2015 Upper School Costa Rica Summer Service Trip

Trip Description: Upper School Spanish teachers Leah Niepold and Johanna Modak led a summer service trip to Costa Rica for SSFS Upper School students from July 20-30, 2015. The trip included travel to San José, Yorkín and Nuevo Pacuare, Costa Rica. The groups participated in a work project in Nuevo Pacuare with Widecast Turtle Conservation Project, as well as work projects in Yorkín with an indigenous tribe (Bríbri). Each student spent 5 nights with a homestay family in Yorkín. The group also experienced trail work and ziplining over the Sarapiquí River.

Helping others and serving the community are integral parts of the learning process in Friends education. Through a service experience abroad, students are exposed to the needs of people whose life experience differs from their own. In keeping with Friends values, we are committed to personal interaction with individuals who benefit from the gifts of our time, caring, and labor. We strive to balance our outreach with conscious reflection on our experience. In service to others, we address issues of diversity, prejudice and social justice. Beyond heightened awareness of the world around us, students stand to gain self-esteem and humility, which help sustain us as committed, responsible and joyful citizens of the world.

 

SSFS Costa Rica Summer Service Trip 2015
By Leah Niepold, Upper School Spanish Teacher

2015 marks the third SSFS Summer Service trip to Costa Rica through Central American Service Expeditions. The experience is designed to expose students (grades 10 – 12) to local culture, complete service projects (earning a minimum of 40 hours of service), and participate in service learning opportunities. This year, students worked on two projects in different parts of the country – the isolated northern Caribbean turtle nesting site, and the indigenous territories of Bribri which border with Panama.

The Widecast Turtle Conservation project site in Pacuare offered service learning opportunities on the exhumation of hatched nests and classes on the realities of Caribbean sea turtles and the impacts of Climate change. Work projects included general maintenance of facilities (dish crew, sweeping common area, beach cleanup). Alongside a local work crew, students worked at a local school (the poorest in the region) to prepare for the installation of a septic system for their new building (to serve as faculty housing, cafeteria and meeting space). Students dug a very large hole for the septic system and spent many hours moving materials (large bags of sand and gravel) from the dump truck to the canoe to the building site. Students also painted the exterior and interior of the new building.

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The next work site was in Yorkín in the Bribri indigenous territory in Talamanca region. Students stayed with homestay families for 5 nights (in groups of 2). The Bribri do not speak any English, so students had to communicate in Spanish (and the handful of Bribri words that they learned) in their rustic homestays.

Service learning opportunities in Yorkín included a lecture about the foundation of the Stibrawpa cooperative, explanation of the local organic agricultural production (cacao, banana), Bribri origin stories, Bribri language class, Bribri traditional archery, traditional preparation of chocolate (from the fruit to the roasted beans), medicinal plants hike and lesson on weaving thatched roofs.

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The work project was building the foundation for the new government building for Stibrawpa, which will provide a meeting space and a central location for their documents. Students worked alongside the local construction crew digging holes and setting up the foundational posts. They dug a drainage trench around the area, moved wood to the construction site and collected river rocks for securing the foundational posts, and scraped the wooden boards to prepare them for the next phase of construction. Finally, they helped nail in the beams for the main frame of the building.

 

The final work project in Yorkín is planting 5 saplings each to offset the carbon of our travel and maintain the local rain forest.

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Throughout the trip, students are served only local cuisine (of which they have very limited choices) and are encouraged to advocate for themselves in Spanish. They interact with and work alongside local work crews at each site. The homestay experience is uniquely challenging given the rustic conditions and language barrier.

This experience most certainly pushes students outside of their comfort zone! The weather is hot, humid and rainy (rainy season in the rain forest), and when the sun is out, it is blazing. Food can be a big hurdle for the students, as well as the physical demands of the work projects.

