Written by Travis Chamblee, SMU Athletics Public Relations, Associate Director
Mission trips are about leaving a place better than you found it, building relationships, appreciating a different culture and discovering a new perspective. In May, a group of student-athletes and staff did just that while helping the village of Silver Creek in Belize.
For some, it was the first time outside of the United States. For others, it was the first time without vacation plans or an athletics team jersey to compete in scheduled games or events. The trip only lasted just 10 days, but the impact of the adventure with Courts for Kids would have a life-long impact on both the people of Silver Creek and the travelers from SMU.
Swimmer Keegan Pho said about the time in Silver Creek, “Living in Silver Creek Village allowed me to experience and become immersed in a different culture. I will be forever changed. There is something special about the universal language of kindness.”
Swimmer Nathan Ciatti described the trip’s impact on his relationships, saying, “I am walking away from a 10-day service trip with lifelong friends that I am interconnected with on a whole different level than my teammates and other friends back home… Throughout our many nightly conversations after dinner, it was very evident that this trip heavily impacted all of us.”
Upon arrival at the airport outside of Belize City, a small group of villagers with signs and smiles warmly welcomed the team. The first meal in the Caribbean country in Central America was, of all things, chicken lo mein. After a six-hour bus ride south to the small village in the Toledo District, the group got its first taste of the Q’eqchi’ Mayan culture.
The group was welcomed into the home of the Chairman, the highest-ranking local government official, and greeted with a meal. The customary dinner for parties and big events featured a classic Mayan meal called caldo chilan, or a chicken soup. The menu also included corn tortillas and a drink made from cacao, which the group would later come to understand was essentially chocolate water. However, in a new place with a server whose accent was not yet understandable, many only heard him say cow, instead of cuh’-cow. This misunderstanding made the first meal much more interesting since many thought this traditional drink was actually derived from some sort of cow product.
The next morning, the team had its first opportunity to see the area that was to become a multi-sport concrete court. With these first views of the worksite, the magnitude of the task became clear. The people of Silver Creek had already demolished what was left of the previous court and leveled most of the ground inside the form boards outlining the exterior for a regulation-sized basketball court. However, there was still a lot of preparation work that needed to be done before cement could be poured.
“I was expecting the heat, but not constantly,” swimmer El Yellin explained. “It was hard, manual labor, which I had never done before.”
Using picks, shovels, rakes and hoes, the group, along with some of the villagers, began working to level the ground inside the form boards. The first challenge was to make sure the ground was four inches below the top of the boards, which would ensure that an even four-inch slab could be created.
The day’s work included digging up large boulders, as well as several other rocks, and moving them to a designated area outside of the court. The area around the exterior of the court was also cleared of rocks and debris in order to create a safe environment around the court. In addition to an increase in the heat, the afternoon also included a delivery of 200 bags of cement, each weighing almost 100 pounds. The group carried them from the truck, across a field and then stacked under a roof near the worksite.
An after-dark arrival meant the first day of work was also the first opportunity to take in the natural beauty of Silver Creek. A refreshing river located near the village was not only beautiful, but also provided a cool place to relax after a long day’s work.
“It’s just beautiful here,” exclaimed Meryn Kennedy, a member of the volleyball team. “The sky is bluer. You notice things when you break away from technology.”
Yellin stated, “The village is more beautiful than I expected.”
“Going to the river on the first day was incredibly memorable,” rower Gel Greene explained. “Everyone was hot and tired after a long day of work, and to discover that a natural river was awaiting us was great!”
Tuesday was the first day the team mixed and poured cement for the court. For every load of cement, a bucket of water, two halves of a bag of cement and nine buckets of sand were poured into the mixer, along with a handful of fiberglass.
In order to get the sand to group at the mixer, it was shoveled into buckets and carried across the court to the mixer. It was not until the second day of pouring cement that Christian Boorom, a member of the men’s soccer team, had the brilliant idea of using the wheelbarrows to transport the buckets of sand to the mixer.
