Locked inside a chain link fence in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, is a dismal pile of rubble. Seven men stare at the debris, wincing at what’s become of the skate park they built a year ago. There had been so many children, laughing and challenging each other, gliding up the ramps to do jumps and tricks. But before long, the top layer of the skating surface began to chip away, worsening until the park became unusable. Now the children stay outside the crisscrossed fence, pressing their faces into the openings for a look inside.
Within the fence, the seven men shuffle around to the back of a low cinder block building—First Baptist Church of Puerto Viejo—where they enter a graveyard of discarded wooden ramps. They look over the frayed pieces they labored so hard to construct, the surfaces coming undone, the layers peeling away. Joseph Hayes, whose wrists are tattooed with broken shackles, shakes his head. “It’s such a disappointment seeing them stacked like trash.”
The men are from Beaufort, South Carolina, a place of such natural beauty that this town on the Caribbean coast is hardly an upgrade. They met at church but travel as His Kids Empowering Communities, an organization formed several years earlier by two disparate forces—the diminutive, cantankerous Ken Gagne and the broad-shouldered, gregarious Michael Mackewich. While Michael was a financial services advisor with a talent for collaboration, Ken was 20 years older, a jack-of-all-trades with a particular way of doing things. Though he took some getting used to, Ken proved to be a passionate, unifying force. Today, on the one-month anniversary of his death, the team carries on. In solidarity, they wear black Costa Rica T-shirts with Ken’s name printed in memoriam on the left sleeve.
“Ken worked ’til the day he went to the hospital,” says Gerard Moreira in his raspy voice.
“He had an infection in his heart,” explains Josh Ward, the team’s youngest member. “He was working a week into it, describing it as flu-like symptoms.”
But Ken refused to go see a doctor.
“Yeah, that infection he had was for a minute,” says Gerard. “Maybe if we could have…” He pauses, thinking. “Maybe if he’d got checked …”
While in the hospital, Ken stopped eating. Then he had a stroke. Nobody was ready for him to go.
At Ken’s funeral, the Puerto Viejo team were his pallbearers. They wore their black Costa Rica T-shirts. And Ken did, too. “He was a servant,” says David Felver through his big, dark beard. “He had a heart for God. But the first time I met Ken, I said, ‘There’s no way in the world this grumpy old man and I are going to get along.’”
“He really didn’t deal with a whole lot of people because of how his personality was,” adds Gerard. “But once he loved you, that was it. Then he loved you.”
“He loved talking about the trip and the projects,” says Mike McCaskey, who next to Ken and Michael has traveled to Puerto Viejo the most.
“Well, he was going to move here,” adds Michael. “That was his goal.”
Puerto Viejo is known for its clear water, great surf, and laid-back ambiance. Its main street runs along the beach, and on it is a cluster of shops and restaurants, with more bicycles and foot traffic than motorists. In the center of all the bustle is the church, on a corner where all day long buses hiss to a stop, their doors opening to a fresh batch of sojourners. Teenagers and younger children roll by on bikes and skateboards in a constant flow of activity.
“I don’t have the credentials to be a pastor,” says Orlando Brown, a transplanted Jamaican with a bushy goatee, now a resident of Puerto Viejo. “But I pastor the kids on the street.” It’s long been Orlando’s dream to care for these local kids and divert them from the drugs so prevalent in their community. “I was like them. They need the gospel. That’s what they lack—the gospel and love.” He removes a section of fence for the Beaufort team so the work can begin. The kids have been climbing over it anyway, anxious to get their skate park back.
Ken Gagne came to Christ late in his life, perhaps a decade before he started making trips to Latin America. Never married and childless, he was used to having things his way, which often made him impatient with children.
“There was a story told at Ken’s funeral,” Mike says. “Our pastor was brand new. He had a son who was probably 9 years old.” He goes on, explaining that there were three boys—the pastor’s son and two others—throwing a football around in the hallways of the church school. Ken had run into them earlier, making it clear they were not to throw the ball inside. But when he was out of sight, they threw it again. “And Ken steps out from around the corner and grabs it with one hand. I think he had a knife in the other, and POW! Popped it. Then he says, ‘I told ya’ll not to throw this ball around here.’”
The group roars with laughter.
“With the new pastor’s son!” says Joseph.
“Welcome to Beaufort,” adds David.
But over the years, Ken developed such a heart for kids that, the way the men tell it, you would never put the old Ken together with the new. What had changed?
“That first missions trip,” says Joseph.
Mike agrees. “Coming down here and working with these kids.”
