by Shannon Farley
Travel can change the world.
At least former U.S. President Bill Clinton thinks so. “The travel industry has the potential – and the responsibility – to spread peace and change the world,” Clinton told travel executives while speaking at the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 13th annual Global Summit in Abu Dhabi in April 2013.
Student travel organizations like EcoTeach and People to People also think so. The two U.S.-based educational student travel organizations promote global awareness, peace and cultural exchange with international educational trips for grades 5-12 and college students.
Here in Costa Rica, EcoTeach and People to People, along with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, have partnered with Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure to change the world for rural schoolchildren in Costa Rica’s Caribbean region.
Veragua Rainforest is a nature and adventure park, and important scientific research center, an hour inland from the Caribbean port of Limón, in the foothills bordering the La Amistad International Park. The area is remote and very rural. People who live there subsist on farming or travel to work in banana or pineapple plantations; Veragua Rainforest has become one of the district’s main employers.
Two tiny communities in the area – Brisas and the Union of the Peje River – each have their own elementary schools. Between 20 and 30 children attend each of the tiny, one-room schools. Facilities are simple – a large classroom, a dining hall, bathrooms, a small grassy area. In Costa Rica, students are required to wear school uniforms, which parents must provide; parents’ also must pay for their children’s school books and school supplies, such as pencils, notebooks, etc. In economy-strapped areas such as these, families often don’t have such extra funds. The schools themselves struggle to meet ends meet as well. That’s where Veragua Rainforest comes in with their social responsibility program and partners like EcoTeach, People to People and the Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation.
EcoTeach – based out of Washington, USA – operates regular educational trips to Costa Rica for high school, middle school and university students from the USA, Canada, and the UK. The organization focuses on hands-on conservation work, ecology and cultural exchange. They sponsor four schools in Costa Rica, said Costa Rica Operations Manager Carlos “Pika” Viquez.
For the past three years, EcoTeach has operated a 7-day Veragua Rainforest Service Trip that involves volunteering at the Brisas School. Over the years, visiting international student groups have helped build bathrooms, put in electricity and running water, installed new roofs and floors, painted buildings, and given the schoolchildren uniforms, books and school supplies.
“The conditions at the school were terrible. They didn’t have running water or electricity. The school is very isolated and very few people live there,” noted Viquez. “We wanted to help improve the facilities and improve the quality of the kids’ education. What you see now is like a ‘5-star’ school compared to what was there before. But every time I go there, I find something that needs to be done. It’s a work in progress.”
“Schools like this are not like schools in the States,” Viquez continued. “The students who come to help feel very proud of the work they are contributing. Many of them ask us how they can help once they get back to their countries. A lot of returning groups ask to do more work at the school, and bring school supplies with them.”
The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (CRHF) is a non-profit organization that manages more than 50 projects throughout the country involving education, community development, primary and preventive healthcare, and extensive support services for women, at-risk youth and indigenous groups.
Individuals and student groups from Canada, Europe and the United States volunteer with CRHF. Earlier this year students and teachers from the Robert Alexander McMath Secondary School in British Colombia, Canada, helped Veragua Rainforest give a much-needed facelift to the Union of the Peje River school. The visiting group painted murals on walls and the school’s dining hall, upgraded the teacher’s living quarters with a fresh coat of paint, installed new roofs, and cheered up pathways with trees planted in brightly painted old tires. Students also spent time at Veragua Rainforest in biology research labs, and had cultural exchange time with the Union of the Peje River school children.
Over the last three years, groups with the renowned U.S. educational student travel organization People to People also have helped Veragua Rainforest improve the Union of the Peje River school. Students have fixed bathrooms, varnished desks, planted trees, built sidewalks, and donated computers to the school. They even paid for a bicycle for the school director to use for transport to and from school.
People to People operates a 14-day trip to Costa Rica; two days are spent at Veragua Rainforest working on environmental research projects and helping at the local school.