Sunday, November 16, 2014

More Than Sport in Mexico

Over the past year, I've noticed a frustration that seems to be a common theme regardless of what I do.  When training and racing was my profession, I'd wake up, eat, train, eat some more and then go to bed thinking, "Is this all there is?".  When I worked on the golf course this year, I'd wake up, eat, mow grass all day so rich people could play golf, eat some more, then go to bed thinking, "Is there any real point to this?" Futility.  No matter what I was doing I felt like I was meant for something more-- Something more important, more challenging, and influential.  This past weekend, I finally did something truly worthwhile.

Just over a year ago, I picked Chad up from the airport on his return-leg from Tijuana, Mexico where he, along with a group of other professional athletes, built a home for a family that could not afford one of their own.  I expected to hear more about the people he was with, but instead he kept gushing about how incredible the home-building experience was. This year, he offered to bring me along, and there was no way I could turn it down. 

A week or two before the start of our trip, we learned who else would be joining us.  This year there were enough athletes to build two homes in a single weekend, including numerous professional cyclists, Olympic medal-winning speed skaters and gymnasts, a professional racecar driver, rugby player, and past Miss America contestant.  In all honesty, I felt way out of my league as someone who could barely be called a professional athlete in the first place, and gave it up after just a few months.  As excited as I was for the trip, I was equally nervous about meeting people I had watched on tv.  

Chad and I flew out of Denver Friday morning alongside Todd, a sports chaplain with the Athletes in Action Organization, who was also coming on the trip.  We landed in San Diego after Chad earned a dollar bill by (mostly) making the dollar bill origami ram in the complimentary airline magazine.  After meeting a few of our compatriots for the weekend and being picked up by Guy East, and his wife, Andrea, we enjoyed a nice brunch right next to the ocean.  Eventually, our cheerful troop was fully united and we headed towards the border where we all crossed completely legally and without concern because everyone had their passports... 

It's incredible how quickly scenery can change.  Just past the border lies Tijuana, where all Mexican deportees are being sent, and where thousands live in a canal, homeless, jobless, and eventually dependent on drugs; too embarrassed to return to their homes defeated, if they even have the ability to leave in the first place.  The stark contrast between the beautiful seaside village where we had just eaten, and this destitute area was a great reminder of the purpose of the trip that lay ahead.  Guy and his wife live in Rosarito, Mexico where they work for the Homes of Hope Organization, building houses every weekend for families in need.  As we drove, Guy told us heart-breaking statistics about the area.  It's easy to become desensitized when you constantly hear about the fight over the border and immigration, but seeing things first hand makes it all so much more real. 

We eventually made it to the YWAM (Youth With A Mission) compound where we would be staying for the weekend, and were given a chance to mingle and get to know our roommates before eating dinner.  After eating, we got to hear from Guy, as he told his personal story about struggling with the decision to quit cycling, and his struggle to figure out what he was supposed to do in life.  As I sat there listening, I felt like he had taken my story, changed the names for the sake of my protection, and then regurgitated it word for word.  Everyone else then gave a brief introduction and background, at which point I learned that I was one of four or so formerly professional cyclists.  Suddenly, I didn't feel so out of place anymore. 

The first night after dinner, we all went out to the soccer field for a little competition. I suppose the quickest way to get intense athletes to bond is to make them all play a sport they're terrible at.  Blisters and injuries brought us all much closer together that night.  I also confess that Miss Kentucky had me just about scared into the fetal position with her war cry anytime the ball came near me. 

Saturday was the first day of building.  At breakfast there was a lot of excitement and anticipation.  The room was pretty equally divided between first and second-time builders, but everyone was ready to go.  Our drive out to the build site passed a lot of reality checks.  Homes built with random pieces of lumber and plywood- obviously just a matter of whatever the residents could get a hold of- served as a reminder of how privileged we all are.  When the bus finally reached the site, the two families were standing there waiting to greet us.  They had not learned until two days prior, that they would be getting a home.  You could see the excitement in their faces as they rushed to welcome us off the bus.

The family we would be building for had lost their home in a fire.  In addition to the house, the fire had also consumed all of their papers, like birth certificates, etc. which are necessary for employment.  So unable to afford new papers, and unable to gain employment, they were staying in a borrowed room in a friends home.  Nearly a dozen people in a single room. 
The family introducing themselves with the help of our interpreter.

