Arriving in Panama, the excitement in everyone’s eyes was showing as soon as we landed in the plane, and it wasn’t just because we finally got to stand after a 7-hour ride. Making our way out of the airport, the heat and humidity slapped us right in the face. It was at that moment we knew we were no longer in California. We were warned about the weather and were still not prepared for the week ahead with no air conditioning.
The next morning, driving to Valle Rico was a 5-hour ride, and along the way the shift in economic class from city to city was visible. Panama City had huge skyscrapers and bridges, and driving to Valle Rico, we mostly saw houses lined up, lots of land for farming, with not many supermarkets in sight, something many of us were not quite used to. Once in Valle Rico, both adults and kids surrounded us, welcoming us into the community as we got off the bus. After, we went on a walk throughout the community to introduce ourselves to the others and ended at a nice, cool river where we all went for a dip. It was one of our first bonding moments with the kids, and we even helped some kids learn to swim. That night we reflected on what our week ahead of us looked like, and we were all excited to start work the next day.
On the first day of work we started off with a tasteful Panamanian breakfast with fresh fruit and were introduced to challenges that we would have to complete every day of work. These challenges were anything from gaining information from a local, to having a dog race with some of the kids. After receiving these, we were on our way to start our first day of work, which started off slower than we anticipated. We didn’t have everything needed to mix the cement and instead tried to find some other work to do because we were so eager to start. While waiting, one of the little boys brought us this fruit he picked off a tree called a mamon. Most of us were a little iffy to try it, but one after another we all gave it a try and fell in love with the sweet, tangy fruit. Finally starting the cement, the workers of panama looked to the guys to do all the heavy lifting, but soon realized that some of us women could lift heavy, as well. It took a minute for them to warm up to the idea of women doing “men’s work,” but when they did, the process sped up. The end of the first day we finished a third of the court around 4 pm, a much longer day than planned, but we still worked through all the pain and sweat of lifting and squatting down in what it felt like 100+ degree weather. Later that night, we got the opportunity to speak with one of the eldest persons in the community and learn more about the history of Valle Rico and compare what is so different now than just 25 years ago when they first gained access to water. After, we had our nightly reflection, where we’d reflect on the day we had, what we learned and how we grew as a person, as well as sharing some of our crazy challenges for the day. A great way to end a long day and prepare for the next day ahead.
The second morning, we went through the same routine at breakfast, receiving our challenges and starting our work day. We ended this time at 2 pm, finishing our 2nd third of the court. Since we finished early we went on a walk through the community for mango hunting. Along the way, we came across an avocado tree and a coconut tree! The avocados were not ripe enough to eat, but the coconuts were soon cracked open and passed around so that we could all get a taste of the sweet coconut water. When we came across the mangoes, we all gathered around to get a taste of the fresh fruit. It was so sweet and unlike the mango we get at home, some of us wanted to save our mangoes for after dinner, but they didn’t last! On our walk back to the community, it started pouring rain, and we were nowhere near the worksite. As soon as we got back, the kids ran and got their soccer ball to start a game. One by one we all ran out and joined them to play soccer. Some of us have never played the game before, but the whole point was to connect with the kids and experience things we never have. That night after dinner we grabbed all the kids and started playing more games. The energy in the room and all the smiles on every child’s face made the night that much better. The next morning there was a sense of motivation because we knew this was our last day of pouring concrete, and were about to complete a project we all worked so hard on.
Our final day of working on the court, everyone was so eager to see the finished result and got right to work right after breakfast. More and more people from the community began to help to finish the court. Many of the little kids helped wheelbarrow cement up to the court, and after the word got out to the surrounding towns, people from other towns came to help finish the project as well. Everyone working together toward one goal was one of the most inspiring moments when finishing the court. It didn’t matter what age you were, what sex you were, or what one’s physical ability was, everyone was encouraged to help and was given the chance to be involved in a project that would further bring the children and the community together. Finishing our last section of the court, many of us lined up along the walkway where they would wheel the cement up and began to cheer each other on. A wave of happiness and accomplishment crashed over us as the completion of the court was final. Many hugs were exchanged, and many pictures were taken. Later that night, the kids surprised us with a special performance of one of their traditional dances in Panama and allowed all of us to be involved and dance along. One thing led to another, and next thing you know we had our own little dance party, with all the lights turned off and flickering flashlights everywhere. It may have seemed a little odd to the parents watching, but the kids had a blast!
