Xavier High School students help build sports court for youth in Caribbean

APPLETON — An island nation in the Caribbean Sea may sound like a good vacation destination, but a group of Xavier High School students had a different mission. Nine students, accompanied by teacher Kate Geenen, traveled to Thibaud, Dominica, in late July to build a sports court for the community.

St. Francis Xavier High School seniors Aiden Maguire, left, and Noah Kippenhan interact with youth in Thibaud, Dominica. A group from Xavier traveled to the island nation in late July to help build a sports court through Courts for Kids. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

The Xavier group was part of a team representing Courts for Kids, a U.S.-based charity that coordinates the building of courts around the world through partnerships with local communities.

“It’s a true partnership of the village,” said Geenen. “They have to provide, through the different funding sources, masons to mix concrete, pour it and level it, and the supplies that go with it — bags of concrete, gravel, sand and cinder block to form the court. The American group that comes in provides labor.”

Building a court was a good fit for the Xavier students. The group included members of the football, soccer, basketball and track and field teams.

“Sports are something that ties together communities,” said senior Bryan Geenen, who plays soccer and basketball for the Hawks. “Sports can help take your mind off other things that are happening. I thought it was a great opportunity to help someone else have that experience.”

Thibaud is a small village located on the northeast shore of the island. People primarily live on the coasts of Dominica, which is a mountainous nation approximately the size of Lake Winnebago. The interior is too mountainous and vegetative for homes. English is the official language although Creole is also spoken.

“I think the village itself would be considered Third World,” said Kate Geenen. “The island likes to promote itself as a developing nation. They have running water and cars, but it’s basically cinder block housing with corrugated metal roofs. The people take a lot of pride in their houses.”

While the people don’t have much, they are happy and welcoming.

“It was incredible,” said Bryan. “Everyone greets you and knows your name. They are so excited to have you there. You think about someone new in town here and you may say ‘hi.’ They came out of their houses to greet us and made food for us.”

“Walking down the street every single person would say ‘hi’ to you and treat you like you are part of their community,” said sophomore Kate Popelka. “It’s really amazing.”

The work was hard, including lifting 47-pound bags of concrete. The group spent eight hours of the day during the week working in the hot sun. Young people from the community assisted in building the court.

Noah Kippenhan, left, Isaiah Simon and Aiden Maguire enjoy a fun moment with children from the community during a break at the sport court work site in Thibaud. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

“I was surprised at how hard the children worked with all of us on their court,” said senior Noah Kippenhan. “I’ve never seen people so young work so hard. That memory will stay with me for a long time.”

“I learned how important teamwork and trust are, and I learned that you don’t need a lot of money or a nice house to be happy,” said senior Aiden Maguire. “The people in Thibaud are not very wealthy, but they are all hard workers and believe they have everything they need.”

Faith was at the center of the experience. The group attended Mass with the people of the community. The liturgy lasted two and a half hours, but did not seem that long, said Popelka.

“Most of the Mass was spent singing their hearts out,” she said. “The Courts for Kids group was sitting in the back together. The minister said, ‘I don’t like this seating arrangement,’ so he made the Courts for Kids group mix around the community.”

“Mass there is so much going with the flow,” said Bryan Geenen. “It’s so open and free flowing. Members of the community would stand up and talk. It was so interactive.”

The Xavier students didn’t get the opportunity to play on the court, but they did engage in athletics with the young people of Thibaud.

“Soccer is a big sport there,” said Bryan. “They are very quick. It’s a lot of fun to watch them. They also play cricket. They play basketball, but it’s not as popular as soccer and they have netball, which is basketball without the backboard.”

“My favorite memories from the trip were the times playing with the kids from the village and meeting new people,” said senior Isaiah Simon. “They were all very gracious and happy. It was a great experience and I would love to do something like this again in college if possible.”

The court marked the 132nd built by a Courts for Kids group and the 25th country — first built in Dominica.

“As a chaperone, I could not have been any prouder of the kids,” said Kate Geenen. “They were all in. They interacted with the kids; they never stopped working; they adapted.

“It was good to see them as part of something bigger than themselves,” she added. “This was pretty neat what we were doing and it was not about us. It was about the community.”