Later in the evening, the team joins their church-planting friend Jeffrey Bejarano at a large building with steel rafters near the Panamanian border. It’s night two of the “Noches de Milagros” evangelistic services. “This is very remote,” says Michael. “The people here likely don’t have a Bible, and the church is only 7 months old.” These conditions make the In Touch Messenger invaluable to Jeffrey, who’s distributed about 150 of them over the last two years. When Michael heard about the Messenger, he knew it would be a tremendous fit for Costa Rica. “Dr. Stanley’s messages and the Bible? What else could you need? It’s even got a flashlight … and it’s solar-powered.”
Though the skate park occupies most of the team’s time and energy this week, His Kids is forming partnerships throughout the region, watchful for opportunities that will give children a safe place to play, grow, and hear about Jesus.
As the sky darkens, the band warms up inside, and Stephen and Mike mingle with the young people. They’re sharing the Messenger in one of its newest forms—a bottle-opener-shaped USB drive that flips open to reveal a micro SD card, perfect for a cellphone. Through a Spanish translator, Stephen and Mike take each recipient through the Messenger’s contents. Their supply of devices runs out quickly.
Mike remembers a Christmas in Beaufort when they’d promised 100 bicycles to local kids. The bikes were ordered, but only half of them arrived in time.
“Ken met me at another Walmart with his trailer and bought the other 50,” says Mike. “We submitted the receipt, but then Ken calls the church bookkeeper and says, ‘Don’t worry about paying me.’”
“That was Ken,” Gerard says, smiling. “He did a lot of things that your left hand wouldn’t see your right hand doing. That was a good dude.”
Throughout their stay in Puerto Viejo, the team shovels up gravel and chips away old concrete, making way for a fresh pour of concrete on their last day. They set two-by-fours in place and measure out level pour lines with string. There are complications with the delivery trucks and a deficit of tools for the job, but the men are resourceful, retrofitting ordinary garden rakes to function as spreaders and smoothers.
And they remember Ken.
“The six months leading up to this trip, every Sunday morning I would have to fight to get into church,” says Mike. After the two men shook hands at the front door, Ken would start in on a litany of thoughts he had about pouring the concrete in Puerto Viejo: “‘We got to put it down and put it down right. We got to wet it every day for two weeks and stay off it.’ It was like that every Sunday morning for six months.”
“The man could build anything,” says Gerard.
“Or he could figure out how to do it,” adds David.
“He didn’t need plans and that kind of stuff,” Mike remembers. “He planned it out in his head. We didn’t know what was in his head—but he’d let you know if you weren’t doing it!”
And in his unorthodox way, Ken united them.
“After we went to Costa Rica, the very next time I saw him, he comes over and hugs me,” says Stephen. “And I thought, Wow, he’s never done that before.”
“That’s my experience as well,” David says. “After the trip, the hugs started.”
When the day arrives for the new skate park surface to be poured, the men stand with their long-handled tools, watching the sun rise as they wait on the white-and-red mixer truck coming down from Limón. Then, as the truck slowly backs through the gap in the fence, its front wheel drops through the street with a loud crack. “Are you kidding me?” Mike groans, staring down at the hole. Somehow the driver maneuvers the truck out of it and with a flurry of movement, the men place three thick boards, reinforced by a sheet of steel, over the hole. The temporary repair holds through all three deliveries.
It seems all of Puerto Viejo stops to witness the work, taking snapshots on their cellphones and buzzing about the changes. And once again the children hook their fingers through the chain link, as Gerard directs the mixer and David spreads the sliding concrete along the long floor until it’s packed and smoothed.
There’s a lot left to do. Just as Ken discussed every Sunday morning, the concrete must be kept moist and left alone to dry as it should. And six months or a year in the future, the His Kids team will return to install the new skate ramps.
“We have to come back,” says a determined Joseph. “The skate park is not finished.”
Mike agrees, “It’s important to get this job completed because it was important to Ken. It’s a way to honor him.”
“He would never stop,” says Gerard.
And neither will this team. They share a dream not just of a busy skate park, but of an educational center for the kids of Puerto Viejo and communities beyond it. “There’s a long-term vision and many different projects that we have,” says Michael. “The Lord has put it on our heart, and we’re committed. And there’s probably another six to ten people that wanted to go on this trip, who are already talking about the next one.”
Until then, the children of Puerto Viejo have a wide, smooth surface to skate and play on, plus a safe and welcoming space for Orlando and the church as they serve and love their community. But the skate park is not only for the children. “The parents of many of these children are kids themselves,” says Orlando. “If we do this the right way, we will have the mother and the father come to watch their kids. And we will share the gospel with them, too.”
Photography by Ben Rollins