Kamiak High School students in San Gabriel, Costa Rica

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A wave of heat slapped 14 Americans in the face as they disembarked from a sleepy five hour bus ride from San José, the capitol of Costa Rica, onto the dusty main road that runs through San Gabriel, a rural community near the Nicaragua border.  The night before at a hotel near the airport and the five hour bus ride had made everyone antsy to arrive in the community but now that we had made our destination, it was as if the pace of life slowed down instantly.  As the gringos processed their surroundings, a dusty road in front of a cinder block community center with a tin roof and jocote tree out front, a group of about 30 local community members eagerly approached to help us unload the bus.  Eli, the resident Peace Corps Volunteer whose months of preparation for our project had made him eager to get to work, excitedly introduced everyone and showed us into the community center where we would sleep for the next week while we built a basketball court.

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After showing us into the building, Eli made the announcement that there would be a surprise.  He led us around behind the building along with the community members and grinned as he displayed our dinner feast: a live pig!  Suddenly the group energy skyrocketed as the gringos, most of whom were students from Kamiak High School in Washington, realized that they would be assisting with the butchering of a live animal that they would then eat for dinner.  A reaction of surprise, trepidation, and excitement hit the group all at once, drawing chuckles from community members.  With a crowd of locals watching and following the expert guidance of a community member, everyone in the group helped out with the process of preparing the animal to be cooked.  This was a learning experience for the group and according to one of the youth leaders, it “opened my eyes to where meat comes from and…it makes me value eating meat more.”  The experience served as a great ice-breaker for the group as everyone willingly stepped out of their comfort zone right off the bat, following the lead of local guides.  The tone for the week was set.

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That evening we worked with Danny, the President of the community development association, and Don José, the construction contractor, to finish preparing the land and elevate the hoop structures.  Don José’s technical expertise and Danny’s infectious energy would be constants throughout the week and their eagerness to get to work on a Sunday night, traditionally a time for rest in Costa Rica, rubbed off on everyone.  After the hoops had been put up and the sun had gone down, Don José pulled me aside.  As we discussed construction logistics and our plans for the week, Don José voiced a concern.  “Ellos me parecen algo delicados,” he told me with skepticism, which literally translates to “they seem a bit delicate to me,” in reference to the Kamiakers.  Don José, an experienced stone mason and construction contractor, had serious doubts that a group of 14 “delicate” gringos could pour enough concrete for an entire basketball court in just one week.  The gauntlet was thrown down.

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The next morning our alarm went off at 4:30am when the team woke up to “Danza Kuduro” coming from a cell phone with no service reception.  We parted the curtains of our mosquito nets and rolled sleepily off of the mattresses that we had laid down on the concrete floor of the community center to get to work.  Don José and Danny were already outside, tools in hand and ready to go.  Danny’s carefree, goofy personality whose presence nonetheless commands a great deal of respect came with a lead-by-example mentality and charisma, which many of us grew to admire.  Having his support at 4:30am seemed to make the fact that we had just woken up in what felt like the middle of the night a little bit easier.  Following his lead, we went over some basic safety information, flipped the switch on the cement mixers, and got to work.

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At first the pace was slow and awkward.  Aside from myself, one Kamiak adult leader, and a couple of the veterans from the group that had gone on a Courts For Kids trip before, no one had ever mixed cement and the group awkwardly fumbled through the process in the beginning.  By 7:30am however, we had the form down and after a quick break for breakfast, the pace of construction took off.  Adrenaline was pumping and the team energy was electric, which amplified more and more as community members trickled in throughout the morning to lend a hand.  We let shouts of support, high fives, and team water-chugs pull us through the morning and by 11am when we stopped for a mid-day respite, we looked out at a significant chunk of the concrete slab already done.

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After a much-needed lunch break prepared by Doña Rufina and Doña Carmen, Eli coyly announced that we would once again be preparing our own dinner and along with the local construction crew, he led us behind the community center once again where our hosts had two live chickens waiting for us.  After the pig, chickens seemed easy, especially when Axel, Doña Carmen’s five year-old son grabbed them bare-handed, already looking forward to his dinner plans. Two volunteers from the group stepped forward to lead the preparation efforts but everyone helped out, following Doña Carmen’s expert guidance.

