Transformative connections and wonderful memories in El Hatillo, Panama

Our first day was filled with travel. Although our group was initially reserved, we began to connect with one another on the bus ride from the airport. Our drive was delayed by road blockages from protests against extreme gas prices; this did not stop our newly-acquired elevated spirit from running its course. We arrived in El Hatillo late in the evening, set up camp, and experienced our first night in Panama.

Day two was the first true day of meeting the community members and getting a sense for El Hatillo. The enthusiastic energy was almost tangible and we could already feel the warmth radiating from the locals through our first breakfast. We started on the court and everyone was eager to help out in any way that they could. The day continued with a delicious soup, initial connections and broken Spanish from us Americans, games in the evening, and our first exposure to the beautiful flora and fauna of Panama, namely the vibrant butterflies and lush greenery.

On day three, progress continued on the court and we experienced our first true Panamanian rain. At the onset of the heavy rain, the children of El Hatillo waved us forward through this rainstorm. We followed them through the downpour, still in our work clothes but intrigued and ready to explore. We trekked through a large stream, every part of us drenched but without a care. Eventually, we reached a still section of the water and the children wasted no time in jumping in. We followed suit, splashing and pushing one another in the water. Our journey continued by holding iguanas and hiking through the river to another spot where we could jump off from. Our third day was also made special by the celebration of Santa Marta and of Haley’s birthday (a member of our Courts for Kids group).

The people in El Hatillo dressed a few of us in traditional Panamanian clothing, ardent in immersing us in their beautiful culture. We were served arroz con pollo, a traditional birthday dinner, along with cake. The evening was filled with singing and dancing and an abundance of liveliness.

On day four, we were able to start laying concrete on the court (usually this begins earlier in the process, but due to the rainy weather we were delayed.) We attended the local Catholic church and were well-accepted. Afterward, we went to the community center and had another dance party full of music and energy, and we learned some popular dances from the locals.

On our fifth day, we continued working hard on the court, though we were severely slowed in our progress by the rainy afternoons. During these rainy times when we could not pour concrete, we would make friendship bracelets with the community and play games of extremely muddy soccer. The young kids obviously enjoyed every moment of our soccer games together, as did we, completely coated in mud but without a care. On this day we were also shown how to make traditional corn fritters and snacked on them during our breaks from work. We concluded this day with a big game of bingo with the locals.

Day six was similar; more concrete and hard work, more time growing closer to the community. In the evening, we attended an evangelical church service, where we again were thoroughly accepted and shown love. After the service, we played games set up by our host family and enjoyed each other’s company.

The seventh day was a day of rest and fun. We went to the Varela Hermanos rum distillery in Pesé, an important marker of the area and of the country of Panama in general. We toured the distillery and were walked through the process of making rum from sugar cane to bottle. Shortly after, we visited Reserva Forestal El Montuoso, a national forest reserve. We hiked in the pouring rain and through rivers to a series of beautiful lookout locations. We returned to El Hatillo for our final night with the community, where we were thrown a goodbye ceremony full of heartfelt words and demonstrations.

The next morning, we had an opening ceremony for the court (though unfinished due to the rain) and played basketball. Saying our final goodbyes afterward certainly made this day the most challenging. After struggling to say goodbye to El Hatillo, we visited Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. We played tourist throughout the remainder of the day and concluded our time in Panama in a hostel, where we reflected on our time together in El Hatillo.

The people of El Hatillo were so generous and compassionate, so eager to share with strangers their food, their homes, their language, and their culture. They welcomed us with arms wide open and never failed to show their appreciation and enthusiasm. This was a huge takeaway for us. We were shown to care for one another and to be selfless in our love. Though we may not see these people again, I know each of us will carry these bonds we formed and lessons we learned in our hearts forever. Thank you, El Hatillo, for your continuous kindness and warmth. We miss you already. ~Isabella Hankins

Quotes from US Volunteers

My favorite memory was the first day it rained. Shortly after lunch the rain began to fall hard, in the States when it rains we run inside and wait for the sun to return. However when it began to rain in Panama, the kids beckoned us to follow them, they insisted that they wanted to show us something special, so we followed our tour guides, first we walked and then we run, we had no idea where we were going to or how far we were going to run, but I didn’t care. I was completely consumed by the freeing feeling of running in the rain. Eventually we came upon a water hole, the kids jumped in and splashed around and soon we joined them. 20 high school and college kids splashed around in the rain cheering each other on as we jumped in fully clothed. The feeling that consumed me in the moment is hard to explain, but I felt like a child again. I wasn’t worried about my wet boots or my sore muscles. All I felt was joy and gratitude towards the local kids for not only showing us a place that was special to them, but also for showing us the importance of taking the time to run in the rain. ~Lucy Loftis

