MISSOULA — A handful of former Montana Lady Griz and Grizzly basketball players recently returned from El Salvador where they served as citizen ambassadors in a U.S. Department of State youth sports diplomacy program.
The list included ex-Lady Griz Torry Hill, Sierra Anderson, Greta Koss Buehler and Kristy Langton Schlimgen along with former Grizzly Mike Chavez. They were part of a group of 19 professionals and students representing the University of Montana.
"The highlight for me was making those kids' day," said Hill, who will serve as head coach for the Frenchtown girls' basketball team this winter. "We had a big language barrier and they were just learning the basketball skills, but for most they were just happy we were there.
"They seemed fascinated in general — really kind to us and very welcoming."
The program helps build teamwork and self-discipline in youth that often leads to success in other aspects of their lives. Drawing on their basketball expertise, the ambassadors shared the role sports can play in youth development while promoting technical proficiency among coaches, administrators and officials.
"I went to El Salvador thinking it was mostly about putting on some basketball clinics, but what I found is that it was so much more," said Koss Buehler, a former WNBA player. “I learned about a culture that is vastly different from my own, met many wonderful people and realized that despite all the differences between our countries, I was able to connect with people through basketball.”
Langton Schlimgen echoed her thoughts.
“This has been an incredible experience in every aspect — including the amazing time spent with the beautiful youth we were privileged to coach and the dedicated coaches who are working tirelessly to overcome many obstacles in an attempt to teach more basketball,” she said.
The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at Montana managed the program, which uses sports to bridge cultures and support at-risk youth in Central America. The Montana group spent eight days in July in El Salvador. In return, they will host youth and adult sports mentors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Montana in April.
The El Salvador exchange was the first of four sports exchanges to Latin America under the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ International Sports Programming Initiative cooperative agreement. In May 2019, the Mansfield Center will offer a soccer exchange to Peru that focuses on girls’ empowerment and indigenous culture, with external partners implementing the other two exchanges to support Mexico and Columbia.
The Mansfield Center is an established partner in Sports Diplomacy programming, having created similar exchanges in China and Laos.
UM news service contributed