Bellarmine Preparatory “built not just a court, but history” in El Penon, Panama

August 2019

Friday morning, the entire Bellarmine Preparatory group woke up early to drive to the airport for an 8:40 am flight.  We flew from Seattle to Atlanta and from there to Panama City.  There we went through customs and stepped out into the hot, humid night air of Panama.  Juan, and his son, Juan, drove Juan Carlos, our Courts for Kids supervisor, and our group to a hostel.  There we were introduced to the native flora as we struggled to keep our luggage out of the ants parading the sidewalks.

Saturday morning, we were introduced to a common Panamanian breakfast; eggs with bread.  After getting to know each other better, we got on the bus with the Juan Trifecta for a more tourist start to our trip as we drove along the Panama Canal before starting a 6 hour bus drive to Yaviza, the town where Campamento, El Peñon is located.  There we met Kevin, who became a good friend to us all.  He walked with us over a bridge in Yaviza on an evening stroll.  We then settled down into our rooms in the camp, our beds complete with mosquito nets.

Sunday, the wonderful women made us another traditional Panamanian breakfast before we headed out to start work on the court.  Building such a large project requires team work and this provided an opportunity for us to build relationships with the locals.  We became more acquainted with Kevin and discovered despite the language barrier, we could make friends.  When we reached out, the locals did too, and we soon became comfortable with each other. 

Monday, once again, we woke early to continue the court building.  It was very hot, but we took advantage of the breaks caused by the rain to relax and play fũtbol.  Learning soccer skills from Kevin, Ober, and Wissen was a great way to connect with them since they could show us things without having to explain with words.  We also connected with the locals through cards.   Aysan translating the rules, we played “Liar”.  They enjoyed this so much that Wissen was asking to play on the boat ride we took on Thursday.

Tuesday, on the third day of building, we finished.  We really got moving in an effective system where if we weren’t pouring concrete we were making more.  In general, we all helped each other with lifting and carrying and our teamwork allowed us to finish quickly.  We all enjoyed seeing how quickly the locals could lift up sand, water, rock, and cement to Kevin to pour into the mixer.  When the last batch of concrete was poured and smoothed we all cheered and hugged each other.  In celebration, we took a short boat ride down the river to a swimming hole, where we enjoyed the cool water.  We played catch with rocks and had throwing contests.  At night we had an epic game of spoons, where at least twenty locals combined with ourselves played at four tables.  After that our group did an amazing reflection time that really summed up the trip and its importance.  We discussed how the locals were amazed that we could come and give so much without being repaid.  We admired how people from two completely different cultures speaking different languages could come together and build a sports court in three days.   Although our trip is only ten days, what we did will be remembered for generations.  We built not just a court, but history.  During the reflection time, we shared our challenges given to us earlier that day.  They were all different, but shared a common ground; we interacted with the locals, built friendships, and learned about the culture.  We truly challenged ourselves and this built character.  We also made it a goal to fulfill Aysan’s challenge, “Do not forget this trip and friends when we return home.”  It’s so easy to move on as we still have a month of summer left and we won’t be seeing each other until school starts.  However, what we have done here, what we have seen and participated in, is so much bigger than ourselves.

Wednesday, we added the basketball hoops to the court and set up the volleyball net.  We had a tournament of 8 teams, playing volleyball, as compared to fũtbol or basketball, enabled the women of the village to join in giving us a chance to interact with everyone at once.  Even kids walking home from school stopped by to watch.  Some even joined in on our soccer games.  This encourages us that the court we helped build will strengthen the community here.  The conditions here also led to another team building experience; operation flush.  We ran out of water in the camp and needed to make a human chain to move buckets of river water up to the bathrooms.  It was very successful and gave us a good laugh.  After dinner, and after the rain stopped, we went out to the court to hold the inauguration.  We cut a red ribbon, and a pastor, Ober, and other locals presented touching speeches about the court and our help.  Juan Carlos also read off the names of every person who helped with the building, made the food, or was just present during the week.  Each person stood as their names were called and everybody clapped for them.  This process really made everybody feel that they had contributed to the project.  After this, we celebrated Mateo’s 16th birthday.  He had bought a unicorn piñata in the store next door and Juan Carlos had stuffed it with candy.  With everyone present he broke it open with a bat blindfolded, and kids and adults ran up to get the candy.  Two cakes were cut up, and in the celebrations there was a sense of community because the strangers we began as were now good friends.

