Notre Dame Preparatory in El Cacao, Panama


Have you ever gotten the feeling that you are home when you arrive someplace completely new? That is the way 19 students from Baltimore, Maryland, felt upon arrival in Panama. At the airport, two schoolteachers met and rode with us to El Cacao, where we would be staying for the next seven days.  At the time, I don’t think we realized quite what we had gotten ourselves into. We were an all-female group of students accompanied by a few chaperones, and not many of us knew one another very well. Most had not been to Central America before, and a few had never been out of the country. Despite this, we quickly settled ourselves in the dormitory of a school in town where a few students board during the week. We soon learned our way around the grounds and had a delicious dinner including plantains and potato salad.

With our first day in Panama nearly over, we were getting ready for bed in our new home. I remember wondering why I felt so at home in such a new place. Before I could find an answer, a frightened screech and a call to arms pulled me away from my reflection: a giant toad had made its way into our bathroom with no intent to leave. The toad, as wide as my size-nine flipflops and probably the same height, had settled himself into our new home as well, sitting under the sink. We quickly learned that there is nothing quite like a toad-wrangling session to bring a new family together. With the visitor safely brought outside, we went to sleep exhausted and ready for the work day ahead.

We didn’t know it yet, but on day three our now tight-knit family was about to grow. All of us students had already shared many bonding experiences since the toad, such as matching bruises on our forearms from carrying heavy buckets of dirt around the court area, and rinsing off outside under a short spigot because the showers ran out of water. However, when we came outside that morning, we saw that we were not the only students at the school. There was an entire school’s worth of students who welcomed us to their community. Thus the day began: with the Panamanian students learning and the “gringas” working hard on the court.

After school let out, we noticed a group of girls hanging out by the dorms. They were the girls who lived in the dorms during the week, who would be staying with us from then on. We invited them to talk with us, and we practiced our Spanish while they practiced their English. Soon, they were telling us about their plans with us for the week ahead over dinner, with the first adventure beginning after our meal. They told us to bring our swimsuits and led us on a ten-minute walk to a river where we bathed, getting rid of the day’s dirt while bonding with the girls. After walking back to the dorms, we stayed up late and talked, listened to music, and ate food. Despite the language barrier, the girls became an important part of our family as they shared their home with us.

We settled into a routine of working in the morning and afternoon while the students were at school, then hanging out with the students who board in the evenings, playing soccer, sharing local fruit, or learning traditional dance. While working, adults and some students from El Cacao helped us, sharing their strength and music as motivation to build the court quickly. There was so much to learn about, from new foods (who knew a cashew grew with a juicy, red fruit?) to new words in the form of Panamanian slang, and even new animals, like sloths and tiny monkeys! There was so much we didn’t know, and so much that was unfamiliar to us, but during that week (one of the best of my life) we experienced and learned more than I ever thought possible.

Have you ever had to leave home, saying goodbye to your family, knowing that you may not get the chance to see them again? That is the feeling 19 students had as we left our temporary, albeit familiar home in El Cacao, saying goodbye to our brothers and sisters who helped us build the court and welcomed us into their lives. I may not have been the best soccer player out on the field, and I may not be a rising star in the Panamanian traditional dance scene, but I have the strength to haul wheelbarrows of concrete around, and I can sing reggaetón with the best of them (them, of course, being my sisters in El Cacao).

My fellow students and I were accepted by a group who did not know us but still embraced us wholeheartedly. Even now, a good while after returning to Baltimore, I still get homesick and miss the warm people and beautiful landscape I called my home. I am still in touch with my family, including the students from Baltimore and Panama, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have gotten so close with these people. I recently remembered my question from that first night, and I think I now have an answer: it felt like home because that is where my newfound family was.

Even though I thoroughly enjoy showering with full water pressure in the comfort of my bathroom, could it be that I miss the spigot showers with a high chance of a giant toad visiting me? What I know now is that home is wherever your family is. And if sharing a bathroom with almost thirty girls and one very large toad means I’m with my family, I’d be happy to go home.

– Lara Youniss

“I learned that people across the world are so similar. After talking to community members, especially those my own age, I realized that we have so much in common. We could so easily work together, joke around, and talk about things like our friends and shared music tastes.” – Saray Petrunyak

“I would have considered myself well-traveled before this trip, but now I know I am far from that. I have gone places, but always stayed in 5-star hotels, my activities switching between lounging by the pool and lounging by the ocean. Now I realize that to experience the world, I must step out of my comfort zone: into the culture around me, try new foods, see all the local sports, even stumble through Spanish to learn more about where I am. Everyone should do this at some point in their lives, because I feel closer to the world and to myself after this week.” – Allie Sullivan

“I have become more in tune with myself. Without a mirror, I have learned to care less about my appearance and focus more on my personality and who I really am as a person. The manual labor has shown me how lazy I usually am and how much more I could be accomplishing. Lastly, the people have taught me that kindness is the best gift and a simple smile goes a long way.” – Abby Ewers

“I have so many fond memories on this trip that it is hard to pick just a few! First, I love the atmosphere of El Cacao and the fact that we were able to stay at the school. This gave me the opportunity to help teach an English class. I helped a teacher with dictation (saying words in English that the kids had to write down). They were very enthused about this because I have a much heavier American accent than their teacher, and most times each word said led to laughter on both their and my part. I asked the children if they were excited for the court in my very rough Spanglish, to which they responded in an excited “¡Si!” This reaffirmed to me that I was contributing to a great thing, and it gave me the push I needed to put in hard work for the remaining days.” – Arden Scheetz

“I learned from the community about kindness and hospitality. I have never traveled to such a welcoming environment, which made me realize Panama is really the happiest country on Earth. I also learned the value, appreciation, and work that went into creating this project and this court for the school of El Cacao. The court to us was, at first, just a court, but to them it was a new opportunity, development in the school, a bringing together of the community, and much more.

“On this trip, my view of the world changed. I had never been out of America prior to this, which made it a new and scary experience. I learned that in other parts of the world, wealth and/or material items don’t equate to happiness. When going to a community I knew had fewer resources than I do at home, it is easy to feel bad for or look down upon them. However, having experienced their way of life, I feel bad for my home society upon returning. Where I live, people are bogged down by over-packed schedules, strict rules/times to follow, being tied to technology, and rushing through life as opposed to enjoying it. The amazing experience of this trip taught me 2 things. 1. Time is relative – this is how to properly enjoy life. 2 Dive into new opportunities. Don’t let fear get in the way of something that could change your life.” – Lauren Waibel

“I think I assumed that people of El Cacao would be extremely poor and that this would be the most striking thing about them. While I know that there are some members of the community that are very impoverished, I never found myself thinking “these people are so poor.” I was struck most, if anything, by their hospitality and how they were so willing to do anything to make an experience as amazing as possible for some girls they had never even met before, and for that I am forever grateful.” – Ellie Hefferman