As The Columbian’s sports editor, I’ve followed the progress of Courts for Kids, a Vancouver-based nonprofit launched by Evergreen High School and Portland State basketball star Derek Nesland in 2007.
Since then, his organization has tapped nearly 4,000 volunteers to build 192 outdoor sports courts in 30 countries.
Earlier this month, I had the chance to see Courts for Kids’ work firsthand.
My daughter Amelia, a sophomore at Columbia River High School, was one of 21 teenagers from Clark County who volunteered for the group over spring break. I served in Siberia with the Peace Corps from 2001-02, and still love foreign travel off the beaten path, so I tagged along as one of three chaperones on the trip. We were joined by Nesland and Courts for Kids’ Dominican Republic coordinator Marlennis Diaz.
When we arrived in El Rodeo, Dominican Republic, the future site of an outdoor sports court was a vacant patch of dirt.
For the next four days, the volunteers and an equal number of local residents shoveled sand, carried buckets of gravel and poured cement. With temperatures in the 90s, every slight breeze brought welcome relief.
That work ushered a cyclone of activity when the court opened. Pickup basketball games buzzed around both hoops. Near midcourt, volunteers and local children knocked a volleyball to each other.
Those games had been a long time coming. Courts for Kids had planned to build a court in El Rodeo in 2020 but put the trip on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This project and a simultaneous trip to Panama were Courts for Kids’ first excursions back into the field since the pandemic began.
In El Rodeo, volunteers connected with local teens through pickup baseball games, dance parties in the street and a genuine curiosity to learn about each other’s daily lives. Greetings of “hola” and “buen dia” were the soundtrack to any walk down the rural town’s streets.
Theresa, the resident most responsible for connecting El Rodeo and Courts for Kids, cooked buffets for us. Our three daily meals included various combinations of plantains, chicken, pork, rice, eggs and fresh local fruits.
The trip wasn’t all about work. Courts for Kids gave each of us a daily task to boost our knowledge of the country’s customs or encourage interaction with locals. This could mean asking about, for example, the role of women in Dominican society. It could also be a lighter assignment, like trying at least one new food or working with a Dominican teen to create a secret handshake.
We also took an eye-opening trip to the border with Haiti, about 50 miles to the west. There, we experienced the extreme bustle at a binational border market. As we explored the narrow aisles of the outdoor bazaar, we jostled with fellow shoppers and merchants passing through the crowd with wheelbarrows of goods. For Americans used to having personal space, this was a “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Camas anymore” moment.
Finally, to celebrate the court’s successful completion, Courts for Kids treated us to an eco-tour at a national park near Monte Cristi on the country’s north coast. There, we took a boat tour through a mangrove forest and swam in a lagoon. Then we landed at a small island, where we enjoyed a lunch of chicken, fish, eggplant and wheat germ salad garnished with lime wedges.
Sports are a global language. Even when athletic facilities don’t exist, the games find a way. Before April 8, El Rodeo’s kids played basketball using a metal bicycle wheel nailed to a mango tree.
Now, a new court will hopefully bear a different kind of fruit. Not only do El Rodeo’s youth have a spot for all sorts of games, the community has a new gathering place to strengthen its already solid ties.
We also have a bond with the residents who welcomed us so generously and then bid us farewell with hugs as we left for home.
Personally, my daughter and I now have a shared experience we will remember our entire lives. Any parent of a teenager sometimes pauses and wonders how quickly their child has grown up. I’ve found myself doing this often lately, partly because my job frequently keeps me working late into the night and missing evening family time at home.
Way too soon, Amelia will be off to college. But her resourcefulness, patience, strength and comfort in a foreign setting gave me strong faith that she’ll be fine when she strikes out on her own.
Although Courts for Kids’ time in El Rodeo lasted just more than a week, participants created lifelong memories and forged a strong appreciation for a community whose location might be “foreign,” but whose kindness, hospitality and love of sport left no misunderstanding.