2015 Upper School Intersession Trips

Updated: Sunday, March 22– See below for the latest blog posts. Please note that you may need to refresh your browser. You can also click here to follow the Amazon Intersession trip travels on a GIS map…

Intersession is a one to two-week period in the spring in which the School’s normal routine is interrupted so that all students and faculty can participate in special projects. All Upper School students are required to participate each year. Intersession projects might involve community service, physical activity, arts activity, cultural or informational trips.

You can see full descriptions of the 2014-15 trips (listed below) here.
HEAD START (Service Intersession)

This page will be updated with news and photos from the Intersession trips as they send emails and updates. You may need to refresh/reload the page in your browser to view the most recent posts. If you click on the thumbnail images, you can view the larger-sized ones.


By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

nic_03222015Our penultimate day in Nicaragua would be spent in and around the colonial city of Granada, the oldest in Central America, founded by the Spanish conquistador Hernández de Córdoba in 1524, in the shadow of Mombacho Volcano. Following breakfast, Saturday’s adventures would begin with a morning walking tour through the cobbled streets of Old Granada with buildings alternating in style between Colonial, Colonial-American and Neo-Classical. The architectural differences can be attributed to much of Old Granada being rebuilt following its purposeful and sad destruction by William Walker in 1856. Nonetheless, and while not 500 years old, signature landmarks like the Bell Tower and Cathedral have been painstakingly restored or rebuilt, and the Plaza Central is as colorful as it is charming.

From the twists and turns, and nooks and crannies, of Old Granada, we drove out of the city in order to enjoy a 7-mile bike tour along the Asese Peninsula that would culminate at the mainland shores of Lake Nicaragua. Accompanied by a pursuit vehicle, this well-designed tour provided both the luxury and safety of permitting anyone among us the opportunity to stop riding at any given time yet still remain with the group. This proved indispensable on seven different occasions.

From the tip of the peninsula, a motor boat ferried us to our next stop. Among the day’s treasures was the chance to tube, kayak, lounge and lunch around Las Isletas of Lake Nicaragua. This beautiful archipelago of over 350 small islands of volcanic origin serves as a nature preserve for so much unusual flora and fauna: an ornithologist’s paradise! The quote of the day goes to Connor who upon being thrown from the tube by centripetal force reported from the lake, “Oh, my gosh! I lost my trunks!” (Dramatic Pause)…”Found them!” Special thanks to Sr. Augusto Vargas for extending us the privileged honor of being guests on his stunning private island!

With Granada being the home of our exceptional and delightful local guide, Julio, our group’s final dinner together in Nicaragua would be a special opportunity to extend a courteous and heartfelt invitation to meet and break bread with his wife, Ucrania Isabel, and teenage son, Osman. Yet another joyous and grateful affair, we are indebted to Julio for helping make our experience in his beautiful country a memorable one. A final toast to express our genuine appreciation punctuated another stupendous day together, bringing to a close our final night in Nicaragua.

NOTE: With a full day of travel ahead of us on Sunday, March 22nd, that has our group scheduled for a shortly-past-midnight arrival (12:45am) to Dulles International Airport (IAD) on Monday morning, this latest blog entry will be our intersession’s last. We hope our daily travelogue provided a snapshot into our adventure and serves as a memento of our unforgettable shared journey through Nicaragua: Central America’s Hidden Gem.


By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

nic_02_03212015Following two memorable days on lush Ometepe Island, time came to board the 9:00am ferry in the port of Moyogalpa to return to the mainland and resume our Nicaraguan adventure bound for the colonial city of Granada, home to our guide Julio and his family.

Our first stop would “tattoo” us all. Café de las Sonrisas is unlike any initiative most of us had ever encountered. Featured on CNN and founded by a living Spanish “angel” named Don Antonio, as much a doer as he is a dreamer, Café de las Sonrisas began as a sanctuary for the deaf and mute but has since blossomed into a remarkably successful business created to prove naysayers wrong. A chef by trade, Don Antonio came from Spain to Nicaragua expecting to open a small restaurant. Instead, he met two young men handicapped with lack of hearing and speech, and marginalized with no foreseeable future, Don Antonio felt compelled to intervene. Café de las Sonrisas, the first in the Americas served entirely by deaf and mute staff, including four staffers who are additionally blind, is an example of perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable employment odds. Not remotely a charity, absent of governmental and parochial support, what started out as a legitimate café has since expanded into multi-revenue stream source. In addition to the café, perhaps the most lucrative initiative has been its weaved merchandise, particularly its hammocks, whose clientele extends as far as Pope Francis. In addition, Don Antonio launched another initiative for single mothers of children born with Cerebral Palsy to go from earning a measly and inconsistent $40 Córdoba per day as menial clothes washers to $150 Córdoba per day as empowered weavers of high quality handbags on personal looms in their home that permits the luxury of tending to the substantial needs of their children. Furthermore, Don Antonio’s most recent project is one that promotes stewardship by creating a school supplies store for children in which payment must come by way of plastic clean-up. For example, a new pen might cost ten plastic bags found strewn about the streets of Granada. These bags are then recycled to weave what is heralded as the Never-Ending Hammock, a mammoth Guinness-bound awareness campaign that all visitors to Café de las Sonrisas have the opportunity to contribute. Our visit to Café de las Sonrisas included lunch served by the staff followed by an exercise titled Welcome to Our World that provided us with ear plugs throughout dessert. Lunch was followed by an impassioned lecture from Don Antonio, an opportunity to interact with the staff by taking weaving lessons, and the chance to peruse their store. Ultimately, it was an eye-opening and inspiring experience. To see pictures of our visit and to learn more Like Café de las Sonrisas on Facebook.

nic_03212015Being on the go relatively non-stop from one glorious locale and adventure to the next for the first two-thirds of our trek, the opportunity to stop and shop hadn’t presented itself until this afternoon (Day 7 of 9). Many had been looking forward to bartering in the famed Mercado Masaya, in search of handmade souvenirs, from polished volcanic rock jewelry and crafted leather goods to thrown clay pots and woven apparel. Everyone emerged with some treasure.

