CHICAGO, Illinois — When politicians and economists talk about international development, a lot of ideas get thrown around. Many, such as foreign aid and improved agricultural practices, are on the more technical side, but there are alternatives. Development can also be fun. This is an idea that Lacrosse the Nations has embraced for over a decade as it seeks to promote personal and community development through the sport of lacrosse.
From a Landfill in Nicaragua
Lacrosse the Nations was founded in 2008 when former professional lacrosse player, Brett Hughes met Brad Corrigan, a former college player who had been volunteering some of his time with kids in Nicaragua. Corrigan offered Hughes the opportunity to join him on a week-long trip to La Chureca in Managua, Nicaragua, which was at that point a landfill that around 2,000 people called home. Hughes’ only condition was that he could bring lacrosse sticks.
Once there, Hughes explained in a speech to the University of Arkansas, the group worked to get as many kids as possible to come out and try the sport. The effect of lacrosse was clear, he said. Kids who participated were telling the group that they hoped they would come back the next day. Hughes recalled how one of the people there said, “hey that’s the first time I’ve heard any of these kids talk about tomorrow because they don’t know what they will eat today.”
Norman Velasquez, Lacrosse the Nations’ Country Director for Nicaragua, was working as a teacher in La Chureca when he first encountered the group. In an interview with The Borgen Project, he said that he initially thought lacrosse was too aggressive of a sport for the kids in La Chureca that were already facing violence. So, when Lacrosse the Nation approached him to work with them and integrate lacrosse into the community, his answer was no.
Velasquez said even when the kids in La Chureca were just playing soccer, they were really aggressive. “I cannot lead with the kids if they had a stick on their hands, that’s gonna be like a weapon and they will hit each other,” he said.
Eventually, after some prodding, Velasquez said he decided to give lacrosse a try. Lacrosse the Nation then sent him to a tournament in Guatemala to learn more about the game. With this knowledge, he began implementing lacrosse as part of the school’s physical education program. The organization then brought in additional support from a volunteer that had a degree in psychology and helped build an educational curriculum within lacrosse practices, to improve their player’s behavior.
In 2012, the organization built off this success, expanding to a school in Chiquilistagua, a community right outside the center of Managua. In the years since its initial expansion, the organization would grow its reach to not only teach lacrosse but also provide tutoring, school supplies, food access, scholarships and employment opportunities to the children and young adults in the communities they have programs in, Maria McDonough, LtN’s Panama Country Director, told The Borgen Project.
More than a Game: Utilizing Lacrosse to Improve Lives
One area where Lacrosse the Nations seeks to help these communities is by teaching life skills. This is common in sports everywhere, but according to Velasquez, life skills have been one of the areas where its presence was most beneficial, especially at first. He explained that because of being exposed to lacrosse, many of his players have been able to foster healthy relationships both within and outside the sport.
Velasquez recounted seeing one player’s personal development. When this player first came to Lacrosse the Nations, he had a history of being rude to and even threatening one of his school teachers. But after months of coming to practice and reinforcing positive social behaviors through lessons about the sport, he eventually went to the teacher and apologized.
“[The teacher] came to us and she tells us, ‘you know what, he’s changed because he was learning a lot in lacrosse, learning a lot with LtN,'” said Velasquez.
Improving educational attainment is another prominent part of the organization’s mission. Though public schools are free to attend, many of the students that the organization works with face barriers to education through other costs that come due to required uniforms, transportation and school supplies, according to McDonough.
The organization covers these costs and others through their scholarship programs providing financial assistance to a combination of 40 of their student-athletes and assistant coaches. Within this group, 94% have seen improvements in their academic achievement from a year before.
Beyond scholarships, it also offers tutoring to hundreds of its athletes through partnerships with local schools and educational organizations. Sometimes these partnerships have meant providing more than just tutoring. When former Lacrosse the Nation volunteer Rob Driscoll arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama, he told The Borgen Project that the absence of a local physical education teacher who was on maternity leave prompted him and other volunteers to fill in.
Bocas del Toro is a tourist-heavy island off the coast of Panama in which most of the kids that Driscoll said he coached did not have plans beyond working in the local tourism economy.
According to McDonough the geography of the island and other inequalities drive a lack of access to basic resources and opportunities. Consequently, around 38% of youth on the island never enroll in high school. Still, she said there have been improvements in the well-being of kids on the island since the arrival of lacrosse.
“I have seen the confidence of kids soar when they discover that lacrosse is a pathway to leadership, an outlet for energy and angst, and a door to new friendships,” said McDonough.
Since its early days, Lacrosse the Nations has expanded to three more countries. Today it hosts programs across Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and the United States. According to McDonough, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a setback for the organization’s ability to reach as far as it would have liked to. Since the Nicaraguan program has become locally-led, McDonough said, its focus is on growing the program in Panama and Colombia, expanding its reach and working to provide more in terms of access to food and educational opportunities.
– Joey Harris