Bordering On Greatness
Jackets Without Borders headed to Costa Rica to make history, memories, a difference
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Over the years, teams of Georgia Tech student-athletes have built countless athletic triumphs.
Some are quite memorable, like last Nov. 26, when the Yellow Jackets football team came from behind to beat Georgia, 28-27, in Athens, or on March 31 and April 1, when the men’s and women’s Basketball teams capped super postseason runs by playing in their respective NIT Championship Games.
More common, however, are the triumphs resulting from their efforts off the field, in the community around metro Atlanta.
These triumphs don’t show up in a trophy or prime time exposure, but are rewarded with a simple smile, a “Thank you,” an opportunity created for others, and, often, a life lesson for the Jackets student-athletes.
One such event begins on Friday, when some 15 members of the Georgia Tech Athletics family -- including nine student-athletes -- comprise the initial Jackets Without Borders contingent that will head to Costa Rica to build a basketball court in coordination with Courts for Kids.
Jackets Without Borders is an initiative very close to the heart of Director of Athletics Todd Stansbury, who has implemented similar programs at Central Florida and Oregon State. He was determined that Jackets without Borders would follow Knights Without Borders and Beavers Without Borders, as part of Georgia Tech’s Total Person Program.
“I’m really excited to see it happening. It’s obviously something that I’ve done everywhere I’ve been,” he said. “Basically I said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ For them to pull it together, get a team rolling and they’re headed to Costa Rica to do a Courts For Kids project, it’s exciting to get it rolling.”
Giving back is ingrained in the Georgia Tech culture. Giving back abroad is opening a new door and a new chapter.
“It’s a chance for our student-athletes to give back and make an impact in a community that is under-privileged and doesn’t have the opportunities that our student-athletes have,” said Associate Athletic Director Joeleen Akin. “From an institutional standpoint we ARE international and as far as our sports teams, they do go overseas and play so why not, from an international standpoint, take our student-athletes over there for a service project and make a big impact?”
“It was just one of the things that [Stansbury] wanted us to start to incorporate,” added Director, Total Person Support Services Leah Thomas. “We do a good bit of community service projects locally but the thought of emerging our student-athletes in a third-world country, a completely different perspective than even what we consider inner-city needy type here in Atlanta.
“The first steps were sort of figuring out what these organizations are and settling on which one we were going to do. Quite frankly, we could have picked any number of them. They’re all good causes, they’re all the same sort of set-up,” she added. “We ended up going with Courts for Kids because it just worked for us. From there I just recruited. I messaged out in the normal way that I message all our student-athletes about various Total Person things and I also spoke of it every time we had a Total Person event.”
Courts for Kids is a Vancouver, Washington-based group, that has been building basketball courts in less-fortunate countries since 2007 -- the first court actually was built a year earlier in the Philippines. In that time more than 130 courts have been built in 25 countries, with the help of some upward of 2,600 participants from the United States.
GTAA followed the model of the Georgia Tech chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which has done numerous mission trips, as well as that at Oregon State in getting this maiden voyage reality.
“The first trip is always the hardest. Trying to get the word out, timing, there are so many different parameters and we wanted to do something this year before December,” said Akin. “Once that first trip happens, word of mouth is going to spread so much throughout the student-athletes that it’s going to just take off like wildfire. At Oregon State they put together the first trip and after that first trip they had to develop a waiting list for their trips because there was so much interest. It’s critical that we do this right so that we can share the story and share what the student-athletes have done and it’s going to be contagious.”
While the minimum number of student-athletes required is in the range of 12-15, Georgia Tech managed to fill the requirements both financially and personnel-wise.
“I think this speaks volumes to Todd and the Athletic Association, that we were committed to making this trip happen even if it meant we had to supplement the kids, their fundraising efforts financially, which we did, as well as supplementing the kids that are going with staff members that are going, more than needed for just a chaperone purpose,” Thomas said.
Baseball player Johnathan Langley is among the student-athletes going to Costa Rica. The junior, who serves as the team’s bullpen catcher, has been a member of FCA and had been eager to go on one of their mission trips, but the timing never worked out. The time this, however, was perfect and he couldn’t wait to get on board.
“I really wanted to go down and serve some people in another country and I kind of figured, that now was the time to go ahead,” said Langley, who admitted he and his dad have had longstanding plans to go there to do some marlin fishing. “I’ve always wanted to go to Costa Rica and I just heard about it from Leah and some of the guys from FCA, Keith Brown and some of the other leaders. It was kind of a last-minute decision but Keith was the one that was really pushing me to go and I thought, ‘Why not? It’s getting to serve people in a way that I can help them out.”
Langley and the other Georgia Tech representatives, mostly from Swimming and Diving and Track and Field, will have an important set-up role in the construction of the courts -- carrying the bags of cement to the site, doing a lot of carrying of supplies and behind-the-scenes work.
While a local construction company hired by Courts for Kids, which has the relationship within the host country, does the actual building, the student-athletes will get to do a different kind of building. They’ll build relationships with the people within the local community. Courts for Kids encourages such interaction by the student-athletes to embrace and experience the local customs and culture.
“I’m really excited. I’ve never been out of the country so I’m looking forward to seeing a new perspective,” said Langley. “I think it will be a great experience for us all to bond together and then just to come back so we can tell other people about the work that we did down there and the impact we had, how touching it was and the great experience that we had down there. So hopefully kind of inspire future Yellow Jackets and hopefully this continues to grow each year.”
“It will be important for us to capture the story and to help share the story and share the message and showcase what these student-athletes went out and did,” said Akin. “I think that’s going to be very powerful, sharing the story and the message and what an impact Jackets Without Borders made in the lives of these student-athletes.”
That last point is an important one to Stansbury and has fueled his enthusiasm for the Without Borders initiative.
“To see the effect that it has on the student-athletes,” he said. “They, of course, think they’re going somewhere to help somebody else. THEY’RE the ones that end up being changed for the rest of their lives. So it’s good to get the first one up and running. It’ll be the first of many.”