Sophomore midfielder Courtney Bell spent a week in Rio, Verde Mexico this summer at an FCA camp teaching kids soccer and sharing her faith.
Oct. 9, 2007
By Leslie Wilhite, Illinois Sports Information
Courtney Bell never realized how significant one pair of cleats could be until she spent a week in Rio Verde, Mexico this summer. A sophomore forward on the Illinois soccer team, Bell traveled to the small town in central Mexico with 40 other student-athletes and staff to conduct a sports camp for local kids sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Bell and her team began the week handing out fliers about their camp to any kids they saw around the city. The camp cost 30 pesos, the equivalent of three dollars, but unlike camps in the United States, there were no medical forms required and no parents dropping their kids off each day. Instead, some kids would just show up on their bikes while others who regularly played soccer at the field just joined the camp.
The camp presented other physical and emotional challenges as well. In addition to the grueling daily schedule, where Bell began the day at 7:30 a.m. and wrapped up around 10 p.m., she also had to adapt the atmosphere of the town.
"Economically, it was a very poor area," Bell said. "I saw a lot of stuff that I had never seen before and it was a shock seeing it in person. Seeing the living conditions and what the kids were going through was really tough."
Bell faced other obstacles as well, learning to deal with language barriers, extreme heat, high altitude and rough field conditions.
Although Bell had minimal Spanish, she just knew that this trip was "one of faith" and that she had to "depend on God to take care of everything," including the language barrier. While some of the kids spoke English, they would wait to tell her that until after she had embarrassed herself trying to demonstrate words that she didn't know how to say in Spanish. A blessing in disguise, the teasing developed into more of a joke between Bell and her group of boys, and she looked at the situation in a different light.
"The fact that you are just there giving them attention meant more than anything you could say to them," Bell said. "They were really open to us and loved having us there."
Despite all of the obstacles, none of them seemed to affect Bell or the boys throughout the week. Instead, they were focused on the one universal thing that tied them together: a love for soccer.
"Soccer is THE sport down there," Bell said. "So all the adults down there were teasing me, saying, `These kids love soccer, you are in for it. This will be a challenge for you because they are really good.' It made me nervous because, first of all, I am coaching in a different language, and then I'm wondering whether the drills I'm doing are hard enough for them. But it ended up working out really well and I had a group of about ten little boys who would follow me everywhere. They always wanted to play soccer, whether it was little tricks or anything. They just wanted to play all the time."
By the end of the week, Bell had developed a unique bond with the boys in her group, and that bond opened the door for Bell to share her faith with them.
"It was cool because you earn the kids' trust by spending time with them and paying attention to them, so that opened the door for them to ask you questions," Bell said. "They would ask me why I came down there, so it was cool to share that with them and teach them about God in an arena that they probably wouldn't connect God with - especially sports."
"It made me appreciate so much more the opportunities I have up here," Bell said. "But I know God is going to take care of those boys even though I can't."
Looking back at her week in Rio Verde, Bell knows without a doubt that the things she learned far outweighed all of the challenges she faced.
"As much as we were able to give the kids down there in terms of love and care, I feel like they impacted us way more than we could ever impact them," Bell said. "My priorities and perspective make me think, `What do I have to complain about?' compared to what they could complain about. In my own life now I really try to take advantage of the opportunities I have and realize too that soccer really does open a lot of doors to ways I can serve others. I want to be able to give back to the soccer community and this is one of the ways I can do that."
And for one little boy in particular, Bell gave more than just her time and love. She gave him her cleats.
"He was ecstatic," Bell said. "Now my goal for next year is to go back down and bring them all cleats."
NOTE: This story appeared in the Oct. 6 Illinois-Wisconsin football game program.