Thursday, many of the locals helping with the court came from river communities’ hours away by boat. Since we had finished the court, many of the people were leaving today to go back home.  We decided to join them.  The boat ride to Vista Hermosa was four hours.  We sat face to face on hard wooden benches.  The only thing that kept them going were my bad jokes.  When we arrived at the village, the people were very welcoming and generous.  They made us wonderful chicken, rice, and ñame (root cash crop) soup before they entertained us with their traditional dances.  After that, they had gift packages for every single person and chaperones.  They included their traditional skirts and either a woven fan or basket with a bracelet.  All of these were gifts, absolutely free.  Such items would have cost a lot of money for as much time it took to make them.  Beyond this, we became more immersed in the Wounaan tribe traditions when they drew with Jagua on our arms and legs.  Jagua is a fruit used by this tribe to decorate themselves.  To have used as much of it as they did on us would have cost people money as well, but in their generosity, it was free.  It was their way to repay us for helping with the court, but it was worth so much more than that.  Then, for one of the hardest parts of the trip, we had to say goodbye to all the people who helped with the court.  Everybody was emotional, particularly the people who connected with Wissen and Ober.  Kevin later said that he had never seen his good friend, Ober, as emotional as then.  After a 2 1/2 -3  hour boat ride back to camp we had another reflection time. The prompt was, “  How are people in Panama richer than people in the United States.?”  Collectively we said that here in Panama, family and community are much more important.  Also their culture and traditions are much stronger than in the United States.  While they may have fewer resources, they give everything, including their love and friendship.  And finally, in the United States we make it too difficult for ourselves.  Here they find joy in simpler things, where as we in the United States think incorrectly that we can find it in more money and things. 

Friday, with most everybody gone from the camp we decided to take a bus ride today to Puerto Lara, a local community, where Kyle, a Peace Corp volunteer we met, is working.  They made the camp in 2015 to bring profit from tourism.  They were also very generous as they made us fried fish and plantain lunch for everyone.  In their tradition, we washed our hands in a bowl of water with mint and basil.  We all enjoyed the experience and thought it was cool.  After lunch, and after seeing the court built in this community last year by Courts for Kids, we got to buy things from the locals.  Tables were set out with woven animal masks, rosewood, or chaquiras; small colorful beads.  These types of items are examples of traditional Wounaan products.  We all stocked up on items, and could see why they would create a tourist targeted camp like the one they did.  On the bus ride back to El Peñon we had another bonding experience.  Most of us wanted machetes, and so, in his patience and willingness, Juan Carlos made five stops to find a store that stocked them in the smaller sizes we were looking for.  We eventually found them and now only had to worry about getting them through customs at the airport.

Saturday, tied for the most difficult part of the trip this morning was when we had to say goodbye to the women, children, and Kevin at the camp.  Like on Thursday, we were all very emotional.  At the beginning of the trip, Juan Carlos, had said,” We come as strangers, but leave as friends.”  That could not be more than true.  We started at the camp shaking Kevin’s and Obdulio’s hands and waving to the children from a distance.  Today we gave everybody a hug as we held back tears.  Who could have guessed that in less than a week we could have all become close friends?  Tonight we had a very touching experience where we shared memories from the trip and spent over an hour complimenting each person.  It was so touching to hear, and led most of us to tears.

Thanks to all my classmates who came on this trip.  It was a blessing to be with all of you.  Special thanks to Mr. Barnhart and Mrs. Campbell for giving their time and patience to come on this trip with us.  And the most thanks to Juan Carlos for his constant support and love.  I’ll remember you forever.  – Asa

“This trip made me realize that as a girl I am capable of so much more. When we first arrived in Campamento El Peñon and spoke with the young girls, they could not believe that girls came to build a court as it was often a man’s work. I promised them that I would prove that women are just as strong as men and that as a team and as a community, we could achieve anything together.” – Aysan

“I feel this trip has changed me because not only did I make new friends, but I feel like I now have a place where I will always be welcomed. The people of Yaviza and the other villages made me realize how I need to always be open and welcome to others.” – Hannah

“This trip helped me see who I truly am away from all the distractions of modern-day comfort I live in. It has shown me I have what it takes to accomplish my dreams.” – MaryRose

“One of my favorite memories is actually working together with my teammates and the Panamanian workers in a very hot afternoon. We were about to finish the court, so everyone was very excited and put all the energy into the work. When I worked with gravel, I was very tired but could not stop filling the buckets that people handed me, because I saw my teammates who were working by my side were also covered with dust and sweat. That feeling is like I am fighting a battle with them. Some of us filled buckets with gravel and sand, some of us transport the buckets and concrete. We worked together as a powerful machine and everyone played an important role in it.” – Jiayuan

“Going home has always been difficult for me. When I go to a foreign country I don’t like to go home. In other countries, especially when people look like me, I never want to leave. I feel like I am included in their society and I am one of them.”- Mateo

“Sharing this experience with the community helped me realize that changing other people’s lives for the better and gaining respect and connections do not have to be so complicated. Hard work is required of course, but when you put your heart into something, the rest comes naturally.” – Bridget

“This week in Panama has completely changed my view of the world. With Ober, Wissen, and Kevin, despite speaking different languages, we became great friends, through showing and pointing, through playing sports, and through playing cards, we could be with each other and understand each other in a common “language”.” – Asa

“Since we got off the bus, since we opened our arms to the children we didn’t even know, we became part of THEIR familia. We were given love, food, hugs and memories. We were given people with open, loving hearts, who took pride in their people, culture and traditions. Their community was and still is based on the family.”-Ciara

At home, I am at risk of slipping back into my old habits and forgetting the important journey I had gone through that has led me to who I have become today”. – Devoney

“When I first entered Panama and felt the humid air, I wasn’t sure if I could enjoy the trip, however, I honestly have made some of the best memories here. I loved playing games with the locals. They taught us new handshakes, and we taught them new card games. I loved playing spoons because it was a way to connect through the language barrier.”-Malia