In sports, winning teams are said to make their breaks.
For a group of 20 Georgia Tech student-athletes representing the campus chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), their break, a service mission to the Dominican Republic, helped make them.
The La Romana community is only about 1,300 miles from Atlanta, roughly a three-hour flight. Yet living conditions there make it seem light years away.
That combination of proximity, yet disparity of quality of life made it the ideal location for a service mission this past Dec. 13-18. Tech's FCA Campus Director Keith Brown, Marla Williams, and GT alumni Kele Eveland (volleyball) and Alysha Rudnik (softball) also made the trip.
A major goal of the mission was to build a recreation center and a water-retention facility in a little area called "Hope Mission."
Brown noted that the mission served as much of a vehicle to change the perspective of the student-athletes as it was to serve the people of the Dominican Republic.
"It was set up as a service trip to really just get them away from their little bubble here at Tech," he said. "Get them into a third-world country where they get to see what the rest of the world or other parts of the world look like. Kind of get them away and let them serve rather than be served."
Junior pitcher Jonathan King was one of several athletes who initially was hesitant to go, as the trip departed almost immediately after final exams ended. After some reflection he was all-in.
"I kind of thought about it, `That's a week of winter vacation I'd have to miss,'" King recalled. "But when I thought about it, I was like, `Man, this is a great opportunity.' And it was."
King wasn't alone as last-minute entrants.
"I came up with the decision about five minutes before I emailed [Mark Parker, Director of FCA Atlanta Collegiate Ministries]," said junior hurdlerJulian Darden. "I had never been on a service trip before. I mean I'm always open to volunteer around the city and back home in Baton Rouge, but I never thought I'd have the time to go out of the country on one of these trips because I'm so busy here with school and track. But FCA covered a lot of the costs to go on this incredible trip. It took me about a week of thinking and I just felt something was pressing on my heart, that I wanted to go. It was probably one of the best things I've ever experienced through Georgia Tech."
The mission lasted five days but the memories will last a lot longer.
The work was hard, the days long and getting used to the conditions was an adjustment, but things quickly fell into place and the student-athletes made the service mission fun.
"First of all, they're student-athletes at Georgia Tech, so they're a high-caliber kid," said Brown. "And they approached it in an incredible way. When we hit the ground, I gave them a few little guidelines. The first place we went to, within an hour and a half of being off the airplane, we were at a community park near the airport. The kids jumped out of the van and they went and just started hanging out with kids, playing with them, just basically loving on them. You can't teach that. They just did it. That set the tone for the trip."
"What was beautiful was even though the living conditions were not the best there wasn't any complaining," added Eveland (Class of 2004), GT Special Assistant to the Head Coaches since October 2014. "Our water would cut out a couple of hours a day -- at one point you just didn't have water -- but instead of people complaining, you just switched over to the water you had in your water bottle."
Eveland, who speaks fluent Spanish and became a valuable second translator, also was blown away by the student-athletes' ability to make friends with throngs of local kids that were drawn to them daily. Georgia Tech's baseball, softball and volleyball teams donated equipment, which was put to good use at pretty much every opportunity.
"The kids were so thrilled and excited that we were just there and willing to play with them," Eveland said. "You can go anywhere and kids are kids. They just want someone to play with. I think we made them feel special, we made them feel important. It was really fun to see the interaction through the language barrier. A smile says a lot when you can't speak the language."
As the student-athletes and the kids spent more time together, bonds were formed and FCA's mission statement for the trip, "Change of Place + Change of Pace = Change of Perspective," started to hit home.
"It's a culture shock," said sophomore infielder Jessica Kowalewicz. "These people, their hearts are just amazing. For them, success is having relationships, having people they care about and having their families. They don't care if they have a tin roof over them as long as they have their entire family. That was amazing."
Each of the student-athletes had a life snapshot that touched their hearts and will never leave them.
