For the past four years everything I’ve done has been about getting ready for the 2014 Paralympic Games. All the focus is on a singular goal. Every step I took was building to a purpose, at the end you are on such a high. To perform you need to manage the emotion and remain in control and focused on the task at hand. The excitement builds until the very end; then suddenly it’s over. The Games come to an end. You travel home and for the first week or so it’s not that same building excitement approaching the Games but an excitement of celebration. There is a lot to do; some get right back into competition, others go from one media event to the next. Before long the last races of the year are over. First, you step back, take a deep breathe in, exhale. Unwind from everything that has occurred over the past few months and years building towards the Games. Then comes the time when you reflect back not only about the Games but the year before, the past four years, then some even look back upon a career. You remember the good times, the things you learned, and the days that were tough to get out of bed. It all played its part in where you’ve come. Next you think about your goals, determining your success from how you achieved those goals. Finally, the biggest question of them all, the one that most athletes get hung up on. What’s next?

What helps to find an answer is to do something completely new. My something new was to travel to Central America to work with SchoolBOX. SchoolBOX is a Canadian non-profit organization that is based in Almonte, Ontario. The idea for the organization came when founder Tom Affleck, while doing some other volunteer work in Nicaragua, handed two sisters a notebook and pencils. The girls were very grateful but it was the reaction of the father, who was in tears. He said that that gift would let the girls attend school that year, without it they could not go. From there SchoolBOX was born, first as a way to hand out notebooks and pencils allowing the kids in Nicaragua the chance to go to school. As the organization went to the schools handing out supplies they were taken aback by the conditions that some of the schools were in. Teachers would be teaching class under a tree or a tarp. At this point SchoolBOX evolved and started to build schools in communities that really needed their help. This was where a group of skiers and I come in. Perianne Jones, a National Team Cross Country skier has worked with SchoolBOX for several years and had always wanted to take that one step further and make the trip down to help build a school. There was no better time than this spring, after the Games. Perianne asked several other skiers to join her and I couldn’t pass up the offer. In all, eight skiers headed down to Nicaragua on a life changing journey.

On April 3 the group headed south to begin our time in Nicaragua. We would be helping build Brett B Crawford #3 School in the community of Jardines de Apoyo. The community is extremely poor; with the majority of the residents having been relocated to this community after a landslide destroyed their homes. Parents work long hours and about 80% of the children live with single parents. When the school is finished there will be four classrooms, three washrooms and a sports field. The first day we arrived, the community held a moving welcoming. With the kids singing and dancing for us and to cap off the festivities, a piñata. To see the old school, the environment that the kids have been learning in, it sinks in, the need that something has to be done. To be able to start making a difference by working on the new school was great. We went to work, everyone had some job to do, moving a pile of cinder blocks or moving a pile of gravel elsewhere. It was a nice way to ease into the work at the site. Before long it was time for lunch. Someone in the community opened up there home for us to have lunch. Some local volunteers prepare and cook lunch for both the volunteers as well as the constriction workers. This first lunch and every one that followed were incredible. We had fresh fruit; watermelon, mangoes or cantaloupe each day. They usually used chicken as the meat, but cooked it in a variety of ways throughout the week. With rice served several different ways as the bulk of the meal. A few days we had freshly fried plantains. They are beyond delicious. Quite a bit of the food was fried but it wasn’t over the top greasy but amazingly flavorful. That afternoon we enjoyed a tour of an active volcano.

The next day was our first full day at the build site. As the girls were off with other projects the guys started digging holes for the fountain of the washrooms. These holes were just bigger than two feet by two feet and had to be about a metre deep. That morning we were moving quickly, finishing three holes that day. Once the girls had finished they joined us and we had started another three holes. Then after lunch, in the heat of the day the volunteers and the construction workers played a game of baseball. The kids in Nicaragua play a lot of soccer but the biggest sport in in the country is baseball. All the workers were bare handed but they brought some baseball gloves for us soft handed Canadians. It was a lot of fun playing with them.

