Left photo: Senior Natasha Issayeva is at the summer program she ran with her AMIGOS partner for local children. She smiles with her students, following a paint fight (right photo).
It’s the dead of night, 2AM. You have had nothing to eat but rice and beans every day, every meal, for two weeks. And maybe some chicken and bananas, if you are lucky. A new round of patrol has taken over on the beach. The search continues; the search for sea turtles.
Sea turtles were not the only interesting things that Aragon students encountered on the Costa Rica ecology trip this summer. With visits to local Costa Rican schools and the exploration of rainforests, not to mention continuous data-collection and research, the sixteen students who signed up for the trip were kept busy.
The students embarked on the trip as part of a program offered by Ecology Project International, a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing conservation issues. Accompanied by researchers and Aragon teachers Leigh-Anne Ecklund and Shane Smuin, the primary focus of the students’ eighteen-day trip was the collection of data on leatherback sea turtles.
“[Specifically], our research was to document the turtles and see if their numbers are going up or down, and see if their eggs are surviving out of the nest,” says senior Max Liebergesell. “The sea turtles would only come out at night to lay their eggs, so we would have to go really late to try and find them on the beach.”
But even in a country renowned for its vast biodiversity, finding the turtles sometimes proved harder than students thought. “Our group went out one night and we didn’t see anything at all, so we decided to build a sand turtle,” says Liebergesell. “So we built the sand turtle and hid in the bushes and the other group came up and the researchers thought it was a turtle, so they held all the students back, and went to go investigate. They got tricked really, really badly!”
In addition to the trip bringing laughs, it had a powerful impact on the students as well. For many, simply living in such a different environment brought on new insight on everyday matters of living. Liebergesell says, “[The trip] made me more aware of the earth and how much water we waste and the amount of resources we use. It also made me aware of how I need to cut that down in my life.”
Bordering Costa Rica to the north is Nicaragua, a country featured by the international non-profit organization “AMIGOs,” and sharing Costa Rica’s steady diet of rice and beans. Senior Candice de Sauvage spent six weeks in the Nicaraguan communities of Tomatoya and Candelaria, helping the communities build a school.
Apart from de Sauvage, three other students from Aragon participated in AMIGOs, including seniors Natasha Issayeva, Hannah Hibbs, and junior Simone Jacobs. Issayeva and Hibbs were deployed to the Dominican Republic, and Jacobs went to the Republic of Panama.
AMIGOs, an organization in its 43rd year, puts high school and college volunteers in Latin American countries to live with other volunteers in local “host families.” Volunteers improve their Spanish fluency and experience an entirely different culture from their own.
In de Sauvage’s span of volunteer service, however, a small setback stopped the trip from reaching its full potential. She described, “Basically, every week, we have to fill out a survey saying how we’re doing mentally and physically so the supervisor can make sure we’re safe,” says de Sauvage, “So while we’re filling out the survey, all of a sudden we hear three gunshots go off, right as we’re filling out ‘Do you feel safe in this community?’ So we’re not too sure what to put anymore for this.” The occurrence, while a harmless joke, sent de Sauvage off to a different community with a different host family.
AMIGOs CEO Marty Sinnott commented on the incident, saying, “AMIGOs’ number one priority is the health and safety of our volunteers…[In] this case, we took immediate action and removed the volunteers from the situation. They were transferred to a new community and we will not be returning to the same community in the future…[The] volunteers went on to have a safe and productive summer.”
In fact, volunteer services conducted in these Latin American countries did prove beneficial to the communities. “We teach camps and do a community based initiative, which is AMIGOs [raising] and [giving] money to the community so the volunteers can work together with the locals to build a project. Projects range from painting a mural to building a school, so it really depends on what the community wants,” says de Sauvage. “My [primary] project was repainting the community basketball court [in the Dominican Republic],” says Issayeva.
Like the Costa Rica ecology trip, a different environment made a difference in helping volunteers re-evaluate their ways of life. De Sauvage says, “I got back, and I realized we make things really complicated here. We overpack things and we’re very materialistic, extremely materialistic… It was just one of the things that made me so much stronger and my experiences just taught me so much.”
Issayeva agrees, saying, “You don’t really experience things here that you would in a third world country. It just shows how fast paced life in America is, and in other countries people just ‘chill’ and enjoy their lives more.”