Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There's a special kind of nervousness an athlete gets prior to competing. He or she will feel it no matter how long they've competed.
Imagine how those nerves might increase being in an unfamiliar environment, doing something they may never have done, for people they not only don't know, but also don't know how those people feel towards them. Throw in that they don't even know all the people on their own team.
Now imagine doing all this being one, maybe two, years removed from high school.
That was just some of what the 18 Georgia Tech student-athletes -- mostly freshmen and sophomores -- and three staff members might have gone through as they made the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Puerto Rico on May 5 to embark on a seven-day Jackets Without Borders service trip.
"Originally I think everyone was pretty nervous and more apprehensive about what we'd be doing while we were there," said Total Person Program coordinator Maureen Tremblay. "We spent almost the first day just trying to learn each other's names because there hadn't been a lot of interaction among the group beforehand.
"We also weren't sure if there would be some animosity towards this group of American college students coming in to try and help," Tremblay added. "Honestly, it was completely the opposite. The community was so welcoming. All they could say was, `Thank you so much for coming.'"
The most emotional part for the Georgia Tech representatives may have been actually seeing the devastation Hurricane Maria caused up close, as opposed to on TV or the Internet.
"The first day we got to the community, that's when it really hit me, `Okay, this is the real reason why we're here.'" said Brad Stewart, a senior wide receiver for Georgia Tech's football team and an upperclass leader on the trip. "Going through the streets and seeing all the furniture in the street, the clothes in the street, the rooftops gone, some of the homes completely dismembered ... When we got to that first project, it made us work really hard and really want to help this community out as much as possible in the time we had."
The student-athletes helped repair five houses in less than one week, working in all capacities with representatives from the Global Works Foundation to help families get back on their feet.
"Every day it was a new challenge but all of us just went in with open minds and positive attitudes and got work done and did whatever we could to help them," said sophomore Sam Knapp, a volleyball libero/defensive specialist. "It was awesome."
The group got an opportunity to get their feet under them the first day by taking a tour of old San Juan, then having dinner with several Georgia Tech alumni, including former Yellow Jackets track and field distance runner Kyle Rabbit.
The next day they swung into action. The work was hard but the group was more than willing to roll up its sleeves and do some dirty work.
"Most of it was hand-mixing concrete with shovels and then building the foundations for the houses," said Tremblay. "Our group was trying to build these foundations so when FEMA money comes through, the homeowners could then put in a new room or try to build new cement columns to hold up their house. The workers were trying to add a better foundation and better protection for houses in case [storms] were to happen again and to rebuild the parts that were damaged. Really the whole idea to was to make their homes more livable and more storm-proof, just improve the quality of life."
Working and interacting with the people in the community proved especially satisfying.
"I would definitely say the most rewarding part was working hand-in-hand with the community members," said Stewart. "It was so cool to be able to get so close with the people there and to hear their stories of how the hurricane has affected them. It really made me appreciate the things I have and I really wanted to help them more because they were so thankful and they were so giving to us. It made us feel really at-home and welcome in their community."
As the walls of the houses went up the cultural differences came down.
"Community members were working with us the entire week. They would help us on another person's house then continue to pitch in when we got to their house," said Tremblay. "It was really cool to get to know them as people and to work alongside of them. One person whose house we helped build was 19, the same age as some of our students, and he helped us throughout the entire week. Then one day we got to help him and his family put in a new foundation in front of their house. That was great to give back to his family because he'd spent almost the whole four days with us and really bonded with a lot of our group members."
There was a similar breaking down of barriers between the Georgia Tech student-athletes, who embraced being part of one team.
"Throughout the week, with all the work we were doing -- it was very difficult and strenuous work -- the group jelled really well together," Tremblay said. "The teamwork between them was really great and the feedback we tended to get was just how great it was to be interacting with people outside their sport and getting to assimilate into a community, feel really welcome in that and give back to them."
Adding to the improved chemistry between the student-athletes was their opportunity to take in the local culture and get to see some of the island, including El Yunque Rainforest (although some of it, too, had been damaged by Maria), doing a nighttime Bioluminescent kayak tour, and the tour of old San Juan.
Tremblay was impressed by the student-athletes' willingness to learn and take in the entire experience.
"They had no inhibitions in trying anything, whether it was food or when we were out touring old San Juan, they were always so interested, asking questions," she said. "They were very attentive and really interested in the history of the country and really reflecting on how Puerto Rico and the United States have a relationship. We did the San Juan tour. We also did a salsa dancing lesson, which, I was very surprised at the willingness for all of them to jump in and try it. We even had a dance competition at the end, which was great to see, because they're always so competitive. It was another aspect for them to learn a little bit about the culture because we were taught by a woman who was local in the community, and also get to do that as a group."
The spirit of the people in the community made an impression on Knapp.
"We weren't expecting to meet the owners for a lot of the houses that we were helping build but at the end of each project -- or even during it -- we got to meet each owner," she said. "They were so appreciative of everything. We didn't even do that much to it because a lot of times we were just building foundations for the houses. It was just so rewarding to see their faces and how happy they were and how appreciative they were of something so little. It just made all of us realize that we should be so much more grateful and appreciative of everything that we have. It definitely had a huge impact on all of us."
This trip, the second for the Jackets Without Borders initiative, was larger than last August's first to build a sports court in Costa Rica. That's an encouraging sign.
"Last year we were only able to take eight, this year we took 18 and they were all new," said Tremblay. "So now we've had 26 students who have now done this trip over the past two years and that will only increase as we continue on."
Of course, the trip also made a difference in perspective for the student-athletes.
"It's always rewarding to see the change that happens not only throughout the group but really the change in each individual," said Tremblay. "Going in, I could hear a lot of them saying they were a little apprehensive, but seeing how welcoming and how friendly the community was made them really feel like they made a difference. No matter how small their contribution was, getting out of their comfort zone and experiencing something new and learning about themselves outside of their sport, outside of the classroom, is really the biggest difference-maker. For a lot of them, they said this is just the start that will lead them on the path of continuing to be service-oriented and wanting to go on future trips that we have but also wanting to get really involved in any service projects in our own community and encourage all of their teammates to go on a trip like this.
"Seeing them change over in that short week and returning home with an appreciation for what we have and for even just the relationships they made with one another," she added. "Because they didn't know a lot of the group members before the trip started. They said now they feel like they're more connected to athletics as a whole and they know they have support from the teams. They'll continue to build relationships and support across teams as well."
"For me, personally, it was a life-changing experience," said Stewart. "It really made us step back as student-athletes to not get so hyper-focused on just sports or just school or just making that `A,' or just catching that touchdown. There's so much more to life than sports and school and things of that nature. People every day are struggling just to get their next meal or to get fresh water or to find a roof to stay under. We really need to be looking at the big picture of life and what is our role? We need to be helping out the less fortunate."
"The last house we worked on, this lady had been living with no electricity and water ... She had just been living her life, having to go to her neighbor's house to use their water, use their tub and everything," said Knapp. "This woman was so strong and I respected her so much. It just made me realize that we need to be so much more appreciative of everything.
"I would love to go on another service trip like this," she added. "Jackets Without Borders is a great learning experience, [to] go outside of your comfort zone and [gain] experience you can't get in the classroom. You can learn so much about yourself, about your teammates, about other people, and you learn a new culture. I'm really glad Georgia Tech offers this program. To get this kind of an opportunity was just amazing."