Around 8 PM on April 6th, our group of nine boys and two coaches, which represented almost the entire Freshmen Boys Basketball team from Kamiak High School, arrived in Santiago, Dominican Republic. We had made the long haul from the Seattle area, and were greeted by Stacey Cooper, our Peace Corps volunteer host. We loaded up the van and took us to a nearby hotel where we ate pizza and spent that first night. Early the next morning we piled back into the van, and drove the four and a half hours through the beautiful Dominican countryside, seeing things we had never seen before, like five people crowded on to one motorcycle, or the unending fields of banana trees.
After several hours, we turned off the main highway onto a rocky, dirt road that went up into the mountains. We passed through countless small villages of wooden houses, with chickens and goats roaming free. An hour and a half later, Stacey announced that we had arrived in Rio Limpio. Rio Limpio is a small pueblo at the very end of the road. It is famous as one of the founding sites of organic farming in the country, and has only one way in and out. The town still does not have electricity, and so most of the houses have solar panels on top. Knowing all this, we weren’t sure what exactly we’d find in Rio Limpio, but soon discovered that the people were incredibly generous, inviting and warm.
We unpacked all of our bags into the eco-lodge that would be our home for the next week, filled our bellies with Dona Margo’s delicious “bandera,” then went over to the work site to begin on what would be one of the largest courts that Courts for Kids has ever built. We met Maximo, the town mayor, Popa, the project
engineer, and many others who would soon be our fast friends, including Victor, Juwan, and Caesar. The community, with Stacey’s help, had already been working on the court for several months prior to our arrival, mostly focusing on rebuilding entirely the dilapidated retaining wall. Their work and preparedness showed, because the mixer was already running when we arrived on site. Through the guidance of Coach Lee and Coach Smith, our group fell into the rhythms of the work site right away, and we quick gained the respect of our Dominican hosts.
Over the next five days, we came to look forward to the tough construction work, especially because of the camaraderie we developed with our Dominican counterparts. One of our favorite jobs was going with
Caesar and Santo down to the river to fill up large water tanks to bring back to the site. Another main goal too was winning the respect of Victor, who, aside from being a great person and friend, worked non-stop and harder than anyone else. We celebrated during evening reflection whenever Victor would give one of us a sign of approval, like a fist bump. Our basketball program emphasizes discipline and hard work, and so it was particularly rewarding when Maximo told us proudly how disciplined we were, and what a good example we were for the youth of the community.
During the evenings, we were taught about Dominican culture by the kids of the community. We learned how to dance, how to play dominoes, how to play the card game “Casino.” We were treated to an incredibly fun night at Caesar’s disco, and learned a great deal from the concert of traditional “palo” music that
Maximo organized. This was all possible because of how incredibly excited about the project the community was. By the time we poured the last bit of cement, the Dominicans and our team had meshed into a single unit working together towards a common goal.
We celebrated with a trip to the river, and the next morning dedicated the court with Maximo, Caesar, Popa, and everyone else. We gave a clinic to the kids, got to play on the court, and then returned to the eco-lodge for Margo’s last “bandera.” The hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to our new friends, but we left not only with different perspectives on the world and our ability to impact it, but also knowing that one day, we would come back to Rio Limpio.
[The trip made me] more clear about how language isn’t a barrier. It’s just an obstacle to overcome. I also have realized what taking care of your own is and also kids who don’t speak or understand you can still become your friends. Also I’m more clear about what my real priorities are.
The most difficult part of going home is leaving the culture and people that I have grown to appreciate. I really enjoyed how outgoing the people were and what that brought out of me. It has made me reconsider many things.
From the community I learned to say hello and smile. Simple things that really impact the way you feel. I also learned from the community the importance of relationships with others, and enjoying the moment.
-Coach Jared Smith
Our basketball program emphasizes discipline. We groom disciplined young men, on and off the court. While I’ve known these players, they’ve been disciplined on the court, and this is the first time I’ve seen how disciplined they are off the court. A treasured memory was when the village mayor complimented our players on their work ethic and discipline.
It was a joy to witness the friendships and bonds built between our players and the locals. They worked hard on construction together, they joked around together, they hung out in the evenings together. Despite the verbal language barrier, everyone communicated well using the universal human language. Gift giving is part of that language. I saw my players and locals exchanging cards, notes, t-shirts, gloves, hats, etc, ways to seal a friendship for life.
For myself, I shared a special bond with Victor. Although deaf and mute, we communicated by hand gestures, smiles, and hard work. I found myself working hard to earn his respect, and along the way built a basketball court. A simple smile, fist bump, hand shake, and hug were all signs of his approval. As a farewell I gave him my gloves and hat, took a photo, and left knowing I worked alongside someone I respect.
Life is about people. The locals left an everlasting impression on us by showing us the love and bond of a close knit community. The friendships will transcend distance and time (with help from Facebook). Perhaps we may visit Rio Limpio again, as a team, to see how much the court has grown, and reconnect with friends that are 5,000 (???) miles from home.
-Coach Alex Lee
I learned that there are many different cultures in the world and just because one community is less wealthy than another has no say in how happy the people of the community are.
[Some of my favorite memories from the trip are] when me, Josh, and a Dominican friend of ours, Santo, were at the river getting water. Not only was it a fun ride there and back, but while we were there, I saved Santo from falling into the water when he took off his boot.
…throwing the very last scoop of cement on to the basketball court.
…Seeing everyone working together to complete a difficult task, and also getting to co-operate with people that I had never met before.
-Tavin “TJ” Britton
How I feel like this trip changed me is that I feel more mature and like I’ve gained more respect for people with less than what I have. You don’t need a lot to be happy. All you really
need is for your family and friends to all stick together and be one. I feel like I’ve gained new work ethic by just flat out watching the Rio Limpio beasts just keep on working and not stopping. No water breaks, no breaks just because. Only the occasional snack break. When I saw them working hard it made me work harder, pushed me to work harder than I really have.
-Marcel L. McQueen Jr.
My favorite memories from the trip was something during work getting to know the children from the community and having them teach us Spanish. Another of my favorite memories was finishing the basketball court and seeing the children playing on it and realizing that we built that and I was very proud of that. One more of my favorite memories was when we read our thank you letter to the lady who cooked our food every day and she started tearing up and that made me happy.