From the market, we headed up the road to Masaya Volcano National Park whose activity within the enormous Santiago crater, a rim of 500 meters in diameter, a depth of 250 meters, and sulfuric fumes and haze, led the Nahua and Chorotega to sacrifice many virgins as documented by Spanish conquistadors and later, in 1529, to be dubbed the Mouth of Hell by Dominican Priest Francisco de Bobadilla who placed a cross at the top of the rim to exorcize its demon soul. Unsure what to think about it serving as a gateway to Hell, we did agree it could easily be the set for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With eruptions as recent as April 2001 and April 2012, Masaya Volcano is truly a force of nature, and with April just around the bend we sped away only half jokingly.

Joking aside, we needed to further our day’s adventure. Next stop: Catarina. Catarina is a charming arts and nature community, full of colorful kiosks and nurseries. The main drag into Catarina ends abruptly at a stunning lookout over the Laguna de Apoyo, the largest volcanic lake in Nicaragua. After perusing the shops, it was time to get a peek behind the proverbial curtain by seeing where and how many of the ceramics sold are made. Tucked several blocks away from Catarina is the neighboring town of San Juan de Oriente. It is here that most of the ceramics are made by families whose trade is multi-generational. We had the privilege of being educated by master craftsman Duilio Jiménez, whose family produces 80 pieces per month, and some even took a turn at the potter’s wheel, while others shopped the merchandise.

Having begun our day with an early morning ferry ride from Ometepe Island, it was nearly 12 hours later by the time we checked into the charming Hotel Pérgola in the colonial city of Granada. Dinner at a neighboring steakhouse with homemade fig ice cream, topped off with a late night dip in the courtyard pool proved the perfect cap to a fabulous day.



Sara Howard ‘15 & Quentin Thomas ‘17
Today on the commYOUnity intersession, we went to the Maryland Jubilee Association to perform for adults with intellectual disabilities. We spent the whole week preparing our acts for the performance. They ranged from juggling, poem reading, and even a skit. It was a great experience getting to meet and perform for so many amazing individuals. After the performance we all had the opportunity to meet and talk with the audience members. We learned about their lives and we graciously accepted their compliments on our show. We even met an audience member whose best friend was a Quaker.
This whole week was a wonderful and humbling experience. It was nice being able to see the change we were making in the several communities we helped.


Geocaching is an activity that usually involves seeking a small object hidden in a location with disclosed GPS coordinates. It is a fun way to discover new places, and our intersession used it as a way to explore the National Mall, the Congressional Cemetery, and Charlottesville, VA.

On our first day of intersession, we took the metro into Gallery Place and split into two groups. Each group was sent on a Scavenger hunt to Instagram creative pictures of 25 different landmarks, statues, and objects spread throughout the National Mall in the Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Sculpture Garden. Some of our favorite scavenger finds included “It is crystal clear this ball is not a toy,” Twins in Space,” and “Squish a Monument.” We also spent the middle of our day refueling with cuisine from different parts of the country at the American Indian museum.

We found our first three geocaches that included the oldest Elm in America in the museum of Natural History garden, a little cache found on the top of a newspaper bin in L’Enfant Plaza, and another micro-cache near the entrance of Sydney Harmon Hall Shakespeare Theater. While the first cache was just a picture, the second and third both allowed us to leave our mark and geocachers everywhere will know that SSFS NatGeo Intersession 2015 was there!

Day two of intersession brought us to the Congressional Cemetery. The cemetery is very unique to most other cemeteries. Abandoned and overgrown for much of the mid-nineties, a group of dog walkers decided to pour their own funds into cleaning it up for the community and re-establishing it as a community center for both the living a deceased. Eventually it was taken on by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery whose mission is “to serve the community as an active burial ground and conserve the physical artifacts, buildings, and infrastructure of the cemetery; to celebrate the American heritage represented by those interred here; restore and sustain the landscape, protect the Anacostia River watershed, and manage the grounds as accessible community resource.”

Upon arriving, we were greeted by our very knowledgable host and tour guide, Daniel Holcombe. We toured the cemetery and learned of the histories of several important figures buried there, including suffragist Belva Ann Lockwood and famous composer John Philips Sousa. We also had the chance to walk into a few mausoleums, see a human skull, and an embalmed body! (Well, maybe Frances and Susan closed their eyes for the last two, but *most* of us can say we enjoyed this unique experience!) We followed the tour with an hour of trash clean-up along the perimeter of the outside of the cemetery, helping Daniel prepare the grounds for the influx of tour groups and dog walkers who will enjoy the grounds of the cemetery this spring!

After a long morning of touring and cleaning up, we were rewarded by a quick pit stop at Good Stuff Eatery for delicious burgers and fries. We returned to the cemetery to enjoy our grub on a beautiful day in the cemetery (not something you hear every day!). After we were properly re-fueled, we spent the afternoon looking for our fourth geocache. This was our biggest geocaching challenge yet, as the cemetery has a geocache buried with it’s own grave marker! We didn’t have our exact gps coordinates from the get-go, as the cemetery sends you on a “puzzle trail” to different tombstones, garnering information from the dates on the epitaphs in order to reconfigure “encoded” numbers into the gps coordinates of the next stop on the puzzle trail. We each took turns using our gps units, deciphering dates, and completing the math necessary to move on to the next stop. The find was extra-rewarding after all our work to get there, and we left yet another SSFS signature inside our earthworm-covered cache.