"Man, there are so many," said King. "There was a lady down there that needed blood for one of her children and didn't have enough money. We were able to raise the money and then we took it to her. Just seeing her face light up when we handed her the money....Her house was not very big but there were 15 of us and she wanted everybody in her house, in this little bitty room just to show us how much she appreciated it. That was an unbelievable sight."
"There was one day, we were working at a place called Hope Mission, building a foundation with a mission team from South Carolina, to bring in a playground, kind of like a Ronald McDonald House playground," recalled senior catcher and Student-Athlete Advisory Board Vice PresidentCaitlyn Coffey. "We took a lunch break and all the kids were staring through the fence at us eating. That was heartbreaking in itself. Like, `What are we doing sitting here eating all this food?' So we saved a quarter of our sandwiches and our chips and we gave it to these kids. One kid came up and said, `Can I have some for my mom?' I was like, `He has nothing to eat and he wants to give all that we have and he could have to his family because that's how much it means to him.' That was one of the more eye-opening experiences."
Even luxury items like cell phones, the same luxury items which the trip was supposed to discourage, became instruments of bonding.
"I had a little boy and he wanted to take a picture so we took a `selfie' together," said senior third baseman Chelsie Thomas, with a laugh. "He wanted to see it and he looked at it and he said, `Me?' He was shocked about it. It hit me that they don't have mirrors or phones so he didn't even know what he looked like. Little things like that just stuck with me. Knowing that we take for granted just seeing ourselves in the mirror, having these phones. That was a big thing that stuck out to me with that little boy. It has really impacted me."
The impact within the student-athletes themselves may be the long-lasting lesson of the service mission. What started out as groups within a group separated by team (six different teams were represented), with little more than the Georgia Tech logo in common became one, all pulling in the same direction as an unbreakable unit.
"The most evident thing was just the bonding that went on within the athletes from Georgia Tech. That was awesome," said pitcher Devin Stanton, who had gone on two previous service trips but was making his first with Georgia Tech's FCA. "You had some volleyball girls, some track girls, some of my teammates, who weren't really familiar with each other at the beginning, then by the end of the trip, I'd look in the back of the bus and there are two of my teammates sitting with two track girls, cutting up, having fun. That was something that we brought back here. To see them in the lunch room and talk with them there and to see the friendships continue has been cool."
"There were 20 of us, three chaperones -- two FCA, one through the A.A., Kele -- and there were four of my teammates and the other 14 or 15 people are from other teams, who I'd maybe say `Hi' to as I walked through," said Coffey. "Now we're all best friends. We built that community in five days with each other. When you go through things like that and you kind of see a different culture and see how well we have it, even when you think you're having a bad day -- we get injured or sore or tired -- these people are without clothes and homeless and walking on the streets. Those are things we take for granted. So seeing that together and having that community to be like, `What are we doing? Why can't we be more positive and impact more people?' I think that's a goal of ours now, especially through SAAB and the athletic community as a whole."
The student-athletes have not only improved their relationships with each other but also their individual perspectives.
"It blew my mind, honestly. You think you're going over there to change their lives but they end up changing yours," said freshman outfielderDraven Sonnon. "The conditions there were crazy. Them being so happy with so little was really crazy and it made us open our eyes to what really mattered."
All of them have gone back to their teammates and have recruited them to go on a service trip.
"Oh yes. I've already been recruiting people on my team to go," said junior track athlete Donjhae Jones. "The trip is amazing. It's life-changing. I feel like everybody should have that experience. I realized that a part of me is, I guess I could say, selfish. Coming back I wanted to make sure that when I do things I don't want to just think about myself in doing them. I want to think about how it's going to affect other people and how I can benefit other people's lives. Over there I learned that it's more of showing love to others, not being so self-centered, making sure you make connections with people, smile at them because that can brighten somebody's day instead of being so focused on studying and only talking to the people in your class or talking to the people on the team. Giving more of myself to others."
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word