Just a few short months ago I stood before the Williston community at assembly trying my best to describe Soccer Without Borders and ask for help as I raised money to donate to the program. I knew the basics: I would be going to Nicaragua for a one week high school camp to attempt to use soccer as a vehicle for positive change in a country plagued with poverty and with few social or economic opportunities for girls. However, what I did not know was the impact the trip would have on me. Thank you for all who so generously donated money, soccer equipment or bought t-shirts and bracelets. Below I will share my story.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
– Nelson Mandela
Stepping out of the Managua airport on August 4th I was immediately hit with a wave of smells: the smoke from hundreds of cigarettes mixed with the smell of horses and the sewage that was running in a milky stream along the curb, along with the exhaust from the vans and taxis meandering their way along the narrow airport road. Waiting out in front with the other members of my group (whom I had never met before) we stood together for what felt like hours in the hot, sticky, smelly air. Our bus driver was attempting to get 30-something suitcases and duffle bags into a van smaller than a Williston mini-bus while still leaving room for the 13 or so people in our group.
In our very simple Spanish, we offered that half the group could wait while the others took the first load on the hour-long journey to Granada, trying to spare all of the jostling of suitcases the driver was fighting with—but he would not have it. He persevered and eventually managed to get all of our belongings and us to Granada in one trip. The bus driver was my first glimpse into a community of people who do not give up and do not take no for an answer. Throw them any number of obstacles and rest assured a large majority of them will not quit.
After using the first day to settle in and get acclimated with our home stays in the town of Granada, we dove right into work on day two recruiting girls for the Soccer Without Borders (an after school girl’s program which provides academic, social and recreational opportunities for the local school aged girls), at a local primary school just down the street from the barrio (neighborhood) where we were living.
We all met in a group in front of our homes and walked together on the 15-minute journey to the school. We had not even been walking for five minutes when the pavement gave way to a dirt road filled with large ditches, making it impassable by car. I remember noticing that with the end of the paved road came as well the end of any sort of sanitary housing. Chickens were everywhere. Roofs were caving in and doors and windows were absent. Women stood sweeping the sewage and trash away from the front of their homes with wooden brooms. Young children who should have been in school were sitting on the front stoops staring at us as we passed by with looks not easily described by words or captured by photos—looks that said hunger, and sadness, but curiosity and eagerness all in one. I was already taken aback by the views of poverty that I saw along the way, but by the time we reached the school I was in tears.
The barbed wire on the top of the tall fence that surrounded the complex gave the school the look of a jail, not one of a primary school filled with young children. As we walked through the gate and up into the schoolyard, little children ran to the doors of their classrooms, whispering and giggling to each other as we passed by. We smiled back but each of us, feeling temporarily overwhelmed from the absolute culture shock, sat down on a bench in the center of the quad and took time to survey our surroundings as we waited for the children to come out for gym class.
As I glanced around the first thing I noticed was the dirt patch that made up the “quad” that all the classrooms faced. There was no grass in sight: only concrete, dirt, and trash. While it was unfortunate that they had to play in dirt, that was the least of my concerns: the trash is what really got me. Trash was in front of classrooms, it was all over the small dirt patch they had to play, it was up against the fence, it was in the sewage ditch and it was in absolutely every other feasible location except for the trashcan. There were also no walls, but instead bars in front of every classroom that distinguished one room from the other. The noise was at a level that I had never heard before even on the playground back in elementary school, let alone in a classroom filled with children who were supposed to be learning. The children ran in and out of their classrooms while lessons were being given, as the helpless teacher attempted to keep the attention of the 40 or so children who were packed into the small room.
There was a booth on one end of the quad giving out water and small snacks to the hungry children. Across from the booth was a wash bucket where children cleaned their faces and hands, grubby from playing in the dirt-covered schoolyard. All these stimulants mixed with the 100-degree heat were almost too much to handle, but we all persevered and readied ourselves for the gym class that was about to begin.
As soon as I saw those smiling faces leaving their classroom to come join us in the quad I knew that I had made the right decision by coming to Nicaragua. On a typical day, the gym class is broken up boys and girls; the boys are allowed to run around while the girls typically stand off to the side, but this day was different. We split the boys off and had them play pickup soccer, and once they were all set, we addressed the girls. Anna Barrett (the camp leader) told the enthusiastic girls (in Spanish), “Today you are going to play soccer!” The girls erupted into screams of pure joy that was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. They began to jump up and down and chant “futbol, futbol, futbol” at the top of their lungs. Not once in my life have I ever seen anyone more thrilled about anything, let alone simply being given a chance to play. Suddenly, my whole life came into perspective.
As I thought about the number of times I have complained about having to drive an hour to soccer practice, or not wanting to practice if I was tired, those complaints of mine seemed completely irrelevant, immaterial and selfish. These kids wanted nothing more than an opportunity to play a sport that they were told they should not play, and for one hour we were giving them that chance. I was so caught up in their excitement and enthusiasm that I forgot about the dirt, and garbage, the grim surroundings. The resilience of those young girls truly was infectious.
While I may have made a small impact on the lives of these girls, the program as a whole truly has an indescribable influence on those girls every single day. I was there only for a week simply to get a glimpse into another society. A society where girls are seen as lesser: not as capable, not as deserving, and not as important.
However, every day Soccer Without Borders draws young girls from all over the city of Granada to participate in something that we all take for granted. Seeing some of the young girls run around in their school shoes and skirts made me realize that the impact I can have can be as small as simply donating a pair of cleats or it can be as large as living there as a long-term intern like some have chosen to do.
I know I will be back to Nicaragua. It may be next summer or it may be after college, but regardless of when or why I return, I know that the impact those smiling faces had on me will last a lifetime.