Day three of Intersession, we embarked on our longest trip yet down to Charlottesville, VA. Our first stop was the campus of the University of Virginia for a historical tour. We were greeted by our lovely tour guide, Alice, who took us through the campus and informed us all about the construction of the original campus by its founder, Thomas Jefferson. We were most intrigued by the “secret societies” at UVA, three of which include the Seven Society, the Z Society, and the IMP Society. The most prestigious of these is the Seven Society, which is so secret that the members are not revealed as part of the society until their funeral! We followed our long drive and walking tour up with a trip to the college cafeteria.

The campus was filled with geocaches and we chose to focus on two. Our first find was near a small pond by the student union. Properly camouflaged, Connor proved to be our sharpest set of eyes. We left our SSFS mark on yet another cache and posed for a silly picture accordingly. Our second cache brought us to the tennis courts on campus, and was appropriately hidden in a tennis ball! A bit tuckered out from our long day, we headed to check into our hotel to relax, play games, nap, and run nine miles (well, maybe only one of us did that last thing).

After we were properly rested and recharged, we ventured into Old Town Charlottesville for some southern comfort food and a historical murder mystery tour with our fantastic guide, Rob Craighurst from “Tell Me About It Ghost and Mystery tours- a Classic C’ville Whodunnit.” He took us through different parts of the town, setting the scene in 1904 and placing us in the shoes of the characters from a true Charlottesville murder mystery. We were hooked on his words, and are still left intrigued by the true ending to the murder involving former mayor of Charlottesville, Sam McCue and his wife, Fannie!

Day four of intersession brought us to the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s historical residence, Monticello. We toured his home and admired his beautiful grounds. A man who truly valued learning and knowledge, his estate was a quite display of quirky architecture, complete with impressive library. The entrance to his home looks like something more like the lobby of a museum than a foyer. He liked to tinker with modern inventions, as evidenced by the unique clock-calendar at the entrance to his home. The elaborate dome atop his house serves no purpose but for decoration. The beds throughout his home, nestled cozily into nooks into the walls look something akin to modern-day New York apartments saving space, with closets located above the nestled beds. Dumb waiters are placed throughout the house and quirky art in common gathering rooms is scattered throughout. Our tour guide was fantastic, and we all walked away with some truly interesting history about Jefferson’s estate. We spent the rest of the morning exploring his cellar, grounds, and visiting his grave site. Unfortunately with our travel taking us back to school in time for bus departure, our abbreviated day was sans-geocache, but we did manage to obtain proper gps coordinates for Monticello!

Day five of Intersession was originally supposed to involve a trip to the Inner Harbor for a cache and a visit to the Aquarium. Alas, our plans were foiled by snow. We spent the morning detailing our trip with pictures and narrative and creating a geocache of our own to place on campus when our nice weather returns. Scott House helped us gather some SSFS branded micro-caches to place in our air-tight nalgene to be placed underground. Amelia and Andrew designed a sign for our cache using our awesome 3D printer, while the rest of us recounted our travels and uploaded our pictures to a google share folder. After our hard work this week, we decided to travel into Gaithersburg for one last Intersession bonding experience playing laser tag. Andrew proved to have the most stealth, securing a first place finish in the first two rounds, while Elisa found a superb hiding place the third round to take down everyone in the final round. We all headed back to Olney per request by Susan and Di for some comforting Vietnamese Pho on this cold, rainy day.

All in all, we had a blast playing “seek and find” throughout new areas of exploration and enjoying many types of cuisine along the way!


First pics of Canopy. Desert “maíz morado” flan and on boat to go piraña fishing: our group and others came back with at least 9. Had a boat ride last night. Saw a gleaming bright monkey’s eyes, and two gorgeous birds. Off today to do community service.

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NICARAGUA: CENTRAL AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEM (DAY 6 of 9) By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

nicaragua_03202015Day 6 of 9 provided an early morning opportunity for a third of our group to ascend the mid-point of Maderas Volcano by foot.  Sensitive to the accumulated residual soreness from Day 4’s surf lessons and horseback riding, two-thirds of the group jumped at the opportunity to stick behind at the lodge, recuperate, read, write and play games, while their determined peers completed the four-hour scenic hike.  Afterwards, we checked out of the Ecological El Porvenir Lodge towards the end of the morning in order to spend our last night on Ometepe Island at the Hotel Villa Paraíso on pristine Santo Domingo Beach.

After an early check-in, our group headed to our day’s primary experience, an educational tour coupled with home-grown lunch.  Project Bona Fide is an inspiring 38-acre community farm nestled in the tropical forest atop the small town of Balgüe.  Depending on the season (dry vs. rainy), 8-10 locals and 14-25 volunteers run this part NGO and part for-profit self-sustaining farm built using a permaculture system.  As we learned from our gracious volunteer host Vincent, a young Canadian expat from Quebec, permaculture is based on three planning principles that mimic nature: Relative Location, Every Function Should Be Maintained by Multiple Sources, and Every Element Should Be Multifunctional.  For example, when planted strategically, banana plants not only provide fruit, but they also provide shade and moisture for neighboring vegetation. From nutrient-enriching chop-and-drop techniques that provide organic covering (mulch) for saplings and seedlings, supported by natural nitrogen-fixing twice per year as a fertilizing technique, every square foot of Project Bona Fide has been meticulously thought through resulting in 85% of their landscape being edible or medicinal as a tangible way to live sustainably while promoting and educating about food security. To learn more about this inspiring initiative, Like Project Bona Fide on Facebook or visit their website at www.projectbonafide.com.

