Our journey to Panama started with four adults and eleven teens and tweens from Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. It ended in a tearful goodbye among an extended family of countless kids, teens, adults, seniors, CFK and Peace Corps volunteers —and even stray dogs– in a remote village of 140+ “dwellings” about a four hour bus ride from Panama City. Courts for Kids is a team sport, and boy, what a team — and what an adventure and gift the village of Menchaca presented to our group!!
Cliché to say life-changing, but life changing it was! From the innocent joy, wonder and love of life exuded from the eyes and smiles of the children…..to the heartfelt and humbling pride, respect, friendship and compassion of the workers, cooks, bakers, families and neighbors. In the days leading up to this trip, we all heard a chorus of “what a wonderful thing you’re doing for that community,” and “they are blessed to have you.” The chorus was dead right….except they should have been singing to the people of Menchaca. It is they who blessed our lives.
After a few hiccups at Panamanian customs, our group navigated the evening airport crowds to be greeted by a smiling and calm Anibal Cardenas from CFK and a reassuring and energetic Kelsey Ring (part PeaceCorp volunteer, part village cheerleader). Over the next eight days, they served as awesome hosts, soothing and reflective voices, enlightened spirits, phenomenal ambassadors, but most of all, true and long lasting friends.
After we arrived in Menchaca and set up base camp at the village school (complete with bucket showers, bug nets, gallons of sunscreen and insect repellent, leaky air mattresses and the occasional scorpion and tarantula), we ventured to the village center for lunch at one of our many host families. The meals were all unique, but there were certainly some common themes: lentils, rice, plantains, chicken, beef of some sort, yucca, fried corn bread, chica, etc. — all lovingly and diligently prepared over wood fires by the village women. We all also appeared to supplement our diets with some snacks from home and the ever-present Cokes, Skimo Pies and pastries from the “bakery” and local tienda. With temperatures and humidity seemingly in the 90s both day and night, we all drank enough water to fill one of the locks at the Panama Canal.
The court work itself was very demanding, and had we not been blessed with well over thirty “volunteer co-workers” from the village, we’d have never gotten it done. Due to logistical and communication issues, we ended up spending much of the first few days excavating, leveling, graveling and forming the court infrastructure. Like most CFK trips, we also had our share of hiccups with mixing machines, material supplies, turn-of-the century implements and a cultural abhorrence to decision making and taking the lead. In the end — and even in the middle–, it didn’t matter. The CFK troops worked their tails off under extreme conditions. They inspired and motivated their Menchaca counterparts, and by the end of the week we had a 40 x 90 court in place and swamped with over a hundred villagers and nearby visitors. The ribbon cutting was a fitting end to the construction, but the true icing on the cake was just watching the joyful chaos of basketball, frisbee, football, soccer and futsal which commenced even before the first hoop and goal were in place. It was a magical sight!
Of course, the adventure was much more than the court. We all made close friends, and we all left our own special connection to a local villager, be it one of the cooking crew, Jefe, Iladaora, Raul, Jahir, Bola, Manuel, Chencho, Fernando, Jose….or one of other characters too countless to list. Pick-up softball and soccer games before the court was complete….. treks to the river to cool off, enjoy bathing without a bucket and watch the locals perform crazy rock acrobatics….. truck missions to get supplies, ……horse and livestock encounters…… endless Jenga and Uno competitions……dare I say never ending grass “bugs” on your ears and neck?……daily challenges (photo bomb or T-shirt swap anyone?)…….countless singing medleys with and without the locals……and, of course, end of day reflections where we shared our insights, emotions, tears and stories with each other — and an ever-growing roster of villagers.
