The Transformative Power of Nature
By KELSEY STAMM
Kelsey is the Grants & Outreach Coordinator with Ecology Project International (EPI) More information on this project can be found at: www.ecologyproject.org
What happens when you take a group of inner-city kids from Philadelphia, most of who have never traveled outside the state, and plop them on a remote Costa Rican beach with no electricity?
The answer? Magic.
Eleanor Boli, a Spanish teacher at Germantown High School in Philadelphia, spent the last year raising money to take six of her students on a field science and cultural exchange program with non-profit, Ecology Project International (EPI). Germantown serves about 850 high school students, mostly African-American youth and nearly all (84%) are economically disadvantaged. These students face many obstacles in receiving a good education, including chronic violence, drug activity, and poverty. It is no surprise, then, that these kids test far below average.
Eleanor wanted to expose her students to life and opportunities outside this challenging environment. A pivotal time in Eleanor’s life was two trips to Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands when she was in high school. With Ecology Project International (EPI), Eleanor and classmates worked to protect endangered species and habitat. She fell in love with Latin American culture, sea turtles, and the outdoors; so much so that she returned each year to Costa Rica for four years to protect and research critically endangered leatherback sea turtles at EPI’s field site at Pacuare Nature Reserve.
While she was in college studying education, Eleanor was exposed to yet another kind of reality – that of disadvantaged youth in D.C. and Bay Area high schools. Eleanor became a Philadelphia Teaching Fellow and began teaching Spanish at Germantown High School in Northwest Philadelphia in fall 2009. Passionate about teaching underserved youth, and amazed by her students’ curiosity, Eleanor decided to do something never before done at Germantown – take her students on an international field trip with EPI, in hopes that these teens would have the same transformative experience she had as a high school student.
Says Eleanor, “Despite little to no travel experience, rare exposure to the Spanish language or associated cultures, and interactions with nature that consisted of local city parks, my students were enraptured with my photos and stories from traveling in Latin America. When I would show them images from Pacuare and working with sea turtles, the looks on their faces left me vying to find the words to describe the profound experience of watching a leatherback nest. Quite simply, words were not enough. By the end of my first year teaching, I was determined that my goal for year two would be to take a group of my Germantown students on an EPI trip to Costa Rica.”
Once the group of six students was chosen, they began the long road of fundraising, securing passports and necessary documents, and preparing for a journey unlike anything else these youth had experienced. At every step of the way, the group encountered challenges. For most, it was their first time leaving Pennsylvania and traveling on a plane. And only one student had significant experience in the outdoors.
“Each individual in the group is highly independent and self-reliant, thus it was between my six students and me to obtain required medical and travel papers, design a fundraising plan for both local and far reaching efforts, and acquire the necessary travel equipment. For us, the road to Pacuare was not easy, but due to our group’s spirit and dedication, we made it to Costa Rica.”
In April 2011, Eleanor and six students landed in Costa Rica for a nine-day adventure, staying at the Pacuare Nature Reserve (the highest density leatherback sea turtle nesting beach in the country) and La Suerte Biological Reserve, site of EPI’s rainforest reforestation project.
In La Suerte, they planted native tree species and helped monitor young saplings in an area that was once a primary rainforest, but in recent years was deforested to create pasture land and pineapple plantations. At Pacuare, students went on “turtle patrols” each night, to protect the sea turtles and their nests and also collect scientific data.
“The first time my students saw leatherbacks was extremely profound,” says Eleanor. “As they attempted to describe to me what the experience had been like, it was clear in their eyes that they were deeply affected.”
During the day, students learned about science and conservation, and explored rainforest and learned about its biodiversity and ecological importance.
“It was beautiful to watch the transformation in my students as they developed more of an understanding of and appreciation for the natural world, away from our strictly urban environment,” says Eleanor.
“As hoped for, my students evolved from being somewhat guarded urban acolytes to nature pioneers in their own right. They acclimated to living by the rhythms of natural light, respecting the various creatures and insects in close proximity, and depending on one another for entertainment and comfort without their security blanket of electronic devices.”
“The Costa Rica Six,” as Eleanor fondly refers to her students, also were deeply impacted through their exposure to Costa Rican culture, quickly adapting to this completely exotic environment and finding joy in becoming part of it.
“My students discovered that Costa Rica students, though from a different country, culture, and environment, were teenagers just like them. Every place we went, from Pacuare to La Suerte, my kids kept saying, ‘Hey! Those kids are just like us!’ They also adopted some aspects of Costa Rican culture, saying “Buen provecho” before every meal and making sure to greet ALL passersby in Spanish.”