Students spent 11 days fully immersed in the local cultures of the two venues – understanding their realities and challenges. On the Caribbean side, the realities of Climate Change are devastating through erosion and rising temperatures that affect the sex of the turtles (cold temperatures produce males, warmer temperatures produce females, thus there is an imbalance in the turtle population). The beach erosion and immense flooding of the area leave little space left for turtles to return to lay their eggs.

Things are more optimistic in the indigenous territory, in fact the women’s cooperative Stibrawpa is doing quite well. They have worked since 1997 to create a local industry producing organic crops to keep their men at working at home, preserve their culture, and protect the environment. Previously, the men left the village for months at a time to work at banana plantations where they contracted diseases from the many chemicals used in banana production.

Since this is not an intersession, there is no financial aid available for students who wish to challenge themselves with this type of experience. The support of the Preuss Global Citizens Fund supported 5 students who would otherwise not have been able to afford the cost.

 

SSFS Costa Rica Summer Service Trip 2015 – Student Interviews
By Johanna Modak, Upper School Spanish Teacher

What was the service work like in Pacuare?

 We spent the first two service days of the trip in Pacuare working on a school I use this term lightly. Their school campus consisted of two small buildings, a patch of grass and an abundance of coconut trees. Their headmaster then told us that their school might be the most underdeveloped school in the entire country, but the students’ eagerness to learn exceeded any expectations one might have just looking at the school, myself included. For these two days we split into two small groups. One group completed an assortment of tasks on the campus, these ranged from picking up coconuts to digging a septic tank. The other group was responsible for transporting huge bags of sand and gravel to the school, which would later be used to make cement to carry out further construction projects on the campus. The work was hard and the weather was harsh both days. The first day it was hot and humid, most people ended up drenched in sweat. Then the second day it poured rain, everyone was drenched. At the end of the two days everyone was sore, sweaty, dirty, and exhausted. However, the work we completed came with a sense of accomplishment and sense of immersion into the community. It was an amazing feeling to be a part of a community that rallied together to provide better lives for their children. – Jack Neville

What was the service work like in Yorkín?

We completed the majority of our service work in the village of Yorkín. In the village our group’smain job was to assist a construction crew in erecting a building intended to store all of the village’s important documents. We spent four days on this project. We often split into groups to work on different aspects of the construction process. Some of our jobs from early on included carrying wood to the construction site, carrying rocks to the construction site, and digging a drainage trench. As the project progressed we witnessed our hard work coming together. The work we did in Yorkín was some of the hardest I’ve ever done. However, this wasn’t because the boards were the heaviest or the weather was the worst. It was because the mud was never ending and the bugs were relentless. The work we did in the village tested our patience and forced us to rely on our fellow group members. This brought our group a lot closer to one another. -Jack Neville

What did you do besides service work?

Each day in Yorkín we had a different educational activity, learning about the livelihood, language, and traditions of the Bri Bri.

Medicinal Plant Walk:

I like learning about different plants and their functions, and I really enjoyed the medicinal plant walk that we took in Yorkín. Though I wish that it could have been longer, they really managed to pack a lot of information into a short period of time. We learned about the Cuculmeca, the Snake Tongue, and the Gavilana.

The Cuculmeca is a vine covered in short spikes that can be used to help treat anemia, if you have fungi on your skin, or after giving birth, as it is a very nutritious plant. To use, you must extract and carefully wash the tuber, sun-dry it for three days, cut it into chunks, and then dilute it in water. Then you have it for three meals a day.

The Snake Tongue’s name is fitting both because the small plant looks like a snake tongue and because it is used to help with snake bites until you can get to a doctor. Snake bites are a big problem in Costa Rica in the jungle, and some people live much farther away from hospitals, so it is important to use this plant until they can reach a hospital. The remedy has to be made as quickly as possible into a tea, and then is given every twenty minutes on the way to the hospital. The tea is made by the medicine man, or “Awa”, who also does a ritual to promote both physical and spiritual healing.