Although the day was cut short due to afternoon rain showers, the lower temperatures and cool water were more than welcomed after hours in the heat. Despite the shorter workday, the team poured nearly 60 bags of cement for the first section of the court. This section was approximately 15 feet wide from sideline to sideline.
Wednesday started at 5 a.m. in an attempt to get two sections done before the forecasted afternoon showers. The team also hoped to avoid working after lunch, which was the hottest time of day. More people from the village came to help, including several children, who worked with the team before and after school. The determined group reached its goal and finished one section before breakfast and a second section before lunch.
Despite the progress gained by the early start on the previous day, Thursday did not go as smoothly as Wednesday. Halfway through the first section of the day, the frame of the mixer cracked. It needed to be welded back together, which meant a trip to the shop a few miles away. As this was already the second mixer of the week, with the first losing a necessary gear at the end of the day Tuesday, it was unclear when the problem would be solved.
Fortunately, the mixer was returned a short time after breakfast. It was a longer day than expected, but the group pushed forward and finished two sections, which left just one more, 15-foot section of cement to pour. Thursday’s work also included digging holes for the basketball goal posts. McKenzie Adams, Lauren Mills, Gel Green, Annie Grogan and Leeigh Ann Sudbury worked extremely hard to get to the depth necessary for the cement to stabilize the heavy posts. The group chipped away at the rocky ground close to the surface, only to find a sticky clay that became more and more difficult to remove the deeper they dug. After hours of digging, the group created two, 3-foot by 3-foot holes at each end of the court. Each hole was also 40 inches deep.
On Friday, the group completed the main surface of the court and was able to get the first goal post into the ground. The team’s excitement after the last bucket of sand was dumped into the mixer and the final load of cement was dumped onto the court was immeasurable.
“I do not love pouring concrete; however, I absolutely loved this trip,” explained cross country and track runner Alison Esparza. “I really do feel like I could stay in Silver Creek for an extended period of time.”
During their time in Belize, the student-athletes also took in some of the local attractions. On Saturday, they went to Lubaantun, an archeological reserve on the site of an ancient Mayan trading hub. After touring the ruins and imagining what the site would have looked like hundreds of years ago, the group visited the largest recycling project in Belize, a house called the Chaos Oasis. The home was made of used tires and glass bottles, which the owner had mixed into the walls and covered with cement. The insulation kept the self-sufficient home cooler than other materials, and kept the bottles and tires out of landfills.
Saturday afternoon left enough time for the avid soccer fans, especially SMU soccer stars Phillip Ponder and Boorom, to watch the Champions League Final.
With a buzz of excitement for the new, smooth and safe court going around the village, a volleyball tournament was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. The festivities began with speeches from the village Chairman, and Derek Nesland, founder of Courts for Kids. Anna Mahoney, the Peace Corps representative who was influential in getting the project started, but also returned to Silver Creek to ensure its completion, was recognized and honored by the village.
“It made my heart so happy to see how excited everyone was about the court that we worked so hard on, and it made me even more happy that they wanted to celebrate it with us,” exclaimed women’s basketball graduate McKenzie Adams. “We broke into teams mixed with villagers and members of our team and, literally, became one. The villagers made us feel like it was our home, too, and I loved that.”
The tournament featured six teams, comprised of a mix of local people and the group from SMU. Many were stunned to see such high-quality volleyball in a village that had only been playing the sport for a few years. In the end, the team of Ofelia Coh, Brandon Teul, Agustin Cho and Kenrick Teul, along with Ponder and Adams, went undefeated to win the tournament!
“I have endless high points from the trip. A major one would be when the entire community came together and participated in the volleyball tournament…The men and women played together as teammates,” stated volleyball graduate Lauren Mills.
Boorom summed up the trip by saying, “It doesn’t really take much to make a profound impact on the world. In seven days, we were able to build something that will impact generations of children and be a cornerstone for a community of people.”