The service trip of a lifetime

Sports Editor

When Holy Angels head girls soccer coach David Marshak took over the program 10 years ago, he wanted to do everything he could to help push the program to new heights.

(Photo courtesy of David Frear- Academy of Holy Angels)
The Holy Angels girls soccer team poses for a photo with members of the top Tanzanian U19 women’s soccer team after a scrimmage during the Stars’ trip to Tanzania in July.

When Marshak found out Holy Angels asks its sports programs to design a service project each year, Marshak immediately began thinking about the endless possibilities at his disposal. Then a mutual friend introduced him to Amanda Maxwell, the current women’s soccer coach at Bethel University, who told him of a possible opening for a service trip to Tanzania.

“She lived in Tanzania and taught there for three, four years,” Marshak said. “She and her husband have this mission where they work with this village and they take different groups and go back every summer.”

Marshak, a wildlife photographer in his spare time, thought that would be the best opportunity for him to “go big or go home.”

“Soccer is a unifier for us, Amanda is a women’s soccer coach at Bethel,” Marshak said. “When I wanted to construct a service project, everything I do with this program is go big or go home, I want us to not be a typical high school program, so I thought we could do Habitat for Humanity or we could do a mission trip somewhere close, but the other side of me is wildlife photography and conservation and I have this love of Africa and I thought go big or go home, is there any way we could do something really aggressive, unique or life-changing?”

Marshak first took a group on the trip in 2012 and he made his third trip in July with this year’s Holy Angels girls soccer squad. Marshak had his biggest group yet, with 14 girls, three parent chaperones and the team photographer.

“We had a brave group, we had a bunch of girls want to do it, a bunch of parents that let them, three brave moms that said they wanted to chaperone and a team photographer that wanted to travel with us,” Marshak said. “It was a great trip and I hope it was life-changing.

“It sounds crazy to say it this way, but this is just something we do.”

Heading into the trip, some of the Holy Angels players were unsure about what they were going to experience.

“I had no idea what to expect, I just went into it excited,” senior co-captain Julie Miler said. “Other than a couple meetings we had to learn some Swahili, I really didn’t know and we just were excited.”

While past groups’ attempts at going on the trip have been halted due to different concerns, senior co-captain Kiera Carson said she felt Marshak’s explanations of the trip and his experience calmed the nerves of the parents.

“My parents weren’t too concerned, they felt safe with the parents that went on the trip, Marshak and the three moms,” Carson said. “Marshak prepped the parents really well, he had been to this village multiple times before and has been on countless safaris, so he made it all feel really safe.”

The group spent 16 days on the trip, with roughly three days taken up by travel. Once they arrived in Tanzania, the Holy Angels girls were taken to a village roughly 30 to 40 minutes east of Dar es Salaam.

“They do a week in the village, and mainly they work with the kids in the preschool, they’re teaching English, doing games, there’s a theme for the week and this year’s theme was farm animals,” Marshak said. “They did that in the mornings up until the afternoon and in the evenings we would do a soccer-related event.

“This year we spent one night training with the Tanzanian women national pool players, which was awesome, and then on another night we played the top U19 girls team in Dar es Salaam, which was actually a really good team.”

Holy Angels lost the scrimmage 3-0.

“It was a good scrimmage, we played them right in the city center of Dar, so we had all the buildings around, it was a fenced-in stadium,” Marshak said. “The spectacle of it, to watch a team of white blond-haired girls playing against the Tanzanian girls, there were people lined up across the fences and people watching from their apartments.

“We didn’t have our full team and this was the top team in Tanzania.”

Simply playing a Tanzanian women’s team was special for Marshak, as he remembers his team playing against boys’ teams because women simply didn’t play organized soccer in Tanzania during his first trip.

“When I first did this trip, when we did soccer activities it was with boys, we did a clinic with the boys’ team, we trained with the boys’ team because girls in Tanzania didn’t even play soccer, it wasn’t culturally acceptable,” Marshak said. “Now, not even 10 years later, they have a national team, they have club teams and they’re good, they can really play.

“Athletics is becoming a vehicle in which they can claim individuality and chase their dreams a little bit, as opposed to always playing second-fiddle to the men.”

Marshak, as well as seeing the development of women’s athletics, was also impressed with how the Tanzanian village the team visited has developed over the years.

