While undergoing yoga instructor training this past summer, Ryerson University volleyball player Kasandra Bracken made a connection that would greatly impact the future for both her and her Toronto-based college team. On one particular yoga sojourn to Phoenix, Ariz., completely unrelated to her volleyball passion, Bracken and her mother befriended fellow yogi Gil Gillenwater, the founder and president of the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation, and a fruitful partnership was born.
As she got to know Gillenwater, Bracken recognized his passion for actively helping those in need. Inspired by his giving philosophy and encouragement to gain life perspective, Bracken began to contemplate the possibilities.
“My coach had been saying that he wanted to organize a philanthropic trip,” Bracken said. “This happened to be the right time, the right people, the right place, the right budget. Everything fell into place.”
Upon learning more about Gillenwater’s work, Bracken said she felt a natural connection develop towards the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation, a volunteer-based non-profit organization that provides aid to border towns in Mexico through a cross-cultural exchange program. Gillenwater developed a similar respect for Bracken and the Canadian Ryerson volleyball team’s philanthropic goals.
“It was immediately apparent that Bracken and her mother were special people,” Gillenwater said. “With two classes a day of teacher training, you really get to know the people you are training with. Kasandra expressed an interest in planning a volunteer trip for her volleyball team and we just went from there.”
Gillenwater said he was confident the partnership would be a perfect fit for both the Ryerson volleyball team and the Mexican border community.
“It’s a win-win for both parties,” he said. “We provide basic life necessities and aid to the border population who are in sincere need. And at the same time, offer a way for the [volunteers] to feed their souls.”
With the support of Ryerson head coach Dustin Reid and Bracken’s continued correspondence with Gillenwater, the women’s volleyball team planned a trip that would take them across two national borders and 2,000 miles south to the border town of Agua Prieta, Mexico.
“We worked so hard to prepare for the trip beforehand in terms of fundraising and obtaining school approval,” Bracken said. “We had to go through a risk assessment with the university because of the violence issues at the border. For this reason, I think the girls were a little nervous, but still really excited.”
Gillenwater stressed that the trip would be safe and there was little cause for concern.
“We’ve had over 15,000 volunteers down here over the years and we’ve never had a problem. The violence is more near Tijuana,” he said. “I have a great relationship with the mayor and chief of police, and they watch out for us because of the work that we do here. I think the girls originally had some concerns, but once they got down there, they felt very comfortable.”
Following months of preparation and fundraising, the team departed for their trip a week and a half before Christmas in 2011. After one very long day of traveling they arrived at the Rancho Feliz dormitory in Agua Prieta, a small town in the northeastern corner of Sonora, Mexico. The dorm was built for Rancho Feliz’s Guardian Warrior program in order to house the nearly 1,000 volunteers that participate each year. This location provides volunteers with a safe place to sleep and cook their own meals.
“The dorms are not fancy, but they are clean and efficient for what we are trying to do,” Gillenwater said.
During the team’s week-long stay they distributed food, built a house for a nearby family, and were able to do something else close to their hearts: play volleyball. The players participated in scheduled volleyball matches against local Mexican teams and also conducted clinics.
The Lady Rams were the first volleyball team to ever participate in the Rancho Feliz program, and Bracken and her teammates were pleasantly surprised by how much they were able to share their volleyball skills with the locals.
“Gil did a really amazing job organizing the matches and clinics,” she said, noting that teams from all over Mexico traveled up to four hours to compete with them. “We ended up playing far more than we originally thought we would.”
Gillenwater said the Ryerson group was an appropriate fit with the city of Agua Prieta because even though it is a very poor town of 175,000 people, it happens to have an excellent municipal volleyball court for community matches.
Rancho Feliz promoted the Ryerson volleyball team’s trip in advance, and by the time they arrived, the town was abuzz with anticipation. During their stay, the girls held several volleyball clinics for the community where they taught children as young as five years old and adults as old as fifty.
“As college volleyball players we’ve all been blessed to have had several years of high-level coaching. It was a great privilege to be able to share some of that training with the people of Agua Prieta who have maybe not had the same opportunities,” Bracken said.
The Ryerson team was touched by the deep appreciation and volleyball interest that the community exhibited.
“Even though there was a difficult language barrier, it was amazing how we found ways to communicate with each other,” Bracken said. “The Mexican people seemed to really love volleyball so it was fun to be able to teach them a little bit and offer them a chance to play the game.”
All told, the Lady Rams’ trip provided funding to feed 1,000 local Mexican families. Rancho Feliz typically posts a notice a week prior to a volunteer trip, and then distributes tickets to deserving families.
“We packaged all of the food and when we went to distribute it, there were people lined up as far as you could see,” Bracken said. “It was eye opening to see how destitute these people were, but very rewarding to be able to give 1,000 families food for a whole week.”
The team also lent a hand in building a house for the Valdez family in Rancho Feliz. In the ultimate team-building exercise, together they mixed cement, pounded nails, laid bricks, and sawed lumber.
“Señor Valdez helped us with the construction along with two of his friends,” Bracken said. “We got to know Señora Valdez and their three children as well. It was very special to help them build their own house.”
The Lady Rams hope that other volleyball teams will hear their story and consider planning trips with Rancho Feliz as well.
“The day we finished the house, just saying thank you to the family and the purity of their gratitude, I truly felt the impact of our work,” Bracken said. “I hope future teams will go and experience what we did.”
Originally published in June 2012