By Marvin Pave, Boston Globe Correspondent
They traveled by bus over narrow cobblestone roads high in the mountains of Central America, and played soccer with schoolchildren on a field with a sun-splashed volcano as a backdrop. Then, at the completion of their nine-day stay, they shared a tearful goodbye with their host families.
For Lexington resident Harris Rollinger and fellow varsity athletes at Clark University — including Liz Gomes of Arlington, Sudbury’s Spencer Brightman, and Dennis O’Brien of Medfield — their visit to the small town of Loma Linda, Guatemala, earlier this month was a life-changing experience.
Their stay was primarily financed and sponsored by Seven Hills Global Outreach, a Worcester-based organization that supports humanitarian efforts in developing nations, and a university program, the Clark Athletics Service-Learning Trip, established last year in collaboration with the nonprofit.
Rollinger, a recipient of the Worcester school’s prestigious Thomas M. Dolan ’62 Award for his service and leadership, contributed the cash prize accompanying the award to help jump-start the funding.
A graduate student and two-time tennis captain at Clark, Rollinger had taken a course in social entrepreneurship from adjunct professor David Jordan, president and CEO of Seven Hills.
Both were intrigued with the idea of giving Clark’s student-athletes an opportunity to bring their skills and team concepts to the outreach program. Eleven were chosen to visit Loma Linda, whose economy is based on a coffee-growing industry that has hit hard times.
“The experience was eye-opening and inspiring,’’ said the 22-year-old Rollinger, a Lexington High graduate. “Our hosts treated us like family. I stayed with Pascual Escobar, who is head of the town’s only school, and it is a day-to-day struggle for the people there.
“But they are generous with what they have and always smiling, and that’s what impressed me the most.’’
The entourage from Clark brought soccer equipment and uniforms for the town’s elementary and middle schools, donated by Real Futbol Training in Paxton and the soccer academy’s Little Grasshoppers program.
Gomes, an Arlington High graduate and varsity women’s soccer player at Clark, said the trip “definitely took me out of my comfort zone.
“It was pretty remarkable,” she said. “There is a lot of passion within our group to tell this town’s story and find ways to make tourism a boost to their economy.’’
At the end of each day, the Clark students met with Jordan to share their “Pearl for the Day” thoughts.
On Monday, the students and tour group leaders met with the university’s interim athletic director, Trish Cronin. They also plan to make a presentation on their journey at the spring athletic awards ceremony.
“What really struck me,’’ said Brightman, a Clark senior who captained the tennis team at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, “was that the families couldn’t afford to buy the highest grade of coffee they produced, so we bought some for them. My house dad grew up walking five miles just to get water, but he and the people of Loma Linda are happier than most people I know.’’
Brightman and O’Brien were given soccer jerseys once worn by their host dad’s children as going-away presents.
“It was like stepping into another world,’’ said O’Brien, a junior lacrosse player and graduate of the White Mountain School in New Hampshire. “My experience makes me want to write my honors thesis on ecotourism because of the impact these people had on me.
“On the plane ride home, I kept thinking of ways to help them.’’
Jordan said Rollinger did an “amazing’’ job of organizing the trip, adding that it would not have been possible without the financial commitment of Clark University’s president, David Angel.
“The biggest thing is that the students want to stay involved and now have a global perspective,’’ Jordan said.