Late afternoon provided a luxurious opportunity to scrub the jungle off of our bodies, cool our cores, and decompress for a couple of precious hours before dinner.  Some chose to relax poolside, while others from hammocks reconnected via WiFi back home, and still others splashed in ocean-like waters of Lake Nicaragua. All benefitted and, yet again, Nicaragua did not disappoint!


Thursday. Our last day was a full one. In the morning we went kayaking in the Santa Barbara Harbor. We saw sea lions, seals, starfish, pelicans and lots of other marine birds. Our knowledgable guides told us all about the area and the marine life. And after the tour they provided us with a delicious picnic lunch on the beach. Next we did a beach clean up and learned a bit about the damage that can be caused by marine debris. Sarah, our clean up guide, was very passionate about protecting the ocean, and talked to us about how small lifestyle changes, like using reusable water bottles, can have a big impact.

After the clean up, students had some free time to explore the wharf, the shops on State Street, or just hang out at the beach. Some of us visited a cool sea life museum on the wharf where we got to touch live sharks and marine invertebrates! Cool! Next we headed to the YMCA for much needed showers. Then we had a celebratory dinner of organic pizza at Pizza Guru. Back at camp we had our final campfire and circle MFW. We are all sad that the trip is coming to an end!

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We had an excellent opportunity to visit the University of Delaware’s campus in Lewes, College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and receive a personalized tour. We heard about automated underwater vehicles, shark and sturgeon research, zooplankton, wind energy, and much more. Students made their own windmills, and we saw the incredible wind turbine on campus. We wrapped up our tour with a visit to an oil spill research vessel. It was certainly informative!

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COMM-YOU-NITY INTERSESSION By Katie, Marzi, and Lindsay
Today, we enjoyed a day on campus as we made crafts for the Thoughtful Treasures program at the Children’s Inn at NIH and the Montgomery County Humane Society. Every day, the Thoughtful Treasures program delivers a small gift to children who are battling serious illnesses and receiving treatment at NIH. To contribute to the program, we released our inner kindergarteners and decorated rubber ducks, made Linus Blankets, painted sun catchers, folded origami, assembled superhero masks, and colored reusable cups to donate. For the animals, we made tug-of-war ropes and decorative bandannas for the dogs. Additionally, we have enlisted the help of the student body over the last month to collect additional pet supplies that we’ll donate along with the toys we made. We had a great time and hope that the things we made will brighten someone’s day!

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NICARAGUA: CENTRAL AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEM (DAY 5 of 9) By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

Fnicaragua_03192015rom the southwest corner of Nicaragua’s paradisiacal San Juan del Sur our caravan carried on, traveling northeast away from the Pacific coastline.  Having experienced “Nica” salt, sand and surf, it was time for the fresher waters of Lake Nicaragua and the lush cloud forests of Ometepe Island.

Among the largest freshwater lakes in the world and the largest in Central America, Lake Nicaragua is home to an abundant sea life, from Gar fish, Tarpon and Tilapia to Snook, Rainbow Bass, and even Bull sharks, just to name a few.  Having already traveled by plane and bus on this intersession, reaching the twin-towering Ometepe Island would provide us the added adventure of a third mode of transportation, a boat, by way of a 1:30 ferry ride.

With petroglyphs that date back some 2,000 years, Ometepe Island was the original home to two indigenous peoples: Nahua and Chorotega.  Nahuatl for “Island of Two Hills,” Ometepe is the product of two volcanoes, one inactive (Maderas) and the other active (Concepción) which last erupted in 1957. Today, Ometepe is home to some 40,000 “Nicas” and there’s even a university on the island.

Upon disembarking at the bustling port of Moyogalpa, we boarded two minibuses and made our way along the island’s primary road, a perimeter route in the shape of a figure eight that serpentines its way around both volcanoes. Despite the island’s substantial hour-glass figure, at the route’s cross-section its width barely spans a kilometer.  Our first stop would be a nature walk around Charco Verde, a wildlife reserve that serves as sanctuary to a variety of species, from Howler monkeys and vine snakes to countless lizards and Ometepe’s celebrated island bird, the regal Uraca jay.

From Charco Verde we made our way to El Ceibo Museum, home to two distinct showcases. El Numismático is a museum dedicated to the history of Nicaragua’s currency dating back to Pre-Colombian times when cacao seeds were used for purchasing power (e.g., 100 seeds for a slave, 10 for a rabbit or a woman’s services) up through the economic collapse and skyrocketing period of inflation during the Civil War (1980-1990) with re-stamped bills of 200,000,000 Córdoba. As our guide Julio recalled, during his youth a Coca-Cola cost 12,000,000 Córdoba! Today, 26.50 Córdoba equals one U.S. dollar.  El Museo Precolombino was an eyebrow-raising step in time, seeing artifacts dating as far back as the Orosí Period (3,000 B.C.-1,500 B.C.), from pottery and jewelry to tools and toys.

Set in a proverbial Garden of Eden at the base of Maderas Volcano and surrounded by enormous petroglyphs, our evening’s accommodations at the Ecological Porvenir Lodge were secluded and bucolic, but not so isolated as to avoid some unsuspecting canopy floor critters: a tarantula and several scorpions. Not surprisingly, not only was El Porvenir not a wifi hotspot it was a dead zone, hence the delay in the posting of this blog entry.

Thursday (Day 6 of 9) will provide an early morning opportunity for a third of our group to ascend the mid-point of Maderas Volcano by foot.  Sensitive to the accumulated residual soreness from yesterday’s surf lessons and horseback riding, two-thirds of the group jumped at the opportunity to stick behind at the lodge, recuperate and play games, while their determined peers complete the four-hour hike.  Afterwards, we will check out of El Porvenir at noon and spend our last night on Ometepe Island at the pristine Santo Domingo Beach.