Once we arrived at the build site for day three, we were giving yet another new project. We were asked if we could dig a hole that would be used for the septic tank. They had an area marked out that was 2x4metres. Ok, seemed simply enough. Then we asked how deep it had to be? The reply was 3-4metres… That was something else. Well, we were pumped after a few moments thinking how we wanted to approach digging this hole we started. It was almost comical how into digging this hole we were. With the tools we had, the best strategy was to dig one section really deep then chip the edge into the deeper section. After the initial hard layer of packed soil it was relatively easy. After lunch we were still so keen that we created ‘Power Hour’- a final hour of working in the hottest time of the day, while we still had a second wind from lunch. As we packed up after this first day, we had made a fair sized hole. The afternoon was spent walking the market in Masaya and then a pottery tour where we learned how they make some beautiful pieces of art. The next day we spent the whole time in the hole, digging. I must say that we dug enough to reclassify the hole into a pit. Having to use a ladder now to get in and out of the pit was a pretty good sign of our progress.

The group was pretty occupied with the pit digging that time seemed to fly by. We suddenly found ourselves arriving at the build site for our last day of work. The pit had come a long way. We had actually dug deep enough in one small section to be done. Done, meaning I stood at the bottom and my outreached hand didn’t quite make the edge of the pit. Now all we had to do was dig everything else down to that level. Our energy was starting to wan. We didn’t quite have the energy or enthusiasm that we had when we started. On our way down we had the top layer of packed dirt, then a fairly loose and crumbly soil. Then we hit clay, which wasn’t the easiest but it wasn’t too bad. Now as we wanted to make one final push to finish the pit before we left, we hit rock. As hard as we wanted to go we were grinding to a halt, only inching our way deeper at best. Our intentions were so valiant but in the end we couldn’t quite pull it off.

A highlight of the entire trip came that afternoon. With this being our last day, we had an opportunity to hand over some extra school supplies we took with us. The school and the community had a great farewell for us, thanking the group for all their help. Before we left the group took part in what I believe was a highlight for everyone. We played a game of soccer-baseball with the construction crew, the volunteers and some of the kids from the community. It was an amazing experience to have fun, laugh, joke and having an incredible time with the community. It was the icing on the cake.

It was tough leaving the community. I wanted to stay longer and keep helping, doing more. The community stood behind the SchoolBOX and helped at every moment they could. That alone wanted me to help even more. Help give the kids; and the community the opportunity at a better future. The community has been through so much, losing everything in a natural disaster. Rebuilding from the ground up, but every day they are still moving forward. It shows how resilient the human spirit is. The kids are still learning, still playing but most importantly still smiling. Taking note from that is one of the greatest lessons to learn in life. Sometimes you need to be reminded of that. The experience can be a lot and I felt I was greatly inspired by it all. I leave wanting to do better, I can only hope I made the smallest of impacts.

The last day with SchoolBOX, the group took a tour of the Mombacho volcano and hiked around the edge of the crater. We are only guessing but as we were on a crazy truck ride down from the top there was a sizable earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. The next few days were a mix of smaller aftershocks with the occasional larger quakes. There were some serious concerns that the recent seismic activity would awaken the volcanoes that run along the western coast of the country. But it never happened. After our time with SchoolBOX the group went on our own for some much needed time in sun. We headed to the west coast town of Popoyo, a surf town for an extra week before returning to Canada. I had never surfed so I gave it a try. I never actually stood up but enjoyed being out the water trying to stand up with only one hand. I’m glad I took the time to relax that week. Recharge and then get excited for the upcoming season and beyond. To start thinking where I want to be in four years’ time.

The traveling doesn’t stop there. I have been home for less than a week before I’m packing my bags once again. Tomorrow I’m traveling back east for some time on the Island. I’ve planned my PEI getaway, have you? First up is to catch up with some PEI Burger Love. Then an attempt to share my Paralympic medals with everyone on the Island. Lastly, I hope to get my golf game into swing before I head back to the mountains.

2 Comments so far:

  1. Luis Garcia says:

    Gracias por su estadía en Nicaragua y por su aporte a la educación a los niños de Jardines de Apoyo, lo esperamos nuevamente en Nicaragua y gracias. Luis A. Garcia, Contador SchoolBox, Nicaragua

  2. tom says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks so much Mark for all of your work to ‘Make Education Possible’ for the kids. We are so appreciative- as is the Jardines de Apoyo community.

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