Arriving in Managua, Nicaragua and riding in the back of a pick up truck on all our bags of gear, reminded me of my first trip to Nicaragua two years ago. The familiarity came from the distinct smell of fire burning, the same imagery of kids playing outside and families gathering. We drove by miles and miles of inadequate housing, people farming, kids transporting water on horses and children playing soccer in the streets. We made a quick stop at a gas station and it couldn't help but remind me of the experience I had last time I stopped at the same gas station on the last trip. It was late at night and I remember walking up to two young boys covered in filth playing with nothing…literally rubbing their dirty hands on the dirty concrete. They were absolutely filthy from head to toe. Their faces had dirt smudged all around their mouths and cheeks. I was appalled. I remember Sister Phyllis from NPH (Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage) who picked us up wrapping up the remainder of my sub that I didn't finish eating and giving it to the child. An older guy grabbed it from the kid and Sister Phyllis jumped out of the van and took it from the man and gave it back to the child along with giving some change to another child. It seems as if she has the heart to want to save everyone and the pain comes when she realizes she can't. She delicately told us story after story about finding babies and small children half alive in boxes, some who don't make it and some who grow up through their orphanage singing, dancing and living life. I remember when she described these stories that she had a tear streaming down her cheek, a gentle reminder of all the children that needs to be saved and a gentle reminder of the pain that seemed so deeply stored away in her soul.
With my last experience so vividly trapped in my mind, I knew that this mission trip was going to impact some lives…I just didn't realize how much it would overwhelmingly impact mine, as well.
Spending time with the kids and being in their element, playing the game that we both dearly love was amazing. I saw kids that were at the age of 8 that had a skill level and touch of a 16 year old. Seeing how they anxiously lined up to receive donated soccer gear and then graciously smile and get ready to play was so fulfilling. We took photos and video so we can relay the message back to the generous people in the states who so kindly donated to help this cause. Each of these kids has a story and documenting this footage is so important in revealing untold stories of their heart. These kids have to deal with adult issues at such an extremely young age. Finding out their stories and then seeing their smiles after what we bring them is so powerful.
Along with the orphanages, we traveled off the beaten path to remote places. We visited a community of people that live on the trash dump in La Chureca, Managua. Blocks away we could sense the putrid smell of the trash site. It was a smell so unbearable. We show up to see some tough girls playing pick up soccer barefoot in the dirt just yards away from the trash area. The girls had a tremendous skill level for their age and were definitely holding their own as the boys watched them. Watching these tomboys play immediately brought a sense of pride to me. They were smiling and laughing and did not have a care in the world, a vision I will never forget. It was truly inspiring watching these girls play and smile just yards away from the trash dump. It introduced a new meaning of optimism to me. After they showed us their harsh living quarters, they led us up to the trash dump. It was an unsafe place for anyone, especially for these kids walking bare foot and eating out of soiled trash. It was a smell, a site and an experience that I will never forget. After sharing cleats, balls, shoes and clothes with the kids of La Chureca, it was time to depart. Marta, the girl who was playing soccer as we showed up, wanted to relish in every moment we were there. She held on to the back of the truck as we drove off and I'll never forget as she said "Muchas Gracias, adios" as she jumped off the moving truck and waved goodbye. I watched Katie cry as she had to turn to look away from Marta waving. The experience weighed heavy on our hearts as we realized that we were able to leave that place but, for many, La Chureca is home.
We continued on to an older boys orphanage in Grenada where we played on their green, mossy court. The boys explained to us that we could score two ways…by hitting the ball off the basketball pole or hitting it off the basketball backboard. I figured they must lose all their balls that way because the court is on a very high slope. We brought out mini goals with nets instead and the kids loved that. For Katie and I, the game on this mossy court revolved around not slipping, which we miserably failed. The kids, on the other hand, were used to their terrain and used the walls for “give n go’s” and were sliding on the soles of their shoes. The court emulated an indoor facility and it was a nostalgic setting. I was enamored by the kids and their personality. Again there was another emotional farewell as all the boys gave us hugs and kisses and Christian, who we bonded with most, was the last to watch us leave until we were were out of sight.
These first few orphanages we visited had kids that were former glue-sniffers off the streets. I never really realized the magnitude of their past until we met several current glue-sniffers in the street. Usually orphanages try to befriend these particular kids to recruit them to detox and attend their orphanages. We tried to do the same to recruit them out of that environment and used the game of soccer to do the talking. I gave encouragement to one of the kids named Julio after he made a good play. At the same time, I tried to coerce him to play without the glue but he wouldn't let it go. It's a fix that diminishes their hunger pains, a fix that makes them feel nothing, a fix that I was hoping the game could alter.
We visited NPH (Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos ranch) and conducted some very organized soccer clinics. We gave out official World Cup jerseys to the winners of the drills, which the kids loved. It was the most successful day of trainings. After, we took a ferry to Island Ometepe where we re-visited the NPH that resides at the base of an active volcano. Upon arriving, I saw Stephanie, a girl I bonded with last trip. We ran to each other and embraced. I told her in Spanish that I missed her so much and she replied in perfect English, “I missed you, too.” I knew she knew a little English but now she spoke fluently and flawlessly. She said she learned so she can communicate with me when I returned. It was, for me, the most touching experience of the whole trip to see that I had that much of an effect on her. We caught up, laughing and chatting and acting as if 2 years never went by. When it was time to leave the next morning, once again it was a tough, emotional departure to leave what was to me, the closest thing to a daughter. But, Stephanie who is now 16, is the glue that holds all of those kids at the house together. She told me not to cry and to stay strong. She has more strength than I could ever have.
Most of the orphanages we visited had children that had to deal with a very troubled upbringing and have been abandoned. I couldn't even fathom not having family or parents to guide me growing up. So to be able to give back a little of what we had growing up with soccer gear, clinics, mentoring and opportunity was very fulfilling. Upon leaving Nicaragua for the second time, I do recall Sister Phyllis' pain…a reminder that there is more work and just like the mantra at one of the orphanages said, "there will be no child left on the streets." I have seen the game of soccer help bridge the gap.