Caption #1–Dancing in mud to a Prince mix to make the heat core for the SSFS Earth Oven!
#2 Taking a short break from the hard work to pose in front of the stone masonry platform.
#3 Transplanting seedlings at Sharp’s Farm.
#4 Spreading compost in the high tunnel to prepare the soil for spring crops.
#5 You Are What You Eat group photo

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We finished our work project at Cape Henlopen on Wednesday and enjoyed the beautiful views from the beach. Afterwards we participated in the Students of Nature and Photography program at Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge. Our day ended with another delicious meal prepared by the group and our special guest Ilene Lees.

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Today we did a beach clean up at Rincon Beach. After enjoying some time on the beach, we headed back to the mountains for our last climbing day at San Ysidero. Students had the chance to climb and learn to rappel. We are sad it’s our last climbing day – but excited for kayaking tomorrow!

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Canopy walks:















commYOUnity01A_03192015Today is the third day of the comYOUnity intersession. All of us came to SSFS at eight o’clock. After a one-hour drive, we arrived the Food & Friends organization. It is a organization that helps people who are sick and do not have abillity to get food by themselves. There was a lady called Lindsay. She introduced the food delivery program and the process of our job today. Afterwards, we visited the kitchen. All the people who work there seem very happy and joyful. The kitchen was clean and organized. Then we got a list of the places that we needed to deliver to. Most places we went were in Silver Spring. Lindsay said people may want to talk or need help when we got to their homes, but no one asked for that. Most of them lived in apartment buildings. Everyone we delivered to were nice yet lonely. After this service, we noticed that there were many people living alone and having illnesses; they got little attention in society. We need to focus more on this group of people and more organizations like Food & Friends to help them. Tomorrow, we will do more significant things.



Today we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a potato planting festival in the Shamrock Community Garden.  We also celebrated the beginning of the 5th season of the Shamrock Community Garden and the 15th year of SSFS work with American Friends Service Committee in Logan.  In Bonnie Cao’s words, “It was terrific, amazing, and fun.”

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Sent from Hannah Kerr: tarpon feeding, at the turtle hospital, and feasting after a day of service at Key Deer Refuge:
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Sent from Leah Niepold: We continued our work at Cape Henlopen on Tuesday, cleaning the counselor’s dorm and working on a new site for weddings at the park. The weather was warm but the water was still freezing! Making group dinners continues to be a worthwhile challenge. We enjoyed another spectacular sunset!

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NICARAGUA: CENTRAL AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEM (DAY 4 of 9) By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

nicaragua_01_03182015Nestled in a crescent-shaped bay with its beautiful beaches and wide variety of outdoor activities available, from surfing and fishing to horseback riding and snorkeling, and watched over from the north by its Christ of the Mercy statue, San Juan del Sur is among the most popular Pacific coast vacation destinations in Nicaragua. Historically, it was a popular resting place for gold prospectors during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, serving as a hub for the Cornelius Vanderbilt Lines, and has thrice been the site of the TV show Survivor, including last season’s Blood (Family) vs Water (Friends) challenge.  Because of its location on the narrow isthmus of Rivas, between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur remains the focus of many Nicaragua Canal proposals.

nicaragua_02_03182015With apologies to those not here, today proved to be one of those magical experiences, beginning with spotting Howler Monkeys followed by exhilarating surfing lessons at paradisiacal Playa Remanso with its white sand bay and multi-azured waters, including lunch on the beach and hammocks under thatched huts, followed in the afternoon with breathtaking horseback riding along the San Juan del Sur coastline and concluding with dinner at sunset and crepes under a canopy of stars.  Rough life. Today’s luxurious respite gives way tomorrow, as our caravan carries on from San Juan del Sur to Lake Nicaragua where we will ferry to Ometepe Island, fertile home to two volcanoes, natural reserve Charco Verde, Nahuatl petroglyphs and El Ceibo, a pre-Colombian museum.















Tuesday: today we did service work and bouldering at Lizards Mouth. First, we used our artistic skills to paint over graffiti in a way that would make it blend in to the rock. After lunch, Chris and Mike taught climbing movement and took us to three different bouldering locations. It was very challenging and fun! Then, we went for a quick grocery shop and cooked up a delicious pizza bagel dinner. Now, we are getting ready to enjoy a camp fire and s’mores before bed. So far, it’s been a great trip!

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NICARAGUA: CENTRAL AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEM (DAY 3 of 9) By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

nicaragua_03172015Our third day in Nicaragua would also be our last in the Colonial city of León.  Before checking out of the Hotel Austria and heading south in search of further adventure, the morning would be spent visiting Proyecto Las Tías, a NGO founded in the shadow of the Civil War in 1989 as a means to combat child labor, prostitution and delinquency by providing career-focused supplemental education, teaching manual trades, as well as offering mentoring and meal programs for up to 50 youths between the ages of 14 and 18. Impressed by the transparency of this important program and the impassioned presentation of its Volunteer Coordinator Magnor, and moved by our interactions with its aspirational student members, our group made a spontaneous and unanimous decision to pitch in and donate collectively $100 to provide transportation scholarships for two sisters who currently walk 6 km each way under a scorching midday sun, through a dangerous neighborhood nonetheless, as well to supplement the facility’s wifi, electric and water services.  Gratified by our modest but meaningful initiative, and with Las Tías equipped and experienced to support volunteers of 18 years of age or older in family homestays, several in our group left with wheels spinning about ways to stay connected. To learn more, Like Las Tías on Facebook.

