By Betty Vanderwielen
Pathfinder 

Looking Back on Costa Rica

 

Photo provided.

While in Orosi, the students visited local mountain man and coffee grower Nano, who took them to his famous waterfall. Back (L-R): Gabby Sexton, Seth Linford, Tessa Grimes, Jesse Weis, Jacob Haley, Hunter Mincey, Angus Batchelder and Trace Stone. Front (L-R): Paige Holmes, Stephanie Robbins, Nano, Bridget Laird and Dan Willig.

SEELEY LAKE – Spring 2016 marks the fifth time Seeley-Swan High School (SSHS) teacher Trace Stone escorted a group of students to South America. The opportunity was open to any high school student willing to help raise the required funds, approximately $1,700 per person. This year Stone and Seeley Lake Elementary School teacher Bridget Laird took 10 students to Costa Rica.

When Stone started the program in 2010, he named it Destinations for Education. He has taken groups to Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Through experience, Stone has refined his understanding of what works and what doesn't. For instance, the first trip was 17 days and proved to be too long. He has settled on seven to eight days in the country as a more realistic time frame.

According to Stone, there are a number of groups and organizations that offer packaged trips with options varying from pure sight-seeing to total Spanish immersion.Stone focuses on three aspects that, in his opinion, provide the best overall experience for high school students: homestay, work projects, and Spanish lessons.


For the 2016 trip, Stone decided to return to the town of Orosi in Costa Rica. He contracted with Montaña Linda, the same family-run business he had used successfully in 2014. He said the couple who run the program are very conscientious and keep the students busy with a number of activities. They make sure the students and the host families are working out well together and they find good worthwhile service projects for the students to carry out.

"I've seen the sort of lighter, fluffy projects when you volunteer somewhere," Stone said. "With Montaña Linda, you can see the practical use for the project. That's why I went back the second time. I knew it was going to be great."

On arrival in Orosi, students underwent orientation at the language school and later met their host families. The next several mornings began with work at Alto de Araya, the same elementary school the 2014 Destinations for Education group worked at. That group helped build a small playground. This time the school had asked for help establishing a garden area so they could grow some of their own food. Stone said the project involved a huge clean-up of a hillside area. Besides leveling the ground, the students needed to cleaned out a drainage ditch and poured a concrete walkway leading to the garden.

The Montaña Linda schedule had the students working on the project each morning and receiving three hours of Spanish instruction in the afternoon. The language classes grouped the students according to fluency, placing no more than three students with each native speaking instructor. Not all of the instruction took place in the classroom. There were some outings to the local church, museum or just to get ice cream, which exposed students to the culture and gave them opportunities to listen to and speak the language.


Evenings were spent with the host families, where the students again had a chance to practice their Spanish in a real life situation. On some evenings, group activities such as cooking and dance lessons took place. One night all the SSHS students and their homestay families played a game of soccer.

Stone said, though he sees some improvement in language proficiency on the part of some of the students that is not his main objective in taking students to South America. He said, "The goal is that the students become more curious about the world and see that visiting a different country can be done for a reasonable amount of money. I want them to be bit by the bug a little bit and do some of this on their own. The service part for sure, but also just explore."

Although Stone acknowledged at the beginning of the trip a poor decision was made by some of the students and required disciplinary action, he said the students redeemed themselves by focusing on the goals of the trip and turning it into a rewarding event.


In response to a question posed to the students asking what they feel good about when they look back on their trip, Paige Holmes wrote, "The best part of the trip was helping the school in Orosi. It was an awesome experience to see all of the kids look at what we were doing with excitement." 

Angus Batchelder wrote, "I thought we made a lot of progress at the school we worked at. We built three garden beds and a sink."

Jacob Haley, who had also gone on the 2014 trip wrote, "I really felt accomplished about making a difference for the school, not only with what I did this year but two years ago and help making that school what it is today.

Laird wrote, "This was my second time chaperoning a trip and I came away again with the conclusion that this is one of the unique, rich programs that SSHS offers our kids that has a profound positive impact. These experiences are so much more than just a trip to a foreign country. Staying with local families, working on meaningful community projects, and immersing in the culture and language are the components that challenge kids and connect them in a way that can't happen on a vacation.  This trip was full of ups and downs, mostly ups, and the group of travelers engaged fully in it. I believe it was another huge success."

Stone said even after the trip is over, some of the students keep in touch with their host families. He said, "For me, that's what I'm after, the evidence down the road that this has impacted the students in some growth-related way. Maybe they are a little more interested in people who aren't like them. Or just experiencing the places. Or the realization, I see why I've got to learn some language before I go back somewhere because it really is limiting if you're just skimming the surface in some other country and you can make it much more profound if you do the work with the language."

Photo provided.

Hunter Mincey transports a wheelbarrow of mixed cement for the walkway.

 

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