The light in the hot, sticky gym comes mostly from skylights in the high roof. A few people scatter around the bleachers, watching the 10 boys on the basketball court. A few shy girls, dressed in yellow Kiwanis shirts, wait their turn to get the floor. Children in colorful dress hang out near one of the doorways, practicing routines and dance steps. Several adults gather at courtside tables to keep score of the basketball action while a referee blows his whistle at mid-court.
This is the Kiwanis Gymnasium, created and maintained by the Kiwanis Club of Panama City, Panama, the oldest Kiwanis club in the country. The gym is situated in what might be the most dangerous part of the city, El Chorrillo, an impoverished area where it’s common to see children roaming the streets, and locals admit tourists are not very welcome.
The gym buzzes with activity today, but the site where it stands has had a long, troubled history. The original gym burned down. When that happened, Kiwanians stepped in, took action and built a new one. After all, they felt that such a gym offers an important outlet for children—a safe haven from the streets. The kids, Kiwanians believe, should have a place to get much-needed physical education and loving attention from caring adults.
“We’re always fighting to do more for the kids,” says Panama City Kiwanian Jose Jaen, a past president of the club. “Everything is free here for them.”
As Jaen walks through the gym, he’s greeted by name. Everyone knows him and knows of his love for this gymnasium, the children and Kiwanis. He was instrumental in getting the gym rebuilt in the first place, and since then, he’s dedicated countless hours to the children in El Chorrillo. Nothing keeps him away. Nothing. Not even being shot inside his office at the gym during a botched robbery.
Instead, he and other members of the Panama City Kiwanis Club continue to look for new ways to reach out to children.
From sports programs to computer classes, dance classes to physical education, thousands of local boys and girls have come through these doors to enjoy the facility since it was built in 1994.
“The minister of education approved sending the kids here by bus,” Jaen says, “and the kids from the different schools get to know each other. That’s important, so that later if they see each other in the streets, they have something in common. A bond. I believe sports is the best way to keep kids out of trouble. We have good programs here.”
The gym is only one part of the club’s extensive list of projects. Club members work to preserve a cultural and historic landmark—Panama La Viejo—the original Panama City.
They also run the entire Kiwanis Sports Village, an expansive facility in a former military base near the Panama Canal. The complex consists of a gymnasium, sports fields, racquetball courts, a swimming pool and more. The club strives to offer plenty of sports options to children of all backgrounds and has gained a great reputation in the city.
Sponsors such as McDonald’s, Nike, major banks and beverage companies have backed their programs for several years. These sponsorships and fundraisers help offset costs for all the club’s programs.
“We sponsor a 5K race along with McDonald’s, our major sponsor, to offer scholarships to children,” Jaen says, noting the importance of valuable partners. “If you have the right people on board, you can get things done.”
Jaen is quick to point out that the Panama City Club certainly doesn’t take all the credit for its projects, including the Kiwanis Gymnasium in El Chorrillo. The club works with other Kiwanis clubs—Panama Canal, Las Perlas and Metropolitano—on many projects.
“It belongs to Kiwanis. We do all things together.”
Across town, Panama City Kiwanian Juan Melillo is hurrying to get to the football field. The club’s kickoff to its annual American football program—one of the club’s largest fundraisers, bringing in more than US$50,000 this past year— begins in less than an hour.
The football season spans several months and brings in some big-league sponsors—Audi, New Balance, Aquacai water, Banco General and Gatorade. Once again, with this project, the club turns to sports to bring children and the community together.
“This league helps create discipline; gives the kids the chance to work in teams,” Melillo says. “There’s a sense of responsibility. They have to manage their own schedules and keep up their grades if they want to play.”
The schedule is hectic. Practice begins in March and sessions are scheduled almost every day for a couple of hours. Games are played on weekends, and play continues through July. From ticket sales to concessions, from managing and coaching to officiating, countless Kiwanians, CKI members and community volunteers come together to make the program a success. And the club doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to use the popular project to recruit new members.
“This is where we have Kiwanians of the future,” Melillo says. “They know Kiwanis when they get older, and they want to be involved because of this football league.”
The yellow bus packed with Kiwanians and supplies pulls off the road after more than a two-hour journey, and the scene unfolds like something from a movie script. It all happens so quickly, yet everything seems to move in slow motion. “They said more help was needed,” Olivares says. “Kiwanis worked with them. They really need schools, so our club decided to construct La Tosca.”
Children are running toward the bus even before it stops. They’re cheering, giggling and throwing their arms in the air.
As if in a choreographed maneuver, the members of the Panama Canal Kiwanis Club jump out of the van and hustle supplies into the bright blue and white building, which is surrounded by children in their best school uniforms, moms with babies and a few interested locals gathering in the road.
This is the La Tosca school in the Katrigandi region of Panama, close to the border of the Darien province, known for its remote jungle terrain. And the Kiwanis Club of Panama Canal built this school from scratch.
Club President Alex Olivares says the idea for the La Tosca school came when some of his co-workers worked on a different school in the area.
“They said more help was needed,” Olivares says. “Kiwanis worked with them. They really need schools, so our club decided to construct La Tosca.”
Schools in this rural region of the country are few and far between, and most facilities are less than ideal. The La Tosca school, situated in an area that forces a very long walk for many of the young children, has some of the nicest classrooms in the area. But there’s still no electricity, and water pressure isn’t good. One teacher is in charge of grades 1–6, and she’s working on establishing a kindergarten class as well. That’s about 40 kids a day for lessons that last about five hours.
All of this may seem sparse, but the children and their families don’t think so. To them, this school, built by the Kiwanis club in 2007, means everything. And on this weekend day—a day the children didn’t have to walk miles to their lessons—they chose to anyway. Having this school means enough to them that they’d give up a Saturday to meet Kiwanians who’ve come to deliver supplies and visit for a few hours.
“The school means a lot because what they’re getting at their homes is just a little part, but also they’re complemented here in the school by learning other lessons,” says schoolteacher Mariflor Jaramillo. “I have noticed that Kiwanis’ support is very obvious. In my lifetime as a teacher, this is the first organization I’ve seen that has given substantial support to a school.”
Former club President Henry Sanchez has big dreams for the club’s work, especially with education projects.
“With La Tosca, we have something that’s very permanent,” Sanchez says while chatting on the bus ride back to the city. “School supplies last a while, but the building will last for generations. It’s something we can grow on.
“My dream for this project is that when these kids graduate sixth grade, they head to high school. Then they need to go on to university. I want to provide them with mentoring, scholarships and a place to stay.
“Too many people pull their children out of school in sixth grade to work and then families just repeat what past generations have done—too few children go to university.”
Pensive, Sanchez pauses a minute and catches his balance while standing during the bumpy bus ride. He looks out the window.
“There’s just so much to do,” he says, gazing off in the distance as the city blurs by in the window. “I still feel like we don’t do enough.”
Story by Kasey Jackson; Photos by Chris Hayworth
Stories produced by KIWANIS Magazine