After Proyecto Las Tías, we visited La Asunción, Central America’s largest cathedral and resting place for the remains of Nicaragua’s most celebrated citizen, Rubén Darío (1867-1916), poet and father of the Spanish-American literary movement known as Modernism. As tends to be the case for so many of Latin America’s cities and towns, the cathedral and its spacious plaza often serve as the epicenter of communal activity, bringing out the vendors, street entertainers, tourists and certainly the faithful. From dawn to dusk, only interrupted by the midday heat, the Plaza Central is a reflection of its community. The apropos opportunity to ascend La Asunción provided spectacular aerial views of the city of León. Still another distinguishing feature of this city is its murals and street art.  These historic remnants of the 1980s serve as a reminder of more turbulent times during the Sandinista movement, a Cuban-inspired socialist revolution that pitted Capitalists against Communists. This history would be reinforced upon our return later this same day to Managua.

Back in Managua, we learned of the forty-five years of social injustice under the ruling Somoza dictatorship (1930-1975) that eventually led to The Revolution of 1979.  The overthrow of the Somoza reign by the Sandinistas led to a U.S. embargo, as well as a CIA-financed opposition group called the Contras that brought about a Civil War from 1979-1989, resulting in 50,000 deaths.  In national bankruptcy, and with all that came from the embargo, Civil War and even the effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia pulled out support of the Sandinistas and peace was negotiated with the Contras in 1990 leading to elections that signaled a new era of stability and growth to date in Nicaragua.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent driving from Managua, paralleling the Pacific coastline, to the idyllic beach town of San Juan del Sur approaching the Costa Rican border. Dinner on the beach at twilight marked the end of another day’s adventure with the allure of surf lessons and horseback riding awaiting us on Day 4.

By Davy Adise: We walked into Interfaith Clothing Center today with an off-put spirit. It was early in the morning, and yesterday, we had only worked for a couple of hours. Little did we know that we would be working a full day, with all the ups and downs of that experience. Luckily for us, our day had more ups than downs both in quantity, and quality. As we worked, we established two things: meaningful relationships within the community, and meaningful relationships with each other. Our work helped to improve the lives of lower income residents of Maryland, and through this work, we truly bonded with those in our own backyard. However, we also bonded with each other. As proof of that, we walked in silent and sleepy, and left chattering and smiling. Today, we truly made an improvement not only to the community, but to the CommYOUnity, as well.

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03172015_WVa_2Quotes from students on the  West Virginia Service Intersession during community time:
Brewster Butler–  “Helping this community is a better feeling than almost anything in the world.”
Victoria Lu– “Cleaning weeds throw me back to the 1980s in China.”
Vonnie Love – “Helping the community garden giving Logan county citizens fresh produce to eat. “
Luke Ferris – “This community needs help from our community.  Let’s give it our all!”
Rachel Bartley– “Although the labor is grueling its much more rewarding than any experience I’ve ever had.”
Esther K-B:  “Caring, sharing, while getting ready for the big day – potato planting party.”
Amy Zankowski– “On this trip, we are able to change West Virginia, and in return West Virginia is able to change us.”
Ethan Pates– “Picture a sweaty tired guy who’s smiling with a bottled water in hand.”
Gitee Mansori–  “It is so hard to work in the garden with your own power.  I have learned that nothing comes easy.  I just have a sense that when we have fresh fruits and vegetables in our food, they have to pass all these processes, step by step to make them ready…. I loved to work in the garden and learn from experience.”




03172015_taste_of_artA Taste of Art on the steps of the Baltimore Museum – first day. We went behind the scenes, visiting the prints and drawings department and the conservation department. We ate lunch at the Golden West in Hamden.






Yesterday we worked at Cape Henlopen State Park cleaning the camp dorms and enjoyed a bonfire on Broadkill Beach. Even the youngest among us worked hard!

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Gibraltor Rock

Gibraltor Rock

Day 2 – Monday
Today, we did service work in Los Padres Forest again, but in a different location. Today we went up a ridge line to a water catchment tank which had been covered with graffiti. We repainted it with some SSFS inspired art! We also picked up trash around the area, including a sofa, chair, and refrigerator! The weather was perfect, and from the ridge we had some amazing views in all directions! Not a bad place to do some service work.

After our picnic lunch, we headed to Gibraltor Rock to climb. The climbs were beautiful, with an amazing view of the city and ocean below. Many people really pushed themselves past their comfort zones! Now we are enjoying Mac and cheese in camp and planning for tomorrow.

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AMAZON (See photos on Monday’s post, and online here…

Day 1 (March 14) by Dylan & Keigo

We arrived at Dulles airport at 1:45. As we waited the power for the entire airport went out. This caused us a delay of a few hours but they expedited security so we got to our gate basically on time. We all got lunch or a snack and then we boarded the aircraft. The flight from Dulles to San Salvador was uneventful (luckily) and we landed safely in the capital city of El Salvador. We had a layover of around 40 minutes where we helped ourselves to some packed snacks and cold bottled water. We then boarded our flight to Lima where most people tried to sleep but we (Keigo and Dylan) were awake for the entire flight. We watched the Mocking Jay part one but without sound it was a relatively boring flight. Arriving in Lima we went through customs at around 2 AM (far too early and technically not day 1) and met no major issues except sleep deprivation. We then rechecked our bags and tried to find a place to sleep. Some people went to get coffee while others attempted to sleep on the floor. We made our way to the gate, through security and the surprising busy-ness of an airport at 3 AM to our gate. We then all (except Laurel and Keigo) fell asleep on the seats before board. After an hour and a half we woke up, some people got breakfast and coffee, and boarded the plane to Iquitos. Many people fell asleep again (like Keigo) but others (like Dylan) witnessed the stunning beauty of the Andes Mountains accented by the rising sun. We then landed in the humid city of Iquitos met by our wonderful guides.

