GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA – Northwestern State soccer player Courtney LeJeune has had plenty of obstacles in her three seasons at NSU.
The defender has appeared in just one game as she’s battled multiple injuries, including a knee injury she’s currently rehabilitating in hopes of stepping on the field this season.
But her perspective on her NSU career changed when she was one of nine Lady Demons who volunteered in Guatemala in mid-May.
LeJeune and her teammates helped orchestrate youth soccer camps in the morning and played against women’s teams from the city in the afternoon.
“It was eye-opening,” said LeJeune, a nursing major from Gonzales. “The people were so grateful for everything they had, and from a soccer aspect, it made me feel like I’m spoiled.
“Sometimes we don’t want to go to practice when it’s really hot, but they are thrilled to kick a ball around with anyone. The most important thing I took away is to just enjoy the game. You remember why you love to play the game, and it’s going to push us to give a full effort every time we’re out there. This trip was perfect timing for me and reminded me how fortunate we are.”
NSU co-head soccer coach Anna Jobe has made eight similar trips to different countries, but she still absorbs lessons with each successive trip.
Guatemala City is divided into zones, and Zone 3 where the NSU team served is one of the poorest sectors and where the city sends its trash and waste.
The mostly dirt soccer fields with rusty poles serving as goals were in the shadows of the city’s dump, which spans more than 17 football fields.
“There’s a big gang presence there, and they start recruiting kids at six- and eight-years old and start grooming them for that life,” Jobe said. “FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) Guatemala is on the ground serving there, and they offer soccer as an opportunity to be part of a team and a community – they provide an alternative to gangs that gives them that sense of community and security.
“Our players jumped in from the first moment and did a great job loving and playing with the kids. Some of those children came to the clinic barefoot, or maybe they hadn’t eaten yet that day, yet still came with energy and a smile. We want our players to take something away from this experience and challenge them to approach life with a new perspective when returning to the States. I think our girls blessed those kids, but we also were greatly blessed by them in return.”
NSU teamed up with the Baylor University women’s soccer team on the trip. Former coach Marci Jobson, a mentor of Jobe’s when Anna was on the Bears staff, organized the trip for the third summer and invited the Lady Demon soccer team.
Rising junior defender Ashley Medawattage will remember the smiles on the kids’ faces when they played the game they loved.
“It’s humbling, and it opened my eyes to see how generous these kids were with certain things,” said the Edmond, Oklahoma native and nursing major. “Their faces lit up when they saw us with soccer balls.
“It’s amazing to see the impact that our words and presence had on them – you don’t think you can have significance like that. But (the trip) has helped me not take soccer for granted. Being in college athletics in the U.S., sometimes you don’t want to wake up and run and lift weights. But it helps you realize how fortunate you are to get up every morning and play soccer in this country, and seeing the kids and the other women’s players there with so much passion, it helps you remember why you love the game so much.”
Players did have trouble communicating with the English-Spanish language barrier, but sometimes, a smile and a high-five was all that was needed to share appreciation and soccer.
American and Guatemalan players swapped stories and testimonies through translators, but the athletes also talked to each other on the field and at the dinner table by themselves.
“It was great to hear what they were saying (through translators), but to try and communicate on our own was fun as well,” LeJeune said. “We learned some Spanish words, and it all brought us together.
“We had fun sharing soccer and sharing Jesus. At times, it didn’t feel like there was a language barrier at all.”
The players raised more than $14,000 to make the trip, and Jobe believes the Lady Demons built a bond by serving others.
“(The NSU girls) and Guatemalan girls come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, but once you throw a ball out there, there’s really not much difference because soccer and sports in general is a universal language,” Jobe said. “It’s neat to be able to share something with our players something I’m passionate about, which is to grow the game of soccer and explore different places outside of our little bubble at NSU.
“To get outside of yourself and go serve shoulder to shoulder with people that you do life with every day was a phenomenal experience. It takes relationships to a whole new level, and that was pretty special for us to do.”