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Once the chicken was prepped, everyone got some rest in the shade and some of the team members played games with youth from the community.  Before we knew it, 2pm had rolled around and it was time to get back to work.  That was when I took the opportunity to tell the group about Don José’s comments from the night before.  After a productive morning, our construction timeline seemed so plausible.  Challenge accepted.  The group jumped back into the work with a renewed sense of urgency.  Sand and cement drifted in the breeze, the buzz of the concrete mixer resounded, and the team dumped wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of concrete into the court floor.  As the sun went down and we washed off our tools and massaged our bumps and scrapes from the day, we looked out at a half-finished basketball court.  Apparently the gringos weren’t so “delicate” after all.

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The next day was more of the same.  The team knew the drill and, though everyone was sore from the first day, energy was high as we followed Don José’s lead.  After a productive morning we took a mid-day break to visit the school.  Eli led the team in joining patriotic songs that the school children were singing and we learned about José Santamaría, a Costa Rican national hero.  Following some singing, a tour of the school, and a light pick-up soccer game in the school yard, the team got back to work.  In the afternoon we were joined by even more community members, including two women who came by to lend a hand.  In Costa Rica, traditional gender norms play a significant part in day-to-day life, and it seems clear to me that were it not for the efforts of the two female Kamiak students, women from the community likely would not have helped with any part of the manual labor.  Don José, a true “man’s man” in every sense of the expression, even remarked to me that the female Kamiakers were “valientes,” or “brave.”  When the sun went down, almost the whole court was finished save for a stretch of about 30 feet.  We went to bed that night knowing that our goal was so close, we could almost taste it.  The next morning we were even joined by Don José’s daughter, which likely would not have happened were it not for the inspiration of our female teammates.  By 7am, the court was done.  A project that had been planned to take five days had been finished in just over two by a group of “delicate,” or perhaps not-so-delicate gringos.

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The rest of the week flew by.  Finishing the court as quickly as we did allowed the group time to get to know the community, learn about Costa Rican cultural customs and enjoy some of the country’s natural beauty.  We milked cows at 4am, jumped from a rope swing into a clear blue river, got sunburns, went to an evangelical church service, rode a water buffalo, admired birds and crocodiles along Caño Negro Wildlife Preserve, ate fruit with no translatable name, and most importantly, built new relationships.

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On the last day, we did a walking tour of the community.  The plan was not only to invite each family to a ribbon-cutting ceremony that the community development association had organized behind Danny’s leadership but more importantly, to get the chance to meet more community members and learn about local culture and customs.  Going door to door in this way turned out to be an impactful and unique experience for the Kamiak students.  In reflection, one American youth wrote that, “small communities such as San Gabriel value the important things such as family and a strong relationship between your neighbors.  They don’t rely on social media to keep in touch, they go door to door just to talk to one another.  This changes my perspective on little communities, they don’t have much but they’re happy.”

That night, the community hosted the ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by a party with dancing, good food, and even karaoke.  Danny made a heart-warming speech expressing gratitude on behalf of San Gabriel and Kamiakers swapped contact info with new friends as we said our official goodbyes.

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The next morning saw more goodbye hugs as the team boarded the bus back to San José.  I rode with Danny ahead of the group to drop off his car for the day in the neighboring town but after about two minutes he had to pull over to the side of the road.  Overcome with emotion, he grabbed my arm, started sobbing, and I myself was unable to hold back tears.  It was a powerful experience for me personally to share a moment with such a passionate and charismatic man in which he was so vulnerable and grateful.

Danny and I met back up with the rest of the team and settled in for the long bus ride.  Along the way we made a stop at thermal hot springs next to Arenal Volcano which felt great on our bumps, scrapes, and sore muscles from the construction.  As we neared the capitol, Danny sat joking and laughing with a German-American father of one of the Kamiakers.  It was pretty amazing to watch these two men, whose backgrounds and cultures were so different and who could barely communicate with each other, have forged such a powerful bond.  When we got back to the hotel near the airport, Danny was once again overpowered by his emotions and the whole group joined in a group hug on the street in front of the hotel.  People laughed and cried at the same time as we said our farewells to this man who, though we had only known him for a week, felt like family.  It was a nice way for everyone to wrap up the trip.

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Courts For Kids’ projects are about more than just pouring concrete.  They’re about sharing our culture with others, building relationships, changing social norms, and improving the impression of Americans on the part of others.  The Kamiak group did all of these things and more.  In the words of one of the Kamiak students, “we formed close relationships and bonded over basketball as well as other things.  We gave them a basketball court but they gave us a new viewpoint on life.  We came as spoiled kids but emerged as adults with a newfound respect of small communities.” Our construction efforts as a team may have been impressive, but our bigger and more important feat was both the impression that we left on San Gabriel and the new perspective that we all gained from the experience.  What a week. – Greg Taylor, Courts for Kids representative