By Chris Maza
EAST LONGMEADOW – Town resident Rob Holden recently spent his college winter break in Guatemala as part of Clark University’s first-ever excursion by the Clark Athletics Service Learning Trip program.
Holden was one of 11 students to travel to Loma Linda, an impoverished rural village in the small Central American country for nine days.
A sophomore lacrosse player for the Cougars who was the Pilgrim League Rookie of the Year last season, Holden is a biology major who made the 2013 dean’s list and also serves on the Clark University Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and Green Athletes.
Before going on the trip, students aided Real Futbol Training and Little Grasshoppers in collecting sports equipment and school supplies to bring with them. When they arrived, they conducted a sports camp, serving more than 90 children from ages 4 to 13.
“We worked with the kids from town and ran soccer clinics to bring the community together through sports,” Holden said. “Sport is a language in itself. It breaks down language barriers and it keeps kids’ minds off the problems in their society.”
Holden and his fellow students also worked with Seven Hills Foundation, for which Clark adjunct professor David Jordan is president and CEO, to help the people of Loma Linda develop a stronger ecotourism economy to supplement recent challenges in the coffee industry.
“A lot of their economy is based in tourism now,” Holden said. “They have had a lot of problems making enough money to support themselves by growing coffee because there are so many other countries – bigger countries – producing more, so they have had to try to find other ways.”
Holden said he was particularly struck by the strong outlook exuded by the people of Loma Linda in spite of living very humble lifestyles.
“These people didn’t have the same kind of luxuries that we have in America and they face a lot of challenges, like not knowing if they are going to bring home enough to feed their families, but they always had such a positive attitude about things,” he said.
Besides that, one other thing surprised the 5-foot, 10-inch Holden.
“I was amazed at how small the people are. The men were all maybe about 5-[feet] 5 [inches tall],” he said. “We towered over most of them.”
Overall, while getting a good feeling by giving back, Holden said he took away something much more important – a greater appreciation for the opportunities he has.
“I was hoping to have a life-changing experience, something that opened my eyes and that’s exactly what I got,” he said. “I feel so fortunate for what I have, but at the same time I think I learned a lot about what’s important in life. The people in Loma Linda have so little and they are still some of the happiest, nicest people I ever met.”