A new family among families in Torti, Panama

A trip nothing short of exceeding our wildest expectations. This summer’s Courts for Kids trip to Torti, Panama left us all with lifelong memories, laughs, and tears when leaving such an amazing community that gave us the best hospitality and relationships. Compared to other Courts for Kids’ trips, this one was unique as we had several different families traveling. We arrived as strangers to each other and to the Torti community and left as one family.

On our first day, we drove a bus down to Torti from Panama City and stopped by a local restaurant surrounded by coconut trees. We all drank coconut water together and learned a little about the environment in Panama. This was an early taste of getting to know each other and the delicious Panamanian produce. We were welcomed to the University of Panama, Torti, with a big poster and excited locals who were eager to get to know us and feed us. That night, we had a meeting including the locals, and already shared many laughs with our group. Seeing them face to face and how happy they were to finally meet us, I knew we were in for a memorable trip.

On day 2 we woke up to Alejandra and the rest of her crew cooking their traditional sausage with peppers and bread. They went above and beyond to make sure all 23 of us were fed and satisfied. They brought at least 30 mangoes for us to devour in minutes, and taught us the different types. Day 3 was even better than the day before as we prepped the court by filling it with dirt and making everything even so we could fill it with the cement mix the next day.

Our group got a lot closer with the community, especially by dancing. We both loved to dance and even though there was a language barrier between us, dancing and laughing with each other connected us more than our words. We drove the bus to check out the town of Torti and their farm. We saw a diverse spectrum of animals like chihuahuas, chickens, roosters, ducks, pigs, and cows. Later that night, they went out of their way to cook a scrumptious dessert called arroz con leche. We could feel their love and be able to become more like family exponentially every day.

Day 4 was the first day we poured the cement into the court. I’ve never been a part of a team that worked so well together, especially because most of us have only known each other for a few days and some of them spoke a different language. From shoveling rocks and dirt to dumping in bucket after bucket of cement, it’s safe to say everybody worked extremely hard in a climate that was something we haven’t experienced before.

A huge bonus to our trip was the daily walks we would go on to the nearby restaurant. The 92-year-old lady who owned the restaurant, Lenti, was the most sacrificial and sweetest person I’ve ever come across in my life. And thanks to Giselle, one of our group members who is bilingual, we learned about her story and the story of her father, who established the town of Torti when there was no water system or development. On Joel’s birthday, Lenti and her relatives baked a surprise cake with candles, balloons, and even a disco light to celebrate someone who they met only a few days ago, but already felt connected to. Our group had dance parties, laughs, and memories from the restaurant that we won’t ever forget.

Day 5 was an extremely successful work day as we finished a huge portion of the court. Even though we were sore from the day before, we overcame a lot of adversity and got out of our comfort zone to help build something meaningful with the locals. At this point, everyone was extremely close with each other and with the community. Day 6 was when we finished the court! With the help and sacrifice of all the local Panamanians, we finished one of the important goals of completing the court for the University. We celebrated by taking pictures and admiring each other’s dedication and hard work.

On day 7, we were lucky enough to use the court by teaching 30 kids how to play basketball and volleyball. It was a cool moment for every day to see how beneficial the court was and will be in the future for kids to enjoy playing sports on the court.

From there we explored a river to where we swam and got to soak in the beautiful nature of Panama, including finding a monkey eating in its natural habitat. That night was our last night in Torti, so we were a part of the first annual inauguration of the court. Watching some of the locals cry tears of joy illustrated how much the court meant to their community. We got to hear words of gratitude from the community and how much we meant to them and what they meant to us as well. In the end we all danced and celebrated the hard work we put in together, in addition to the relationships that were created because of it.

The next morning was when we had to say our goodbyes. This was by far the hardest part of the trip because it was so difficult to leave such a happy and welcoming community. We said our goodbyes to Torti and thanked each other for the impact that they had on our lives, and an unforgettable experience packed with thousands of memories. To finish our last day as a group, we all toured part of Panama City and had a 4-hour reflection on the time we spent together. We each reflected on a question given to us, and often had many of us in tears once again. To see how deep our friendships were already, and only knowing each other for a span of a week was mind-blowing and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To finish the reflection, we had a hot seat where each person took a turn to sit in the middle and everyone could volunteer to compliment them. Each person that sat down was poured with genuine compliments and was something that I’ve never personally witnessed or experienced. I’m so thankful to be a part of such a unique experience that forces us to bond with people that I would have never had the opportunity to meet and be able to call my family. To the community of Torti, to the organization of Court For Kids, and to the group I can now call my family, thank you for all the memories we made together. ~Anthony Angelo, HS student

Quotes from US Volunteers

The best part of this trip was Roman. Roman was one of two concrete contractors that worked with us. Like most trips, the contractor had a machismo to him, and with that, he did not want to try a few different ways we like to do the concrete work. He sat for a couple of hours to the side basically because we were using the mixer in the court area and not wheelbarrowing everything in. Every day he warmed up to us more and more. At the end when we did a celebration with the community. Roman was recognized for his work and he cried for a period of time as the impact and experience of constructing the court together seemed to hit him. I think he was touched by doing something that brought in other community people to help, and he also experienced doing something that had an impact on his community. He is serving for free on the next court being built for a community about 30-45 miles away. ~Terry Wollam

What I learned about myself on this trip is that it is important that I focus more on how much I do have and how blessed I am. Through this, I have gained a new perspective on how grateful people are with what they have, which is a big shift from most of our everyday lives in America. I feel that I take too much for granted and don’t spend enough time appreciating the life I do have and I want to make it a part of my life to understand and be thankful. ~Andrew Keepes

One of the things I learned about the community was their hospitality. The welcome we received at the university was no less than amazing. I felt beyond welcomed and cared for during our 9 days there by the amazing people. These people showed us an outpouring of love and desire to take care of any needs we may have had. From the group of women serving us food, to my birthday celebration at Lenti’s, to helping to unload cattle, an endless supply of mangoes and pineapple, random pictures with the locals, and the excitement we all showed, the list is endless. I’ve never felt so comfortable in a place so foreign to me. ~Joel Simmons

The community taught me that there is always something to give, whether it is time, support, or acts of service, there is always a way to help and lead a life with less greed and more generosity. Financial support is not the only way of giving, also there is no person who doesn’t deserve or doesn’t need an act of service. ~Trenton Wollam

I learned from the community that wherever you go for however long it may be, you can still form bonds with people. The connections we have made with the people of the university are unlike anything any of us have. They felt and still feel like a second family. ~Lilly Simon

I feel like the trip really changed me by forcing me to go out of my comfort zone. By doing this I  was able to experience cool things. I was also able to make deeper connections with people by learning to become more vulnerable. ~Patrick Phelps

I learned from the community that they are giving! They gave of their time, they gave skills, they gave money, and they gave supplies. The community wasn’t wealthy. However, there were people who saw the vision and saw the work and gave. In the US I feel that I don’t always give. I am concerned if I always have enough when I know that I do. I want to be more open-handed with my time, skills, and resources. I witnessed people give more and more, and it makes me wonder what amazing things we can do if we ask ourselves what more can I give? ~Brandon Angelo