, I was able to learn a few
words and phrases to help me communicate. By the end of the trip these phrases were useless
as we were communicating without the use of words. Another student volunteer bragged about
how he could “communicate with just aggressive whistles and hand motions,” which truly was
the way that our well-oiled machine was conversing on the last day of work.
I arrived having no experience with construction work and I frequently reminded other
group members that this was my first endeavor in manual labor. On day one I was shocked by
the strength that it took to simply move buckets and pour them into a cement mixer, not to
mention that I was too short to actually pour the buckets into the machine. Still, I persisted and
continued to work as hard as I could even though I was unable to do some of the jobs. I think
that it was important for the community to see females working alongside males, and each day
more women showed up to help us shovel sand and gravel.
On the last two days, although I was tired, I volunteered to help lift buckets into the mixer. What this meant for me was that I would be lifting buckets to taller volunteers and contractors who then poured them into the
mixer. I am a relatively small person, so the contractors seemed concerned about my ability to
perform the task at hand. After about two mixes they appeared to be more comfortable with my
presence on the team, and by the end of the day they were commending me for my strength
and endurance. Not only was I proud of myself, but I think that our female volunteers were able
to challenge gender stereotypes that existed within the community prior to our arrival.
We finished the court in just four and a half short days, and the final pour of cement was
bitter-sweet. We were excited that we had completed our goal, but we also realized that this
week was never about building or completing the court, it was about the connections that we
made and the cultural exchange that had occurred throughout the week. One of my favorite
experiences of the week was our dance night at the plaza. The locals along with some of the
Peace Corps volunteers taught us a dance native to Costa Rica called Bachata and we taught
them how to do the Cotton Eye Joe. The next night at the inauguration of the court one of the
kids asked me if we could show the rest of the town the dances we had learned the night before
and of course I agreed. The inauguration became the perfect time to show the community the
great relationships that we had created throughout the week and to show off our soccer skills by
taking part in the first of many games on the court.
This community gave me so much more than I could have ever imagined. They showed
me immeasurable love and generosity. Our host Carlos works tirelessly on his farm to provide
for his entire family, yet he and Abuela were so selfless. They gave us everything they could,
which was more than we could have ever expected. Abuela said she would host 100 people if
she could and I believe she would. One day I hope to have a giving attitude that could be
considered half as generous as the people of San Martín. Each member of the community was
happy to have us and the underlying joy within the community was apparent throughout our
stay. This experience was so transformative and I have made friends for life. I have fallen in love
with the country of Costa Rica and I cannot wait for my next visit, but first I’m going to have to
learn some Spanish. – Sarah Eaton
“I guess my only low point would be that I had wet socks for one day… but it’s hard to pick a specific highpoint because there were so many (talking with the locals, the food, our rain showers, playing tag…)” – Teagan
“This community showed me that acceptance and love are two very important aspects in welcoming a stranger, or a few, in someone’s home.” – Emma
“The love we all experienced over 1 week will be talked about back home and I hope it inspires others to step out of their comfort zone and explore different cultures, people, customs, and lifestyles.” – Cheryl
“We don’t need new shoes or fancy cars to be happy, all we need is people who care for us and love us. This trip and being with the people in the community taught me this about the world.” – Maddie
“I can say with complete confidence now that each member of this community has become a part of my family as I have become a part of theirs. I thought this trip was about building a court, but it was so much more.” – Sarah