This entry is the second of a two-part series. See “Mixing Work and Play – Part 1” for coverage of the extensive preparation that preceded Sam’s donation.
Nicaraguans and foreigners alike joke about Nicaragua’s lax standards of punctuality, but this afternoon seems quite the exception to that rule. The distribution is scheduled for 4:30 pm, but by 4:15 pm the Sports Park is ready to go. Little athletes swarm the court, playing soccer and basketball, at the same time, on the same goals. I frantically try to keep my new camera in one piece while photographing the fun. A small crowd has gathered along the north side, trying to peak inside the twenty or so black bags that line the wall.
Alejandro, Comunidad Connect’s Sports Projects Director, calls for order in the court and the chavalos instantly comply. Alejandro is a local sports legend. Born and raised in San Juan del Sur, he pitched for eight seasons in the domestic professional league and represented Nicaragua on the national team in competition around the world. That’s one way to get the undivided attention of 150 fired up young athletes.
The boys gather around for words from Alejandro, Dariel, and Sam. The three thank the kids for their participation and encourage them to continue spending their time and energy in healthy activities – but only after they take care of business in school.
For me, the fact that this advice is relevant makes me gush with pride for the Comunidad Connect Sports Park project.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas, by per capita GDP. Monitoring our most remote Nica Agua clean water projects has taken me through truly austere environments. Much of the country lacks fundamental resources like electricity or running water. Outside of the Pacific coastal region and urban centers in the central highlands, the state struggles to maintain a presence and deliver basic services.
In some ways, San Juan del Sur is a paradise in comparison. The town has a sizeable middle class and the population generally enjoys access to dependable schools and health centers. There are beautiful public spaces, like the beach, boardwalk, and Parque Central, which feature playgrounds, benches, garbage receptacles, and perhaps most importantly, streetlights – violent crime is very rare.
Yet exactly what has brought much of this prosperity simultaneously threatens the quality of life in the town. Tourism has brought a party culture to San Juan del Sur, replete with the good, bad, and ugly one would expect. Of course it’s after dark that the latter two emerge, around the time that Alejandro and Don Julio, the groundskeeper, switch on the lights at the Sports Park. That youth sports may be what distracts the children from their studies is a blessed problem to have, as I see it.
Tourism is here to stay; this place is too cool not to attract visitors. Whether that presence is a blessing or a curse is up to the communities that are converging here. Foreigners like Sam, together with locals like Alejandro, Dariel, and Don Julio are contributing to keep the chavalos of San Juan, the town’s future, on the right side of this ever-evolving dynamic.
Tonight, it’s abundantly clear that their work is yielding the desired results. The ceremony at the Sports Park and subsequent session of games is the hottest party in town – it certainly features the best-dressed attendees – and it’s all good, clean fun.
Most visitors to Nicaragua connect with the natural beauty of the country easily enough. Connecting to the people is harder, and having a positive impact even more difficult, but it does not take a miracle. It takes empathy, something of which we are all capable.
“Some people have so little but are so proud and generous,” Sam told me. “Looking at my own life and all the opportunities I’ve had, university and travel for example, in contrast with opportunities available to the people here, doing this is just doing my part as someone from a place with so many opportunities.”
It is attitudes like Sam’s that inspire Comunidad Connect’s mission and drive the success of our projects. San Juan del Sur is on the forefront of Nicaragua’s trend of globalization. Comunidad Connect will walk every step of the way at its side to foster a positive integration, by inviting the Sam Bensley’s of the world to become a piece of the puzzle and get connected.
Text and photography by Brian Reilly, Princeton-in-Latin America Fellow
More on Sam’s visit from The Daily Record: