St John’s Jesuit students Explore Tierra Firme, Colombia

(story and photos: Noah Kokensparger)

It all started nine months before the trip – the start of this life changing journey and an experience of a lifetime. For many, I believe we soak in the idea of traveling abroad and getting the opportunity to meet new culture, explore new places, try new foods, sleep in foreign places, talk to different speaking languages and many other intimidating things. And though they sound great while thinking about them in the comfort of your own home and even better, the comfort of your bed while you casually enjoy the 68-degree AC even though somewhere in the world, someone sits the same in 105-degree conditions. Regardless of comparing one’s life to the next, how many of us would actually take on a new and daunting adventure?

I can happily say that nine months ago, 17 St. John Jesuit students and four chaperones very eagerly and excitingly planned to join Courts for Kids on their next court building which would soon be our court and the court of the community Tierra Firme, Colombia. And on that day, each set out to begin preparing for the long trip, collecting gear, supplies, work materials, such as gloves, boots, pants and just about anything else that our parents deemed “necessary” even if it wasn’t needed. The excitement wasn’t just in the group preparing for the trip but was also supported by many family members and friends who could not attend or wanted to but were too intimidated. This would allow those participating another special roll in communicating his or hers experience to everyone back home so that all could share in the educational opportunity.

Twenty hours down, five minutes to go, we were so close. The energy from the nine-hour bus ride through the country of Colombia was lifting, we had finally made it! The spirits from back to front of the bus had risen exponentially as we approached the entrance of Tierra Firme and community had greeted us with more excitement than any lottery winner ever! I believe we were all in healthy culture shock as 22 excited Americans jumped off the bus to greet dozens of unconditionally loving local Colombians. Despite the immediate language barrier, our smiles and their smiles were enough to see that we were all happy to be here.

We exchanged our hellos, were presented immediately with much needed food and water after the long bus ride and quickly were assigned to our host family’s home and sleeping arrangements for which we had a long-planned week ahead. The community had been so prepared and enthusiastic about starting the court, they kindly gave us another hour to sleep in than planned but that hadn’t stopped their lively spirits from starting to work at 4 a.m. The ladies of the community organized every meal that week and extended their traditional dishes and love on every plate. I don’t think we can argue that being welcomed with food and delicious homemade fruit beverages was a highlight of the trip.

Soon after our breakfast, we arrived for the first day on the construction site for the court. It appeared there had previously been a broken-down platform in place of where the new court was being built. This had created some conflict within the community because it would require the demolition of the old pavement to replace it with the new one, many individuals from the community lacked belief in our mission and lacked optimism that the rest of the community could accomplish something so big. Large projects like this are often shot down or never completed, which is what most feared. However, we and the enthusiastic community were very confident in our collaboration to accomplish this court.

We all stood in happiness and gratitude for our first group photo before breaking ground and starting what would become one of the most fulfilling projects ever. I just remember how clean and energetic the worksite had been, and even after a long several hours of working, the only thing that had changed was the dirty clothes, but the energy never stopped. We had to learn how to communicate with the locals, because we wanted to, and so did they. We wanted to work hard and effective as we could because we didn’t believe there was any other way.

I remember the feeling of pure joy and overwhelming vibes as the last wheel barrel came in to be dumped and foundation of the court had finally been finished. I believe everyone froze in disbelief as we completed the court in under two days, one of the fastest, if not the fastest court built! We had all been absolutely astounded by the effort and hard work each individual had given. Everyone was contributing in their own way, whether it had been from the ladies preparing meals and always offering us cold beverages which they had been constantly restocking out of a small cooler or the eldest gentleman in the community who had been filling the huge water buckets up. And the youngest to oldest kids helping; pushing wheel barrows and helping carry cement bags across the community. The most amazing part was each of us traveling from America had our own opportunity to engage and contribute in every effort, like being welcomed into the kitchen to help prepare meals or assisting the children in doing the work they were capable of doing. It was very humbling to work alongside a community of such determination and drive and knowing we were living through an opportunity most never get.

