Going to Great Lengths to Serve: Juniors Journey to the Jungles of Panama
Jesuit High School’s service project requirement has afforded life-changing experiences to legions of students. Some Blue Jays opt to stay close to home, completing assignments with Krewe de Camp, Operation Upgrade, and St. Michael Special School. Others take to the road with English teacher Michael Prados ’83 to serve impoverished communities in Appalachia. In the last five years, however, a new adventure has beckoned, calling students to travel even further, both geographically and with regard to their comfort zones.
Under the direction of then-director of community service Helen Swan, Jesuit partnered in 2012 with Courts for Kids a Vancouver, Washington-based nonprofit that builds multipurpose, concrete athletic courts for underserved rural communities throughout the world. Since its inception in 2006, Courts for Kids has constructed 98 courts in 23 developing countries around the globe. Students from Jesuit High School have built 12 of those courts, immersing themselves in the culture of communities in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic in the process. In May, a group of Blue Jays embarked on the school’s most logistically ambitious trip yet, making their way deep into the remote Darien province of Panama.
Our boat suddenly stopped; I couldn’t understand the Spanish our captain was speaking.
“We need to get out of the boat,” the Peace Corps volunteer stated bluntly.
“Are you serious?” asked a student.
“Yes,” he replied, “and we need to hurry because the tide is going down.”
I quickly found myself standing in knee-deep water off the western coast of Panama, wading toward the stony shore, and realizing that this was definitely going to be no ordinary trip.
Back in early May, when Derek Nesland, the president of Courts for Kids, stopped by Jesuit to discuss the upcoming trips, it quickly became apparent that the 18 students who had signed up for Panama were in for an exceptionally challenging and unique adventure. The group’s ultimate destination was the remote and rural village of Daypuru, which was founded only six years ago when its inhabitants – members of the Emberá tribe, an indigenous people of southern Panama and Colombia – relocated there due to flooding issues. Running water in the village is relatively new and electricity has only recently begun to be installed. Air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and indoor plumbing are nonexistent. Not only would this group of juniors have to adjust then to a completely different way of living, but to get to Daypuru they would also have to make a two-day journey by bus and boat.
Nesland and Jesuit’s director of community service Kevin Murphy ’00 were particularly excited about the Panama trip and so was I. Ten years later, I still cherish my Junior Service Project trip to Mexico, so now as a member of the faculty, I was excited to have the opportunity to chaperone these juniors on their service project trip to the jungles of Panama.
We still did not know exactly what to expect when on May 26 we arrived at the Panama City airport and were greeted by Anibal Cárdenas, the Panama director for Courts for Kids, and Charlie Higgenbotham, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who has been living in Daypuru and working with the community there for almost two years. From the airport we headed on a six-hour bus ride south on the Pan-American Highway. The sun had set when we stopped at a military checkpoint at the entrance to the Darien province, which is under the control of SENAFRONT (Panama’s National Border Service) and where Daypuru is located. Rarely visited by other Panamanians, the Darien is Panama’s sparsely-populated, southernmost region that borders Colombia and contains one of the densest and most inhospitable jungle environments in the world – so much so that it is only here that there is a gap (the Darien Gap) in the Pan-American highway which otherwise extends from Alaska to Argentina.
After spending the night in a small town, we headed again by bus to a dock where according to the plan, boats operated by SENAFRONT would take us south to
Sambu; there, we would meet the chief of Daypuru and then take a bus to his village. We piled into two boats that overcast morning with our duffel bags, put on our life vests, and headed west into the Pacific, passing thick jungle and rocky coasts, an environment that had not changed since time immemorial.
After about an hour – to our surprise – we were told to get out the boats. SENAFRONT had decided not to bring us to Sambu, but to drop us off farther west at Garachiné, a coastal village with a small SENAFRONT base. At that moment, the whole Jesuit group learned an important lesson of the trip: don’t expect anything to go according to plan! We hopped out of the boats into knee-deep water, carried our belongings for many yards over the stony sea floor which had been exposed due to the low tide, and we arrived onshore, unsure of what was to come next.
The landing at Garachiné threw a major wrench in the plan, resulting in half of the group being brought by a SENAFRONT truck to Sambu while the other half – my half – waited for about four hours at Garachiné for that one truck to return and bring us to Sambu. When the truck finally arrived, we were surprised to see that well-armed SENAFRONT soldiers were getting in with us. Not only would soldiers be escorting us to Daypuru, but for the duration of our visit, they would also be staying with us there. As the second group bounced in the back of the truck for about an hour over bumpy, dirt roads, we found out that we were being brought straight to Daypuru. Some distance from the village, we were let out of the truck and had to walk the rest of the way with our bags over a dirt road through the jungle and through two shallow rivers. Finally, we had arrived in Daypuru and by the end of the day, the first group that had been brought to Sambu – and had been waiting on us – arrived, too.
That evening the chief and community of Daypuru officially welcomed our group – their first real visitors ever – with music and dancing. After some women and girls of the village performed traditional dances, they pulled some of our students onto the dance floor and forced them to dance to the rhythms of the village band. Thankfully we were not there for a dance competition. The hard work we had arrived to do would begin the next day and so tired from a long day of travel, the boys retired to their accommodations: the village schoolhouse coincidentally painted blue and white.
