BUENA VISTA, Guatemala- For many, college can be just as much about the experience as it can be about the education received. When students pursue collegiate athletics, their participation in a sport is just one more factor that adds in to the overall framework of being a college student.
After returning from spring break to the campus of Jacksonville University, sophomore Eli Lasley's outlook on life has been permanently altered. Instead of utilizing a free week by seeking out leisure and relaxation, the Dolphin goalkeeper dedicated time and effort to a unique activity that left a lasting impact.
"I went there as one person and left as another. I feel like my lifestyle will now be more focused on loving people."
Lasley was one of eight students and staff members from the JU men's soccer team who ventured to Buena Vista, Guatemala on a five-day missions trip from March 10-14. It was the second trip of its kind taken by the team, which has become tied to the country through a unique connection.
In his fifth year at the helm of the program, Head Coach Mauricio Ruiz has always had a heart for serving the less-fortunate through the initiative that sports provides. By starting World Sports United, he and his wife have made it possible for trips such as this to take place.
"We collect new and used sports equipment, and donate it to organizations that may have need for it all over the world," Ruiz explained.
By partnering his team with his organization, Ruiz made it possible for the group to connect with the Buena Vista Sports Academy for Boys, a program which combines academics, athletics and faith with the mission of making an impact on young males who are targeted by generational poverty and addiction.
Founded in 2008, BVSA helps to break the cycle that many young males in impoverished villages such as Buena Vista fall into – sexual, drug, and alcohol abuse, combined with a lack of education.
Those enrolled in the academy are also in school full-time, and must complete homework and chores in order to keep in good standing.
For nearly five years now, Ruiz has made it his mission to provide as many culture-alerting experiences as possible to go along with the athletic trials that his team faces. A native of Brazil, he uses experiences like the trip taken to create an atmosphere that is observant of all walks of life, which the team boasts by representing 16 different countries.
"It makes me a better human being every time I go on a trip like this," Ruiz said. "Although we are in high-level athletics, and the outside world judges us on wins and losses, ultimately our wins and losses are the impact that we make on the people that we coach and mentor. Taking a trip like this really puts things into perspective."
During their four-day stay in the village, which sits in the southwest corner of Guatemala and averages domestic product of just $5,000 U.S. dollars, the group welcomed the children of the BSVA onto their team. Each day was filled with coaching activities, visiting with local residents, providing food and construction work on dilapidated concrete or mud houses, which widely differed in condition from anything Lasley had previously seen.
"When I was being shown around one house, I was shocked when I saw what these people were using for a kitchen. They had a small little grate sitting on two rocks, and a bowl next to it for water. That was their kitchen, and it was outdoors, enclosed by a couple of flimsy pieces for sheet metal."
A native of Tallahassee, Fla., Lasley chose this trip to be his first taken outside of the United States. One thing in particular that stuck with him upon returning was the mentality of the children he interacted with, who gained so much from having so little.
"It was just humbling. It was just amazing for me to see that, even more we're more monetarily rich than them, they're richer in so many other ways. It's humbling to see how positive they are about everything."
Growing up in San Jose, Costa Rica, former Dolphin defender Juan Arguedas may have been the one on the trip most familiar with the scenery of Central America.
Now a graduate manager for the team, the experience inspired him to keep a daily journal of the trip's highlights, and record the emotions that he was left with.
"I knew that this trip was going to be impactful, and I did not want to forget anything from it," Arguedas recalled. "Every time I re-read it, I remember everything that we did."
Among the pen-stained pages of the 2016 Jacksonville graduate's booklet are the accounts of the "dangerous houses" kept together by mud and bricks, the "simplicity of the people", who requested nothing more than good health and the story of one man who he called "an angel of God."
Here is a passage from Juan's journal that recaps his unique encounter:
"After breakfast, we went to visit Ceasar. Ceasar is an angel of God. He is one of the people that most impacted my life. His joy, his way of being…even though he is completely paralyzed, he still has that joy. The energy of this man is ridiculous. He was so positive, good, full and pure. He told us his story, about the Bible and about God, about the love that he feels from meeting new people. That is his blessing every day. He told us about the joy that he has to open his eyes every day, and that he was dead for four minutes. He told us about his hardest moments, how he used God's word as strength to keep going, how we have to live life like there is no tomorrow. He even remembered Jack Burns and Cameron Grassmyer, who came to visit him last year, which gave me goosebumps. He remembers everything that impacts his life. It was a pure inspiration to talk to him. Today we spoke to an angel and I sang to an angel, and I feel absolutely blessed."
Lasley's most memorable one-on-one encounter came in the form of a young boy named Jeffrey, whom he met while at BVSA. Along with his older brother Mario and HIV-positive mother, the tween resided in Buena Vista with seemingly little to cherish.
"What impacted me the most about Jeffrey was how happy he was, and how he was so friendly. He could have approached me in such a bitter manner, knowing where I come from, but he was so nice and so warm."
A lasting impression was made between the two first-time participants, which formed a renewed outlook on life on and off the field.
"The trip taught me to enjoy life much more, to not worry about things that don't matter, not to get stressed or stuck on things that are not as important, and to appreciate my family much more," added Arguedas.
"Knowing that you have so many resources available to you, there is absolutely no excuse not to give 100 percent effort on the field every single time," stated Lasley, whose performance in-net against North Florida at the 2017 ASUN Championship Quarterfinals paved the way for the team to advance to the league championship game for the second straight year.
For many years, Ruiz has embraced his calling as a coach, but has always left room to make an impact off the field, both in the lives of his players and those they come in contact with.
"Trips like these help us to realize our true impact as a coach and as a friend. It makes you want to be that much more impactful with every chance that you have."
For more photos from the trip, click here.