It’s folks like Sam Bensley who make our work at Comunidad Connect a pleasure as well as a success. Look no further than Sam’s visit to San Juan del Sur in January 2015 – with 350 pounds in donations of sports equipment in tow – to see why.

This entry is the first of a two-part series. Check next week for coverage of the donation ceremony and conclusion of Sam’s inspirational visit.

Sam and the youngsters fired up

Sam and the youngsters fired up

The chavalos are looking good, and they know it.

It’s late afternoon in Comunidad Connect’s Sports Park, a beautiful time to be outside on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.

On any given day, the natural beauty blitzes the senses. The setting sun ignites seemingly supernatural shades in the sky. The soothing sound of the gentle surf washes into your ears. A perpetual breeze pushes the tropical heat off your skin.

It’s also the hour of transition from work to play. Locals descend by the dozen to the beach for pickup futbol or beach volleyball. Tourists drink drinks at sunset happy hours in the many restaurants lining the coast. Others relax on the sand or walk along the shore. A few joggers break the most relaxing sweat of their lives.

The beauty extends across the street from the boardwalk to the Sports Park, but the scene here is anything but serene. Around 150 boys ages 9-15 have just received a massive donation of sports equipment: uniforms and soccer balls for 13 soccer teams, and baseball gloves for two baseball teams.

A friendly free-for-all anticipates the donation and official matches to come.

A friendly free-for-all anticipates the donation and official matches to come.

The ensuing moments feature all of the joyful chaos one would expect of such an occasion, except for one thing. Perhaps the most remarkable smile and playful energy emanates from a young man about twice the age of most of the crowd.

The distinctions don’t stop there. Sam Bensley, born in England and raised in Morristown, New Jersey, is the only non-local, apart from myself, present at the park. He speaks limited Spanish. Yet as I watch him at the moment, none of these things appear to have inhibited his connection with the sanjuaneños in the smallest way. Sam is dribbling through mobs of 100-pound defenders, high-fiving, and posing for photos with the chavalos. For whatever barriers Sam’s appearance may imply, his behavior certainly suggests integration with the local community. 

To be fair, Sam is no stranger to San Juan del Sur. This January’s trip was Sam’s 12th to the town in the past eight years. He first visited with his family at age 15 when his father was considering retiring in the area. “I came to San Juan del Sur and fell in love with the people and the country,” Sam said.

Nor was it Sam’s first time in service to the community of San Juan del Sur. Five years ago, Sam volunteered at the Jean Brugger Foundation, a local non-profit that supports promising local students through secondary and higher education. Several current CC staff are alumni of the foundation’s programs – and testaments to its success! Coincidentally, Sam also met CC co-founder and board president Jon Thompson for the first time as they overlapped at the foundation, although his current connection developed independently later.

“This past summer, I was thinking about the next time I could go to my favorite place in the world. I didn’t want to do the typical tourist thing,” explains Sam. “I thought that going down with a purpose would be more fulfilling than coming down as a vacationer.”

Sam poses with some players of the Deportivo Kaya team in their new uniforms

Sam poses with some players of the Deportivo Kaya team in their new uniforms

The project got off to a quick start, and Sam ran with it. “As soon as I put it on Facebook that I was collecting equipment for kids in Nicaragua, friends started donating, including monetary donations. I wanted to make it a charity.”

And so, The Nicaragua Project was born. Sam created a webpage to advertise the initiative and receive monetary donations. North Jersey’s Daily Record newspaper interviewed him and published an article on his work.

Easy enough, but The Nicaragua Project still had yet to involve Nicaragua, and despite our increasingly globalized world, connecting communities across political, cultural, linguistic, and geographic boundaries is a great challenge any way you approach it.

Enter Comunidad Connect. “I’ve always been aware of Comunidad Connect’s presence in San Juan del Sur,” says Sam. “When I decided to create a charity, I knew that this would be the perfect link between my community in the U.S. and the community of San Juan del Sur.”

It’s a good thing Sam knew about Comunidad Connect. The foreigner struggles struck before he was even officially admitted to Nicaragua. Customs at the Managua airport confiscated the 350 pounds of sports equipment, demanding proof that they were a donation to a trustworthy source rather than for sale, which would render them a taxable import. Sam alerted CC Executive Director Dariel Potoy, and the team got to work calling contacts in customs. A day trip to Managua, some paperwork, a fine, and some impressive persistence and unusual patience from Sam throughout the ordeal sprung the goods from the airport. Sam, Dariel, and the gear finally arrived to our San Juan office late on Friday night, three days before today’s donation ceremony.

Sam and Alejandro sort through the mountain of equipment to be donated

Sam and Alejandro sort through the mountain of equipment to be donated

And their work was far from done. The two spent hours on Saturday morning tallying what made it through the ordeal unscathed, and just this morning, Alejandro and Sam divided the donations by team and packed them into bags.

Yet somehow, the tedium and frustration of the preceding week seems a distant memory only a few hours later at the Sports Park.

Check back next week for “Mixing Work and Play – Part 2” covering of the donation ceremony and concluding thoughts on Sam’s visit and the Sports Park’s place in San Juan del Sur public life.

Text and photography by Brian Reilly, Princeton-in-Latin America Fellow

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