I feel this trip greatly changed the way that I view wealth. In the USA wealth is viewed as how much money or assets you own. In El Hatillo wealth is shown in the way they care about each other and the way everyone is so giving. Being in El Hatillo I felt like the richest person, in the sense I was so cared for by people who barely even knew me. Everyone in El Hatillo puts so much trust in each other which I feel is very different from home, I tend to keep my guard up and assume negative intent which leads me to be too independent sometimes. El Hatillo has taught me to trust and work with those around me to accomplish my goals. ~Cailyn Broten

The most difficult part of going home is that I am really going to miss rice and all my new friends. ~Joey Loftis

My high point of the trip was anytime I had a ball at my feet playing with the kids. The epitome of any sport isn’t the highest level of play at a professional level, but rather having the game be played in the simplest form. Playing on the muddy, uneven ground, using any object to mark a goal and not even keeping track of score. ~Evan Underland

My favorite memories from our trip to El Hatillo were definitely watching the kids connect. As an educator, my experiences are obviously important but more important to me is to watch our youth grow and change. I saw anxious teenagers connect with a whole community. Some did not even understand one another, yet that did not stop them from learning, connecting, and loving each other. ~Janice Broten

This community showed me that wealth isn’t only monetary and may have less value when it is. These people were the wealthiest individuals and community I’ve ever encountered. They were each so wealthy with love, joy, compassion, and gratitude that their cups overflowed and were then poured into us. This community of El Hatillo were the most genuine and content people I have ever met, and in ways, the peace I felt from and with them was one I didn’t even think really existed. ~Olivia Coles

One of my best memories was when the community of El Hatillo celebrated my birthday. They put so much into making me feel special and I will never forget it. Spending my sweet 16 dancing to local music and celebrating their traditions made me feel like a true Panamanian. Thank you El Hatillo. ~Haley Colunga

I do not and will never understand the stigma and disrespect for those who work blue collar jobs. In the US these jobs are looked down upon especially when they are occupied by immigrants. I have never met people more discerning of kindness and respect. Now more than ever I am angered by the elitist and racist behavior towards blue collar workers in America. I can say first hand that their jobs are not easy and that their dedication and intelligence should never be questioned. ~Kaya Moss

Quotes from Community Members

For me, it was a beautiful experience to have the Courts for Kids organization in my community because it helped to make fulfill the dream of many children and young people in sports and keeps them away from bad habits. Thank you once again for these blessings. I am grateful to see you. care of each of you. God bless you! ~Agustina Delgado

The experience of the Courts for Kids project has left its mark on our El Hatillo community. The joy of their group, the desire to help, and the day-to-day motivation that they carried out during their stay were extraordinary. It had been many years since we felt unity to do something for the benefit of our community, thanks to the boys and girls for their desire to work, they ignited in the inhabitants the power of teamwork to achieve a positive goal. We were a very privileged community and thank you for making us part of this beautiful experience. ~Anabel Nieto

My impressions when participating in this project as a pastor and member of this community was a great blessing and helps the development of our community, not only children and young people who can practice sports and stay away from any vice. It was very beautiful to have shared with the group those 6 days, in seeing the young people of the organization work as a team and their obedience and work ethic. They do leave us with many joys and excellent memories in our community.  Blessings. ~Pastor Henry Troya

My most sincere congratulations on the excellent work carried out by the organization Courts for Kids, it was an enriching experience working alongside the group, observing the enthusiasm and energy that pervades each of the activities that were carried out in the set. I wish you the greatest of successes and I hope with God’s favor that you continue to enjoy good health so that you can continue working with the sports field projects that are of great benefit to our community. Very grateful for the brilliant work. Blessings! ~Agustín Bustamino

One of the most interesting things about the project in our community was the courage of the kids, demonstrating with actions their desire to leave a positive mark and not faint despite the physical and mental fatigue they felt. Their eagerness to want to know more about our customs, their appreciation for what surrounds us, and their respect and kindness for all the people with whom they created incredible connections. And the best thing is to leave a project for new and future generations who will be eternally grateful. ~Oliver Guevara