Thirteen Panamanian youth piled into a van to do two of their favorite things: skip a day of school and go play ultimate. Sporting Dragons Club Ultimate jerseys donated by the town’s mayor, the 8 to 16 year olds arrived at the neighboring town’s school and started tossing to warm up. The field was located in the center of the school, like a Roman atrium, the other students were immediately drawn to the spectacle. The home team was comprised of the best players of two gym classes ranging from 12 to 17 years old. The stage was set for the first ultimate game played between schools in Panama. The game was intense, complete with player-resolved disputes, layout scores, and high levels of Spirit of the Game. The crowd loved every second of it, cheering madly and rushing the field after the final point.
I founded Dragons Club Ultimate as a Peace Corps volunteer the western province of Chiriquí, Panama. I saw a need for youth programs in the community where I lived and worked so I created this youth club in early 2012. The club had 13 members ranging from 3rd to 9th grade and unschooled youth. They practiced twice a week and played spirited exhibition matches against the neighboring town.
Dragons Club Ultimate is more than just a group of students getting together to play a sport they love. It is a youth club designed to give under-resourced youth the tools and opportunities to grow emotionally, socially, physically and professionally through the non-profit organization, Ultimate Without Borders (UWB). UWB, founded by former Peace Corps volunteers, Ben Searle and Dai Lin, partners with Peace Corps volunteers to reach communities where youth lack access to recreational activities. UWB provides youth with the opportunity for excellence and the joy of playing and amazing sport in their communities. Zuleyka Ballestero commented, “I am going to keep playing ultimate to learn more about being a professional.”
In this sentiment, Ken Hartman Dragons Club’s coach, often visited the homes of his players to keep parents involved and congratulate his players on their effort, dedication and spirit. To be a member of Dragons, the players signed an agreement to practice Spirit of the Game on and off the field, arrive to practices early as well as keep their grades up in school. To assist his players, Ken collaborated with the teachers and offered a tutoring session every Monday for any subject the player wanted extra help in. One of Ken’s players was failing math and made an agreement to go to all the Monday tutoring sessions. His math teacher said that “after joining the club, I noticed a very favorable change in Alberto. He payed attention in class, his performance improved considerably, he approached me with more confidence and showed real interest and responsibility in completing his assignments and getting good grades.” The teacher also happily commented that “[she] saw in his face the joy of being a better student.”
Ultimate Without Borders sprouted from the idea that Spirit of the Game has the potential to challenge the way we traditionally have thought about competition, and to empower youth to become leaders and game changers in their communities. Zuleyka described SOTG
by saying that it “follows the golden rule: treat others how you want to be treated. That means that since I want the best for myself, I am going to give my best to others and that’s how we always hold up SOTG.” Stepping on the ultimate field is a practical lesson on the Golden Rule and positive play both of which are crucial for developing youth. “In this sport we practice values above all,” said Blanca Espinoza telling why she enjoys Ultimate so much.
In addition to utilizing the uniquely applied tenet of SOTG, UWB highlights individuals’ strengths to build confidence and community. UWB also mixes in teambuilding, communication, problem solving, goal setting, decision-making and trust games into the pot of ultimate joy. These skills are translated to help increase motivation for reaching personal and team goals. “Being in the club helped me meet new friends and also develop new skills in the practices,” said Boris Zamorano, and “I’ve loved this sport since I first played it and it’s super fun!”
Furthermore, because UWB highlights SOTG, it allows youth teams to be diverse in their members. For example, the Dragons team had a mixed team with an age range of 8 to 16 years old. This gave the younger players the chance to play and learn from older players while the older players had the invaluable experience of mentoring younger teammates. And because the team was co-ed, it was a first-hand testimony to girls being every bit as part of the sport as boys are. In a culture where girls don’t get the opportunity to play many sports, especially mixed, this is an important step towards moving forward in gender equality.
“What I would like is that this sport be better known throughout Panama so that there are more clubs that play the sport,” commented Boris. UWB believes the same thing.
Ultimate Without Borders recently held a training in February led by UWB-Panama directors Ken Hartman and Danielle Renzi for Peace Corps volunteers in Panama. UWB trained volunteers on coaching ultimate, youth development tools and supplied each trained volunteer with UWB youth workbooks, coach’s guide and ten discs to start youth clubs in their communities throughout Panama. Discs were donated by awesome ultimate players and teams who believe in spreading the joy of ultimate and SOTG.
Something that makes UWB unique is that it is able to provide the program at an incredibly low cost because all our coaches are already living in the countries we serve. Once the program is started in a country, it costs only a couple hundred dollars to keep it running for a few years so all donations have an amazingly far reach.
If you or your team would like to collaborate with this project, there are many ways to join in. We are currently accepting disc donations for our program in South Africa and are fundraising to run our trainings in Panama and South Africa. Any players interested in coordinating a disc donation or benefit tournament should send a quick message to the facebook page.
Like Ultimate Without Borders’ Facebook page www.facebook.com/UltimateWithoutBorders to stay informed.