Jesuit New Orleans High School forced out of their comfort zones in Plato, Colombia

June 2019

Before arriving to Plato, we were warned that the living conditions would be very different from what we were used to back home. We were not thrilled, but we still tried to prepare ourselves for this mental and physical test. As we flew for four hours and drove for another four hours, we began to get ready. When we drove past rundown towns and mountainous valleys on the way to Plato, we gained a preview of the Colombian lifestyle that we would be immersed in during our trip.  As we arrived at our house, we were greeted with open arms. The host family was kind and welcoming and supplied us with everything we needed to achieve our goal of building an athletic court at the local school . Settling into our rooms we were hit with the sudden realization that not everyone in the world has the luxuries that we have in the States. We could not flush toilet paper down the toilet, water privileges were limited, and we struggled to acclimate to the hot, stuffy bedrooms we would be sleeping in for the next week.  After a hard day at work we could not come back to a house with AC and fully functioning bathrooms, which forced us out of our comfort zones. This was our first test that we had to face in full force.

Coming into this service project , many of us were hesitant and nervous about what to expect from the work load and living conditions. Also, for some of us this was the first time out of the U.S., so stepping out of our comfort zone was not going to be easy. As we took off for Colombia, we were all ready for a challenge that we hoped we would remember  for years to come.

Walking into our first day of work, we were greeted by five mounds of dirt that needed to be shoveled and leveled by the end of the day. While the local construction team had cleared the land and begun the levelling process, it was clear we had a lot of work to do before we could begin pouring concrete. As we began to shovel with the sun beating down on us, a crowd of local kids began to surround us. They were confused yet also intrigued to see a group of “gringos” in their school’s backyard. However, the locals approached us with positive energy. A local kid named Jorge Luis was the first to approach us. Even though most of us did not speak great Spanish, the kids in our group who did helped us create friendships that lasted until the end of the trip. By the end of day one we were exhausted but excited to continue this journey.

As the second day came, we began to get restless, but still had the energy to work with determination. Work that day was as challenging as the first, shoveling and leveling dirt in the blistering heat. It was hard work, especially given our sunburns and blisters from day one.  We did not really have a planned rotation and took breaks whenever we wanted to. We were unorganized and the heat made us fatigued. Most of us wanted to talk to the locals and get to know how they lived and what they liked to do. Even though our teachers encouraged talking to the locals, we were here to build a court . By the end of the second day, when we were still levelling the land without pouring any concrete, our teachers and group leaders had become worried about the timeline to finish the project.

Veering into our third day, we began to feel the pain of twelve hour work days and 5am wakeup times. The third day was the most pivotal day of the whole week. This day decided whether we could pull through and go the distance. Luckily, we had the help of our teachers, who created a system that helped organize us throughout the day, as well as a number of local volunteers providing support. We had four stations: first station poured the materials in the mixer, second station transported the materials to and from the rock and sand piles to the concrete mixer, third station shoveled the rocks and into buckets, and the fourth station was on break. We also picked three kids from our group to be in charge of pouring the cement into the mixer and getting water for the concrete mix, which was definitely the most demanding job. We stuck with this strategy until the end of the week.

On the fourth day most of us began to worry. We were far behind our timeline, and success looked almost impossible. Our teachers suggested that we wake up earlier and work later. This was not what we wanted to hear but it was what we needed to do to get the job done. At the end of the fourth day we pushed through and proved to ourselves that we could take the challenge. This test helped us bond as a group and work better.

The fifth day, and hopefully last day, was when we had to finish the court to be on time. We had about half the court left to finish in a single day. We woke up extra early in order get a good head start. We also had to push breakfast back to allow us time to work early in the morning before our normal breakfast time, which was difficult. In the morning we hunkered down and finished a full slab of concrete (about thirty yards long). Everyone was impressed with our work. Then came the hardest part: we had to finish another full slab of concrete in just five hours, which was easier said than done. We finished lunch and went straight to work. No one was playing around. We were working fluently with each other. These five hours were when everyone needed to push. Now was the time to use whatever energy and will power we had left. This was the time to grind with no argument, and that’s exactly what we did. Around six o’clock all the locals that visited us throughout the week gathered to watch us pour our last mix of concrete. We were so close to completion, and then unthinkable happened. The motor on the mixer broke, and everyone just froze, struck with confusion. However, that did not stop us. We assembled rocks and sand, cement mix, and a wheelbarrow to do the last mix by hand. Everyone gathered around the people mixing the cement. Ten minutes passed and we finished the last batch. We poured the concrete and everyone cheered. The court was finished and all our hard work had paid off.