 The teams were quickly divided into Red (the better team) and Blue, and sent to their respective build sites, just a few feet apart.  As we stood in a circle on the foundation, introducing ourselves to the family, I couldn't keep my eyes off the concrete pad under our feet.  At best, it was a couple hundred square feet.  We would be building a single story house, for this husband and wife and their five kids. This "house" would be the size of a small room, but it would change their lives. 

We got to work quickly thereafter, which was good because I was itching to put the "construction foreman look" I'd been cultivating for the past few months to good use.  As part of the framing crew, I measured out the studs to be cut for the walls and then started swinging the hammer. 

Chad and I audition for Home Improvement

I nail studs next to Tanner Foust. 
One of the young boys from the family was quick to join in, and man did he like hitting nails.  As we worked, it was cool to see the family joining in wherever they could.  How often we take for granted the buildings we live in because all it took was a little money to get there.  This family had the privilege to be an integral part of building their own home.  That's something these kids will remember their whole lives.  

It appears the painting crew had a bit more fun...and bad aim.

Before long we had the walls ready to go up.  It was at this point that I realized that while athletes may know their bodies incredibly well, we all could use some lessons in anatomy and counting.  Our build leader, Brodie, instructed everyone to lift the wall to their waist and hold it there while we moved the bottom of the wall into place.  So on his mark everyone lifted just to the bottom of their necks.  Once the bottom of the wall was where he needed it, he said "Now we'll lift it all the way up on the count of three. Ready?" Then everyone  lifted it up immediately.  This happened with all four walls.  Great bunch of athletes. 

Here we show that athletes have exceptionally high waists. 

Before we knew it, the first build day had come to a close with the walls in place and the beginnings of a roof.  That night we enjoyed a very festive dinner with great food, drinks, and entertainment.  Where possible, entertainment from our own group was interjected-- mainly during the belly dancing demonstration.  I was secretly hoping to be picked, but my hips were kept quiet for the night.  

The next day, the finish line was in sight with the home build.  Dry-walling, roofing, and electrics were the main tasks for the day, and everyone was just as excited to get it done as the day before. At lunch, everyone pooled money together to help furnish the house and buy groceries for the families.  Each house was split into three rooms, with a bunk bed, kitchenette, and additional room.  When all was said and done, we stood in a circle just as we had before the build started.  Everyone got to hold the keys to the house while speaking to the family about the home, and their experience, before finally giving the family the keys to their brand new home.  It was during this time that the full impact of the weekend really began to hit me.  I realized that at the start of the weekend, we all thought we were coming to give something great to a family in need, but by the end all we could do was thank them for the blessing the building experience was to us.  Everyone seemed to have been humbled by the experience, their interactions with a family that had so much joy and energy despite their circumstances, and the chance to work along side great people who recognized that there is more to life than being good at sports. 

After giving the keys  to the family, we all got to watch as they unlocked the door and walked into their new home for the first time as a family.  We then got to knock on the door and be their first visitors.  As we all stood inside, nearly thirty people in the space of a college dorm room, we got to watch their excitement.  To me, it would have been a cramped space difficult to be grateful for.  To them, it was hope, security, and the chance of a new life.  I must have looked really interested in the ceiling with as often as I was looking up to avoid crying.  We prayed over the house and family before saying goodbye.  No one left the site the way they arrived.  

As cliche as it may sound, this experience was truly life-changing.  Everyone on this trip had to pay to be there.  Were it not for the help of others, I would not have been able to afford to go.  I met some of the greatest people in my life on this trip, and formed friendships in just a few short days that will hopefully continue for years to come.  For the first time in my life, I felt like I was truly a part of something bigger than myself.  In a single weekend, I got to be a part of not only witnessing, but helping a family's circumstances change completely.  When we showed up, there were two concrete pads.  When we left, there were two homes filled with hope. 

The Red Team and finished house. 

If you'd like to know more about the organizations involved in this weekend, you can check out their sites.
Homes of Hope:
More than Sport:
Athletes in Action:

I'd also recommend watching this documentary about the Tijuana Canal.