Spartan student-athletes shine in the classroom and on the field. But they also stand out in another way – by upholding the University’s motto of “Service.” And sometimes while making global connections.
Last spring, UNC Greensboro Softball Head Coach Janelle Breneman shared an email she’d received with her players. An opportunity had come up to travel abroad and play softball over the summer, but it wasn’t just about travel and softball. It was also an opportunity to impact communities in a meaningful way, which would go beyond the field and the excitement in the stands.
Coach Jerry Forbis from nonprofit When Love Abounds visited UNCG to share information about a service trip to Belize, which piqued the interest of four players.
“I had been wanting to go on a mission trip and this opportunity came around,” shared catcher Rachel Johnson. “With service work and softball? Of course I signed up!”
Rachel Johnson, Kylie Bouplon, Hannah Stiltner and Makenna Matthijs the day before leaving for Belize.
In June, Johnson and three of her UNCG teammates – Makenna Matthijs, Kylie Bouplon and Hannah Stiltner – joined 9 other college and high school players on Team USA for a 12-day trip to the second smallest country in Central America. Their teammates for the week came from universities such as Western Carolina, Francis Marion and Mt. Olive, and North Carolina Wesleyan and Meredith colleges.
Team USA stayed in the capital city of Belmopan, and each day they traveled to a hospital, church or school to do volunteer work that would benefit the community. They also held softball camps during the day for kids as well as for adult softball players.
“One of my favorite things we did was going to schools,” said Matthijs. “Kids would come up to us and say, ‘You play softball? I play softball!’”
Kylie Bouplon at a Belizean school with two students.
At night, Team USA played games against the local recreation leagues, including the National Sports Association. They also traveled to Belize City to play the national women’s all-star team. Oftentimes, the kids that they worked with during the day would come to see them play at night with their families.
“Our mission wasn’t to compete, but to play softball for a different purpose – to connect with the community,” said Johnson. “After the game we would always meet with the other teams that we played.”
Makenna Matthijs, Rachel Johnson and the Belize National Team. after their last game against each other in Belize City.
Rachel Johnson with one of the Roaring Creek players after a game.
The team members also spent some time familiarizing themselves with the Belizean culture, including the food, local dialect and notable sites, such as Mayan ruins and a rainforest trail.
Unlike typical trips abroad, however – where the traveler collects souvenirs – the players left some things of theirs behind. They gave unneeded jerseys, hats and gloves to the softball players they met, both adults and children.
In return, Team USA brought home knowledge of a culture and personal connections that will stay with them, perhaps for a lifetime. Johnson and Bouplon would like to return to Belize to keep those connections going. Their advice for other Spartans and student-athletes considering volunteering abroad?
“Definitely do it,” said Johnson. “It gave me a new perspective on life.”
“If you can travel and help people in a different country and play a sport, it’s a great experience,” added Matthijs.
“This was a unique opportunity,” Coach Breneman shared. “I am very proud of these young ladies for sharing their talents and good will, and for reaching out to communities in Belize.”
Team USA and the Capital City Emeralds after a game.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith
Photography courtesy of Rachel Johnson, Makenna Matthijs, Kylie Bouplon and Hannah Stiltner