In a world seemingly bent on division amongst ideology, this experience has restored my faith in humanity. I needed to fill my soul, I wanted to remind myself of the importance of this kind of work. I have been well fed ~ Jason, chaperone
When 24 Courts For Kids volunteers arrived in El Rodeo, Dominican Republic on April 2, the future site of an outdoor sports court was a vacant patch of dirt.
For the next four days, the volunteers and an equal number of local residents shoveled sand, carried buckets of gravel and poured cement. With temperatures in the nineties, every slight breeze brought welcome relief.
That work ushered in a cyclone of activity when the court opened on April 8.
Pickup basketball games buzzed around both hoops. Near midcourt, volunteers and local children knocked a volleyball to each other.
Those games had been a long time coming. El Rodeo was scheduled to have a court built in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put that trip on hold. This, and a simultaneous trip to Panama, were Courts For Kids’ first excursions back into the field since the pandemic began.
The volunteers, predominantly students at Columbia River High School near Vancouver, Washington, left El Rodeo with a lifetime of memories. Not minding being without their phones, they connected with local teens through pickup baseball games, dance parties in the street and a genuine curiosity to learn about each other’s daily lives.
The kindness and hospitality of El Rodeo brightened those memories. Greetings of “hola” and “buen dia” were the soundtrack to any walk down the rural town’s streets.
And, of course, the food did more than add flavor to the trip. Theresa, the resident most responsible for connecting El Rodeo and Courts For Kids, cooked up buffets for the group. Various combinations of plantains, chicken, pork, rice, eggs and fresh local fruits were served as part of three daily meals.
The trip wasn’t all about the work. Each day, volunteers were given a task to boost their knowledge of the country’s customs or encourage interaction with locals. This could mean asking about, for example, the role of women in Dominican society. It could also be a lighter subject, like trying at least one new food or working with a Dominican teen to create a secret handshake.
There was also an eye-opening trip to the border with Haiti, which was about 60 miles to the west. There, the group experienced the extreme bustle at a bi-national border market. Exploring the narrow aisles of the outdoor bazaar, volunteers were jostled by fellow shoppers and merchants trying to pass through the crowd with wheelbarrows of goods. For Americans used to having personal space, this was a “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Camas anymore” moment.
Finally, to celebrate the court’s successful completion, Courts For Kids treated the volunteers to an eco-tour at a national park near Monti Cristi on the country’s north coast. There, the group took a boat tour through a mangrove forest, swam in a lagoon and landed at a small island, where a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, eggplant and wheat germ salad with a garnish of lime wedges was served.
Sports are a global instinct. When athletic facilities don’t exist, the games find a way. Before April 8, El Rodeo’s kids played basketball using a metal bicycle wheel nailed to a mango tree.
Now, a new court will hopefully bear a different kind of fruit. Not only do El Rodeo’s youth have a spot for all sorts of games, the community has a new gathering spot to strengthen its already solid ties.
And the volunteers also have a bond with a community that welcomed them so generously. Hugs were shared and tears were shed when the group departed for home on April 10.
Courts For Kids’ time in El Rodeo lasted about a week. But lifelong memories were created and a strong appreciation was forged for a community whose location might be “foreign,” but whose kindness, hospitality and love of sport left no misunderstanding.
Quotes from Courts for Kids Volunteers
We are all small in the grand scheme of things, tiny little beings scampering around on a big blue marble in the universe. That idea used to scare me, and make me feel like everything was pointless. But being in this community, seeing how differently we live, how difficult their lives are, and yet how similar, make me question why people are mean to each other at all. Why some people can’t see the commonality. Nylah
Living in El Rodeo means that there is limited access to technology, and thus people tend to spend more time with each other. Something that I took away from the time spent here is the value of being physically present for someone. Even though I couldn’t always fully communicate with the locals, just chilling together was super meaningful. I hope to apply this lesson in my relationship with my siblings.
~Peter, HS student
The most difficult part of going home is knowing that I might never see some of the people I made really deep connections with, everyone had such amazing energy. I also felt so comfortable and I love this community and I hope to live in one like this when I’m older ~ Lena, HS student
What I learned about the world during this trip is that spoken language is not necessary for communication. While I enjoyed listening to fluent speakers and trying to catch individual words, I also found it nice to listen to people who know hardly any Spanish talking with locals. It showed me that smiles, hand gestures, and laughter are universal languages. I learned that humans, no matter where they are in the world, are still humans and will find ways to communicate with each other. ~Amelia, HS student
My high points were hanging out and having fun with the locals like spontaneous dance parties, interesting hand and card games and overall talking and making jokes with each other. There weren’t many low points at all, but I would say they would include feeling gross and grimy after working on a construction site under the hot sun all day but it did feel satisfying having a labor intensive and productive day since I hadn’t done that before. ~ Camilla, HS student
Seeing the Dominican Republic has helped me see more clearly now about how another’s life might differ from mine. I felt that this trip has helped open up a new viewpoint of mine, when hearing how some people have less privilege/opportunities than you, we feel sympathy for them. It’s only when we’ve experienced a life close to theirs is when we feel empathy for them. And so, the trip has helped me feel more empathy with those who have a different life than mine. ~Alex, HS student
What I learned from the community is that material possessions can never amount to that of human connection. I feel like this trip changed me for the better because I’m usually a very closed off person, but now I feel more okay about opening up to people about myself, my thoughts, even embarrassing stories. I really hope to keep even a fraction of the Dominican attitude because as soon as I stepped foot here, I felt automatically comfortable. ~ Morgan, HS student