Columbia River High School in Valley of Peace, Belize

“This will be the hardest thing you ever do.” I remember Selene telling us this months before our departure, but it stuck with me the entire trip. Arriving at PDX near 3:20 am wasn’t anything new for me, but for the first time in all my travels, I actually felt scared. I had barely met anyone else on the trip, despite us attending the same school; I had never left the country before; I hadn’t even been anywhere without my parents. I felt anxious and even a bit sick as I worried in the familiar airport, but that didn’t stop me from making a few “April Fools” jokes about the whole trip. Boarding passes were handed out, and we all gathered for a picture, squeezing together with near-strangers. Then we hugged our families goodbye and treaded to the gate.

The flights from Portland to Houston then Houston to Belize City weren’t bad at all, which I suppose was one last luxury of the United States that we could grasp onto before readying ourselves for whatever may come…which honestly wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle. I won’t advocate to American standards and claim that it was “so hard!” to work in the heat of Belize or to sleep on a floor surrounded by bugs, because in all honesty it was plenty worth it, and I’ve already started to plan for joining next year’s trip, as well. One of the highlights that compels me to have nothing but fond memories would be our initial arrival to the front of Belize City’s airport. Awaiting us in the pick-up was a group of the local children with a beautiful hand-made poster and our two hostess Kelsey and Sarah.

From the airport to our stay in the Catholic Church was a 2 hour bus ride filled with bumps and a sparse tropical scenery for us to marvel at, which I did plenty of times. Then, we were finally at our new temporary home. By the time we had arrived, the sun was beginning to set, so we all hustled to grab our things and pick where we slept and on what – a few of us had mattresses while the rest had bedrolls that were woven together using various plastics and threads. I will admit that I had created an imaginary idea of what the church would look like before we had arrived, so I was a bit thrown off to find how small and quaint it was, but I did not let it bother me and carried on with day one. The rest of the day was dinner with the group’s all-time favorite chef, Baneza, and a quick run-down of expectations and daily challenges for the following 10 days. Then finally, it was off to bed.

Day two started at 6:30 am when we all rose to the sticky heat of Belize with roosters (and Kelsey) singing us awake. We donned our work clothes and gloves, ate a breakfast of fruits, filled our water bottles to the rim, and took our morning stroll to the court. Upon arrival, the court was nothing more than mounds of dirt and pieces of rebar littered about, and it basically stayed like that till after lunch, for like the rest of Valley of Peace, we took a siesta from noon to around two to avoid the heat. Once we returned later in the day, we began to really get to work with the local helpers by bending and tying the rebar for reinforcement, as well as leveling out trenches in the court. Near the end of our work day a group of little girls approached me and asked for my assistance in moving a slab of wood that they could use as a makeshift slide for a beaten down playset that was next to the court. I happily helped them move it and held their hands as they ran up and down, all the while feeling very excited and proud to be helping in making an actual court for these girls to enjoy.

The routine of early rising and mid-day siestas became the regular for our week, but day three still held a special surprise as we marched through the early afternoon heat to a small hut where cacao was grown and made into delicious, all-natural chocolate. I found myself immersed in what surrounded me: the heat, the clucks of chickens, a language I barely understood being spoken, and the wonderful hammock I laid in for a few calming minutes. Though, I didn’t relax for long – a hunt for a baby chick was taking place and I simply couldn’t avoid watching.

Day four: wake, eat, walk to the court and work. I think it is easily agreed upon in our group of volunteers that our fourth and fifth days were the hardest days of work, and yet were also two of the best days we had. We were digging, leveling, and refilling patches of dirt for what felt like a week’s worth of time in only a few hours while temperatures of 121° F hammered down on our bodies. Though, luckily, we didn’t only have to rely on water to keep us sane, for our hero of the trip, Giovanni, was there every day with snow cones and a smile to keep us going.

Then it happened! Day five arrived as a regular routine until we just kept pushing and fighting on, laughing and smiling along the way, and then boom! The court was finished! After carrying bag after bag of 100 lbs of cement, leveling and leveling some more, we poured the final batch of cement, our fellow workers flattened it out, and it was done! I remember cheering with my group and laughing with the workers, then gathering once more for a picture with a group of kids I had grown closer to in a matter of days than two years of high school had brought me at all.

With the court itself finished, all that was left to do was dig a few holes and paint the goals, leaving the rest of our time in Belize for integration into the community we had spent most of our time with, and exploration of the great unknown. Our first step closer was attending a football match between two children’s teams, where we played games and watched the local kids compete in the heat we still weren’t quite adjusted to. The following day had us dressed down to swimming suits and sunscreen as we climbed into the back of a pick-up and rode our way down to a hidden little corner of a river for us to swim in. The green canopy of the trees on the bank mesmerized me as we swam and laughed, watching for toucans and singing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody when we were told it was time to go.