The Gavilana is a stalk-like plant that is made into a tea to help with stomach problems such as pain and diarrhea. It gets rid of stomach parasites, cleans your intestines, and helps you to regain your appetite. It is very bitter. -Claire Youmans

Chocolate Demonstration:

As for the chocolate demonstration, that was very fun and I think that everyone had a good time making it and eating it. To prepare it, it takes five months from the flower to the fruit being ripe. Once it’s ripe, you let the cocoa seeds ferment in a bag for six days, and then put them in the sun for three days. Then the seeds are roasted, and we came in to help with the very last steps. They roasted the seeds while we were on our medicinal plant walk, and when we came back they had all the seeds laid out in a large shallow bowl with a large, smooth rock that we used to crush the seeds after they let us try some. After we crushed the seeds, they took the bowl and shook it into the air, letting the shells fly out but keeping the rest in. Then, they put it into a grinder, and the heat of grinding it melted it. They mixed it with condensed milk and we ate it with fresh bananas. It was really good, but not very smooth because there were still little bits of shell in it. My favorite part was eating the cocoa pulp that surrounds the seeds, which is slimy and very sweet and tart. The Bri Bri also make the chocolate into a drink that they have used for special occasions and with visitors for a long time, and which they offered to us.

 

SSFS Costa Rica Summer Service Trip 2015 – Student Interviews
By Anna Goodman, Class of 2018

Out of all the new, interesting experiences I had while in Costa Rica, possibly the most enriching and valuable was the chance to do a 5-night homestay with an indigenous Bribri family. As the homestay section of the trip drew near, I heard others voice concerns about their competence in the Spanish language or a possible inability to communicate in an uncomfortable setting. I wasn’t particularly anxious, until it came Katherine’s and my turn to trudge away from our group over the muddy back-trails of Yorkin, following a woman who then spoke only out of necessity. Despite my usual comfort with silence, those first 15 minutes were tense, awkward and a bit scary. As I tried to think of something to say and all of my Spanish skill seemed to leave me, I understood the earlier concerns of my peers and began to dread the coming evenings.

Luckily, my fears were ungrounded. Even upon our arrival at the house, things began to get tangibly easier. I still sometimes scrambled in conversation when recall pieces of the Spanish language that I’d known for years, but the family was largely patient with us. The 13-year-old girl calmly explained things as many times as we needed, and when I stumbled in speech, her grandmother firmly supplied me with the word I was missing. In addition to this kind support, the hospitality and generosity of the Bribri people was impressive. Though we’d been prepared to sleep on the floor, our homestay family provided us with raised beds and mattresses. I learned later that it was uncommon for the Bribris themselves to sleep in raised beds, and that our arrangement was had been specially thought out to accommodate us. A pair from our group in a different homestay shared that their family had gone out and purchased mosquito nets specifically for them, and that the family had obviously made efforts more than necessary to clean and rearrange the house for the comfort of their guests.

Though communication was still a bit of a strain at times, the comfort that I experienced did extend past our sleeping arrangement. We were served wonderful food every night, and with everybody pitching in, we made pleasant and real conversation. The playing cards I’d brought were a huge hit, and some of my fondest memories from the trip took place gathered on the wooden floor of the kitchen, both teaching and learning card games from the children and their mothers, playing and laughing out loud until we were too tired to play anymore. During long days of work, I found myself longing for these moments, counting down the minutes until I could return to “my house” (as the grandmother spoke of it, as though it belonged to Katherine and I as much as it belonged to her.) It was truly wonderful to feel so taken in by the family–Prisca, the grandmother, patted my cheek when she saw me during the day, and one of her daughters braided both Katherine’s and my hair. I saw this kinship in other members of the group, too, as we tapped each other on the shoulder and exclaimed things like “That’s my dad!” when members of our households passed by during the day.

