“Time flies when you’re having fun,” the saying goes. But, for six Venezuelan coaches, the time flew even quicker than they had expected when they visited Knoxville and the University of Tennessee.
During the first week of September, the Center’s staff hosted the group for a four-day exchange program through Partners of the Americas and the U.S. Department of State that included sessions with university students, sports teams and local partners
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Ernis Arias, a former baseball player and trainer who attended Olivet Nazarene University and served as the group’s translator.
“I was so impressed by the care that everyone took with us. We will take back to Venezuela so many new lessons on volunteering, education, leadership, and how sports plays a part.”
The coaches’ work focuses on how participation in sports can serve to inspire youth to create positive change in their communities and avoid the violence that affects much of the country. With reports indicating Venezuela currently has the second-highest homicide rate in the world, the task is monumental. But, the coaches are optimistic. Aside from Arias and baseball, the others represent a wide range disciplines, including track & field (Marcos Fernandez), swimming (Celia Palencia and Katy Ramirez), fitness and sports administration (Vanessa Pena), and mixed martial arts (Alberto Morles), that can be used to make a difference.
“I’ve already lived and worked in the United States, but for the rest of the group it was important to see how sport is handled here,” Arias said. “The exposure to a different culture and seeing it with your own eyes is much more meaningful than reading about it or seeing it on the television.”
On their first full day, the group visited Jefferson City High School. They toured the school and sports facilities with Mark Finchum, Ph.D., a friend of the Center and longtime social studies teacher at the school, and Athletic Director Randy Rogers. The coaches visit was documented by a local newspaper, The Standard Banner. Following the JCHS experience, the group toured the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and visited a local mixed martial arts gym to get a workout.
On their second day, the Venezuelans were the focal points of two classes at UT. In the morning, they were interviewed by journalism students and had the opportunity to share their stories of participating in sport and their hopes for the future of their country. After taking a tour of the Pat Summitt Plaza, Neyland Stadium, Regal Soccer Stadium, Sherri Lee Parker Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena, the coaches participated in the special Sports and Leadership course that is a part of the VOLeaders Academy curriculum, one of our highly-prized partnerships at the Center. In the class, they listened to the experiences of the different student-athletes and shared cultural differences and similarities.
“I asked for the curriculum because I was so interested in what these student-athletes are learning,” said Palencia, a Ph.D. candidate and swimming coach at Universidad Central de Venezuela. “The connection between sport and education is very important to the work I do, and often in Venezuela young people are forced to choose between one or the other, and I think they are tied together.”
On their final full day in Knoxville, the coaches had the opportunity to meet and speak with 2x U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler about the values that an be learned from sport and her journey as an elite-level athlete. That was followed by a nutrition course and strength and conditioning session courtesy of the UT Athletics Department. Their day ended with a trip to Girls Inc. of Oak Ridge, where they quickly earned the affection of the girls and participated in exercise and drawing activities.
It was sad to see the group leave, but for everyone involved this experience was nothing short of spectacular. You can visit the Center’s Facebook page to see pictures and read more about the trip.