The MSU Denver volleyball team has a unique team-bonding tradition. For one week in July, the team made their way to Nicaragua as part of a quadrennial tradition. Across the cities of San Juan Del Sur, Granada and Managua, the players took part in community service outreach, cultural immersion, teambuilding activities and of course, volleyball.
The team started their trip in San Juan Del Sur, a town of fewer than 10,000 on the Pacific coast known for its beaches, including Maderas Beach and Marsella Beach. Here, the players had a chance to visit a preschool and spend time with Manos Unidas. It’s an organization that works with disabled people to make products that improve their quality of life. There, they practiced introducing themselves in Spanish and had a chance to assist the workers in their projects.
“They showed us how they make these bags and they get so excited about making them. It’s really cool because it generates income for them,” said Alyssa Kelling, a redshirt sophomore middle blocker. “The kid that I was with was probably the happiest person I had ever met.”
The girls were shown how to make bags, bracelets and other items out of recycled materials.
“These are bags that they make out of recycled rice, sugar and corn,” said Steph Laraway, a junior middle blocker.
After each outreach project, the team had a chance to play the Nicaraguan national team in each of the three cities. In San Juan Del Sur, they found themselves on an outdoor concrete court.
“We got to watch as the sunset went down on the beach during our match,” Kelling said. “People would just feed in and out as we were playing, and they had music going.” The Nicaraguan national team won the match 3-0.
After a day spent surfing and zip lining through the jungle to wrap up their time in San Juan Del Sur, the players moved on to Granada, a tourist city of 117,000, located on the coast of Lake Nicaragua. There they spent the day with Tío Antonio’s Hammock Collective, a cooperative that employs deaf workers to make hammocks out of recycled materials. The team learned how to make hammocks by assisting the workers.
During lunch with the collective, the team received an emotional gift.
“They gave us earplugs that said, ‘Welcome to our world,’” Kelling said. “We put them on at the end of lunch and it was an emotional, eye-opening experience for us. I think there were a few tears for some people.”
Laraway echoed Kelling’s comments.
“I think the hammock collective impacted me the most,” Laraway said. “I think just to see how blessed I am. I couldn’t imagine not hearing, hearing is a huge part of everyday life. To experience that was big for me.”
In Granada, the team had a chance to play at an indoor venue. The venue was like their own practice facility back in Denver, with the main difference being that it still had a concrete floor. MSU Denver won this match 3-1 over the Nicaraguan national team. The next day, the players ran a volleyball clinic.
Here the team had a chance to teach the game to children who had only played on dirt, or never seen a court.
“It was impactful for me because we had grown up in a gym with the lights and stuff,” Kelling said. “I think we do kind of take it for granted. They were excited once they got going and were willing to learn and use the court.”
The team moved on to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, for the final leg of their trip. Here they had a chance to play against the Nicaraguan national team one last time at their training center. The building had open windows toward the roof that birds flew in through. They occasionally interrupted the match by leaving droppings on the court. MSU Denver ended up winning the match 3-2 and the series 2-1.
Despite the challenges of playing a high-level team in an unfamiliar country, the players loved the opportunities offered to them. They took the experience to grow closer to each other.
“It was exciting more than anything,” Laraway said. “Knowing that we could compete at that level was a good challenge for us. It brought us together, a lot. We got to get to know the new girls and learn some new things about the players we’ve played with. We got to understand each other better.”
As the semester and season starts, the players will use the opportunities to help them in their studies, their play and their own lives.
“As a student, it makes me more appreciative of the things I have, and how blessed I am and how much I have to give. Some of the people there had close to nothing, and they were some of the happiest people I had seen,” Laraway said. “As a player, we have this concept of ‘love and respect the game,’ and I think it really came out on that trip.”