University of Central Florida ‘Knights Without Borders’ in Tucuesito, Panama

Joy. Exhaustion. Love. Pain. Gratitude. Compassion. Fun. Fear. Lifelong friendships. Adversity. Family. Adventure. Sports. Hard work pays off. Selflessness. Pure genuine happiness. These are just some of the feelings and thoughts that come to mind when I think about my experience with Courts for Kids. I went to Costa Rica in August of 2015 and it was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I have ever gone through. So naturally, I had to do it all over again in August of the following year in Panama.  We went to Tucuesito, a very small town in the province of Coclé in the country of Panama.

image-1

This trip is our Knights Without Borders trip, an international service-learning trip where student athletes fundraise for themselves in order to attend the trip. It gives them the opportunity to learn about new cultures, take them out of their comfort zones, and learn more about each other and themselves. On this trip we had 30 going made up of student athletes, former student athletes, staff and one video guy.  Here we are outside the airport in Panama. Going into this trip, many were nervous about what conditions we would encounter. Many of our student athletes have never been out of the country; many of us had never even met before our initial meetings for this trip. During our initial meetings we all talked about our general feelings about the trip. We talked about how excited we were to meet the people of the town and play with the kids. Some were nervous about our living conditions, our hygiene conditions, what sort of food we would be eating since there are a few that have allergies and quite particular tastes, you know who you are =P; But most of all, the most common, most significant reason of fear, was the BUGS! I actually almost backed out of the trip because I was afraid of getting bitten by a mosquito with the Zika virus! I just decided I would try to be as preventative as possible and pray for the best. I knew I didn’t want to miss out on the possibility of another extraordinary episode of my life. I’m not usually bothered by critters, unless they are rodents – get those away from me! YUK! I wish I had taken a picture of the spider we encountered the last night in Tucuesito because I’m pretty sure it was a Tarantula, the biggest one I have ever seen in my life – not that there are many Tarantulas around where I live in Florida.  Everyone was freaking out, including our multi talented, Courts for Kids Panama Director, Aníbal Cardenas.

After driving to Penonomé, the largest city closest to Tucuecito, we all made several trips back and forth in a truck with an extended truck bed to fit all of our luggage and people. The roads were tough, very steep and difficult for a large bus to drive through so we had to take a smaller vehicle to get to our final destination. I was on the first truckload full of people.  After about a 30 minute drive, we arrived to this amazing warm welcome:

image-2

Many of the locals welcomed us at the top of the hill in cheers and applause. We felt so very special that they were so excited to see us after such a long trip. Impressed by the creative sign they made us, and the excitement with which they welcomed us, we could already feel their great sense of family and love.  It didn’t take us long to begin interacting with the kids and locals. As more and more of us started arriving, the kids grew more curious and anxious to learn about who we were.  Some of them were shy at first but once our group of athletes started to play with them, everyone started to get along really well. Our video guy, Dane, was showing them how to use his camera.  Even though there was a great deal of frustration across the board because of the difficulty in communicating, the kids, the locals and our group were able to communicate with hand signals and through the little Spanish they knew or learned from being in Panama. There were only two fluent Spanish speakers between a Peruvian student and myself. Though difficult to communicate, it was refreshing to see how much everyone was trying to learn more Spanish and get to know more about the locals.

image-3

Out of all of the different things that we got to experience, the one that has had the most impact on me were the relationships created – ones that I think can last a lifetime. You know when you have those relationships that you may not communicate often but when you see or speak to each other again, it’s like you never missed a beat. I think we can all agree that we will be family forever.

The people from Tucuecito are some of the most genuine, compassionate, hard working, kind people I have ever met. Getting to learn about their stories, their daily lives, their families, their culture was all so interesting and fun for me, for all of us I think. To see them be genuinely happy with what little they have put our priorities into perspective. With no distractions such as our phones or other electronics, we were forced to talk to each other and the locals, reflect and really enjoy the moment.

I think some of the strongest relationships were made through the blood, sweat and tears spent on that court and throughout the trip. Not only did we work hard building the court but we left it all out there in the valley playing soccer, playing basketball on the court and for some, playing kickball. We were lucky enough to have the ability to take breaks and spend some more time with the locals: going on adventures to peoples houses, learning how to use a machete, learning how to get mangos from the trees and exploring the beautiful scenery of Tucuesito The master of the machete: Eric Dice, our incredibly patient, kind and always willing to help Peace Corps Volunteer who was stationed in Tucuesito, Panama.

image-4-edited

image-6

image-9

For the most part, this dish was everyone’s favorite! We were so incredibly grateful for the generosity and tenacity of these local women who labored for 14-16 hour days to only cook for us. There are not enough words to express how grateful we were for these women and everyone else in the town. They gave up their school to house us, made additional showers for our large group and would bring bags full of mangos and mamones (sort of like a lychee fruit). We loved the local food but some were excited to see peanut butter sandwiches and a sort of “funnel cake” that we made up – it was a huge hit!

image-8

This project was a true team effort. I am truly amazed at the power of relationships and how although we live on a very large planet, the world is a small place.  An old friend whom I did not know more than 6 weeks, and had not spoken to him in approximately 13 years, got involved and helped complete this project. Without any convincing from me, he offered to help and get his organization to help and donate the basketball poles, jumping through some major hoops. Here we are in front of the school sign:

image-10

All of the hard work we put into building the court, installing the poles for the hoops and net, painting the clinic and the library led to the culmination of the week when celebrated the completion of the court with an official ceremony. We were so proud to have completed such an awesome project together, alongside all the locals that came from every corner of that village. Together we can accomplish so much more than if we try to do it all ourselves was a revolving theme throughout the trip.

image-7

We played basketball, soccer, and volleyball, danced, ate and enjoyed every single moment, in the moment. We weren’t thinking of anything else in that moment but truly enjoying each other’s company, regardless of where we came from or what language we spoke. Locals from Tucuecito expressed how grateful they were of what we had helped them accomplish. They expressed that the court is more than a place for them to play sports; it’s now a place to interact with their family and friends creating great memories. Our trip to Panama reinforced the reality that we are here to serve others. Because when we serve others and stop worrying about ourselves, forget about our own wants, forget about all those materialistic items and let go of all those toxic relationships, is when we really enjoy life. We don’t realize how much impact we can have on others and the impact others have on us.  On one of our last reflection nights this quote by the great Maya Angelou was mentioned, which I believe couldn’t describe our trip any better, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Carla Portilla, UCF staff

image-11

“What I understand more clearly now is that this life that I am living is no longer for myself but for others.” – Christal

img_6098

“Lives were changed that day and will forever be changed not only for the locals but for us as well. This trip had such a positive impact on us. It is the simple things in life that make you happy. The locals grow and harvest their own food, yet they brought us bags of mangoes, oranges, and mamones because we have mentioned we liked them. The fact that they remembered and took time out of their day is simply amazing.” – Samantha and Stephen

img_6018

“It was hard leaving when I was hugged by everyone I could feel how much they will miss us too. I am honored that they let us into their homes and treated us like family. I will be back.” – Josslyn

img_6093

“I will never forget this trip. Not only was I able to help others, I was able to help myself as well. So many emotions poured out as I watched the locals dribble and shoot basketballs. This trip is a lot more than building a court, it is so much deeper than that. This is something everyone should experience at least once.” – Jazmine

img_5575

“From this trip I have learned that true wealth comes from the love of others rather than the bank.” -Bailey

img_6152