by Michael Kayes

I had no idea what to expect when I signed on to help lead a multi-sport clinic for children, as part of a larger Davidson United Methodist Church mission trip to a small village in Guatemala called Chucam. My thought was to introduce them to sports activities with which they were not familiar, despite conventional wisdom that soccer would be the only sport these children would want to play.

Basketball is my main sport, one I’ve coached for more than 20 years, so I was determined to at least try to play basketball the first day.

Our mission team loaded up 35 basketballs donated by friends, an agility ladder and baseball gear donated by Stewards of the Game. We also brought several duffle bags full of T-shirts, soccer uniforms and cleats donated by the North Meck Youth Soccer Association. All in all, we carried about 600 pounds of sports equipment and apparel.

On a bright, sunny morning, we took a bus through the narrow winding streets of Chichicastenago toward the mountain village of Chucam and an elementary school, the site for our sports clinic. Ninety-five boys and girls, all in the first through fourth grades, greeted us enthusiastically. The school had one small outdoor basketball court, two wobbly basketball goals with crooked rims and no nets.

But the real story here is not about facilities. The real story is about the kids, all of Mayan decedent, fluent in their native language Quiche’ as well as Spanish. None of them understood much English, but luckily we were blessed to have wonderful interpreters: Aureliano, a kind, young man of 22, and Carlos, an older gentleman who still had game.

We worked with these ever-smiling, wonderful kids for 2 1/2 hours in the morning and then worked with about 65 older children from the village for about two hours each afternoon. It did not take long for me to realize how remarkable these young children were. Their athleticism, attitude and ability to learn blew away my expectations based on American kids.

The kids from Guatemala all had outstanding hand-eye coordination, balance and footwork. All 95 kids, approximately 40 girls and 55 boys, could catch the ball. Watching every single one of them do this was truly unbelievable. Moreover, in 2 1/2 hours, not one child fell, cried, complained or failed to participate. Remember, these were elementary-school-age children.

All 95 kids could dribble a basketball with either hand and quickly learned advanced ball-handling and passing drills. Every single one of them.

These young children had long attention spans and knew how to wait their turn, and the older kids instinctively nurtured their younger schoolmates.

The last day we let the kids play pick-up basketball games. Three on three, five on five, and sometimes there were too many to count playing all at once. I couldn’t help imagining what else we could teach these remarkable children. All I need is a few more coaches to go with me next year.

In America, basketball coaches often talk about valuing the basketball. Basically, this means not turning the ball over and taking-high percentage shots. Valuing the basketball means something entirely different in Chucam. Much of Chucam, including the school, is built atop steep ravines, hundreds of feet deep. During one pick-up game, an errant pass sent the ball bouncing off the court and over the cliff. Several youngsters raced after it, but it was long gone. “We have plenty of balls,” I said. “Let’s go back and play.” All of the kids followed, or so I thought.

About 20 minutes later, a young boy raced onto the court clutching the ball that had plummeted over the cliff. By the look on his proud face and the mud covering his arms and legs, I knew he had rescued the ball at the bottom of the ravine. That day, I presented the Game Ball to Neto, that courageous young boy who taught us what valuing the basketball really means.

This experience has made me wonder about a few things.

First, why do these kids from such a poor, underdeveloped country out shine, in so many ways, similar age kids from the most affluent country in the world? Go ahead and say I am over generalizing. But before you do, come to Chucam and see for yourself.

Second, I wonder just how much these kids could accomplish given similar opportunities available to the average American child.

And I wonder if, for our next mission trip, we might consider bringing our own children with us to Guatemala, for we all have much to learn from the amazing children of Chucam.