Thursday’s work day was spent leveling out the ground around the court so there were no trenches or holes that a kid could possibly hurt themselves on. Once completed, we all went back to the river, this time with even more members of the community and those who worked with us on the court to cool off. It was a day of relaxation before having to say our goodbyes the next night. Friday night, we celebrated the finished result of the court and had a ribbon cutting ceremony, where members of the community shared their thanks and we expressed our thanks for allowing us to be a part of this project and their extended family. For dinner, they prepared for us a meal filled with many of the traditional foods we tried throughout the week, as well as dancing, singing, and a fashion show that they prepared for the talent show. The whole night was filled with enjoying each other’s company and exchanging words of thanks and appreciation. The athletes of Long Beach State were appreciative of them taking such good care of us and treating us like family. The community of Valle Rico were appreciative that we invested so much time into getting to know them and care for their kids. A night filled with smiles, laughs and lots of dancing went on and on until we couldn’t dance anymore. Although we were leaving in the morning, we weren’t going to be able to see everyone around that time, so we said our goodbyes that night.
Although we were only there for 6 days, we grew so close as a family, and all the love they showed us with open arms was hard to say goodbye to. Something I will never forget is one of the mothers of the community stating how they may not have much in Valle Rico, but they were going to give us all they have, and they really did show us an immense amount of love in taking care of us. It just goes to show that being rich in money doesn’t mean that one will be rich in happiness, love, and care, as the community of Valle Rico was. Family was the root of everything and that was all they needed. The following morning, we had our last meal with the community of Valle Rico, exchanged more goodbyes and took a few pictures before we departed. Just as it was when we arrived, people helped us with our luggage and stood around to wave goodbye as we headed toward Panama City.
The reason it was so hard for me to say goodbye is because I was leaving a group of people who have given me such a life changing experience and really took me in as if I was one of their own. I’ve been on many mission trips before, but none of them have touched my heart quite like this trip has. I’ve shared the love and care from my new extended family in Valle Rico and I pray that their experience was just as life changing as mine was. – De’Ondra
“The one thing I would like to highlight is the community’s ability to make the most of what they had.” – Imani
“With being disconnected for a week, I realized that I was the happiest I’ve ever been, which made me realize that happiness simply resides in the moment and with the deep connections and relationships we have with others. Happiness is as simple as that, because without either we’d be nothing.” – Zack
“This trip has made me value approachability, patience, positivity, and inclusion very highly. I am more aware of how much these traits can affect other’s total well being.” – Annabel
“Even though there was a language barrier, there was a lot of love and sharing from both sides. The community even wants us to come back one day, and to me that is so special.” – Alzena
“The major stereotype that I had before this trip was that they were a very poor community with nothing to give. When I got there, and throughout the week, I noticed that they are so, so, so rich. They have everything they need, and they are all such genuine people. They have a rich culture, a rich history, a rich community, and a rich family life. They have so much to give emotionally and soulfully.” – Mimi
“I can honestly say my heart and my mind have changed so much while in Panama.” – Jessica
“I really learned how beautiful the community is and how, although they may not have everything we have, they are happy, or even happier, than the people I know at home.” – Lexi
“I love to dance, and it’s a way to express myself without words. So, being able to connect with the children that way was a special moment for me that I will never forget.” – De’Ondra
“From the first day, they trusted us with their kids, even though we were complete strangers. The men also trusted us women with our physical capabilities to complete the tasks that were involved to make the court.” – Jordan