APPLETON — The people of La Esperanza, a small town in northern Costa Rica, had their doubts. Preparations were made by Courts for Kids for a multipurpose sports court in the community, but the townspeople didn’t believe that summer construction of the new recreation space would happen.
Their expectations changed on July 9, when mission groups from St. Francis Xavier High School and Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., arrived.
“They had been disappointed so many times before that they were confident that this was going to be another disappointment,” said Kate Geenen, who along with fellow teacher Jim Biesterveld served as adult leaders for the Xavier team. “They were super excited.”
Twelve Xavier students made the trip, the third consecutive summer mission experience offered through the school. The group flew into San José and then boarded a coach bus. When the paved road ended, they transferred to a microbus-type vehicle and continued on a dirt road.
“It was a really small community,” said sophomore Calvin Keesler. “There were only a couple people around (from the community) who were our age. They were all in school. People from other neighboring communities came and helped.”
“It was very small, but they were very welcoming,” said sophomore Becca Much.
Work groups rotated through three stations. Tasks included pouring concrete and mixing in gravel and sand.
“When we had the resting time, we played cards,” said senior Johnny Horak, who also played soccer with the local youth.
“These guys took the lead in engaging local kids,” said Geenen. “They interacted and dealt with the language barrier. When you are laughing and playing cards, it’s pretty easy to bridge that gap.”
Days started with prayer before departure to the work site. The group stayed at a small house with four cinder block walls and a corrugated roof.
“We had air mattresses and bug nets above us,” said sophomore Matt Flannery. “It wasn’t bad.”
Three meals were provided each day. The local women who prepared the food arrived at 6 a.m. and worked until 9:30 p.m. The students enjoyed the meals, including rice and beans, and an unidentified fruit. Leftovers were fed to the hogs.
In addition to work and recreation time, a Courts for Kids representative presented the students with challenges, which served as icebreakers.
“Fortunately, I didn’t have to milk a cow,” said Flannery. “I challenged a local to a pushup contest.”
The students led prayers of gratitude at the end of the day.
“This was my first service trip,” said junior Isaac Shimek. “I had a really good time. I kind of set a theme for myself, ‘appreciation.’ That was my word for this trip.”
The Xavier students also connected with their peers from Servite, an all-boys college prep school.
“They were great. We were able to meet new people,” said Horak, “It was fun just hearing stories about back at home and what is different. It was a nice group of guys.”
Tourism is the number one industry in Costa Rica, but most resort locations are near the oceans, a long distance away from the mission site. La Esperanza is approximately 400 miles south of Nicaragua. Many families in the area are self-sustainable farmers.
“There were a couple cattle in each yard,” said Biesterveld. “There was pineapple in the area. We had fresh pineapple.”
The trip marked the first with the Xavier mission group for Biesterveld, who was attracted to the project because of his construction background.
“I found out that I’m not as strong as I used to be,” he said with a laugh.
He was impressed with how the young people grew together over the 10-day trip.
“They came on their own and formed a good group because of that shared experience,” he said.
The new court provides a much needed recreation space in the town. Areas without concrete or grass in the town are muddy and not suitable for play. Community members shared their appreciation.
“The last day, all the local kids came and performed a big (cultural) dance, said Much.
One local boy, Ricardo, 8, was a regular at the work site. He presented the Xavier group members with a special gift.
“On the last day, he gave us each a marble,” said Shimek. “I still have mine.”
“Mine is on my nightstand. I pray for him every morning,” said Biesterveld. “I gave him a Xavier water bottle. He was thrilled.”
Keesler said that he was thankful to be able to give his time to help the community.
“The way of life down there is a lot different than up here,” he said. “They don’t have as many opportunities and access to as much stuff as we do.”
Geenen praised the students, who could not use mobile devices on the trip, for how quickly they adapted.
“The time it took for this group to mentally flip the switch and realize ‘this is where we are and this is what we are going to do’ was really short,” she said. “They were all in.”