By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
Lehigh student-athletes in Ecuador.
One thing student-athletes undoubtedly receive at Lehigh University is a well-rounded experience. For a select trio of Jessica Miller (field hockey), Angelo DiGiacinto (men’s swimming) and Liz Lucas (softball), they’ve taken that statement to another level. They recently traveled to Ecuador in South America through SALSC (Student-Athletes Leading Social Change) where they assisted the native people in a variety of ways. That included using money they raised to build a school for the indigenous people.
As part of this year’s SALSC initiative, Lehigh student-athletes (and others from around the nation) raised money for underdeveloped Ecuadorian villages. The Mountain Hawks went on to raise approximately $18,000 through a variety of events, highlighted by a special Phone-A-Thon in February.
SALSC is nothing new for Lehigh and its student-athletes. Last year, women’s basketball standout Erica Prosser helped spearhead an initiative to raise funds and build a school in Kenya.
“I heard about the organization through some of the student-athletes that were involved the year it started,” said Miller. “I was immediately interested after hearing what it was about, but it was too late to get involved in that year's group. Then, after hearing about Erica's experience in Kenya last summer, I knew this organization was perfect for me.”
Joining the trio of student-athletes on the trip was Athletics Leadership Coordinator Julie Sterrett, a former student-athlete herself. She serves as advisor for the Lehigh SALSC team. The four left on Saturday, June 11 and returned on Monday, June 20.
“One of the best aspects of this organization is that it’s student-driven, so our team leaders (Jess and Angelo) and team members do most of the work,” said Sterrett. “I am just here to assist their efforts in project planning, fundraising and event management and to ensure that our actions remain aligned with our mission. I also assist the larger SALSC organization as a non-profit through the Janssen Sports Leadership Center.”
Lehigh is one of only three schools who currently feature established SALSC programs (along with Illinois and Michigan). Joining the Mountain Hawks in Ecuador were five student-athletes from Illinois, three from Michigan and one from Iowa State, UNC and Central Michigan. All 14 members met in Miami on Saturday (June 11) around 3 p.m. and had a few hours to get to know each other before departing for Quito, Ecuador that evening.
Emotions varied leading up to the 11th, including excitement, nervousness, unease and more.
“I didn't really have many expectations going into the trip because I hadn't experienced anything like this before,” said Lucas. “All I focused on was working as hard as I could.”
“Before departing, I knew we were coming to Ecuador to build a school,” said Miller. “I was told that it would be a life-changing experience. Although all of those things occurred while I was in Ecuador, I couldn't possibly be prepared for what I experienced while I was there.”
For Miller, the reality of the moment sunk in earlier than her peers. But in many ways, it still hasn’t 100 percent sunk in, either.
“In the week leading up to the trip, I was still in disbelief that the experience I had worked so hard for and looked forward to for the past 10 months was about to happen,” said Miller. “The realization that I was actually going hit me the day before we left, but I still couldn't exactly wrap my head around what I was about to do. Even when I was in Ecuador, from the very first day to the very last day, I remember saying to myself at least once a day, ‘I cannot believe I’m here.’
“I'm not sure if it was the beautiful scenery, the amazing people I was surrounded by or the fact that I was doing something I've always wanted to do, but I remember constantly feeling like I was in a dream,” Miller continued. “This was even a common joke among the people in our group. When something really amazing would happen, we would usually just look at each other in disbelief.”
For others, the feeling didn’t hit them until they arrived in the Ecuadorian community.
“I don’t think I felt like that until we were on the bus and arrived at the community for the first time,” said DiGiacinto.
Same was true for Lucas.
“I think it finally hit me when I was actually in the community doing things,” she said. “But even now, it’s hard for me to believe that I was able to go and experience that. It’s still all soaking in.”
“It was a few days into our trip when our tour bus stopped in the middle of the dirt road heading high up into the Andes Mountains for a pack of sheep and cows. The views were breathtaking,” said Sterrett. “The scenery really provided that ‘pinch-me’ moment.”
The group spent most of their time and energy building the school for which they raised money. They built in the mornings and afternoons and finished the school’s foundation by the end of the week.
“It was very difficult to dig and build without the help of any modern construction technology, but it was truly amazing to see how creative the Ecuadorian people are with all their resources,” said Miller.
