Jesuit HS Portland students in El Zapallal, Panama


On June 12, 2016 a group of 22 students and 2 chaperones from Jesuit Portland came to Panama to help build a court in the province of Darien, in the far, wild east of Panama. Our community El Zapallal is predominantly Afro-Panamanian, but is also composed of indigenous Emberas and Latinos of Spanish roots.

To put it in perspective, El Zapallal is a community with a history of failed government projects when it comes to infrastructure where promises are made but not always kept; it is not just the reality of El Zapallal but many other forgotten communities in the countryside of Panama.  Public spaces for recreational and sports activities or open places where community members could gather and spend time together are almost non-existent other than the schools and churches.  But it takes a small group of motivated people to change the world; in this case they changed the world of the people of El Zapallal.


This would not have been possible without the leadership of Dina Lovenstein, the Peace Corps Volunteer in the community of El Zapallal who supported and lead the community members to jump on this journey full of incredible, memorable, and inspiring moments. And of course, a LOT OF MUD AND FUN!


We finally got to the community after about 5 hours of driving and experiencing a delay where students and teachers closed the Pan-American Highway demanding the construction of a bridge so students could get to school without putting their lives in danger due to regular river floods during the rainy season. Our time in El Zapallal seemed like it would not involve river floods; it was a bright afternoon as we arrived and were greeted by Dina, Salome, and Isaac a 17 year old boy that spoke awesome English and soon became friends with everyone in the group.  We were surrounded by huge smiles, curiosity, and shy smiles from the little kids and other community members that were all around. We settled in and then we walked around the community and the area where the court would be, then came back and had dinner and reflect about our first impressions and experiences of the day.


I have to say out of all the volunteer groups that I have led in Panama, I have never seen a group with such motivation and always a positive attitude towards the countless challenges that we faced!  Due to the rain and the prep work not being done we had to build the court from scratch.This was the FIRST TIME that a court has had to be built from that stage and the FIRST TIME that a group gets to work for as many days as we did. It was 7 DAYS of work with the community, a titanic task performed beautifully by the legends from Jesuit Portland and El Zapallal.



The work was tough, shoveling and pickaxing the foundation, wheelbarrowing dirt to fill it in, and leveling and compacting. That work by itself was tough, but something that I will always remember is the great attitude, the smiles, the laughing, the yelling, and the inspiring process of working shoulder to shoulder, despite the rain that would fill the foundation with water or increase the weight x10 of everything from our clothes to our boots to the sand and the cement that we were carrying and mixing. The ironic moments where we got downpours but we had no water for construction because the aqueduct had collapsed. But even in those moments we danced and played under the rain, had mud fights and found time to connect with the people from El Zapallal, and create bonds that will last a lifetime.


As in every epic story, we had moments where the task at hand seemed impossible, where it was easier to quit and feel content with what we had accomplished and the bonds that we created.  This was especially true after the rain delayed us many times and the mud made the work unbearable, from machines that did not work to trucks that were 1 or 2 hours delayed. But the smiles and amazing energy and attitude of our Jesuit Portland volunteers, the great leadership and cheering of our fearless chaperones Dan and Emily, the passionate and encourager Dina and the high spirited Salome helped to push through the countless challenges we faced.  The most beautiful thing about working for something that is bigger than yourself, is that when you see those kids around you, you know how much of an impact this will have in their lives, a good court in proper conditions for them to play and grow as a community with their friends and family.


During the project we had the support of volunteers from SINAPROC (National Service of Civil Protection) and about 50 volunteers that came from nearby high schools to help build the court one day and during the days where our will was high but we were physically reaching our limits, we saw about 20 volunteers from SENAFRONT (National Service of Borders) soldiers that came as volunteers from the El Zapallal region of Darien to help build the court.  As the days passed more community involvement was shown and more excitement was felt in the air to see how close we were getting to our goal. The next day always seemed so far away but at the end of the day we closer to being done and the community members that had never seen a community construction project finally completed, were starting to believe it would happen!


One of the most powerful moments for me was the morning where we had the last chance to finish, we were just missing two sections out of 7.  We had a great start and around 10 AM huge dark clouds covered the sky and it got so dark it seemed it was nighttime, but the group never got discouraged, never stopped working despite what seemed imminent in front of us. Big rain drops started to fall but it did not stop us from what we as a community wanted to achieve.  That same strong wind that brought the clouds… took them away! A bright sun followed that act for the rest of the day.  To finish we had Salome wheelbarrowing the last of the concrete in the midst of applause and excitement as we celebrated the victory over all the crazy challenges that faced us that week.  The court was completed through the power of unity, passion, purpose and love.



At the end of the day we enjoyed of great food, dances, boxing, bullerengue (traditional Darien drumming music), singing and playing. We had made El Zapallal our home and saying goodbye to everyone that shared the week with us and overcame so many challenges together shoulder to shoulder, was very hard.  I will remember very fondly the moment where I saw community members and volunteers sitting beside each other holding each others hands, reflecting, and simply living in the moment.  That was one of those moments that you know you will remember as the years pass and life changes. It was one of the most memorable Courts for Kids projects for me as I was thinking on the ride back to Panama City, where we had dinner, and a beautiful reflection at night.  The next day we went to the Panama Canal, in an incredible contrast from the green and muddy province of Darien to the booming and always growing Panama City, where the group got to spend their last few hours in Panama.


It was a long memorable journey and the memories and the things that were unseen for us in life, are now seen. And once you see such a beautiful side of life, it cannot be unseen.

– Anibal Ab Cardenas, In-Country Director, Courts for Kids – Panama