Getting to form bonds with the individual members of our family was also a privilege, and an experience which I think was more enriched but the cultural barrier than it was challenged. It was wonderful to feel like an older sister to spunky 8-year-old Keychani, while still learning so much from her in every fun-filled interaction. Possibly the most interesting relationship I had, though, was with oldest child, Mardiel. She was only two years younger than me, so getting to know her as a peer and compare our experiences was one of the more valuable things I got out of the trip. On our last night in the homestays, Mardiel and I talked for a long time about travel and our respective schools, after which she showed me some of her favorite music. I told her that if she ever travelled to the U.S., she could come stay with me. After all, knowing that I grew so much and gained so much perspective from living with Mardiel and her family, of course I’d be honored to create another such experience for her. I’m extremely glad that I got the opportunity to do it myself, and I’d encourage anyone else to take an opportunity do the same.

Out of all the new, interesting experiences I had while in Costa Rica, possibly the most enriching and valuable was the chance to do a 5-night homestay with an indigenous Bribri family. As the homestay section of the trip drew near, I heard others voice concerns about their competence in the Spanish language or a possible inability to communicate in an uncomfortable setting. I wasn’t particularly anxious, until it came Katherine’s and my turn to trudge away from our group over the muddy back-trails of Yorkin, following a woman who then spoke only out of necessity. Despite my usual comfort with silence, those first 15 minutes were tense, awkward and a bit scary. As I tried to think of something to say and all of my Spanish skill seemed to leave me, I understood the earlier concerns of my peers and began to dread the coming evenings.

Luckily, my fears were ungrounded. Even upon our arrival at the house, things began to get tangibly easier. I still sometimes scrambled in conversation when recall pieces of the Spanish language that I’d known for years, but the family was largely patient with us. The 13-year-old girl calmly explained things as many times as we needed, and when I stumbled in speech, her grandmother firmly supplied me with the word I was missing. In addition to this kind support, the hospitality and generosity of the Bribri people was impressive. Though we’d been prepared to sleep on the floor, our homestay family provided us with raised beds and mattresses. I learned later that it was uncommon for the Bribris themselves to sleep in raised beds, and that our arrangement was had been specially thought out to accommodate us. A pair from our group in a different homestay shared that their family had gone out and purchased mosquito nets specifically for them, and that the family had obviously made efforts more than necessary to clean and rearrange the house for the comfort of their guests.

Though communication was still a bit of a strain at times, the comfort that I experienced did extend past our sleeping arrangement. We were served wonderful food every night, and with everybody pitching in, we made pleasant and real conversation. The playing cards I’d brought were a huge hit, and some of my fondest memories from the trip took place gathered on the wooden floor of the kitchen, both teaching and learning card games from the children and their mothers, playing and laughing out loud until we were too tired to play anymore. During long days of work, I found myself longing for these moments, counting down the minutes until I could return to “my house” (as the grandmother spoke of it, as though it belonged to Katherine and I as much as it belonged to her.) It was truly wonderful to feel so taken in by the family–Prisca, the grandmother, patted my cheek when she saw me during the day, and one of her daughters braided both Katherine’s and my hair. I saw this kinship in other members of the group, too, as we tapped each other on the shoulder and exclaimed things like “That’s my dad!” when members of our households passed by during the day.

Getting to form bonds with the individual members of our family was also a privilege, and an experience which I think was more enriched but the cultural barrier than it was challenged. It was wonderful to feel like an older sister to spunky 8-year-old Keychani, while still learning so much from her in every fun-filled interaction. Possibly the most interesting relationship I had, though, was with oldest child, Mardiel. She was only two years younger than me, so getting to know her as a peer and compare our experiences was one of the more valuable things I got out of the trip. On our last night in the homestays, Mardiel and I talked for a long time about travel and our respective schools, after which she showed me some of her favorite music. I told her that if she ever travelled to the U.S., she could come stay with me. After all, knowing that I grew so much and gained so much perspective from living with Mardiel and her family, of course I’d be honored to create another such experience for her. I’m extremely glad that I got the opportunity to do it myself, and I’d encourage anyone else to take an opportunity do the same.