Day 2 (March 15) by Katherine & Hannah

The guides split us into bus groups where we drove around Iquitos tired, but attentive. We learned about the local government, population and the three biggest industries (lumber, tourism, oil). We then arrived at the famous Iquitos market where we walked through the crowded and wet streets, overflowing with the internal organs of poultry among other various unknown body parts. On the kiosks lining the streets we saw foods and other goods. A few of the most interesting things we saw were a huge caiman head, a giant (like actually giant) tiger catfish, bisected chickens, pickled anacondas, and various delicious looking fruit. Hannah especially liked the smell of the olives and parsley, while Katherine really liked looking at the medicinal plants and dogs (living). After leaving the market we took a long boat ride to the Exporama Lodge, which was a lot different than expected. The rooms were small and humid, but they had flushing toilets and lights. The dining hall had fans, (which Hannah enjoys) and screens around it, where there was no problems seeing lizards chilling out (That Katherine may or may not have obsessed over…) The place had thatched roofs and boardwalk, so we wouldn’t have to risk getting bitten by a bullet ant. Or an army ant. Or insects in general. Lunch was fantastic, what with three bean salad, rice with cilantro, lentils, chicken and flan. After all that great stuff we had time to change our clothes (finally) and get ready to go on a boat ride. We were separated into groups again and explored part of the Amazon. All the groups went in search of the dolphins first, where we saw both pink and grey dolphins together (which is cool, since it is pretty rare). The guides then took their individual groups in different directions. Hannah’s group saw eight sloths, two hawks, a dead anaconda and tons of other birds. Katherine’s group put the dead anaconda up in a tree (which was cool, but we still don’t know exactly why we did…), a few sloths, enough horseflies to make a game out of killing them, and a lot of birds (Thanks, Toni!). We came back in time for a dinner of rice, lentils, wild cucumber, fish, and potato salad. After dinner, we had a night hike. The sky was beautiful! (The most stars we’ve ever seen! We even saw Orion’s belt in more detail than ever.) The hike was super buggy, in more ways than one. Besides being attacked by mosquitoes, we saw indiginous insects such as bullet ants, black widow spiders, tarantulas (Katherine even held one!), and a giant snail. After slipping and sliding across the mud, we made our way back to the lodge and the comfort of cold showers and sleep.

Day 3 (March 16) by Anna Gao
We got a pretty good rest last night (except my alarm went off one hour early because I forgot to change it to local time). Breakfast was yummy, and we had pancakes, egg, salad, peanut butter and banana (good combination). The first activity in the morning was to take a boat to the library. We met the founder of the Conapac program whose name is Cynthia, and the library is one of the program under the company. She originally comes from America and just fell in love with the Amazon rainforest after a one-week vacation here several years ago. Then she just decided to come and do something beneficial to the local community here. Therefore, she started the library program, which students can come after school for reading and also exploring the world in the book. She mentioned that the hardest part of the library is to maintain the books because it is very humid environment here and books are very easily turning bad. Later, we came back to the lodge and had a very cool Cultural Fair. We tried lots of good native food, saw basket waving, watched pottery making, and even tried a blow gun. My favorite part was the blowgun section, especially since I got the target the first time I used it. It was a very busy morning, then we had lunch and got rest, then we hiked to a tribe called Yagua in the afternoon. At the beginning they performed several native dances for us, and even asked us to participate. The one I remembered the most was called Anaconda dance. We put our hand on the shoulder of person in front of us, and danced in a curvy way just like an anaconda. Although we cannot communicate with words, they seem very friendly and welcoming. Later we used the shirts we brought and traded with them for many cool things including blowgun, necklace with piranha charm, bracelet, flute and some other decorations. Then we hiked back in a different route in the Amazon rainforest. We saw the nest of bullet ants which are poisonous, and a frog with black and red color, and a centipede. After we came back, many people just relaxed in the hammock, reading or napping. For dinner we had spaghetti, which was nice. Finally the last event of the day was that we had a speaker, Dr. Smith, talking about her experience here. She graduated from medical school of Wisconsin University  and came to Amazon in 1990 to started her own clinic here. She helped lots of people here since medical care is not accessible to many people. Through her talk, I felt it was very touching that one person could dedicate 25 years of her life to helping people in another country. However, when she mentioned that she didn’t get any support from USA, I felt pretty shocked. I hope that this time after we go back to the state, we could disseminate Dr. Smith’s experience and story to more people in order to get more donations. Her talk made us appreciate our lives more because we never realize how wonderful our lives are until we compare them with people who are still struggling.




See more photos and updates here: https://ssfs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/?appid=814fadee9c1147d0957a8877d74922ca

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Day at the Carroll House – Sammi Speight ’17: The CommYounity intersession group spent their morning volunteering at the Carroll House.  The Carroll House is a men’s shelter in Wheaton and part of the Interfaith organization.  They depend on donations and the assistance of volunteers to help run the shelter.

Arriving at the Carroll House, we received a tour from Sara Cherner and were given a list of jobs for our group.  We split up into groups and were giving tasks such as organizing closets and pantries, making bagged lunches, sweeping a courtyard, or cleaning dishes and walls.  Our efficient work resulted in an early finish and a spotless kitchen.  Our work at the Carroll House felt very rewarding and we look forward to this weeks future activities.













Open hearth cooking: Lunch –  Irish stew and building foundation for the bread oven. The kids were well fed and worked hard.

