SW Washington Students to Piriati Emberá, Panama


When I entered into education, one of my goals was to get kids out of the classroom, out of their community, and experience something great, meaningful, and at the same time make it a learning experience.  This Courts for Kids trip to Panama made it happen.  We had twenty high school students and four adults who took the leap on this adventure.

We arrived in Panama hopped on a bus and journeyed to Piriati to spend the week working with the Embera people.  We arrived in Piriati at midnight.  They waited up for us and greeted us and we were off to bed ready to wake up at 8 and start our first day of work.  We woke up to fried dough and some of the best scrambled eggs I have ever had.  Actually, all the food we had that week was great.  They served us wonderful chicken, fish, plantains and rice throughout the week.  After breakfast we took a tour of the community, and offered a history lesson from the locals.  They shared with us their past and how they ended up on this land.  We took a tour of their community and saw the school, church, a coffee plantation, even a place where people are disciplined. After the tour we went straight to work.  We knew right from the start it was going to be tough. We were carrying heavy loads and the weather was hot, but there was something about what we were doing that made it easy for us to keep going. We worked long days along side the locals.  I think this was one of the highlights—working with the people of the community.  Even with the language barrier, we shared a connection. We had a common goal.

Plate of food

We had some delays and thus had unexpected down times during the day, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise.  We decided to work into the night. Lifting buckets of sand, gravel and cement, then mixing and pouring the concrete.  Even though we were tired, we turned the work into fun.  We joked around with each other and made the work into games.  We worked long days, but it paid off and we finished a little after midnight, Wednesday night or Thursday morning…however, you want to look at it.  I remember finishing and sitting down under the moonlight staring at this major accomplishment. Hundreds of man hours lifting tons of cement, rock and sand, and pouring concrete.  We did it without tearing each other a part and without giving up.

court 1

The work was hard, but rewarding.  When we were finished the next day the Embera people threw a cultural party for us.  We were able to buy their hand made crafts, they taught us some of their traditional dances and sang their traditional songs.  Afterwards, one family invited us over to their house to paint their traditional jagua tattoos on our arms.  We sat around talking, playing games, and enjoying each others company. They are a beautiful people, who are kind, hospitable, and friendly. It was a great way to wrap up the week.

The next day we ended the week with going into Panama City.  We toured around the old, colonial part of the town. We experienced the difference that was between the rural part of Panama in Piriati and the Embera people and the City. There were many differences and it was good for us to experience it. In the end, I was thankful for this trip.  I was thankful for the opportunity it gave to our students and us adults to learn from a community in a different country.  I was thankful for the friends we created working on this project. I was thankful for an experience that taught us love and compassion and gave us a tough but fun was to live it out. I can’t wait for the next one.

By Brandon Angelo, Teacher and chaperone

jumping rope

“I feel like this trip changed me in the aspect of how to deal with stress. I always worry about so much but this trip made me realize that a good life doesn’t need to be extravagant. Everyone in the Piriati community has so much they could be stressed about, yet, they chose not to.” – Selene Saraf

“What I learned about the community is that the Embera people are incredibly strong in adherence to their traditions and faithful towards their families while still being open to change and adaptation. I am impressed with the fact that they survive in an ever changing world while still remaining true to their deepest values, and I hope that I can learn to incorporate some of their kindness and some of the strong loyalty that they hold towards family into my own life.” – Susannah Banshak

moving hoops

“My favorite memory is when the locals set up a surprise bonfire for us and they told us their history and showed us the stars dance. We got to join in on the dance and then we all just danced around the fire. I really enjoyed seeing their dance and hearing their story. Everyone was so happy and it gave us some time to really interact with the people.” – Kaylee Kindsfather

women playing basketball

“I feel real compassion and warmth for the Embera people because they are the most selfless, hilarious, and compassionate people I know. I had a cough, because of a case of bronchitis. They always asked me about my health and in the end, they gave me limes and honey to make a tea for my throat. That touched my heart and I want to strive to become more like them because even though we live different lifestyles, what’s underneath our skin is the same. The Embera embraced us as a family and I am grateful that I experienced what unconditional kindness and empathy was.” – Jake Kim

women playing basketball2

“I absolutely loved playing with the kids! Even with the language barrier, we were able to have so much fun together. One of my favorite times specifically was when a few of us took 3 little boys to get ice cream. We carried them on our backs both ways. On the way back they taught us a little song they knew from school and we all sang it together. One of the little boys saw his brother as we were walking and gave him the rest of his ice cream, just like that! That really touched me and I just love those kids so much!” – Emily Jackson

playing VB