Rachel Zilinskas : Eternally Grateful for This Opportunity


Out of my comfort zone and into a life-changing experience

When we arrived in Costa Rica, we were given a notecard to write what we wanted to get out of the trip.  I wrote three different things: a different perspective, a growth experience by being pushed out of my comfort zone, and to build new relationships.  Little did I know, by the end of the trip I would be able to write a novel about how each of these came to fruition.  People kept saying “thank you” and showing gratitude to me throughout the trip; however, I am the one who is eternally grateful for this opportunity.  


A different perspective

As a competitive swimmer, I have traveled both all over the country and all over the world.  However, when I was on these trips, most of what I saw was the hotel, the pool, and my fellow U.S. teammates.  I’ve passed homeless people on the streets, even served and interacted with them at homeless shelters.  However, being in San José was one of the most culturally immersive experiences of my life.  When we set up our shoe distribution at the first school in the Guararí community, kids were laughing and running around playing soccer.  It took me a minute to realize that they didn’t even have a ball – they were playing with a half-empty water bottle.  I can’t describe the flood of emotions that came over me every time I removed a kid’s filthy, ripped shoes with the backs pushed down because they grew out of them years ago and replaced them with brand new, fresh Nike shoes.  It made me feel so incredibly guilty for every time I rolled my eyes when my free, team-issued Nikes always came a half-size too big.  Every single day, at least one kid threw his or her arms around me out of sheer excitement and appreciation.  Luckily for me, I knew enough Spanish to hold conversations with the kids, and some of the things that they said will stay with me forever. 

Outside of my comfort zone

After a long day of travel, we finally wound through the streets of San José with houses lined with iron gates and barbed wire to arrive at our own lodging – surrounded by iron gates and barbed wire.  There was never a moment that I felt unsafe on the trip; however, there were plenty of moments where I felt unsure or uneasy.  I wasn’t used to closing the gates every night to keep out robbers or walking down the hall from my room in my flip-flops, through the kitchen just to take a shower.   However, the trip made me realize that comfort zones are completely personal things that we construct based on what is “normal” by our own judgments and experiences.  When we traveled to the Monteverde region in the mountains, we had the opportunity to cook a meal with a local family.  When I stepped through the doorway of the family’s home, I saw an incredibly small, but clean space with dirt floors, low ceilings, a small living room, small kitchen, and sheets hung up to block off areas I presumed to be “bedrooms.”  Definitely not the four bedroom, four bathroom house with a full kitchen my roommates and I share, but as we began filling the house with delicious smells and laughter, I realized it was not all that different.  All of my basic needs were met; while I might not have had the technology and space I was accustomed to, there was really nothing that I was lacking.  When I stepped outside of my comfort zone, I was truly able to appreciate all of the important things – like laughter and love.

Building new relationships

I think when we all got to Costa Rica, we were all excited to interact with and serve the kids, but I don’t think any of us predicted how close we would grow as a team.  Though we all came from very diverse backgrounds, we would all laugh together, cry together, be challenged together, grow together, and eat copious amounts of rice and beans together.  I witnessed some of my teammates do incredibly selfless things throughout the week – like Taja Cole giving away a pair of her own beloved shoes to a kid when we ran out of his size or Summer Burnett placing her flower crown from graduation on a little girl to make her feel like a princess.  Every single person on the trip did something that made me want to be a better person.  I was used to seeing these people around campus, at games, or at LEAD meetings, but this trip opened my eyes to all of their amazing personalities outside of athletics.  Moreover, the people at Soles4Souls and Clinica CEDCAS – our host for the trip – grew to be members of our family as well.  When we said goodbye to everyone there were heartfelt hugs and genuine appreciation as we celebrated the uncommon bond that we all forged, only made possible by a trip as unique as this one.



Posted on

June 12, 2017

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