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Valparaiso’s Christin Spoolstra has helped establish a girls basketball team in Cambodia

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:17AM



On a small rectangular section of pavement near a school in the Svay Rieng Province of Cambodia, several girls run barefoot, each clamoring for a chance to toss a well-worn basketball into the basket.

Giving pointers to the students is Valparaiso native and Peace Corps volunteer Christin Spoolstra. It’s a whole new ball game for the eager teens. And for Spoolstra, who’s stationed in the Southeast Asian country to teach English, the cultural export is just one way she’s helping improve lives and create lasting friendships.

“My girls never got to play a game because no other school in the area has a girls team,” wrote Spoolstra via e-mail from Cambodia. “They certainly won’t become athletes, but I’m happy that they have their first extra curricular activity and that they’re gaining confidence in an area that is typically reserved for the guys.”

On Oct. 3, the 24-year-old Valparaiso High School graduate celebrated the one-year mark of her 27-month commitment to the U.S. international service organization. She said that has “found another home” there and believes her host family loves her like a natural-born daughter.

“My commitment to Cambodia is stronger than ever,” Spoolstra wrote. “There are definitely things ­— and certainly people — that I miss about the States, but I’m happy where I am.”

Christin’s journey of international service through language and sports was not a methodically plotted course by a busy-bodied young person. In fact, growing up in Valparaiso, she never played school sports, but did participate in parks department baseball and softball.

As an undergrad at Albion College in Michigan, she had eyed law school, but sidelined the idea when a mentor on her internship challenged her.

“(Marty Morris) told me to think about what the purpose behind my ideal job would be and then consider the most direct path to fulfilling that purpose,” wrote Spoolstra about Sen. Richard Lugar’s chief of staff in Washington, DC.

During her senior year at Albion, Spoolstra went out for the Britons’ lacrosse team, which had just joined the ranks of NCAA D-III programs. She was further pointed in the direction of volunteerism when a teammate talked to her about the Peace Corps.

Within a few months of graduation, and after some gut checking, Spoolstra would board a jet plane in Chicago headed for Cambodia.

The Svay Rieng Province in eastern part of the country is located near the border with Vietnam, and is one of the country’s poorest regions. Though times have changed, the Khmer people endured spillover from the Vietnam War, and in the 1970s, brutalities and genocide at the hands of the extremist nationalist government called the Khmer Rogue.

Though Peace Corps protocol prohibits “political action” by volunteers, Spoolstra said she is allowed — and encouraged — to try to understand the pain many of the country’s families have endured. What she sees in today’s Cambodia is an ongoing material poverty.

Yet a brighter, more positive influence on the country seems to be American pop culture. Its impact is apparent, according to Spoolstra. “Angry Birds” characters are everywhere. And World Wrestling Entertainment’s John Cena is just about a household name.

“When I give my students the opportunity to choose an English name, someone inevitably chooses Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift,” she wrote.

Spoolstra teaches and tutors high school equivalent classes and manages to coach basketball four days a week. She called establishing a team for girls one of her first priorities upon arriving at her teaching assignment.

On the court, Christin and another American volunteer from a nearby village break down basketball drills into simplified visual lessons.

“They really love scrimmaging,” Spoolstra wrote of the three dozen or so girls who play. “It’s difficult to get them to sit down and learn the intricacies of the rules, so we kind of pick and choose what’s important for them to learn that day.”

When her schedule permits, she hopes to co-write a Peace Corps sports manual based on her starting-from-scratch coaching experiences.

Reflecting on her overseas commitment, Spoolstra characterized volunteering not in terms of changing the world, but more as a process of “improving yourself.” And though she draws much motivation from within, continued support from loved ones in Northwest Indiana has made a major impact on her.

“The support network that I left in the Midwest has never failed me,” she wrote of her friends and family. “I am constantly encouraged by kind messages, letters, and boxes of chocolate.”

And about her parent’s approval for her long-term service commitment: “Their utter selflessness in putting the desires of their children first has been a true model for me. I wouldn’t be where I am without their support and love.”



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