Day eight was yet another adventure with swimming suits and sights we had never dreamed of seeing. We took our long ride to a river bank that crossed to an uphill climb where Mayan ruins awaited, and I was in awe. Visiting the ruins was like a gift I could never ask for. In all honesty, I didn’t even expect to swim while in Belize. My fellow group members and I were all entirely dedicated to working on this court. Being gifted with sight seeing great Mayan ruins was so much more than we could have ever asked for. In honor of the trip, we wasted no time climbing these ancient structures and breathing in the view of Belize, and even a bit of Guatemala off to our left.

Then it was once again back to swimming (after lunch and another bus ride, of course), though this time it was in a quaint land-mark of Belize, the Inland Blue Hole. The inland blue hole is actually a sinkhole that has freshwater fish and small caves surrounding it to which guests can swim, and we did just that. As the evening drew closer we went back to the church and changed into our best, ready to officially open the court to the public of Valley of Peace. Words were shared, a few tears shed, and we danced the night away with the locals by our sides.

The trip was now coming to a close as we awoke on our ninth day, smiles sewn to our cheeks as we walked back for another football game, valuing the time with the kids deeply as they showed us games and we showed them ours. We shared a final reflection that night, all sat under the stars on the cool cement of the court. I don’t recall exact statements, but I do recall the overwhelming feeling of pride and joy as I looked around our circle. All these kids put themselves out here as volunteers to make the world a better place, they stepped out of their comfort zone and struggled through language barriers and rigorous work just to be sat around and thanking each other for the opportunity at all. Meeting the locals, becoming closer with my peers, it all reminded me of how good the world can really be and how one little action can carry us so far.

So, to the people of Valley of Peace, to Baneza, Giovanni, Kelsey, Sarah, and everyone else on this trip. Thank you for everything, for the constant smiles and reassurance, the laughs and tear-jerking reflections. Thank you for not only making a huge difference in my life, but to the rest of the world. One final un fuerte aplauso! Uno, dos tres!!

-Katarina Vena, High School Student at Columbia River HS

“My favorite memory was the 5th day of the trip as we were finishing the court. We worked with the locals for eight hours and finally finished pouring the court. We were all tired and sweaty, but it was extraordinary to see the community come together.” – Nathan Kessi

“I learned things about myself during this trip. One, I let my fears consume my actions far too often. I danced in front of strangers, I swam in a place where the floor was nonexistent, and I climbed a Mayan temple. Two, I move through life too quickly. Back home, I’m always moving toward the future and trying to do everything I can to prepare myself for it. Here, I learned to live for the present.” – Daria Kakorin

“This trip came at a very interesting time in my life. Prior to the trip, I had felt so lost and lacking purpose and direction in my life. I felt alone and wanted a change. Courts for Kids gave me that change. This experience reminded me of the good feelings and joys of stepping outside my comfort zone. I find myself being more positive and happier in new experiences and cultures. I found myself being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I learned that when I step outside my comfort zone, I become a better version of myself and grow as a person in the most positive of ways.” – Katie Colson

“I have been blessed with education, means, options, but I am no more accomplished than these dear people. In fact, some seem to thrive better than I do. I envy their happiness and their view of what life means. We just are not that different.” – Kelly Fielding, Chaperone

“Before going on this trip, I was under the impression that the majority of people/communities asking for help can, in fact, make their life change for the better if they want it enough. The problem is that they are too lazy to try and work hard for it. Working alongside the Valley of Peace community proved that it is not the case. Sometimes they need extra help and access to resources that are not available to them. The members of the community donated hard work and good will, while we helped them to complete the project.” – Sergey Kakorin, Chaperone

“The three days we spent building the court were some of the most challenging days of my life, and I’ve never worked harder in my life. Doing hard, manual labor alongside the locals caused me to realize how hard these people work, and the fact that most of us will grow up, go to college, and get a job in an office or working inside somewhere, but many of these people will work hard, physically demanding jobs their whole lives in order to provide for themselves and their families. . . I will forever remember the people of the Valley of Peace, and their hard work and determination will forever inspire me to put 110% into everything I do.” – Claire Pardue

“When I reminisce about my experiences, I realize that not once did I crave to connect to the world by using my phone. Instead, I just enjoyed the experience and lived in the moment. I also learned/rediscovered my deep-seated desire to travel and experience other cultures, especially if the experience doesn’t occur in a resort and actually involves experiencing the life of the everyday person.” – Curran Connelly

“People all over the world aren’t as different from each other as we think. All kids want to do is play, have fun, and be themselves.” – Nylah Brown, Middle school student

“What I learned about the world through the Courts for Kids trip is that no matter our backgrounds, we can all come together to achieve wonderful things. The words of a local continue to ring through my head, ‘The world is a beautiful place when we work together to make it that way.'” – Abigail Wilmington