Changing Lives with Lacrosse in Nicaragua

In our sport, we focus a lot on gear – the best, brightest, hottest gear. New gloves, new pads, new cleats, the sleekest new stick…you get the picture. Believe me, I love all that stuff, but sometimes I think we lose focus on the value of the sport itself.

I recently had the opportunity to embark on a lacrosse service trip to Nicaragua, which opened my eyes to the value of lacrosse as a connector, an outlet and a reason to have hope.

Check out my interview with STX about the experience:

You just got back from Nicaragua…where in the world is that, and how did this trip come about?

Nicaragua is in Central America and super close to the equator, so the weather conditions are a bit like a rainforest – hot during the day, and very, very humid!

After doing clinics last summer in Europe with Marcus Holman, I fell in love with the idea of a lacrosse service trip. A buddy of mine from University of Virginia told me about Lacrosse the Nations, a nonprofit organization that works to bring kids hope through the game of lacrosse. The organization’s goal is to grow the game enough that those countries can eventually send a team to compete in the World Games. What a noble cause, right? When I heard about the trip to Nicaragua, I jumped at the chance!

What was the community like where you volunteered?

Well, I can’t speak for the entire country, but the areas that I saw had extreme poverty. We worked with two different schools, and both were in a community that was literally built on top of a trash dump. Some sorted through the trash to find scraps of metal and plastic to use as building materials for their homes. Many families live in a one-room shelter, with multiple generations living together.

Driving through Managua [the capital of Nicaragua] you see children walking around with no shoes, and playing with broken toys on the side of the street.

What were you doing there, or how were you giving back?

Lacrosse was introduced to Nicaragua back in 2010. It’s crazy because the biggest challenge in bringing lacrosse to this type of community is lack of access to gear. Most players down there only have a stick and a wax ball – if that. Any equipment is a reason to celebrate for them. No matter the year, make or model.

So, the first thing we did was pack a lot of gear. Every time volunteers come down from the U.S., they bring gear with them and check it as part of their luggage. Once we got down there, my friend and fellow Atlanta Blaze teammate Scott Ratliff and I had the opportunity to coach and run clinics for kids – some were as young as four, all the way up to twenty.

Some unreal natural talent there! And having the chance to get a stick in these kids’ hands for the first time was something special. 

How did these kids respond to the game?

They love it! There’s so much enthusiasm – and not just from the kids, but the whole community. Ten to fifteen minutes into practice, you look up and suddenly a crowd of people has surrounded the park to watch the kids play.

When you’re with the kids at practice, you would never guess the hardships they face on a daily basis. They have so much joy and excitement. They are so helpful and willing to engage with volunteers. They welcome visitors with incredible generosity. I was amazed that people with so little were so eager to give back.

What impact did you observe lacrosse having on these kids?

There are several ways I think lacrosse is impacting this country. For one, it serves as a distraction - some of these kids have tough lives at home, and lacrosse is a way for them to escape and have a little fun. It's also a great way for kids to learn values and grow their character. 

It teaches determination and perseverance. Learning to handle a foreign object and figuring out how to get the lacrosse stick to cooperate – that’s a tough, sometimes frustrating, task. We encouraged the kids to remain diligent in their practice, even when they experienced frustration.

Responsibility is huge too. For example, Lacrosse the Nations communicates directly with parents and the schools to make sure players are accountable for their schoolwork and chores at home. Then, if a player consistently demonstrates responsibility, he or she gets to take a stick home and keep it.

I also think lacrosse teaches these kids to value each other and their community. When I was in Nicaragua, we would do a go-round with all the players after practice. The kids would share one thing they liked about practice that day and one thing they didn’t like. Those conversations got the kids interacting on another level, supporting and encouraging one another!

We know you’ve only just returned home, but any plans to go back to Nicaragua?

Absolutely! I’m planning to go back next winter. As a coach and player, I want to continue to pursue opportunities to help grow the game internationally. Marcus Holman and I visited the Netherlands and Czech Republic last summer to do clinics. I’ll probably go back there this summer as well.  

How can other people get involved?

There are lots of ways! You can volunteer to go on a Lacrosse the Nations trip, sponsor someone else going on a trip, or donate money towards the purchase of gear. Another piece is encouraging other professional lacrosse players and coaches to get involved. We need their expertise to help teach lacrosse in these new areas! Learn more about Lacrosse the Nations and how you can get involved here.

Want to hear how other players are giving back? Read about Matt Cherry’s experience with Israel Lacrosse.