Wow, I know I’m leaving out tons of stuff, but it’s still overwhelming! This started out as a family trip for us, and our hopes, dreams and expectations were far surpassed. You and Menchaca will always hold a special place in our heart. Thank you for working so hard, so selflessly, and so passionately. Thank you for sharing your love, your friendship, your humor and your humanity. We are honored to know you and deeply hope our paths cross again both in and out of the service to others. Remember that happiness come in many forms, and genuine happiness comes from human interaction, relationships, service to others and finding joy in your surroundings. Material happiness can be enjoyable and even intoxicating and addictive. But it will never be enduring or fulfilling. The community of Menchaca will likely never have the wealth of its US counterparts, but that only validates the fact that lasting happiness cannot be purchased.
– Mark, Kristin and Mason Fleischauer: Seattle, WA
“I understand that priorities can make you happy, not stuff. Many people will look at the pictures and feel bad for the community, when they see their houses and playing with no shoes, etc. but I feel sorry for us. They have authentic relationships and take care of each other. They have chosen true riches. We work, plan, schedule for more and more stuff, but most don’t have the rich relationships in the US. We are rich in materials. They are rich in the joy of being in a close family and community.”
“I don’t yet know how this will change me, but I was deeply touched by the people of Menchaca, I hope that when the culture of materialism begins to press in on me but I fight against it in the same spirit I saw in Menchaca. I am honestly overwhelmed by this experience and feel it is too deep for words at the current time. I will continue to reflect and allow this experience to continue to impact the way I live my life. I thank God for the opportunities to form those relationships.” – Erhen Plummer
“What I understand more clearly now is the importance of community at all levels. It is so easy to get caught up in our individual lives and forget the people around us and how to better our participation. My visit to Menchaca was surrounded by people who constantly gave and supported each other like family. And did the same for us. I never thought was able to see how I can fit into my community at home and being content with the fact that being a part of a small group can have the greatest impact.”
“How I feel like this trip changed me is gaining a sense of curiosity and interest towards how others live around the world. I’d never had experience to be full submerged in another’s way of living before. Spending time with the community and learning from the adults, playing with the children, and getting to know other volunteers, I feel that my value of relationships and learning through others have increased tremendously.” – Cassidy Moe
“This trip has changed me in so many ways and all are good changes. I think the main thing is just how lucky I am in the life I am living. I really think I need to appreciate basic necessities more than I currently have been. Another thing that I feel I need to change is how giving, open, and friendly I am with foreigners and even my own community.” – Mason Fleischauer
“Coming into this trip I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I have been on two trips prior to this and by this time I knew the routine. I came with the low expectation that because of the language barrier between us and the locals, we wouldn’t form very close bonds. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The effort put forth by the community to make us feel welcome and to get to know us was unbelievable. I think one of the coolest things throughout the week was watching us and the locals be able to communicate better each day. I think with their curiosity and compassion it felt as if we weren’t speaking different languages. The people of Menchaca were so relaxed and happy, but still managed to accomplish their goals. Something I understand more clearly now is that life does not have to be stressful. It is okay to take breaks and spend time doing things you love with the people you love.”
“The community members set and excellent example of just taking life day by day. I want to go home to the US and cherish every day. It is so difficult to leave Panama knowing that I most likely will never see the new family I made in Menchaca again. They have left an impression on my life that I will remember and value forever. It is amazing how close you can become to people in just one short week. The fellowship and family that was formed this week is truly unique and I could not be more grateful to the community of Menchaca for sharing their school, homes, food, culture and lives with us. Their compassion and love of life inspires me and I hope that I was able to touch their hearts as much as they touched me.” – Erin Scott
“I understand how that a sense of community, love, kindness and compassion are much more valuable than anything I could buy. I also have a deeper understanding of how important family is. Whenever we would ask someone about their families they would say that everyone was their family. When I get home I hope to get closer with some of my community members. Everyone in the community truly greeted us with open hearts, for which in turn allowed me to open mine.” – Megan Jackson
“The most difficult part of going home… it will be really hard to be away from the people I met this week. This has been such a life changing experience and it is going to be hard to explain to people how it truly was if they didn’t experienced it as well. Menchaca was so stress free that it will hard to be re-entered to reality.” – Aleena