For most members of the Slippery Rock University women’s soccer team, leaving their homes in, for the most part, either Pennsylvania or Ohio had extended only as far as their travel with the team had allowed.
According to SRU soccer coach Jessica Griggs, many of them had never even flown in an airplane.
A team trip to Costa Rica on August 5 through Costa Rica Soccer Tours, a travel company that makes it easy and affordable for teams to travel to Costa Rica to experience soccer in Latin America, for a once in a lifetime community service and training experience quickly changed all of that. Over the course of nine days, the team travelled throughout the country and experienced beautiful moments of unity, sobering facts of life and everything in between as they worked with at-risk children.
Even when those experiences revealed the harsh reality that most of the at risk children face on a daily basis, Griggs said her team would never forget the memories and lessons the experience left upon them.
“Costa Rica was a great experience… I could rant on about it for a while,” Griggs said. “Taking a bunch of regional or state public education kids into an experience like that and letting them experience things that are totally and completely out of their element was a blast.”
Compared to life in small town United States, the experiences SRU shared with the young children in Costa Rica gave them a firsthand look into how different, and sometimes harsh, life can be around the globe.
With Spanish being the official language in Costa Rica, Griggs said since she speaks the language, a barrier was removed for her, but that did not translate to the team.
However, while the language gap prohibited traditional spoken language, communication thrived once SRU and the children realized they could communicate through playing soccer.
“The girls don’t speak Spanish, but we always say our sport is talked about as the sport that unites the world because people all over the world play this sport, and if you don’t speak the language as someone, you can speak the sport. That held true, and the girls got to see that,” Griggs said.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the days spent teaching and training the children from local schools and shelters were full of raw emotion – sometimes ending the day with tears.
“Watching them interact with kids through sport, that they can’t give any instruction to, and watching them just play,” Griggs said. “Going to a facility with younger kids and just watching them play and get along… it was just a room full of love and care. The girls were changed a little bit with that experience.”
But the love and care that was felt so freely simply through soccer and having fun hid the grim reality of what most of the children go through in their every day lives.
On the third day, SRU spent the day at a shelter with kids whose families live well below the poverty line. Living on less than 400 dollars a month, the children are sometimes lucky to even receive one meal a day while at home.
“For them to hear the director of the facility say, ‘when these kids leave this facility at the end of the day, they go home and are exposed to prostitution and drugs.’ For our girls to actually hear that was fascinating. So, all of them were like, ‘wait a minute, I’m going to spend time with these loving, caring kids and then they’re going to go home and be in that environment?’ It was a really incredible thing for the girls to be exposed to,” Griggs said.
Despite growing up in less than ideal conditions and dealing with situations that many adults in the United States have never experienced, the children, ranging in age from nine months to 13 years old, simply wanted to play soccer. Seeing that love and passion for soccer, Griggs said it really gave the team perspective on what life is all about.
So, while ziplining through Costa Rican jungles and white-water rafting through cool, clear rivers was a fun time for Griggs and her team, there was no hesitation in deciding which day had the most impact on everyone.
“The second day at the school with all those kids,” Griggs said. “I mean ziplining was cool and white-water rafting was awesome. My parents went on the trip and watching them interact with my team was cool. But for the girls, it was that second day in the facility with those kids.”
While the trip ended up being about using soccer as a way to share love and understanding between two groups of very different yet similar groups of people, there was competitive soccer to be played and bonding to be done.
“They bonded so early on, we got to bring our entire freshman class, so they didn’t come into preseason scared. We had nine days in Costa Rica to really get to know each other,” Griggs said.
With three games, in three different locations, played over the course of nine days, according to one of the team journals, the team used each game as a way to learn and grow as a team while also getting acclimated to playing in various conditions and locations.
Each game provided SRU with the opportunity to experience the soccer culture and style of play which dominates Costa Rica, according to one of the journals, and differs so greatly from American soccer.
In another journal entry, the team described how their bond was fully on display in their second match against San Carlos. The games served as inspiration for SRU, who were inspired to always play with passion and heart.
In Griggs’ final journal entry, she said, “This experience has been a reminder to stay humble, never take anything for granted and create relationships that inspire you to always give what you can. We will be taking that mentality into our 2019 season to compete in the PSAC and represent a university and community we are so thankful to brand.”
With a life changing trip now in the books, Griggs and the team hope to use the experiences gained in Costa Rica not only in the upcoming season, but during the rest of their lives.
“It’s something they’ll always remember and look back on,” Griggs said.