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As we drove down the long winding roads, up the mountains to reach the school, excitement ran through my body; however, it was also accompanied by slight doubt. We were strangers, coming for one week… then leaving. I had doubts about how invested and open they would be to us being there, stepping into their community and space, as well as doubting our ability to make any sort of impact. When we arrived at the school, those doubts quickly disappeared. When we stepped out of the van, the area echoed with a welcome song sung by the students and teachers as they lined a large stairway leading up to their school. From that moment, I knew this journey would be unforgettable, and I would take away so much from this experience, including the power of community.

As I spend time reflecting on my recent experience in Panama as part of the ACE program, I feel nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to meet incredible people and be a part of something so special. We spent a week in Valle de Anton where we worked with two local school communities to teach them volleyball. However, the week was filled with more than just learning volleyball skills; we learned from each other, about each other, and were able to create lasting memories and relationships over a few short days. Throughout the week, I continued to be in awe of the willingness of the students to engage with us and welcome us into their homes, starting as soon as we stepped foot in their community. With the excitement and joy of both the students and the ACE participants, we were able to cultivate a loving and exciting environment where we created lifelong memories. This showed me in real time, the power of kindness and community and its quick impact on people.

Community is 100% the word to describe the school and people we met on this trip. Before we arrived, during, and after, the El Tambo School, did everything possible to welcome us in with open arms and with kindness into their home. Throughout the week the theme of community and kindness continued to present itself: parents would cook lunches for us, the students became invested in building relationships with us, parents mowed a lawn & built a volleyball court overnight, all while we pushed through a large language barrier. From the moment they sang a welcome song to the big group hug and tears that occurred when we left, there was never a moment we didn’t feel a part of the community. This is a large theme and message I will take away from this experience and hold on to forever.

In our lives, we often get too involved and caught up with our worries or troubles, that we lack compassion for others, lack finding joy in the moment, and lack the effort to build genuine connections. This experience demonstrated that it doesn’t take much to create a community, just a group of people who are willing to remain selfless, kind, and in the moment.

Over these short five days, I have learned so much from El Tambo, the students, and the people there. I will never ever forget their kindness to us, nor forget the relationships built. I am excited to stay in contact with the students and school, and hopefully see them again, as well as take the lessons I have learned back to wherever I go next. I am truly so grateful for the experience and to have met each and every person there. Everywhere can be a community, if you open your heart and minds up to those who come – the power of kindness and community is truly special.

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