Marquette University Athletes in Juanilama, Costa Rica

Getting off the airplane and being greeted by Jordyn and Betsy from Courts for Kids, and Brian, Lenisse and Zach from Peace Corps, was the perfect introduction to what the week would entail. The first thing they said to us set the tone for our trip, “Pura Vida.” In other words, “Get ready to go with the flow.” This motto was especially significant for this trip because, honestly, nothing was in our control. Being student-athletes at a high level, we are used to schedules and structure that guide us through our everyday life, and this trip was going to be a great challenge in the sense that structure would not be as present. This was just one of many challenges this week presented to us and helped contribute to our growth. It is impossible to put into words all the incredible things Juanilama, Costa Rica, helped cultivate throughout this experience.

Humbled, inspired and heartfelt. These three words are some of many that come to mind when reflecting on all that this trip has made us feel. It is harder than we thought to put the trip into words, because so much of it comes through the act of experiencing it, and, honestly, our minds have not been able to wrap around the whole experience yet either. From the very first moments at 3 a.m. with our Marquette group, to the last moments of saying goodbye to the Juanilama community, we have felt nothing but growth from within.

There is nothing like the feeling of that first night. We discussed the first day with total awe and couldn’t help but bring up, “Gosh, it’s so crazy how so little brings people so much joy.” By that, we meant that kicking a ball at a wall for hours with friends is their form of entertainment, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. In the US, in our social groups, looking at social media is a form of entertainment that often distracts from the connections that are waiting to be formed through conversation. We felt that when we were leaving Juanilama, we were leaving with extremely solid friendships, and even through the language barrier, we were able to gain so much knowledge, and get to know the people so well in one short week. From the second we arrived in Juanilama, the people were there to help us. They provided us with amazing home-cooked meals, and they brought us so much joy through sports and dance.

Each day was a new day. We typically woke up at 6:30 a.m. to get to breakfast by seven. There was a devotional led by Markus, and many of the people from our group joined in with that. Following devotional and breakfast, we went straight to work. We carried 50-kilogram cement bags on our shoulders… on repeat. Ash (one of our leaders) can attest to the chemical burns from that (haha). Throughout the first two days, we would ask Jordyn how we could be more efficient. Our athlete mindset said we needed to be the fastest group she had ever had. She would give us helpful tips, and we would implement them just to see our speed pick up. We had a station for sand, cement, water and gravel. If you were on sand, you knew you were going to make some muscle gains after the day. We filled four 5-gallon buckets of gravel and sand for each mixer load. We dabbled between three and five waters per load and needed two cement buckets per load as well. Once we got a rhythm, we began to produce much faster. There were chants and singing led by each of us to keep us all upbeat when we could sense a lull. Also, there wasn’t a single day where you would look around and not see a community member. They led us and guided us through the forming of the court, and the children would be eager to help after they got out of school. Even the older kids were always there to lend a hand and carry something with us until our time there was through. This was beautiful to see because we discussed at one point how in the United States, it isn’t often that you see high schoolers or kids willing to go out of their way to put manual labor into something to help others. Kids so often get caught up in video games or other idolized material things that they do not always possess the selfless acts we saw every day from the kids in Juanilama.

One thing we saw as a form of defeat was the unpredictable weather. It was a large factor in building the court. However, reflecting back on the trip and thinking hard about the rain delays, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Playing ninja in the rain, making mud masks, and digging paths for the rain to go were some of our favorite parts of the entire trip. There was no shortage of belly laughs; you know, the really hard laughs that you can’t trade for anything.

Another way the rain was an extreme blessing was that it prevented us from ever completing the court while we were in Juanilama. Now, as you read that sentence you may think we are out of our minds for saying an uncompleted project is a success, and, trust me, we all thought that in the moment as well. But there was a lesson beneath it all. Yes, it was a bummer that we did not finish, and therefore couldn’t play on it with the kids, but the unfinished court sparked a movement within the community. The night before our departure, we had to make a group decision on whether or not we were going to wake up and work the last full day or spend time learning and teaching the children of the community sports. This was one of the most impactful moments of the trip. As a group, it was extremely challenging to swallow our pride, and not complete the court, but the real moment of opportunity was when we would be able to spend the quality time with the community and leave our “MARQ” as students and athletes. After we had a morning filled with sports and laughter, they sent us off.

Following the sendoff, the community members remained in the Plaza and discussed how they saw the strength our women brought to the project each and every day, and how driven our group as a whole was to complete the court for their community. This ignited a community effort to complete the court for us. They decided to dedicate their time to completing the court within the upcoming days. When Brian told us this news, we were all extremely proud of not only our group, but the community, too. They looked past any gender roles that they may see as “normal” and grouped together to complete the court. They could have easily waited for the next group that was set to arrive in two weeks, but they felt our passion so much that they knew it would mean something to us if they completed it in the upcoming days.

Most nights we were able to dance with people of the community. This was an amazing experience. Our group fully immersed themselves in the experiences and it created such a sense of happiness to be a part of it. Going into the trip, we knew everyone that was going to be on it with us, but we did not really know each person very well. The dancing was a major part of our bonding on the trip. We were able to let loose after a day of extreme exhaustion, smile and have fun with the people in the community. Often, laughing a lot at all of our uncoordinated feet, but hey, we were laughing and that is the part that matters.

Nothing we write in a blog can really relay the feelings we felt all week, but it isn’t until you are a part of something so much bigger than yourself that your eyes will be opened to all that is out there in this world. From pig killings to dance lessons to concrete burns and major muscle gains to rain parties to endless amounts of sports, this trip has done nothing but help us grow into better people every step of the way. We will forever feel so grateful to Marquette Athletics, Courts for Kids, and the people of Juanilama for being a stepping stone to a better version of ourselves in so many ways.

By: Abby Hess and Mary Kate Simon


“It will be difficult to leave behind the community with half a court, but the relationships I made there are worth more than just a materialistic court.” – Abby

“I truly learned the Pura Vida lifestyle in Latin-America. They are extremely laid back and don’t have the same sense of urgency. At times, it was frustrating but allowed us to understand cultural differences.” – Monique

“From the community I learned happiness. Everyone I saw had a smile and were so welcoming to all of us. They showed me the true definition of what it is to be happy and material things are not involved in that.” – Erin

“What I learned about myself was when your mind is determined, you can do anything. Every day I woke up thinking that I can’t do this again and I ended up being able to push through and make that day better than the last.” – Maura

“Through our teamwork and positive energy, we not only impacted the community but also, I feel like this community has impacted our group as a whole. By showing us what it means to set aside our pride and competitive edge and to be present where our feet are and to listen to a community that wanted kinship with us.” – Logan

“I understand the importance of teamwork and immersion. Working with the community truly made me fall in love with service in so many different ways. I am so sad to leave the relationships and people I fell in love with!” – Abby