The day after finishing the court we were exhausted and ready to relax after a week of hard labor. The next few days before returning to the U.S. were lots of fun. One day we got to tour Plato and learn the history of the city. Another day we were able to hang out on the crystal blue beaches of Colombia while we were bombarded by men and women who wanted to sell us tattoos, bracelets, t-shirts, local foods, hairstyles, and many more items that we all indulged in. After coming back from the beach, we actually looked like a bunch of gringos who have never been to Colombia. After the beach, we toured the beautiful city of Cartagena. The days of relaxation were complete, and everyone was ready to go back to the states.

Overall this service project was a great success. Through the ups and downs we pushed through and completed our mission: one team member became ill, there were distractions and temptations that we had to stay away from if we wanted to complete the court, and people became restless with each other due to fatigue, but no matter what we were faced with, we joined together as family to beat the odds.

Looking back at everything that happened, it is safe to say that as a group we bonded more than any of us could have imagined. We created friendships that might have seemed ridiculous. For example, many of us became good friends with the moto-taxi drivers that drove us to and from our house and the work site, and one day we even played them in soccer after a hard day of work. We also developed friendships with other locals at the school. Even though the kids sometimes were a little out of hand and uncontrollable we still had laughs with them that they hopefully remember for life.

Finally, we would like to thank everyone that helped us get through this week of hard labor such as Courts for Kids Representative, Greg Taylor; Jesuit New Orleans Biology Teacher, Ms. Helen Swan; Jesuit New Orleans English Teacher, Mr. Gary Wyss; the women who fed us and took care of us at the house; the principal at the local school; the mayor of Plato; the local kids who made us feel at home; the town of Plato for welcoming us; and most importantly, Peace Corps Volunteer, Samantha Granger. Thank you, Samantha for organizing this important collaboration between Jesuit New Orleans and the community of Plato. We greatly appreciate the work you went through to help this project become successful. The Jesuit class of 2020 thanks everyone for an amazing service trip that we will never forget.

“Because of Courts for Kids I learned two things about myself.  I can push myself to a physical limit that I did not know I could reach in 102 degree weather.  Also, that everyone is born the ‘same.’  We all want to be happy, but sometimes people are given different lives/situations that can change our mindset on life.  I learned from the community that happiness doesn’t always depend on wealth and materials, it’s the experiences and conversations that create memories/friendships that last for life.” -Davis

“My favorite memories from the trip were pouring the last bit of concrete into the court and learning how to dance with the dance instructor.  After we finished the court I remember seeing how relieved everyone was to finish after 6 straight days of hard work.  My next favorite memory was dancing salsa, cumbia and other dances with my closest friends.  Overall, there were many memories from this trip that I’ll never forget.” – Jonathan

“I learned that while people from other countries may be very different, we can all cooperate and work together despite the differences.  The community taught me how different life can be in other parts of the world.  Having never left the country before, I learned that I can go out of my comfort zone and try new things.  I also learned that it can be very easy to communicate with people who speak different languages. The most difficult part of going home is leaving all the friends we made in Plato.  I formed many great friendships and loved getting to know the locals.  While I am happy about returning home, I will miss each person that I met and will not forget the time I spent with them.” – Ben

“From this trip I learned that the world is accepting.  I was welcomed by everyone with open arms and felt like I was always accepted wherever I was, especially in the community.” – Colby

“I learned a lot from the community that, although people from other societies may seem different, they aren’t so different from us once we got to know them.  I learned that the people of Plato gave a lot to us, without having much themselves.” – Andrew