Twenty people — 16 K-State student-athletes and four staff members — trudged through the Manhattan Regional Airport on Tuesday afternoon. Their exhaustion was palpable.
As the baggage claim carousel began to bring out their bags, so was a newfound bond between the Wildcats from six different teams and four different departments. Before anyone left, they made sure to hug everyone in the group.
After 10 days in Costa Rica for K-State Athletics’ annual Cats Across Continents service project, these Wildcats shared an experience only they could truly understand. Through a partnership with Courts for Kids, they helped build a multi-purpose court with the community members in Aguas Claras.
“I do feel different,” K-State track and field’s Devie Freeman said. “I told myself I’m going to change because I was taking a lot of things for granted. I learned over the trip it’s alright not to have everything and you can live without everything. They made so little seem like so much, and that made a big difference for me.”
While in Costa Rica, the Wildcats lived much different lives. No cell phones. Mattresses on floors. Mosquito nets above them. Bathing with buckets.
With some guidance, the Wildcats took an empty space and made it into a place the community could enjoy in many different ways. It took hard work and hundreds of loads of concrete from a wheelbarrow, but the end was more than worth it.
“That final moment, it really was joyful. I had tears of joy on the inside. I had to put my glasses on because I started crying and I didn’t want anyone to see me crying, but it was awesome,” Freeman said. “It was a feeling I had never had, like my heart was full.”
In that first unveiling, K-State rowing’s Selena Wapelhorst said there were three or four pick-up basketball games going on at once. Off to the side, other children kicked balls back and forth while they waited their turn to get on the brand-new court.
“As soon as we blew up a couple of basketballs and volleyballs, community members just popped out of everywhere,” she said. “Next thing you know, there was no room on the court to move because everybody was playing.”
“It was just really cool how we were able to kind of create a shared space, especially being athletes and having an appreciation for what that can do for people, for friends, for families. I think that was just a really incredible sense of fulfillment, getting to know that it was done,” K-State cross country/track and field’s Ethan Powell added. “When we first got there, it seemed like it was going to be pretty much impossible to get it all done, looking at the scale at what we had to do, but it was really cool to see the investment these people had in what we were working on and how coming together, us and them, we became one united group that was working on it.
“I think it shifted my values from material things to more capture that spirit of community. That definitely changed my outlook on things.”
In some ways, the Wildcats also changed the community members they worked with. Notably, Freeman said Allan Chaves, the Courts for Kids Director in Costa Rica, told the Wildcats they broke down some gender stereotypes.
“Selena was there busting out concrete bags the entire time,” Freeman said. “They’d walk up to her and be, like, ‘Macho!’ for strong, and they were impressed. We had (K-State athletic trainer) Zack (Davis) hop in the kitchen and start washing dishes. The men in the community seeing that, they were impressed.”
“Even getting the girls involved in sports, we were told to encourage (them). Because, normally, it’s just the guys who play,” Wapelhorst added. “By the time we left, there were girls playing pick-up games of basketball with us and they were all playing volleyball with us. They’d join in on soccer games.”
Thanks to some mostly rainless weather — an unexpected turn of events — the court came together in four half-days of work. This accelerated process allowed the Wildcats to enjoy more of what the community had to offer.
They went to the beach and to mountain tops. They hiked through the jungle to different farms, where they tasted the juice of cacao pods (used to make chocolate) and ate fruit like bananas, lychee and star fruit right off trees. They played soccer with the children, day or night.
They created friendships that were hard to leave.
“This was a lifechanging experience for me. I met a kid named Adrian, and the relationship I built with him within those couple of days, it changed my life,” Freeman said. “Coming to the last day, I didn’t even want to speak to him because I was crying. I sat and watched him sit on the porch, and we both were crying from a distance. I finally got up and went and spoke to him and hugged. That was like a best friend I never had.”
Wapelhorst had a similar experience with one of the local children. Similarly, when the Wildcats got back to Manhattan, it was hard to leave each other. This once-in-a-lifetime experience brought them together more than they ever imagined.
It’s one reason why, if asked by teammates interested in applying for a future Cats Across Continents trip, they won’t hesitate in their response.
“I would tell them to go for it,” Freeman said. – Corbin and www.kstatesports.com
“I learned a lot from the community on this trip. Every person I met was so loving and welcoming, it has taught me the importance of showing love and kindness to everyone.” – Lauren
“Words cannot describe how happy I am about the experience that this trip has given me. The amount that I bonded with my team mates and other members of this group during this trip was more than I expected coming in and I am very happy with that.” – Logan
“I believe it was absolutely crucial to have members of the community involved in the construction project. Seeing directly those who will benefit from our efforts served as a powerful motivator for me and those around me… Instead of us coming in to help a population that would otherwise be lost, it was a cooperative project.” – Ethan
“One of my favorite memories from this trip is playing on the finished court with the community and the children. I loved getting to bond with those who helped us build the court and also enjoy playing with them. Learning how to have purposeful, genuine conversations with the community even when there was a language barrier was incredible.” – Chloe
“High point would be arriving and receiving the love from the community, everybody. Being out playing with the kids and to hear them asking what is my name and after calling my name 24/7, I loved it. Playing with each one of the kids, getting to know each one of them was a blessing…” – Devie
“Spending time building the court was a bonding experience. Seeing everyone working hard for the benefit of the community is something I will always remember. I learned many things from the community. I learned that love knows no language. Even though I only know a little Spanish, I knew that I was cared and loved.” – Caroline
“My favorite memories from this incredible trip include dancing in the Costa Rican skirts with the girls, learning how to make tamales and playing volleyball with the little girls at the opening ceremony. However, I could list off so many other absolutely amazing memories… we did so much in such a short time!” – Ashley