“It involved a lot of heavy lifting, manual labor and taking instruction from our ‘Maestro’ on how to construct a sustainable building in a third world country where they have very few tools,” said Sterrett. “It’s incredible to see how everything comes from the earth.”
The experience was focused on work, but did include some play as the group got to enjoy the scenery by touring different areas of the rural villages. They also spent some time playing with the children of the Chismaute village and sharing a leadership workshop with the Girls Club, a leadership program for adolescent girls which they also funded.
The group experienced the culture of the indigenous people by going to their market and buying food for a meal on an average indigenous person’s budget, which was approximately 30 cents per meal for an entire family.
The most obvious cultural challenge was the language barrier. Despite not knowing Spanish, they didn’t let that get in their way.
“I knew a limited amount of Spanish so it was hard to communicate, but when we got to play with the kids, the language didn't matter,” said Lucas. “We were all just having fun.”
“Although not many of us spoke Spanish and none of us spoke their indigenous language (Quechua), we still had no problem communicating with the kids when we were playing sports,” said Miller. “Athletics has an incredible power to bring people from different cultures and backgrounds together without any questions being asked. Simply kicking a soccer ball around or throwing a football can create this unspoken bond between people.”
Sterrett was caught aback by the cultural differences, but at the same time, saw a lot of similarities.
“The biggest thing that stuck out to me is how simply they live,” she said. “It made me rethink our materialistic world and value the earth more. There are also major culture differences in the roles of women and daily responsibilities. Probably most impactful, however, was identifying our similarities; the Ecuadorian people are human beings who survive, love and have faith, just like us.”
DiGiacinto was a little more prepared for the culture change, having been on a similar trip in the past. There is one instance he won’t forget, though.
“I’ll always remember holding the hand of one of the young girls who at first was extremely shy, but after speaking to her for a few minutes, opened up and felt comfortable around me,” he said.
All-in-all, it was a worthwhile trip for an endless number of reasons. The student-athletes not only helped raise money and build something tangible, but they also took back a number of intangibles that will last a lifetime - memories of playing with the indigenous people, working together with fellow SALSC members, enjoying the breathtaking scenery and much, much more.
“I will never forget when we were transferring the dirt from the foundation to another pile, we were putting dirt on a potato bag and using two people to carry it over to the other pile,” said Lucas. “I was waiting for one of my team members to help, but then a woman from the community picked it up and we carried several bags of dirt over.”
The Mountain Hawks learned a number of life lessons, and the common denominator was helping others. Not focusing on themselves, but the collective goal… Just like on their athletic teams.
“It’s hard raising money because ultimately, you’re going to get turned down some or most of the time,” said DiGiacinto. “The most important part of this whole experience of fundraising is something Me to We calls ‘shameless idealists’ and having a contagious passion for social change.”
“There are people in the world that are not as fortunate as us and when we can go and help them, it means a lot,” said Lucas. “This school will positively affect people that are not even a part of the community right now. For generations they will be able to use that school and become more educated and we, with the help of thousands of people, were able to make that happen for them.”
“These experiences made me realize what is important in life and made me appreciate the life that I’ve been given that much more,” said Miller. “It gave me the confidence to know that I can go way outside of my comfort zone and accomplish things I've always wanted to accomplish, but never thought possible.”
SALSC is looking for Lehigh student-athletes who would like to get involved next year. For those interested, please email Julie Sterrett at email@example.com.
“If you are passionate about global issues and social change, and you will not let anything stop you from your goals, jump board,” she said.
“Student-Athletes Leading Social Change is such an amazing organization that will go very far in the future and I urge anyone who is even a little bit interested to look into being part of it,” said Miller. “Your life will no doubt be changed for the better.”
“If you are passionate about helping people internationally, this is for you,” said Lucas. “SALSC combines leadership, service and community.”
In total, the Mountain Hawks were part of an organization that raised a total of $70,000, enough to build two classrooms, a sanitary water system, fund a Girl’s Club and build a sport field.
“Every single second of hard work that we put into making this trip happen more than paid off,” said Miller. “It was the most incredible experience I've ever had; that’s the best way to describe it. Unfortunately, no amount of words or pictures will ever do it justice.”