I turned the shower nozzle, a jet of cold water hit my body, immediately sending a chill down my spine. The noise of the water barely drowned out the voices of the boys still playing soccer outside underneath the lights, “la pelota, la pelota” they would chime, almost in unison. These cold showers had become commonplace at this point, a familiarity among all the countries I had visited. They also happened to be the place where I found myself reflecting the most, in solitude with my thoughts and nothing else. I recounted the past day’s events, despite having only been in the Dominican for about 7 hours at that point. They sure were a busy seven though.
The truth is, you can beat yourself to death preparing for a visit like this, but you never know what’s exactly in store until you’re there in the moment itself. I reflected on a conversation I had shared with the director of the orphanage just a few hours earlier. “It’s almost like you have to forget everything you think you know and just relearn each day, when you’re working with these boys.” Yes, at times they were stubborn, they would refuse to go to classes, they would try to fight, but at the end of the day they’re just boys – Lord knows I’ve been there before.
After our little pep talk and a brief tour of La Romana, it was off to the orphanage. There were fifty boys…or 49 she said…I don’t remember, but either way it was a lot. As per usual, anxiousness pretty much triumphed every other emotion, as we pulled into the lot. There were introductions…way too many of them for me to remember. I sat down for a quick snack, some yucca and tomatoes – certainly nothing I had ever eaten before, but I had no complaints. It was hot out so soccer was put on hold until after snack time and a class session, but I rounded up a gang of the boys, found some shade, and got to teaching.
All the boys were similar, but different in their own unique ways. One boy told me liked to dance, so I told him I would teach him some soccer tricks in return for a dance lesson or two, something that sparked a grin on his face. I quickly grew fond of another boy, only 14 years old, but incredibly keen to learn whatever I threw at him. He promised to help me with my Spanish as long as I taught him something new everyday. And a quick learner he sure was. First it was a neck stall, then a Ronaldinho toe flick, then an alternative flick-up, just clockwork to him. At one point, I joked to him, “yo tengo muchas trucos, pero tu aprender demaciado rapido…mañana, yo va a ensenar mas a ti.”
What surprised me the most about these boys was their passion for soccer. When you think of the Dominican Republic, the first thing that comes to mind is baseball, so this surely was a treat and a surprise. Of course, our soccer pitch doubled as the outfield of a baseball field, but that’s besides the point.
The days that followed were one in the same. It was far too hot during the day, so instead our entire afternoon and night became devoted to the sport. Once it cooled off, we were on the field playing from six until 11 o’clock. When it was time to rest, we would turn on the television and watch Olympic soccer. Soccer was a religion here, and I loved that.
This ended up being one of the first places where I never ran a fully-structured, set clinic. Rather, I had the opportunity to do a lot of work with small groups and even individual coaching. By day I would teach the younger boys freestyle moves, and by night I would teach one-on-one with one of the older boys, Taison. Taison was incredibly talented, and ever so curious. He kept asking me why I never pursued professional soccer and what he might do in order to achieve that dream. He was receptive to all my advice and engaged throughout all my teachings. I taught him some on-field moves and some freestyle as well. He was a fast learner and by the next morning he was showing me neck stalls and other tricks within the confines of the cafeteria.
Orfanato Ninos de Cristo was one of those places that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I could write a book about my entire experience there alone, but I could never put into words how amazing those boys were. As I left, they badgered me about when I would return, hoping that it would be as soon as October. I said no promises regarding an alternate visit in December but I would try my best to visit the following July!