Camas & Heritage High School volunteers in Bahía Honda, Panama

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3:30 am, April 2: It was an early morning for this group of 20 students from Camas and Heritage High Schools and their 3 chaperones. Faces were sleepy, but more excited than anything. As the pre-trip photo was taken, and goodbyes exchanged with families, the group embarked on a journey that was bound to have a lasting effect on them, perhaps greater and different than anything they could have imagined.

We arrived in Panama City in the evening to sweltering temperatures and the equally warm welcome of Aníbal, the in-country Courts for Kids director of Panama. We spent the night in Panama City and then prepared for an early morning departure to our site in Bahía Honda, Herrera Province, Panama.

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April 3: With our fearless driver Pollo at the helm, we made our way through the ever-changing Panamanian landscape. From the metropolitan skyscrapers of Panama City, to the resort-spotted coast, to the much less densely populated areas outside of Panama City, it was clear that, although small, Panama has a huge variety of cultures intermixed. As we got closer to the site, the devastating effects of the recent drought became evident in the landscape. We made a quick stop in Chitré to pick up the Peace Corps Volunteer we would be working with, Molly, and then headed on the last winding stretch of the journey into the hills to Bahía Honda.

After getting settled into our lodgings, we met some of the community members and played an icebreaker game with them. It was (as might be expected) an awkward first meeting, but that would all change soon. We all definitely learned at least one name that day: Rigo, the maestro of the project that had a certain presence in the group–that of a leader. We then took a short walk the house of one of Molly’s neighbors for dinner. We were immediately welcomed by the señoras to their home and greeted with a home-cooked Panamanian meal and delicious tropical juice. After dinner, one of the señoras took our group to the area behind her house where she showed us how they pressed sugar cane to extract the juices. After some taste testing, we headed back to the school where we were staying to prepare for days ahead.

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April 4: Monday was filled with mostly preparing the court for cement and some pouring. There had already been a court in this spot in Bahía Honda, but it was in very rough shape and not suitable for playing. The team got to work moving the goal posts into position and breaking up cement that needed to be removed. We also got a lesson on hand-mixing cement from the one and only Rigo. It was hard, however, to mimic Rigo’s deliberate and careful motions, but we tried. This was also the day we met the eight students that attended the school where we were building the court. This meeting was slightly less awkward, and bonds began to form that very first day. We also met two brothers that became close with the group, both named Jorge, that were then dubbed “Jorge dos” and “Jorge tres” as their father’s name was also Jorge.

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April 5-6: Tuesday and Wednesday were spent mixing and pouring cement. The Panamanian sun and heat were intense, but we had begun to connect with the community members which made the conditions much more enjoyable. Everyone was working around the cement mixer, either shoveling sand and rocks, loading buckets into the mixer, or transporting wheelbarrows of concrete.  After the first hour or so, we were working like a well-oiled machine! This setup also allowed us to interact with, and get to know the community members better. One older community member, named Victorio, made a habit of racing us with the wheelbarrows and would engage other workers (including Rigo) in local salomas, chants and songs used when working in the fields. We tried to reciprocate the calls, to varying degrees of success. It was, however, a great way to bring some positive energy to the work.

The work, however, was not without its challenges. The current drought meant that teams would have to go by truck to the local river and fill up jugs of water to be brought back. Also, the oppressive heat meant that sometimes we had to wait a little longer after lunch to get back to work because the sun was unbearable to work in at times. But once evening rolled around, we got a nice break from the heat and actually experienced some cool temperatures–not what we were expecting in Panama!

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April 7: The morning of April 7, we visited another nearby school that also had less than 10 students. The teacher (like everyone we had met in Panama) greeted us with open arms and explained the challenges that she had faced as a teacher, and also that her students had faced. Just getting to school during the rainy season when there are floods could be immensely difficult. She mentioned having to walk 8 hours sometimes to get to the school where she previously taught. Perhaps the biggest takeaway was her passion for what she did. It was obvious from how she talked about her students that her dedication was second to none.

After returning from the school, we played some on the (mostly) finished court with the younger members of the community. After a hearty lunch prepared by the amazing señoras, we took a trip to a nearby river for a refreshing swim. It also happened to be Victorio’s birthday, and he came along on the river trip as well! The water was cool and surprisingly deep for it being the middle of a drought. When we returned to the school, we played on the court even more. It was great to see both the girls and boys of the community playing on it with us!

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Later that evening, a couple of community members came by in a big truck and gave watermelons to everyone that wanted one. This kind of unconditional kindness is not something that we see back home with much regularity, but it was nevertheless greatly appreciated. These people that we hardly knew were willing to share everything they had, and we were both inspired and grateful.

That evening, our team and the community members joined in a celebration on the (mostly) finished court. There was plenty of típico music, new dance moves to be shared and learned, and of course, more salomas! It was a wonderful way to connect over finishing the project.

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April 8: After a little work in the morning, the group changed into more formal clothing for the inauguration of the court. We all gathered next to the court at the school, and speeches were made by the teacher, community members, and members of our group as well. There was also a girl in traditional Panamanian dress that performed, as well the students of the school. Our own group got on stage and sang/danced to a couple of American songs too! And (you guessed it) there were salomas too! After the inauguration we met the señoras in the kitchen for our final, prepared-with-love, Panamanian meal, Sancocho. Sancocho is a traditional Panamanian chicken soup served at celebrations. After lunch, we said goodbye to our newly made friends. It had only been a few days that we had been there, yet it was still incredibly hard to say goodbye and leave them. We were happy to hear them say that we’d always be in their hearts and in their minds, because we felt exactly the same way. – Jamie Rodda, Camas HS Spanish teacher

My favorite memory from this trip was on the first day of work when my team was on break and a couple of little kids timidly rode up to us on their bikes to see the crazy Americans up close. I ended up being on break way longer than I was supposed to be but I was so enthralled by these kids who were so brave as to be the first ones to meet us and connect with us. It was at that time that I realized how well I could communicate with my limited Spanish vocabulary and how patient people would be with me. Jorge II and Jorge III ended up helping us work every day and I feel like we really connected and were able to make a lasting impact on each other that we will never forget.” -Carly Langer

“We all were shown just how similar we actually are to other countries through this amazing trip and I think that is something that we all will hold with us in our hearts forever…. Courts for Kids is so important for our youth not only in America, but across the globe to become informed about other places: learn that we are not all that different.”  – Ashlin O’Neill, Lauren Kelly, Aurie Berry

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“My favorite memory is when the whole community came out as a celebration for the finished court. There was mostly Hispanic dancing and some American but I loved being part of the community. Even though I was not the best dancer the people were still patient and kind with me and helped me learn. I really felt submerged in the Panamanian culture and one with the people. It was a perfect way to end the week but made it so much harder to leave the next morning.” – Kori Christensen

“What I really learned about myself: you really do not need electronics and running water to survive, you can be generous to people you do not know, stepping out of your comfort zone can always be a good living.” – Anita and Kelsey

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“Almost everything I have done up until this point has been in preparation for my own future. However I have never felt more fulfilled and prouder of myself than this week. I lived in a part of Southern California that was poorer than most (Perris, CA) and I have never wanted to go back there but I learned deep down inside I want to go back and help the community we ran away from.” – Ozzie Gonzalez

“…what I learned about the world is that there is so much more than just what meets the eye. The world is about a bunch of different cultures coming together as one.” – Jenny Kaly and Brianna Beauchamp

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