When Huntersville teens Katelin Sawicki and Sydney Antolini hiked to the top of an active Costa Rican volcano, the girls knew they were on a trip of lifetime long before they peered into its smoldering center.
The two Charlotte Catholic High School students traveled to San Jorge, Costa Rica, with Lincoln Charter School, located in Denver, from April 12 to 22, for a spring break service-learning trip. Accompanied by Lincoln Charter Spanish teachers Margie Henry and Jon Bealer, the group of nine students embarked on 10-day service-learning adventure that would change their lives.
“The trip really broadened my world view,” Katelin said. “I learned so many things about Costa Rican culture and their way of life, – even things that I could take back home and incorporate into my own life.”
While in San Jorge, the group painted a medical clinic, helped in the fields and carried donations to the kindergarten class. The group even spent a day collecting all the ingredients to cook a meal from scratch for their host families. They went out into fields and picked pineapple and papayas, borrowed queso fresco – cheese – from a neighbor, ground corn into corn meal for tortillas and prepared homemade empanadas.
“Every activity we did was an experience that was totally different from Denver, North Carolina,” said Henry, who taught the girls middle school Spanish and recruited their help for the trip. “The food was fantastic! We had rice and beans for every meal with some nuances… rice and beans and eggs, or rice and beans and pork.”
The first- and third-year Spanish students were split into groups of two or three and lived with a Costa Rican family for the week. Although Sydney and Katelin, who lived with the same host family, knew enough Spanish to communicate basic phrases and questions, they said the first few hours of their stay was a bit awkward.
“At first, we were very cautious, like we were stepping on eggshells,” Katelin said.
By the end of the trip, however, the teens could converse with the family in broken Spanish and English. They said they formed a special bond with their host mother, who, according to Katelin, made a special effort to take the two girls “under her wing.”
“There was a lot of hand motions and pointing,” Sydney said, who has taken Spanish classes since kindergarten. “If I didn’t know a word in Spanish, Katelin usually knew it, and if she didn’t know a word, then I would know it. I definitely found out I knew less Spanish than I thought I did.”
One evening, after a long day of labor, students orchestrated a community-wide gathering on the bank of a local river. Even the village’s shyest families came out to enjoy food, fellowship and pick-up soccer games, despite language barriers. Both the girls and Henry said they were impressed with the camaraderie between the villagers.
“San Jorge is a small village with only about 120 people near the Nicaraguan border,” Henry said. The center of the community has a communal kitchen, a soccer field, a church and a cantina. “Their town is designed for community. When it’s time to cook, the entire community was there, and all the families got together,” she said.
And while students weren’t busy toiling in the fields or playing with local kindergartners, they took the time to explore some of the country’s natural wonders, including the jungle and two volcanoes. Special stops throughout the trip included tours of a coffee plantation, a self-sustaining farm and an animal rehabilitation clinic.
When they returned they could tell their spring break was nothing like anything their friends experienced, the students and Henry said.
Henry said she’s had friends say things to her like, “Didn’t your trip make you appreciate what we have here?”
But Henry disagrees.
“We were actually really envious of what they had. They’re so affectionate with each other, and they do everything together. They don’t call each other by their names, they say, ‘Mi amore’ – ‘my love.’
“It’s a culture that taught us so much,” Katelin said.