Only three days in, it felt like a lifetime, we had really been immersing into the community and their culture. I can honestly say speaking for most of the guys on this particular trip that the hardest parts were acclimating to the new environment. If you have never traveled abroad, you can get so tied up in what you know and the only way you know how to live. With that being said, some of the bigger challenges we had the lovely opportunity of experiencing was number one, the heat; I don’t remember a time we weren’t sweating (side note: the homes of Tierra Firme don’t have AC), number two, the food; the food was absolutely different and tasty but the adjustment to eating it was challenging (side note: food in Tierra Firme by our American standards is very soft and starchy) and number three, the language barrier; unless you fluently speak Spanish, this is something every person had many challenges with. Although this was one of the most daunting challenges, it was the most satisfying to proactively overcome, having the opportunity to engage with the community and converse with them through their native language and help them converse with ours was often time intimidating but very rewarding if done.

The group especially enjoyed seeking conversation with the children, the children loved to learn English and loved to teach us Spanish. We would often times sit there for hours as the children gathered around and attempted to talk to us and learn. For a whole week plus some, they sought after our knowledge, guidance and entertainment, and even when they didn’t understand us, we would just casually engage in an unofficial staring contest for neither of us knew what to say in response to our lack of communication. Then we would just smile and laugh at each other.

Communicating with the adults was much the same, they loved when we acknowledged them and made a very hard attempt to communicate in Spanish and they would often laugh when we incorrectly would say something. This sense of failure soon turned into confidence and entertainment, as we would become more comfortable communicating in a language none of us have yet to master!

Being with the community was nothing short of special, we were always kept occupied doing things like playing with the kids and teaching them new games like rock paper scissors, touring the neighborhood and local cities learning history and site seeing, dancing at night and exchanging music and dance moves, competing in friendly soccer matches, eating local food and just enjoying another’s company!

There is no great way of telling and reliving the trip to Tierra Firme, Colombia, with so many involved in such a noble thing, everyone has had the opportunity to live and tell their own story. I can only hope that each lives to share their part in the story to others, being able to participate in Courts For Kids was something I will never regret having done. There was never a lack of confidence in the organizations ability to perform. I would like to recognize the trip organizers, chaperones, Courts for Kids rep, translators, the community coalition, volunteers, donors and everyone who helped make this trip possible.

It has been a few weeks since leaving the community of Tierra Firme, we are still receiving court updates and photos of the town enjoying the court. It is so amazing to see that there is just as much energy there now as when we left. We may have helped build the court, but they left us with so much more, including lifelong friendships. From the bottom of my heart, I would like to extend a huge thank you for everything.  – Noah Kokensparger (story and photos)

“I learned from the community that you can live the best life no matter the situation.  Do not worry about what you don’t have, but what you do.  This will lead you to the best life.” – Zach

“Despite not speaking the same language, I could understand what they wanted to say perfectly.  Upon arriving in TierraFirme I felt instantly at home.” – Jonah

“Live with what you have any be happy. Be kind to others all the time.  Go outside of your comfort zone.  Anything is possible.  Live life to the best of your ability.” – Ryan

“Having been to Colombia I thought I knew what I was getting into but I failed to realize that I always came as a tourist.  I didn’t realize how much of a difference my worldview had on my expectations until I stepped into the village life.  Once I did I was blown away.  I ultimately learned that I shouldn’t prematurely have expectations of a certain place that I don’t know anything about.” – Matthew

“The strong community that exists in Tierrafirme and the positive impact it has on the lives of the people who live there has given me perspective on what is truly important in life.” – Shane

“The lack of materialism did not just increase the Colombians’ happiness, it resulted in higher quality relationships as well.” – Andrew

“This sort of trip cannot truly be understood by someone who has not gone themselves.  The wisdom this experience provides can’t be garnered any other way.” – Andrew