The team spent 10 days in the Dominican Republic last summer painting, serving meals and playing with kids — while sleeping in bunkbeds and giving up their phones. They say the unforgettable experience has made them better teammates and better people.
A successful season for the Seattle Pacific women’s basketball team started long before any real games were played and in a place thousands of miles from their campus near Fremont.
On an impoverished island in the Caribbean, the players served others, and in the process grew closer to their teammates, gained a new perspective on the world and came home with memories that will last a lifetime.
During their 10-day trip to the Dominican Republic in September, the Falcons helped paint a health clinic, served meals, handed out shoes to children who had never owned a pair, gave basketball clinics and even played a few games.
This was no luxury vacation. They lived with the people, boarding in a church on bunk beds stacked three high. And their phones were shut off. No social media. And maybe because of that, it meant all that much more.
“We all have that connection that we went through that experience together, and we have a bond because of it, even with our coaches,” said senior Erica Pagano, who is averaging 7.0 points for the Falcons, who are 20-6. “It was just an experience that brought us all together and brought us closer to God. … It is one of my favorite memories that I will carry forever, and to be able to do it with your team is pretty incredible.”
A welcome pick-me-up
Taking a service trip with her team was something SPU coach Julie Heisey had pondered for years. She traveled to Mexico as a freshman player at Northwest Nazarene and had done it a few times as an assistant coach.
So she began talking with Audrey Partin, who played for Heisey at Trevecca Nazarene in Nashville, Tenn., and works with Go Ministries in the Dominican Republic. Heisey decided in December 2016 that she would take this team.
“But I didn’t tell our team until last March because I wanted to make sure we got through our season and our seniors had graduated,” said Heisey, in her 13th season at SPU. “It was going to be something for the next group. So last March I told our players, and they were just astounded, and super excited.”
Seattle Pacific senior Jordan McPhee, who leads the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game, said the coach’s announcement came during finals week when the team was feeling blah.
“We went from 1 to 100,” she said of her team’s outlook.
But when Sept. 9 arrived, the remnants of Hurricane Irma and the impending Hurricane Jose made the trip a potential no-go, even though each player had already raised $1,100 to go.
“We were on this emotional roller coaster for a week,” Pagano said. “Until the day we were supposed to leave, we had no idea if we were going.”
But that evening they got on the plane. And when they returned, it was with a new outlook on life.
Being among the people
The mission for the trip was simple: to serve. And Heisey was certain that for her players to get the most out of it, they would need to live with those they were serving.
”I told our kids, ‘We’re going into a situation to make you uncomfortable,’ she said. “Because I’ve done this before with teams and we’ve stayed in hotels and there’s nothing worse than seeing kids on the street that don’t have a place to stay, they don’t have food, and then you’re going to a hotel.
“So I said, ‘We’re just going to go and be among the people. And we’re gonna live like the people.’ … I wanted it to be different. This is a Third World country, and this isn’t about us. It’s about serving, and it’s about loving. And I can honestly say, there wasn’t one complaint, or negative body language, at all.”
Not even when the phones were shut off. Heisey wanted the players to be in the moment, and Pagano and McPhee both said it was surprisingly easy to be disconnected. And on the final night before coming home, when the team stayed in a hotel for the only time, most players decided to remain disconnected.
The previous eight nights had been spent in a church in Santiago.
“In the mornings, you would step out of the church and there would be kids everywhere,” Pagano said. “It was kind of the hub where kids could go and just play basketball and have a safe place. I remember every morning we would walk out and there was this little boy that lived across the street and he would always try to get into the church before the gates were opened just so he could play with us.”
Many of the players’ best moments came when they playing with kids. On one day, they handed out 100 pairs of adjustable shoes they had brought.
”There was this one little boy about 7 that I met there and he just has a special place in my heart,” Pagano said. “I was going to grab his hand to lead him over to the shoes and he just gives me the biggest hug, and to this day I still remember that hug. Giving a kid his first pair of shoes is pretty amazing.”
Both McPhee and Pagano were moved by kids who were about 7 and in charge of taking care of their infant siblings.
“They would literally hand their infant siblings off to us so we would take care of them so that they could jump rope for a few minutes,” Pagano said. “Because they don’t get to do that because they are always taking care of the infants.”
Said McPhee: “The little girl I was playing with, it was great to see her have a chance be a kid.”
‘So happy to be there’
The players’ biggest task was painting one floor at a new clinic that Go Ministries was building to expand its health-care services. On another day, they served lunch to kids. Those tasks proved just as rewarding as the basketball clinics and the three games.
“We did a whole entire floor in three days, which was a lot of work,” Pagano said of the paint job. “I think we sweated through three T-shirts each because it was so hot in there, but it was so worth it. You are working all day, every day and you are sweating all the time and not once did anyone say, gosh this is too much. We were all just so happy to be there.”
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And the team literally left its mark. Each group that helped with the clinic did something special to become part of its legacy. For the SPU players, it was writing their favorite verses on the wall.
What the SPU players took home with them was a new perspective on life.
“You know there are places out there like that, but actually seeing it and seeing what they go through … and that they can turn to God there and still have hope,” McPhee said. “They had so little but they found joy. It was one of the most fulfilling weeks of my life.”
A special connection
The coach and players have no doubt that the 10 days in the Dominican Republic has made them a better team.
With just a week left in the regular season, SPU has an excellent chance to make the NCAA Division II tournament.
“I think just having that gratitude, and wanting to give, and to give to each other has kind of carried over and helped us this year,” Pagano said. “We all have that connection that we went through that experience together, and we have a bond because of it, even with our coaches. It was just an experience that brought us all together and brought us closer to God.”
When things are not going well on the court, the team can draw upon the closeness it developed in the Dominican Republic.
For Heisey, the trip was everything she had hoped for and more.
“I think we got a bigger perspective of what life’s about and I think that helps us in the big scheme of things understand what basketball’s about, too,” she said. “Because it’s easy for basketball to become too big. There’s no question our kids love each other, and I think going to the Dominican and seeing all that and experiencing that was life changing.”