Aug. 16, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There are always unknowns when launching a project — even a successful one.
The inaugural “Jackets Without Borders” service mission was no exception.
The mission called for a group of Georgia Tech student-athletes to travel to Guadalupe de Cartago in Costa Rica to help build an all-purpose court for a local high school, working with Courts for Kids, an organization that’s specialized in this type of construction for more than a decade.
Most important, however, was the one thing Georgia Tech director of athletics Todd Stansbury, who’s created “Without Borders” at previous stops at Central Florida and Oregon State, said with certainty.
“The student-athletes think they’re going somewhere to help somebody else and THEY’RE the ones that end up being changed for the rest of their lives.”
Eight days later, Stansbury was proven right on the money.
“Obviously this was our first trip so we didn’t really know what to expect and going with an organization that we did, Courts for Kids, they intentionally don’t give a lot of information before you get there,” said Total Person Program coordinator Maureen Tremblay. “Going in without any knowledge of a prior trip or what the trip would be like, we were all a little nervous. But everyone leaving, realized that the trip completely out-did their expectations.”
One of the biggest fears, one of being accepted by the local community, was alleviated early on. Actually it never materialized.
“We really had no idea of what we were going to go to but once we got there we were very pleased with what we saw,” said sophomore swimmer Brennan Day. “The community was extremely welcoming to all of us and it kind of made it feel like home immediately. So that was pretty cool.”
“We got there and we were hosted by these wonderful families, were made meals and the community was very welcoming and so glad that we were there,” said Tremblay, who attended Oregon State from 2011-16, but was unable to join “Beavers Without Borders” because of her track and field training schedule. “The welcoming atmosphere and being able to be fully integrated into this community was really awesome.”
As awesome was the work ethic of the Yellow Jackets’ student-athletes. It wasn’t easy but nothing was going to stop them.
“They had said, ‘This is going to be the hardest you’re going to work in your life.’ I was like, ‘We’re student-athletes at Georgia Tech. We work hard every day,’” said senior swimmer Kira de Bruyn. “But it was definitely very hard.
“We’d get to the school at about 7 a.m., do a little stretch, put on sunscreen and get started about 7:30. We’d work until about 4 p.m. with two breaks,” she added. “I had never mixed that amount of concrete by hand before. It was a lot of work. I didn’t realize how heavy concrete could be, like when you’re bent over with a shovel. I would get home and my host family would be like, ‘Man, you look SO tired,’ and it was like 4 p.m. We worked hard.”
The rainy season also had to be navigated.
“It rained heavily every single day,” said Day. “That kind of was messed up and our leveling was all off so we had to re-level it. We really didn’t exactly know what was going to get done at any moment because of the storms.”
When the rain did relent, there was a language barrier, as the project’s contractors spoke only Spanish.
But, being Georgia Tech student-athletes, they adjusted, learning enough Spanish to work. They persevered, bearing down and completing the court — getting an assist from the local kids to get in just under the wire.
“We were worried that it wouldn’t be ready for the inauguration, but somehow it all came together,” said Tremblay. “A bunch of students came out and helped us paint the court. It was awesome to get to do that with them.”
Getting the project finished was even more rewarding, especially to the local community, which had seen the building of the court delayed by bureaucracy and lack of both resources and manpower for some 15 years. “Jackets Without Borders” finished it in six days.
“The community was kind of in shock about how good it looked and how it was finally there,” said Day. “Seeing all of the students play on the court with our student-athletes from Georgia Tech was one of the most rewarding feelings that I’ve ever experienced because everyone was just so excited about the court finally being done. They were so thankful for the work that we had done and we were so thankful for their appreciation for the court that we helped them with.”
A court dedication followed and it was a very big deal, as there were speeches made. The Jackets also were lauded for their work. After the ceremonies, the kids were all over the court.
The student-athletes taught the local kids basketball, a sport they’d been unable to play as there had been only a grass field, no facility. The local kids, in return, taught the Jackets the sport of futsal — soccer played with five players per side on a basketball court, and a game that the local community dominates.
Learning the local game only part of what the Yellow Jackets learned while in Costa Rica. Thanks to the host families, the school’s phys. Ed. teachers and, even the kids, they learned plenty about the local culture.
A lot of those memories were captured by Tremblay and the staff, which had their iPhones filming constantly to make a documentary.
“We were doing a lot of dancing and got a lot of that on camera,” Tremblay said, adding with a laugh, “Johnathan Langley was probably our one most on camera for dancing, not because he was good but because he would try to keep doing it. When we were learning new dances or we were in a Zumba class he was always going for it. He was willing to try anything. That was really cool. Brennan was in front of the camera a lot as well. They all did really well. The group was awesome.”
“We learned a lot of typical dance moves and we danced a lot with them,” said de Bruyn. “I love dancing — I’m really bad at it but that was probably my favorite part. I kept a journal about it and I was writing probably four or five pages every day just of all these great memories that we had.”
Those past experiences could also make an impact on the way they look at the future.
“It was definitely life-changing,” said Day, of his first completed service project. “What I felt like at the end of this trip was, ‘Whether I do something like I just did for eight days or whether I leave the country for two years and help another community, I definitely know that that is something that I want to do for the rest of my life, do projects like this, go to other countries, experience new cultures.
“I feel like for every single person that went on the trip it was a success,” he added. “Georgia Tech needs to continue with “Jackets Without Borders” because it really, really does shape you into a new person.”
“There were so many people on this trip who had never left the country and had never gotten that opportunity for cultural exchange,” said de Bruyn. “The things you learn on this trip are not things you can learn in a classroom or in practice. These are experiences that you only can gain from the actual experience — being there and doing it. I think people should look at how much fun we had and how much we learned and they should have a long list of athletes that are dying to go on this trip because it was incredible and I loved every second of it.”
Tremblay is excited about what’s ahead for “Jackets Without Borders”.
“I think it will really skyrocket. I’m excited for next year and what the future holds with this kind of trip,” she said. “I’m assuming that we’ll have to turn people away next year because there will be so much more buy-in and so many people that want to go on this trip, especially with the video footage we have.
“I think we’ll see much more involvement in both service abroad but also people wanting to get more involved more locally in service around this community as well,” she added. “It’s a reciprocal effect. When you go do service in another country then come back you feel more passionate about serving the community around here as well. Now we’ll be broadcasting to the student-athletes about the potential to do something different for their summer, experience something new and go experience other cultures and open your mind and get to see other ways of life and ways it might change YOU.”