Sept. 6, 2016
Student-athletes don’t exactly have a lot of spare time. With classes, practices, competitions, weights, film sessions, rehabbing, study halls and everything else that goes into a typical day, you can understand why a student-athlete might need a little “down time.” South Carolina senior track and field student-athlete Maya Evans spends much of her free time serving others, so it’s no surprise that she spent a month of her summer vacation helping children in a volunteer abroad opportunity in San Ramon, Costa Rica.
“I volunteered so much here in the United States, I was looking for a new environment, new culture and a new population to work with,” Evans said. “I was looking to take my volunteering to another level. I’ve never been abroad, so the whole idea of doing that was exciting to me. I enjoyed my whole summer. I made new friends and made the most of it.
“Giving back to the community has always been really important to me. It’s a huge desire I have to give back to the community. I’m grateful for the opportunity to come to South Carolina and compete. I feel like I’ve been so blessed with the opportunities I’ve been given, so helping others that don’t have these same opportunities and doing what I can to put a smile on their face for the day is rewarding to me. It helps them as well.”
Evans led all South Carolina student-athletes in community service hours a couple of years ago and compiled 117 hours of service last year. A member of the Honors College, she has been named to the SEC Community Service Team each year at South Carolina and is also a regular on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Her desire to help others was sparked when she was in the ninth grade.
“My mom (Lisa) got me started volunteering,” Evans said. “We went to a local domestic violence shelter and helped babysit the children there. There were a lot of Mexican children. That’s what started my love for volunteering and learning Spanish. I experienced the language barrier first hand, so I made the commitment right there to learn Spanish. I’ve been studying Spanish for eight years now.”
Evans is studying public health with a focus in psychology and Spanish, so she was looking for an opportunity that would fit her academic interests as well this summer. A quick Google search led her to a program called uVolunteer.
“I knew I wanted to go abroad, but track season goes so late into the summer that it’s tough to find a study abroad that will fit,” Evans said. “I was looking for a program where I could choose the weeks that I go. I applied for a scholarship and had all my expenses paid to go on the trip. That was my first time out of the country. I went through customs and got my passport stamped for the first time.”
While in Costa Rica, Evans worked at a community center in a very poor section of San Ramon.
“My program was community education,” Evans said. “It’s basically an after school program where the children can go. They’re only in school for about three hours per day there, but it’s at different times of the day, so there are always kids there. The students I worked with were ages 3 to 14. We would help them with any homework they had each day. It could be math or reading comprehension. All of this was in Spanish.
“We also had daily physical activities. The kids loved to run around and play soccer. I helped organize programs such as field days and things like that.”
The best part of my Costa Rica experience was working every day with the kids and seeing how they forget about all of their troubles at home when they come to the community center.Maya Evans
Evans made an impact by helping the children, but she was also rewarded in several ways, including a unique educational and social experience.
“Before leaving, I could read, write and understand Spanish very well, but I never really had the opportunity to speak it as much as I did and apply what I learned,” Evans said. “Obviously going abroad really helped my Spanish. I spoke Spanish 9-to-5.
“I went there with an open mind. I was ready to improve my Spanish and learn about the education system there, and most of all, make a good relationship with the kids. None of my immediate family has ever been out of the country. My parents were nervous, but I could tell they were very excited. I did it all myself, so they were excited to see the independence and drive that I had to do this.”
Evans admits she experienced moments of culture shock.
“Here, I’m used to eating whatever I want, when I want,” Evans said. “There, rice and beans were the main food for lunch and dinner. We experienced what the children have, which is small portioned meals. I might get a small bowl of soup and some bread, or we would have some small portion of rice and chicken. That’s a big change from being here and having all-you-can-eat at the Dodie (Academic Enrichment Center).”
Looking back, any adjustments she had to make to the lifestyle for which she was accustomed was well worth it.
“The best part of my Costa Rica experience was working every day with the kids and seeing how they forget about all of their troubles at home when they come to the community center,” Evans said. “They didn’t have much at home. Some had dirt floors. Some didn’t have bathrooms. There was one girl, who could only come to the center for 15 minutes per day. She would come over and greet me with a hug every day. I like to think she came just for me.”
When her time was up, Evans said it wasn’t easy to go home.
“It was hard to leave the kids and the other volunteers as well,” Evans said. “Being immersed in that culture, it was actually more of a culture shock coming back to the United States. Since then, I’ve been looking for other opportunities to go abroad again. I’m also looking into applying for graduate school abroad. I want to work with children who are struggling in school or don’t get the support from home.
“I went there not knowing anybody, but I left with really strong relationships.”