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nicaragua_03162015NICARAGUA: CENTRAL AMERICA’S HIDDEN GEM (DAY 2 of 9) By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

After being on the go yesterday for nearly 18 hours, between three planes and a bus, it was a real treat to arrive to the Colonial city of León and be greeted by the friendly staff at The Hotel Austria with such personal attention upon our late arrival. With well-appointed, spacious and air-conditioned rooms, it was not difficult to settle in for a deserved good night’s sleep, and even nicer to be gently awakened some seven to eight hours later by the foreshadowing song of indigenous birds.

Following a generous breakfast, our guide, Julio, surprised us with a thoughtful tweak of our original itinerary, by flip-flopping plans for Day 2 and 3.  This meant beginning our Nicaraguan adventure with a serious wow-factor, by driving out to Cerro Volcano to ash board!  Ash-boarding is a new extreme sport quite unique and exclusive to Nicaragua.  National Geographic recognized it recently as one of the top twenty experiences for adventure travelers in the world.  All the hype proved accurate, as neither our hike nor thrill ride would disappoint!

Cerro Negro, part of the the Maribios volcanic chain, is an active volcano whose last major eruption was in 1974. Sulfur still seeps out of the ground at this gigantic black earthen monolith.  As is often the case, in order to experience something special we would have to do something challenging first.  At 2,000 feet above sea level, hiking to the top of Cerro Negro was a fairly rigorous and steep one hour climb on loose volcanic rock which, like shale, often brings you back half a step for every two taken forward.  Add to this the increasing winds and the load carried — one wooden ash board — and there was a definitive price to be paid.  However, once we reached the top we were treated with a spectacular scenic view into the crater coupled with the accompanying phenomenon of heated earth beneath our feet.  This short-lived opportunity to catch our breath quickly transformed to another that took our breath away, following the assignation of full-length jump suits, goggles and gloves.  Looking something like a SNL skit of a test pilot or NASA program, we had a quick lesson on how to steer and brake, which then gave way to one-by-one leaps of faith, each determined either to “survive” or, more often than not, set a new speed record within the group.  To a person, this was a thrill of a lifetime which we’d have all easily repeated had it not entailed exhaustively summiting Cerro Negro again.

Ash-boarding down an active volcano would have alone made for a stunning day, but for us it would prove to be Part 1 of a two-part adventure.  As reward for our morning’s truly physical workout, we drove out to the Pacific Ocean for lunch on the beach.  Under a picturesque thatched-roofed seaside restaurant, we devoured our meals and guzzled our drinks, soothed by the ocean breeze.  With energies restored, we worked our way down the coastline to an inlet at low tide that permitted us to board two motor boats and take a ride through the Reserve at Juan Venado, famous for its mangroves and wildlife. Along the way, we were treated to a veritable zoo: Green Iguanas, a Spectacle Caiman, Golden-orb Spider, various crab species, big and small, Spotted Sandpipers, a Northern Potoo, Whimbrels, Tricolored Herons, a Boat-Billed Heron, Snowy and Great Egrets, Blue Heron, White Ibis, Brown Pelicans, Streak-backed Orioles, a Green Kingfisher, White-throated Magpie Jays, Parakeets, Black Vultures, Royal Terns, and, low and behold, even Baltimore Orioles!  At sunset, we made a stop at Las Peñitas Sea Turtle Conservancy and took some time to crash the inviting waves.  A pit-stop back the Hotel Austria for a quick change of clothes for another fine dinner in downtown León and an evening strolling around the Plaza Central punctuated a perfect day together!


Service work at the water cisterns in Los Padres National Forest:

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FRANCE: “We have arrived!”














The Delaware intersession started the day at Third Haven Friends Meeting in Easton, Md.  We then volunteered with and explored Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge before making our way to Broadkill Beach. We are off to a great start!

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By Eduardo Polón & Johanna Modak

Our Nicaraguan adventure began Saturday morning with three flights to three countries (Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), including three capitals (Panama City, San José and Managua), and three time zones. Add to that, our group of 18 left the United States under rain and with a chilly 42 degrees, arrived in Panama with clear skies and an oppressive 93 degrees, and from there made our way over to Costa Rica under a warm breeze, partly cloudy skies and 88 degrees, until arriving in Managua at twilight and rewarded with a gorgeous 73 degrees. It was a smooth but long day of travel, arriving to Nicaragua just before 7:00pm local time (9:00pm EST). So, after starting our journey together before sunrise and finishing it after sunset, it was especially comforting to be greeted in Managua by the warm welcome of our local guide, Julio Flores, a charming fellow and empathetic father of his own teenager, who escorted us to a fabulous restaurant for dinner and live traditional music before hitting the road north bound for the remaining leg of our trek, another 1:20, this time in our private mini bus, to our day’s destination, arriving to The Hotel Austria in the Colonial city of León at 10:30pm local time (12:30pm EST). Having been treated well all day by Copa Airlines with surprisingly appetizing meals, coupled with our unexpected dinner experience in Managua, we were all satisfied but understandably tired, eager to settle in for a good night’s rest with our eyes on Sunday morning’s fresh start.


On our first day, Saturday, we had an amazing time! Santa Barbara is beautiful and warm. We woke up early to get breakfast going. We met our climbing guides, Chris and Mike, and got our gear sorted out. Then we met Ranger Larry and went to the popular Red Rocks hike in Los Padres National Forest, where we had our service for the day. We enjoyed the hike and picked up some trash. We had a picnic lunch and then we were off to climb at San Ysidero. The climbing area is located near Montecito, an expensive area, which we enjoyed seeing.

Once at the climbing area Chris taught everyone how to tie the climbing knots and belay. Then we climbed for the rest of the afternoon! Everyone had a great time and pushed themselves on some hard climbs!

We got back to camp around 6:00 and the cook crew did an amazing job cooking taco dinner, complete with homemade guacamole and cilantro lime rice! Yum! We had a quick circle reflection. And everyone went to bed exhausted.
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