The Vega Alta community showed its gratitude to Jackets Without Borders, Georgia Tech women’s basketball
#TGW: Muchas Gracias, Georgia Tech!
The Villa del Rio community showed its gratitude to Jackets Without Borders, Georgia Tech women’s basketball
By Jon Cooper
Georgia Tech student-athletes know they’re doing something special when they sign up for a Jackets Without Borders trip.
The May 2018 and May 2019 trips to Puerto Rico included repairing houses in the town of Vega Alta that had been damaged by Hurricane Maria, including the house of community linchpins Angel and Maria Rodriguez, who had no idea they would be beneficiaries.
“On the (‘18) trip we helped fill in cement to build a new driveway,” recalled senior guard Chanin Scott. “Somebody else we did their driveway, their basement, we filled in cement. Somebody else, we helped build their bathroom because she didn’t have a bathroom or a roof. We did a lot of mixing cement.”
On both trips, Jackets representatives cemented something a lot more valuable and much more permanent: a bond with the community.
For the student-athletes who volunteer for Jackets Without Borders trips, the experience of helping is enough. They don’t expect anything in return.
The women’s basketball team certainly didn’t expect what it got on Dec. 20 and 21 at Mario Morales Coliseum during their two games of the Puerto Rico Coqui Classic against Texas A&M and Rice.
The team took the court and found it had a gigantic cheering section behind them. The group was comprised of locals wearing Georgia Tech gear and making lots of noise behind them.
It gave the team a lift morale-wise in two very competitive games which included a loss to then-No. 11 Texas A&M to open the tournament and a game-winner over Rice the following day.
“That was really cool because we had to bounce back from that loss,” Scott said. “To have people there to support us and really cheer us on and really give us that energy that we have when we’re at home, that really made the difference. We could hear them on every play. They had their cheers organized and choreographed. They were in sync. It was really cool.”
What was cool for Scott fired up sophomore guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen.
“Having such a cool crowd gave me flow. It put me in a flow state of mind,” said Lahtinen, who was part of the May ‘19 JWOB contingent. “I was fighting. I wanted to fight. Every time we scored a basket there was this crazy cheering going on. We had the most fans of anyone because we had the locals there. It was just great.”
The Jackets responded to the cheers, winning, 54-52, over Rice on a jumper by junior point Kierra Fletcher with 1.2 seconds remaining. The shot set off a huge celebration from the locals, who were located behind the Jackets bench. Fittingly, the community members stood, and cheered and danced near the same basket where Fletcher’s shot rippled the twine. It was as if they willed the shot to go for the Jackets to pull out the game.
That show of support was a small way of saying “Thank You!” to Georgia Tech.
A much bigger one came after the game, when the Rodriguez family and the community hosted the team for a group dinner.
“A whole crowd of people show up and cheer for us at a game and provide dinner for us — (her teammates) were blown away by it,” said Scott. “Seeing Angel and Maria and William (a local who was instrumental as a liaison in helping with the building) was pretty cool because I know they probably see a lot of students come through. For them to be able to recognize me and to be able to just talk to them again was really cool.
“I really appreciated the food that they had for us because I know when I went there the first time, I had such cravings for Puerto Rican food when I came back to Atlanta,” Scott added, with a laugh. “To be able to taste it again and taste all the love and everything they put into it, it was really nice. I really appreciated it. The dinner was so great and being able to sit and talk with the community was even better.”
The evening felt like a family reunion.
“They asked a lot of questions,” said Lahtinen. “They wanted to know more about women’s basketball, more about Georgia Tech and life there. They were really genuine.
“After the game, when we interacted with the community members, I felt like I knew them longer than I had,” she added. “Yes, I’d worked with them for a week before, but Maria always says that, ‘You’re my kids. You’re my family.’ That really was true when we interacted with them. It felt like I had known them for more than a week and also for my teammates, who had not met the community members before, I felt like they really got to know the ‘Mom’ side of Maria and the other community members.”
“Angel, Maria and William told us from the bottom of their hearts that they were thankful for everything that we had done and that they really appreciated us and that they hoped they would see us again and that we’re all a family now,” said Scott. “They enjoyed the basketball game and they enjoyed the Jackets Without Borders program. We were very receptive of what they were saying and we wanted to show them that we felt the same way about them.”
Scott said the feeling of warmth in Puerto Rico was similar to what the team felt a few weeks earlier, when the Jackets went to the Bahamas for the Junkanoo Jam.
“My teammates were really surprised by the crowd and it kind of put us back in the mind of when we went to Bimini. We do community service there and the kids come to watch us play,” she said. “So it was really cool to have that again in Puerto Rico. They also were surprised by how well Maj and I knew the community. They knew we went to Puerto Rico and we helped but I guess they weren’t expecting us to have that much of a bond with the people that we helped.”
Getting the opportunity to see the work on their trips and catching up with Angel and Maria, as well as other members of the community was a heart-warming highlight of the trip.
“The best thing was being able to see the people that I hadn’t seen in like a year and a half. To see that they were doing well, to see that they were also invested in Georgia Tech and that they showed support at our games,” said Scott. “They brought other people that I’d never seen before and we had a huge crowd of people there cheering us on in Puerto Rico. I, personally, did not know that there were that many Georgia Tech alumni and people that support Georgia Tech in Puerto Rico. So that was really cool.”
As the Athletic Association prepares for the next Jackets Without Borders trip, Scott is sure they have a supporter in the women’s basketball program, especially head coach Nell Fortner, who is taking the initiative by donating basketballs for local kids to play with.
“Coach Nell really likes the Jackets Without Borders program,” said Scott. “She really thinks that we benefited from it and that the people from Puerto Rico benefited from it and that it’s just an overall great experience.”
“Coach Fortner is really appreciative,” agreed Lahtinen. “Of course, we can all tell that that was not a regular thing — that we’re in Puerto Rico for a tournament and we have this whole crowd coming to cheer us and be on our side and give us encouragement — so she was really appreciative and made us really make sure that we appreciated and stayed in contact with them.”
Scott hopes the Georgia Tech fan base will support the program with donations to help student-athletes defray the financial cost and keep this program going.
“I think it’s very important to support the Jackets Without Borders program because it helps the student-athletes who may want to do this trip, but may not have it in their budget,” she said. “It really helps them be able to give back to a community and to create bonds with people that you may not have thought that you would otherwise. It’s also a cultural experience. You just learn so much about it that you can’t get from the media or the news.”