“When you think of an African village, this place was exactly what you would think,” Marshak said. “There was wilderness, trees, dirt, but now there’s a pre-school there, there’s a church there, they’re building an office, there are doctors that come in one or two times a month, they put in a well and have converted that well to electricity.

“It has been so incredible to see from the first time I was here to this trip, the progress in this village. We’re just lucky we get to go there and be a part of it.”

Aside from soccer, the Holy Angels girls had a chance to learn about the lives women in the village lead.

“We went and did some traditional cooking, we went to the village and made some soccer balls and played with the kids and they spent some time with some of the women in the village, hearing about some of the challenges women in Tanzania face,” Marshak said. “You talk about bursting the bubble of kids who grow up in a suburban environment in the United States, to see people who deal with real challenges of poverty and lack of resources and the social/cultural obstacles that women face over there, that was a real eye-opening, transformative experience.”

For Marshak, the concept of “bursting the bubble” was about as important as anything else on the trip.

“I think it’s easy for young people to live in a bubble,” Marshak said. “They live a comfortable life, they experience challenges, I would never say our players don’t experience challenges in their day-to-day lives, but they’re different kinds of challenges.

“As a social studies teacher, I don’t use terms like first world or third world anymore, there’s one world, but people living in different places face different obstacles. I wanted them to get outside that bubble, have an experience that would be unique and one that would give them perspective when they came home.”

The Holy Angels girls also got to see first-hand how those in poverty are able to live in Tanzania.

“One of the common threads is the girls telling me that [the Tanzanian people] have so little, but they are so happy,” Marshak said. “To see people who are maybe more disconnected from the material world, yet have so much joy when they’re playing soccer in the village, that’s something I have heard from all of my groups is that poverty doesn’t let them stop living their lives, which is something I hope that stays with the kids.”

The trip also gave the group a chance to bond with the kids they worked with in the preschool.

“I don’t have any younger siblings, so I’m not close with many kids, but I got so close to so many kids there,” Miler said. “We don’t speak the same language, but I was just really surprised by how welcoming everyone was, the kids and the people in the villages were so happy to see us.”

Following Holy Angels’ week in the village, the group had the opportunity to go on a six-day safari. Prior to the trip, Holy Angels chose to work on a conservation project to help the giraffes, the national animal of Tanzania.

“The girls chose the giraffe, the national animal of Tanzania, for a conservation project that we did, it was called the Twiga Project, twiga is the Swahili word for giraffe,” Marshak said. “We raised money for the giraffe conservation fund, we sold bracelets and donated that money to giraffe conservation, and then we went up to northern Tanzania and saw giraffes.”

For the team, the safari gave the girls a chance to experience African wildlife in its natural habitat.

“It really changed my perspective on all animals,” Carson said. “It makes you never want to step foot in a zoo again, because it’s so different.

“You see giraffes and zebras hanging out with each other and the animals are healthy, happy and free.”

When the group arrived home, they were thankful for having the opportunity to bond with their Holy Angels teammates in an environment they didn’t think they would get to experience in high school.

“It was an absolutely unbelievable bonding experience for all the girls there,” Miler, who also donated roughly 50 pounds of soccer gear, including enough cleats for every member of the team, to the Tanzanian U19 women’s soccer club, said. “I can’t believe how much we bonded and got closer over that time.”

The Holy Angels group also knows how lucky it was to be able to experience its service trip to Tanzania.

“No one I know has gotten a similar opportunity from their school,” Carson said. “Other people get to do mission trips, but nothing like this, we did so much and had so many opportunities.

“From helping in the village to seeing the animals to playing against the top Tanzanian soccer team, it was crazy.”

For Carson, the trip may have also sparked interest in future endeavours.

“This changed my perspective on a lot of things, it makes me want to do more,” Carson said. “I want to do more, and in the future I would like to go on more mission trips like this.”

With the trip serving as a success, Marshak said he would like to be able to go on the trip again in a couple years.

“It’s always out there,” Marshak said. “My goal is to do it every couple years, it’s too big of a trip and too logistically challenging to do every single year, but my idea is that every kid that comes to play soccer at Holy Angels, if they want to once in their four years, they would have an opportunity to do this trip.”

Follow Chris Chesky on Twitter at @MNSunSports or @SunSportsChris, or on Facebook at SunSportsStaff.