The Costa Rica Six also discovered that their cultures and challenges they and their communities face are really not that different from each other.
“I was most impressed by the connections made by some of my students to the experience of working in banana plantations or poaching [sea turtle eggs] as compared to selling drugs in the hood in the U.S. When analyzing social responsibility on the micro and macro level, we discovered that these issues have the same causes and effects. It definitely spoke volumes to my students to come to Costa Rica, seemingly half a world away, and see the same problems (with different settings) that plague our community at home.”
Eleanor was gratified to see that changes she experienced during this time in her life were apparent in the Costa Rica Six as well – albeit a bit different.
“Each and every single one of my students went through a personal metamorphosis. From being terrified of rafting to being the captain of the raft; from being withdrawn and a sworn independent soul to being a team player; from being terrified of bugs to… acceptant of them, all of my students dealt with a deep fear on this trip.
“Also, contrary to what I had experienced before with similar groups of adolescents, there were no outcasts or isolated members of our group. My group functioned like a family - if one student needed something, another student came through to aid them. If one person was hesitant or scared or could not progress, the entire group would rebound to determine a course of action so that we stayed together and were comfortable.”
While Eleanor and the Costa Rica Six did experience some trying situations – such as difficultly with highly structured days, the challenge of the courses and activities, and all the emotions that come with being in a totally foreign environment, Eleanor also found that the return to the US and their community was a difficult transition.
Going from an environment totally focused on conservation and where you can pick fruits and veggies for your dinner in the backyard and listen to chatter of monkeys and birds, back to their urban setting in Philadelphia, where recycling programs are virtually non-existent and fresh produce and green space is scarce, is tough for anyone. However, the Costa Rica Six and Eleanor are resilient and have been successful integrating what they learned into their daily lives.
“Every time we reunite, the kids are eager to reminisce. They brag about the fact that they lived without cell phones and ipods for nine days. Although only for a short time, I think that their experience living in a simpler fashion made them realize not everyone in the world operates or lives like we do in the U.S. What’s more, they know they are capable of living in different environments now, too.
“I think our entire group feels that we as individuals have changed based on this experience. Walking around our inner city neighborhood or back at our school where the majority of students litter without thinking twice, I know my students feel their experience deeply changed them on the inside and outside. Some lessons, such as taking care not to litter or reusing water bottles, are now their M.O.”
Eleanor has capitalized on their experience, to demonstrate to the rest of students at Germantown the opportunities that lie within their reach and that sometimes, stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone can take you places, geographically and spiritually, that you could never even have dreamed of.
“My Costa Rica six did presentations for my Spanish classes, explaining their experience and the work we did. I also regularly pull out pictures and anecdotes from our trip to show the rest of my students that yes, something like this is possible and that they have the ability to connect to others from different cultures and countries as well.”
One of the Costa Rica Six, Staphon Williams, describes his experience in Costa Rica. “Going to Costa Rica was like the dream that I did not want to wake from… this trip not only opened my eyes to a whole other culture and way of life, but I came into contact with some remarkable creatures. I have seen hawksbill sea turtles before, but the dramatic switch to leatherbacks was overwhelming. For me, just to be in the presence of such a large yet majestic creature was breathtaking.
“As one who believes himself to be a survivalist that is in-tune with nature, the sights and sounds of the Costa Rican plants and animals were extremely eye-opening. This trip brought me closer to my friends and also put me into contact with new ones. This trip has done so much for me, not only mentally but also spiritually,” says Staphon.
This was not only a special time for the Costa Rica Six, but also served as inspiration for Eleanor.
“I feel that this experience reminded all of us to keep reaching for the unknown. Remembering how incredible this trip was has motivated me to do what I can in life to stay true to the work I am most passionate about. Being able to pass on this blessing made my own experience come full circle, and the evolution of my students over the nine-day course proves it was profoundly worth it.
“For all of us, though the trip now seems like a dream, we know that if we hold on to it, we can make the dream reality again. That is very important for my students—they now understand the sovereignty and opportunity that comes with having a passport and being a world traveler.”
Despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges they face in their neighborhoods and everyday lives, each member of the Costa Rica Six was deeply touched by their experience.
“As I watch them walk around one of Philadelphia’s more notorious neighborhoods with their heads held high and turtle necklaces around their necks, I know they will carry the lessons and light of Pacuare and Costa Rica with them for the rest of their lives.”
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