After about 40 hours of traveling, 18 fellow athletes, four faculty members and I stepped off the bus in the community of Cañaza. We were greeted with a celebration. Drums were played, a welcome sign was held and a traditional dance was performed by some of the women of the community. We went around meeting some of the members of the community and began to situate ourselves with our air mattresses and mosquito nets in the respective classrooms that we would sleep in.
We were not sure how much work we would be doing on the day we arrived, as we got used to our surroundings, but the community members answered that question. As we were taking in our surroundings, we saw a group of community members walk over to the area that would eventually be the court. There were cement blocks that created a 26 by 17 meter court with dirt filling in the middle. A roof covered half of the court and the other half sat in the sun. The community members began digging rocks out of the dirt, and we took that as our cue to jump right in. We grabbed our gloves and some tools and started digging out rocks and filling in the court with more dirt. A few hours later, string had been put down to section off part of the court that was ready to be leveled and we were told it was time to shower off in the river and head into the dining room to get some dinner, this consisted of rice and beans for much of the trip. After little sleep during the travelling, and a few hours of work prepping the court, a majority of the group went to bed early to prepare for some early morning work.
The next day consisted of much of the same as the first. A person looking from a distance would have seen rocks and dirt flying in every direction as the court was dug up and filled by our group and community members. We sectioned off and leveled a majority of the court that day. The group was ready for the cement mixers to be delivered the following day, but all the work that could be done that day had been. The day was still young as we finished and the kids of the community were anxious to play games. A pick-up game of soccer was held on the field next to the court, and other kids were scattered around the school grounds either playing games or talking to the athletes. These activities would be a mainstay during breaks throughout the week. The sense of community began to grow and we started to feel more at home.
The next two days were filled with cement. Groups split up to do different jobs. Some were in charge of putting the cement in the mixer, some the water, some the dirt and others took wheel barrels of wet cement to dump on the court. Even the kids in the community were helping out with the cement. This routine occurred all morning and afternoon with a break for lunch until it started to get dark and the group went to shower in the river. All of us walked to the river covered in cement. Water had never felt as good as it did on those days.
It took about four days to finish the court and there were cheers all around when we poured the last barrel of cement. We put the hoops up the next day and the community put together a celebration for everyone. They cut the ribbon to open the court, speeches were given and the court was officially ready.
The last day in Cañaza may have been the most difficult. This was when we had to say goodbye. The friendships we made with the kids and community members were now coming to a close. We knew the memories would always be there, but we would never be in this same place with this same group again. The community lined the street as we said goodbye. Photos were taken and hugs were given. Tears were even shed. We were no longer visitors to the community; we were part of the community. Our bus drove away as we all waved and the community waved back.
We had a couple of days to explore Panama before heading back to the States. Every night during the trip we had a reflection of that day. The last night we had one final reflection of the trip. Emotions were expressed and tears were shed as we reflected on the previous nine days. The impact of the trip was apparent that night and the bond of this group grew even stronger. The excitement to return to the States the next morning was prevalent but a piece of our hearts was left in Panama that day as we left the place that provided memories that will last a lifetime.
– T.J. Brassil, Courts for Kids volunteer
“What I learned from the community is that being happy is a choice. The community may not have had a ton of things whether it be material items or even nice showers and bathrooms, but they were some of the happiest people I have ever seen… We choose to be happy no matter if we have everything in the world or nothing at all. This community is a great example of what it means to be happy the right way.” – Mari
“Greatest thing I have ever done. I loved it all and will cherish the memories forever.” – Leanne
“I am able to understand more clearly now how happiness boils down to two things: the love of family and friends, and the ability to remain present in the moment, allowing for deeper connections to be built between others.” – Devan
“I initially thought that the language barrier would keep us from making relationships. With the little Spanish I knew and the kids’ eagerness to learn English, we are able to develop our own way of communicating. By the end of the trip, we could joke around, play games, and learn stories from one another. I will never forget the incredible relationships I made with the kids and I’m so thankful they welcomed us into their beautiful community.” – Kelsey
“I learned that I am capable of a lot more than I had originally believed. I am capable of creating relationships with people who speak a different language than I do. I also learned to be mindful and present in every moment. I don’t need to be looking ahead or wishing something different.”- Michelle