The Emberá community of Daypuru has repeatedly been promised various things by the government and other organizations and those promises have largely gone unfulfilled; so when we arrived – after months of planning and preparation for the court on the community’s end – the chief was quite surprised we actually showed up. The local men had done a lot of hard work preparing the site, including digging and hauling gravel from a nearby river and creating by hand a foundation for the court on land that was once jungle. By the time we arrived, however, work still needed to be done finishing the foundation and so the first two days we were there were dedicated to using pickaxes and shovels to level the ground. Under the skilled leadership of two leading locals who have worked in construction – Lesandro and his brother, nicknamed “Spider” – the men and boys of Daypuru, the Jesuit group, and even the SENAFRONT soldiers spent the next three days working on the court following the same process: shoveling gravel into buckets, pouring that into wheelbarrows, hauling the wheelbarrows to a nearby church, mixing the gravel with cement and water on the floor of the church, shoveling the cement mix into wheelbarrows, and hauling and then pouring it into the growing court. All this work was done without the aid of machines and under the intense heat of the sun.
The Courts for Kids experience is not just about building a court for kids, but being immersed in another culture and humbly learning from, and connecting with, our fellow man. The Emberá people up until about a century ago still engaged in hunting and gathering and today, they’re largely looked down upon by Panamanians. Similar in a way to the modern history of the Cajuns in Louisiana, there is today a struggle to keep their culture alive. While many of the older people in Daypuru spoke both Spanish and Emberá, the younger members of the community spoke Spanish. Evangelical missionaries have decried the traditional practice of the Emberá of painting temporary designs on themselves with a plant-based ink (jagua tattoos). Charlie, the resident Peace Corps volunteer, one day organized a “tattooing” session to help show the community that it is a respectable cultural practice. On the last day we were there, he also organized an artisans’ market where we bought handmade crafts directly from the village women who make them, consequently giving the village a bit of an economic boost. Our students were often to be found playing sports with the local kids and even performed surprisingly well against the locals in a few games of soccer. Every day we would eat our meals prepared by some of the local women at the community kitchen who would typically be cooking food for the children when school is in session. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were always small and simple: a combination of plantains or rice with egg or a little meat. While we ate meals such as flavorless boiled plantains and sardines in tomato paste, table talk often focused on what everyone would eat when we returned to the States.
After days of intense work, everyone cheered when the last bit of cement was added to the court and smoothed out, though by this point the group was pretty exhausted. On our last night in Daypuru there were plenty of speeches of thanks from all sides and again there was traditional Emberá music and dancing. The community had wanted us to share our culture with them, a request we only found out about a couple of days before the going away ceremony. After an unrehearsed singing of the Alma Mater, rising seniors Gregory Bohn and Brandon Greer gave a wrestling demonstration that the locals found immensely entertaining.
On Friday, June 3, we awoke early in the morning and began our journey back to Panama City, which once again did not go according to plan. We walked out of Daypuru before the sun rose to a bus which took us back to Garachiné, where after a couple of hours SENAFRONT-operated boats finally arrived. Once again walking across the stony sea floor at low tide and into the water, we got our luggage and ourselves into the boats and headed out to sea. Very shortly into our ride, however, my boat stopped. Engine trouble. After about fifteen minutes of sitting in the middle of the water, another military boat arrived and ultimately helped get our boat going again. About halfway through our journey back, the overcast sky opened up and what had been a drizzle turned into an unrelenting, pelting rain as our uncovered boats sped over choppy waves. By the time the boat ride was over, we had drenched clothes and bags, sore rear ends, and a good laugh.
By the evening we made our way by bus back into Panama City where the sprawling, modern concrete jungle of skyscrapers contrasted greatly with the real jungle we had just spent a week in. When we arrived at our hostel everyone had a new appreciation for beds, indoor plumbing, and pizza. The next morning we visited the Panama Canal and walked through the French Quarter-like old town of Panama before heading to the airport. Just when we thought our adventure was over, our flight was late reaching Houston and we had to hurry through customs and security at the airport to make our plane back to New Orleans that almost took off without us.
While thankful to be home, I think it is safe to say that all of us are thankful to have been away and to have had this unique opportunity to not only go to great lengths to build a court, but to also travel to a remote corner of the world and be a part of the lives of the people of Daypuru and learn from them. “One of my favorite parts of the trip was connecting with the locals we worked alongside,” writes rising senior Harper Miller.
“They exemplified hard work and motivation more than anyone I have ever met. These people would go out of their way no matter what to get the job done and their work ethic and motivation is something I’ll keep with me forever.”
Examples abound that made a big impression on all of us. One day, a young local boy named Ruffino came straight from a school activity and enthusiastically helped build the court he would soon play on. Another day, an older local boy named Ramiro grabbed a full wheelbarrow and started running, which led to lively races just when our students began to get tired. Lesandro, the local head of the project, was always hard at work, shouting words of encouragement, and often leading cheers and screams in the church where the mixing was being done to keep everyone’s spirits up.
By the end of our trip, one student came up with a new name to describe the union between the two groups: Jaypuru. “Differences aside,” notes rising senior Kyle Baudier, “Jesuit and Daypuru functioned as a unit for a common goal, not just to build a basketball court and leave, but to come together and form a unique community, all under the banner of Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” The best aspect of this service project was that, unlike my Junior Service Project ten years ago, the students were not largely doing all the work by themselves, but working alongside members of the community. They were not just men for others, but, more importantly, men with others.