Friday morning all the volunteers gathered on the court and walked around. Even though I was standing on the court I found it tough to internalize that it was a product our group’s work for the week. The court looked perfect in the big courtyard framed in the background by the high foothills that shark-finned into the almost cloudless blue sky. I was really excited to play on it.
While we waited for the celebration the volunteers walked to the next closest village and delivered the last of the collected school supplies to a local school. Our group showed up and was greeted by about 100 kids, who were very happy to see the “Gringos.” We played in the yard with the children, shooting baskets and dribbling around them, playing “Keep Away.” Nathan, a young, gangly 6’4” red-head, kid, the youngest volunteer on the trip- the excursion was his high school graduation present from his mother, kept five or six kids at bay with his dribbling prowess. Nathaniel and his mom, Melanie, were the only two non-KP people on the trip, but they fit in perfectly.
Many of the children watched as the volunteers snapped pictures. When the volunteers turned their cameras and phones and shared the pictures with the children, they were met by little hands asking if they could control the camera. Children amazed by technologies they had not yet been exposed to ran around laughing, directing scenes of their peers and volunteers, trying to set up just the right shot. The school principal ordered the children to line up so that we could hand out school supplies. With all the happy energy our group created, kids struggled to stand still in line and the principal had to bark out orders several times to get some of the more unruly children to stand still for even a minute. One by one, kids stepped forward and walked down a line of volunteers and collected the school supplies. We handed out about half the merchandise then we gave the rest to the principal to warehouse to give outs later as rewards for good behavior or however he saw fit. We waved at the children as we left in groups and walked back up the dirt road to Cerro Blanco.
When we returned to the village the townspeople were deep into the preparation of the big lunch celebration that accompanied the inauguration of the court. To the people of the area, the construction of the court was a big deal. Within a couple of hours people showed up from far and near. Two different mayors came with security teams. Big speakers were rolled out and loud Spanish music was blasted while balloons were filled and hung. Children and volunteers ran around chasing soccer balls and basketballs.
Around noon the mayor’s people set up a microphone and the court commencement ceremony began. Speaker after speaker from the municipality stood up and spoke in Spanish, while Geo translated for our group in English. Person after person went on about the gifts the mayor’s office had bestowed upon the people of Cerro Blanco. After the spokespeople for the municipality finished, the mayor then awarded each volunteer with a signed certificate stating our participation in the construction of the court. Following the awards, Dona Herminia and Geo were asked to participate in the unveiling of a plaque attached to the wall of one of the houses, which commemorated the construction of the court. Dona Herminia and Geo then broke the ceremonial bottle of champagne, which hung from the top of one of the soccer goals. To end the ceremony everyone was given a small plastic glass of Inca Kola and we toasted to the week’s success. The women of the village proceeded to serve everyone in the crowd plates full of cooked pork, rice, yucca and salad.
For the rest of the afternoon, people hung out at the court. Some drank beer and cheered and others rested in the shade of trees. The women of the village challenged a few of our volunteers to a competitive game of volleyball, the winners getting five Soles each. Little did we know that the people of Peru love volleyball; mostly the women. Apparently, it is for the women of the country, what futbol is for the men. Every female in the town knew how to play and it showed, as they swept our team, two games to nil.
Chris from Courts from Kids was great. He made sure that all the smaller children, especially the girls, were able to play for a while on the court, as the men of the town continually plotted to take over the court to play futbol. Nathaniel and I, helped Chris teach the kids basic dribbling and shooting skills and once they got the hang of it, they loved playing the game.
When the volleyball games were over and the kids were cleared off the court, then the men took over and played soccer. Before that day, it had been almost 30 years since I played any type of formal soccer. I think the last time I played was in the fifth grade and we were using a Nerf ball.
From the moment I stepped on the court, I could feel the intensity in the air. The locals were trying to stack the teams to create a Peruvian versus the U.S. showdown, but Chris stepped in and split the players up evenly. I was coming off being really sick just a day and half earlier, and the temperature was about 80 degrees. I wasn’t sure how long I would last.
Within the first few minutes, I learned a pretty important rule, “Watch out for the ball coming off a header.” Why, you ask? Because it hurts like hell when it hits you smack dab in the face. I was a lot more aware of the ball after that occurrence. I ran hard and tried to employ spacing techniques I used playing high school basketball. The people on the sidelines were calling me, Conejo. After a solid twenty minutes of running, I retired to the sidelines. That game was so much fun, but it was exhausting. The men played soccer until after dark. It was a great way to end the week. As the night darkened, the volunteers began to pack knowing that Saturday morning we would have to say, Adios.
The type of people that take volunteer vacations are a rare breed; Individuals who show up to places, sometimes thousands of miles from home using their personal vacation time to help people who are often less fortunate. These are the kind of people who get choked up when they start to talk about how much of an impact the people they are helping have had on them. I was surrounded by these wonderful people all week. The volunteers that went to Peru were amazing workers; men and women who woke up early and pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion all day long performing jobs outside of their comfort zone, and always with a smile. We all knew leaving Saturday morning would be really tough. A week immersed living in a small village of Peru so different than the lives we all lived at home.
After the bus was packed on Saturday morning, the volunteers and villagers gathered to take pictures and exchanges small gifts, hugs and good-byes. Almost everyone had tears in their eyes, young and old, women and men, villager and volunteer. I think the thing that surprised everyone the most was the crying eyes of all the men in the village. In a culture where men were supposed to be macho, we were told this doesn’t happen. We were told by the villagers that we were their family not. They told us we would live on in their memories and they would carry us in their hearts forever. The bus pulled away and we watched out of the dirty back window of the bus as the villagers waved until we were out of sight. Everyone’s lives had been changed forever.
The first week back from the Peru I was stuck in existential crises mode like I usually am after going on a volunteer trip. I often pondered the previous week’s events and wondered what impact I made and if it was enough. It finally came to me after a few days of running it over and over in my head. The court was only one of the things that would have a big impact on the village. The new court might help generate some money to bring much needed improvements to the village. It could also attract others to come and live there, building a bigger community. It will definitely be a great place for the kids to play safely and for the community to hold events.
What came to me as I thought about what else might change the village was the story about a group of volunteers who showed up from thousands of miles away and gave themselves selflessly to a cause, asking for nothing in return. Giving something and asking for nothing was something we learned didn’t happen a lot in Peru, especially with politicians. Even more than that though, was the fact that our group consisted of eleven strong women who showed the village, and the people of Peru, that women were just as able-bodied and capable as the men; maybe not always as strong, but they had just as much determination to succeed.
My hope for Cerro Blanco is that the children of the village, especially the women- many of whom are probably destined to a life that consists of getting married and having children before they turn twenty- see that they have an opportunity to pursue other careers or life paths if they choose to do so.
I know it could take the success of only one of the young people that we met to change the whole course of Cerro Blanco forever, and that is what I hope our group of volunteers left behind, the idea that men and women can have the same opportunities and that change is a good and necessary thing.
P.S. Three weeks have passed since our return and the director from Courts for Kids, said they are still talking about how we finished the court in four days. He even sent an article to us to prove it.