When Taylor Kavanaugh took a personal trip to Guatemala in 2008, his life was forever changed.
After returning home, he shared his experiences with his Oregon State football teammates. It inspired them as well.
That inspiration led Kavanaugh to forming the Beavers Without Borders project.
The project is still thriving four years later.
A group of 13 OSU athletes, along with a number of other students, recently completed the fourth international humanitarian effort. This year’s team built two homes for single-parent, female-headed families in Silti, Ethiopia, from June 17-29.
The athletes taking part were Josh Andrews and Brian Watkins (football), Martie Massey (volleyball), Emily Richardson (softball), Stephanie McGregor (gymnastics), Julie Sattler (soccer), Chloe Steinbeck (track), along with Jonni Motomochi, Seshia-Lei Telles Lauren Fischer (golf), Gillian Cooper and Clark Fisher (rowing) and Margo Clinton (swimming).
“I had a blast. It was the best experience I could have been part of,” Watkins said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Kavanaugh received the help of Hult International Children’s Services, an adoption and child welfare agency, for this year’s trip.
In addition to the trip to Ethiopia, teams have made two trips to Guatemala and one to Macedonia.
“The project was extremely successful,” Kavanaugh said. “The impact it had on the student-athletes is pretty unbelievable.”
Kavanaugh hopes to find a larger donor so the program will be endowed and can run itself as a recurring project twice a year — once in the spring and again in the summer.
His hopes are to continue to help the areas they’ve already visited, as well as finding other parts of the world.
The Ethiopia trip took 12 days, which included two days of travel each way. Andrews called it a business trip with personal benefits from the experience. Distributing shoes to the people there was part of the joy.
“It made me grateful for what I have,” Andrews said. “It was so poor there. I’ve never seen someone so poor. It was eye-opening. I’ve never been out of the country before. It was crazy to see a place like that. It did change me.”
Andrews and Watkins heard about the opportunity from Kavanaugh, as well as other teammates like Markus Wheaton and Lance Mitchell, who have been a part of past trips.
“It was surreal how much fun we were having and the impact we were having on families and the community,” Watkins said.
Andrews had planned to go to Honduras during spring break, but that trip was cancelled due to safety concerns.
“I had to do it. It was the right thing to do,” Andrews said. “That could have been me out there born into that.”
Having heard the stories of kidnappings by terrorists, Andrews was concerned about his safety leaving the country. Watkins said he wasn’t concerned, but his family worried.
“Before I didn’t know about my safety out there, but after talking to them about it, it was OK,” Andrews said. “That was a major thing for me, but you are with your teammates and people from other sports. I was around a good group of people, and I’d be OK.”
While all the athletes train at a high level, they were not ready for the work they did.
“Building those houses was hard,” Andrews said. “The carpenters who were helping us, it was easy for them but we were struggling. It’s a different type of labor than what we do. They were in shape for what they do.”
The foundations were already set when the athletes arrived, so they nailed the walls together with 12-foot tall sticks, then sealed the walls.
To do that, they gathered nearby dirt and straw, then walked a mile to a river and carried back jugs filled with five gallons of water.
The athletes then brought the ingredients into the rooms of the house and mixed them together with their bare feet. Afterward they smeared it into the walls.
“It was interesting,” Watkins said. “I’ve never done anything like that. When you see it on paper, it was simple. You nail in nails into some stick, throw in some mud and smear it around. But that was some hard labor.”
Once the mud dried, a tin roof was placed on top for the athletes to secure. When done, they had completed a traditional house used by village members.
“The best part for me (was) being able to interact with the family we helped out,” Watkins said. “They were shy at first. After a couple days the mom helped out and (then the) daughter. They were better workers than most of us.”
Construction was delayed by a heavy rainstorm the second day. The athletes spent that time getting to know the villagers and played soccer against them.
They faced a coed team that trained for weeks to face the Americans. It was a huge event for the village with about 2,000 in attendance.
The Beavers lost 5-3, but Sattler used her soccer expertise to score two goals on penalty kicks and scored off an assist from Watkins.
“There were many people waiting for that game, with people in trees,” Watkins said. “It looked like a hostile environment, but they loved us. After the game they ran up and hugged us. It still gives us chills thinking about the experience we had.”
After returning and recovering from jet lag, they were able to share their experiences with their teammates and friends.
They hope their stories inspire the next group of volunteers, just like they were inspired when they heard about the early trips.
“The best part of everything is coming back and telling what we did,” Watkins said. “You can tell a lot of people want to be more involved. The more trips Beavers Without Borders goes on, other student-athletes and people in the community want to go on these trips.”