WASHINGTON – As campus steadily empties for the summer months, 17 American University student-athletes are looking at a very different start to their break as they prepare for the first-ever international Eagles in Service trip through a partnership with the Courts for Kids organization.
Organized by Spencer Bonahoom, the Academic and Life Skills Counselor in the Student-Athlete Support Program (SASP), the trip will send 17 student-athletes and three staff members to the small rural community of Tercera Linea, Paraguay, from May 13-22 to assist community members in the construction of a multipurpose sports court.
"I'm just really grateful that we have this opportunity," Bonahoom said. "This has been something that's been in the back of my mind for a long time. But I just wasn't sure if I would ever be able to see it through here at American, because it takes a difference-making gift to make something like this happen here with our resources."
Planning for this trip began about 18 months ago, when Bonahoom and Ashley Rozendaal, the Director of Student Success and Student-Athlete Support, began developing the new Eagles Leadership Academy. What began as a plan to run a short off-campus retreat for student-athlete leaders quickly transformed after a generous gift from Dr. Stephanie Bennett-Smith, an AU Board of Trustee member, made possible a bigger and more impactful experience for the students.
"We wanted to do something that hadn't been done before that would create a unique opportunity for our student-athletes," Bonahoom said. "It was really that charge that got me talking to different people around the country, and then that led to learning more about Courts for Kids."
Courts for Kids was founded in 2007 by Derek Nesland, a Division I basketball player at Portland State University from 1996-2000, and his wife, Selene Nesland. Based in Vancouver, Washington, with the mission of "transforming lives through building courts and cultural exchange," the organization has constructed courts in 29 different countries with the help of over 3,300 U.S. volunteers.
"The community that we're traveling to, and this is part of Courts for Kids policy, had to request the court. They had some responsibility in raising some of their own funds, getting the land prepared, different things like that," Bonahoom said. "So, they have a lot of buy-in as well – they want us to come help them do this, and it's something the community wants and needs. I thought that was really important.
"And they'll have some community members there working alongside us, so we're going to be talking with them, working with them, and hopefully, if we get the court built and finished while we're there, even get some time to actually play with the kids in the community," Bonahoom continued. "So it really is that cultural immersion that I think will make the experience much more beneficial for our students, and a much better opportunity for them to grow in a lot of different ways."
The court, built in the center of Tercera Linea, will provide a place for kids to play and sports teams to practice, and will also serve as a venue for community gatherings, ceremonies, and celebrations.
During the trip, the student-athletes along with three staff members – Bonahoom, Erin Saunders (Senior Academic Counselor for Student-Athletes) and Samantha Rinkus (Assistant Director of Communications) – will work side-by-side with members of the community to lay the concrete court while also immersing themselves in the local culture, traditions, and customs.
"Being in this new environment, working really hard, and seeing the way that a totally different culture lives and operates on a daily basis, I hope that our students will come back and say 'this was an amazing experience to have the chance to give of myself and work alongside these people'," Bonahoom said. "And I hope that they gain an appreciation for a new culture, and an appreciation that the world is much bigger than our little bubble of American University Athletics.
"I think one of the pieces of my role is to help our student-athletes find parts of their identity that are not just them as an athlete. And going through an experience like this can be that chance for them to really connect with a different part of themselves."
You can follow the Eagles' experiences throughout the week through the AU Athletics Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, as well as on AUEagles.com. Courts for Kids will also post content on its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
Those making the trip to Paraguay include:
Abraham Correa-Medina, Wrestling
Samm Francucci, Women's Soccer
Cate Golden, Lacrosse
Francisco Huang Ventura, Men's Soccer
Prince Hyeamang, Wrestling
Swezen Kizito, Men's Soccer
Lily Koenig, Women's Swimming & Diving
Olivia Mahony, Women's Soccer
Vela McBride, Volleyball
Kaitlyn McTernan, Women's Cross Country/Track & Field
Caroline Miller, Field Hockey
Elijah Murphy, Wrestling
Luci Rascher, Women's Swimming & Diving
Lucia Rose, Women's Cross Country/Track & Field
Matt Sloan, Men's Soccer
Anthony Wokasch, Wrestling
Tiffany Zukosky, Women's Soccer
For the latest on American University Athletics, stay tuned to AUEagles.com and follow the department on Twitter @AUEagles.