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If I had to describe my ACE in Panama 2024 experience in one word, it would be gratitude. There was not a day or moment on my trip where I did not feel grateful to be where I was with the people I was surrounded by. Being able to step out of my own life, problems, current worries, and bubble allowed me to fully embrace the opportunity that I was taking part in. From the very moment that I landed in Panama City to the moment I landed in my home airport I felt as though I kept my commitment to myself of staying present and enjoying the moment. There were three specific areas where I found myself in awe of what I was witnessing and being a part of. Those were in the simplicity, the food, and the people and community.

One of the most powerful things that I learned while in Panama is that we overcomplicate things. It’s human nature, but I also think it comes with privilege and having a lot. On our first day in the communities, as we walked up to the school that we were working with I noticed how little there was. It was merely made up of three small rooms, two classrooms, and a lunch room. They also had an outdoor area that was covered by a pavilion. Although this was a pretty simple setup, I had a blast. The kids greeted us every day like we were bringing a party along with us. There were never any upset faces or bad attitudes; the kids were always happy. They were so enthusiastic, and even when some of us had a hard time speaking in Spanish we all laughed and they helped us out. With what they had, they had so much joy in the simplicity of their lives. I try to take a grateful heart with me wherever I go now. Those kids taught me how important it is to be joyful in whatever circumstance or stage you are in.

The next thing that I found to be close to my heart was the food. In addition to the food, was the people that made our food while in El Valle De Anton and even Panama City. When we went to the schools during the week, I think I had some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. From the meals to the fruits at the market to the drinks, everything was so good and fresh. In the United States, we spend so much time artificially flavoring and processing all of our foods that we can’t truly taste the beautiful flavor that food has. Going to the markets and eating the fresh fruit they had was so satisfying. Having mangoes and star fruit that didn’t look like they were built in a lab was refreshing. The meals we had made up of mainly meat, rice, and vegetables felt like they were made with love. What I took from this is that taking time to make food is special, and sometimes you need to appreciate the food you have and the people who made it.

At the heart of the trip, what made it most special for me was the people and community that I got to be a part of. From the AMIGOS staff to the communities and kids we worked with, to the people who served us food and housed us, everyone was so amazing. Our El Potrero bunch taught me so much in such a short time. The two most impactful things that I will carry with me are that communication can happen in many ways, not just through language, and sometimes all you need to do is have a little fun.

There was so much beauty in watching every kid we taught volleyball learn, work hard, and do everything with the most enthusiastic smile ever. I feel honored to have met them, and they will forever be in my heart because of the impact they have had on me.

My favorite moment of the entire trip was on the last day when the communities came together and they each showed us their cultural presentations. Being a part of a community so much bigger than yourself is so humbling, gratifying, and incredible. I went into this trip wanting to teach these amazing kids just a little something about volleyball, and I came out being taught way more than I could ever imagine. And for that, I am forever grateful for this special experience.

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