When I was 14 years old I met my oldest and best friend, Amy Morrison. We were inseparable though high school and even though we went to different colleges, we were always there for each other. As life barreled forward, we both took very different paths. I moved to Missouri and became an English teacher. Amy pursed a dream of creating a ministry in Ecuador that enabled students in rural towns of the country to attend universities and get higher educations. She called it The University Project. She is married to a wonderful man named Ismael and they now live in Ecuador. They are a delightful couple full of love and light. Even though Mark and I don't get to see them as often as we would like, they hold a dear place in our hearts and I would like to share a peak into what their life is like for this weeks blog. This is a recent email Amy sent:
After a year of being in Ecuador, our life has begun to settle into a good kind of routine. The University Project is going strong. Several current students will become graduates within the next year. There are three brand new project students awaiting sponsorship! Our community of students and friends has been consistent. Our involvement in our neighborhood is growing. And the “settling in” process has been smooth overall, which is such a gift! But, despite all the planning and preparation for what we expected to be doing here in Guayaquil, sometimes the unexpected happens. What I want to tell you about is tennis. (You didn’t expect that, did you?)
Let me start by saying that when I bought Ismael that $20 tennis racquet for his birthday several years ago, I never imagined then that it would turn into the hobby (obsession? compulsion? fixation? mania??) that it has become for him. And I REALLY never imagined that his love for the sport would open the doors it has for us to meet and love other people.
When we first moved into our house here in Miraflores, Guayaquil, we were excited to find out there were public tennis courts at a sports complex only a few blocks away! (Tennis is not as common a sport in Ecuador, and until very recently, was absolutely not accessible to just anyone. You’d have to be a member of an exclusive (expensive) tennis club in order to have access to a court). Well, it turned out the complex near our house was NOT actually open to the public for free, but back in November, Ismael decided it would be worth it to spend some of his money on a month of group classes in order to meet some people and play some tennis. At the time, it didn’t really seem to pan out into anything, and so we moved on and his tennis bag accumulated some dust.
But it DID pan out! A few months ago, Ismael got a phone call from Carlos, one of the tennis instructors at the complex, saying that another instructor had been let go and could Ismael come help out as an assistant? Ismael agreed pretty quickly, because…tennis…and started volunteering his time for a few hours every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday teaching kids to play tennis.
We soon discovered the tennis coaching culture here in Guayaquil is……..mmm……...how can I say it? It’s rough. Coaches are known to yell at, insult, and degrade their students. And everyone just seems to accept it with a “that’s how things are” kind of attitude. It was very discouraging, actually, the first few weeks when Ismael would come home from tennis classes and share how the instructor he was working with would overly criticize the kids, even calling them idiots, and berate them for making little mistakes (and these are just kids we’re talking about….six to sixteen years old!). It was hard to understand how the parents of these kids could accept the instructor’s behavior. But, as one parent told Ismael, “It’s like this anywhere you go for classes. Might as well stick with the most affordable one.” How sad.
Well, if you’ve EVER met Ismael, for like two seconds even, 1) he probably wanted to be your best friend immediately and asked for your phone number so you could hang out sometime, and 2) you probably realized he’s not an overly critical person, he’s a super nice guy, he likes everybody, he loves to laugh, and he would never call a kid an idiot. What’s more, he really likes kids, and he really likes tennis, and he REALLY LIKES helping kids like tennis. So Ismael’s coaching style, to say the least, is a little different than what people are used to around here. He laughs with the kids. He also takes them seriously. He treats them like people with feelings. And he takes the time to help without criticizing when they make mistakes in their game. What a difference! The kids like him, and their parents like him, and in fact, several parents approached Ismael after just a few weeks to ask him to give their kids private lessons!
Ismael came home a few weeks ago and hesitantly, but determinedly, said, “I want to invite my students to our house to watch the U.S. Open tennis final on Sunday the tenth.”
“All of your students?”
“Yes…and their parents.”
“How many students do you have?”
“……in each class.”
“That’s 18 kids.”
“Yes……and their parents. And maybe their grandparents and siblings. Some of them come with their whole family to lessons”
“………………….Ok. ……..We will need to buy more chairs. And a lot of pizza.”
So he did invite them. And we bought more chairs. And we got ready for all 34 people who RSVPd to come over and watch tennis last Sunday afternoon. And we got nervous. And we prayed every day for a week that every single person who came into our house would feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. Well, in the end, not all 34 showed up, but 19 of us got together to watch the U.S. Open final, eat snacks and pizza, play ping pong, play games, and get to know one another. And it was magical. There was warmth, and laughter. There was great conversation! Everyone seemed to have a great time together. Ismael got a text message later that same night from one of the dads (who we’d both just met that day), saying, “I have a restaurant not far away from you. I want you and your wife to come eat with us at my restaurant. Tell me what day you’re free!”
I don’t know where this is all headed, but it feels like it’s headed somewhere good. I’m really proud of Ismael for standing out…for going against the grain and showing love through the way he treats his students. I’m excited for the opportunity we had to open our home to a new, different crowd of people, and share in community together. I hope there will be more and more opportunities to connect, and to get to know the families of Ismael’s students. And I hope if they have not experienced God’s love in their lives, that they will experience it through us.
Amy and Ismael are doing great things in their community and for the people who live in Guayaquil. If you would like to donate to their mission you can do so here: