As part of Mercersburg Global Initiatives, 19 students and three chaperones will participate in a spring vacation trip to Costa Rica March 4 to 13.
Mercersburg Academy has a long-standing relationship, dating to 2001, with the Cloud Forest School in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Students in 11th and 12th grades were invited to apply for this travel opportunity. The trip, which will be the first journey back to the school since 2019, will be a mix of community service and adventure activities.
“The experience that they’re going to have is such an education in and of itself, they won’t realize it in the moment, but my hope is they will realize this growth upon their return to the United States,” said Director of Global Initiatives Justine O’Connell, a language faculty member who is a chaperone for the trip.
While at the private bilingual school, the group from Mercersburg will be working on several service projects, possibly repairing a kiosk that a Mercersburg group first worked on almost 15 years ago.
Other projects might include exterior painting, helping in classrooms, and planting trees.
“I think it’s important to note that it’s not necessarily about what we want to do,” O’Connell said. “We ask them what they need us to do, and we fill in where they need us, where they need support. It’s a reciprocal relationship. We want it to be meaningful work, but we also don’t want to come in from a school in the U.S. and say, ‘This is what we want to do.’ We ask them what they need.”
In previous years, the Mercersburg group has built playgrounds and fences, mixed concrete by hand, and created paths for sidewalks, said Director of Student Activities Trini Hoffman P ’00, ’06, a chaperone who has been on the Costa Rica trip eight times. This will be Hoffman’s last trip with the group before retirement.
“I hope [the students] learn how to do some hard work and learn how to appreciate what they have,” Hoffman said. “I hope they learn some cultural perspective.”
Students will be immersed in the culture in homestay situations, staying in the homes of local families. While there, students will experience the culture, eat typical foods, such as rice, beans and plantains, and possibly see monkeys, sloths, snakes and other reptiles, tarantulas, and scorpions.
They also will witness levels of poverty that they most likely have not experienced.
“When I first went there, my homestay mother made about $230 a month. The area has come a long way, but there are still some very, very poor people,” said Hoffman, who noted that when Mercersburg initially went to the school, there were only dirt roads.
To help the school, Mercersburg has held fundraisers, including the sale of snack baskets during exam weeks and banana bread baked by Jeff Cohen, a member of the Mercersburg mathematics faculty who has chaperoned the Costa Rica trip seven times.
“This is the kind of experience that will change a kid’s perspective,” Cohen said. “I want them to learn that other people are happier with much less than we are unhappy with.”
Cohen estimates that he has made 5,000 loaves of banana bread since 2019. The loaves sell for $6 each or two for $11, with $3 from each loaf donated to the school.
Since 2019, Cohen has raised over $13,000 from the bread sales, some of which was donated to other charities, but the bulk of which was used for the Cloud Forest School.
“Our scholarship is to help those who can’t afford to go to a bilingual school, so they can be taught English and be in a better place. They can come out and not be in poverty anymore,” Hoffman said. “When we give the money to families who are behind in their payments, and they’re in danger of being asked to leave the school, there are tears everywhere. They’re so grateful.”
The chaperones note that Mercersburg students often develop close relationships with their host families.
“It’s such a concentrated time of getting to know somebody new,” Cohen said. “It’s very unique. It’s hard to imagine, but it happens every time, and you hear kids talk about going back.”
O’Connell notes that developing people who want to lead and serve the world is the mission of Mercersburg Academy.
“How can we do that if we don’t have programs like this where students are learning to lead but also serve and be a lifelong learner?” O’Connell said. “Travel is something that forces you to be a learner. Some kids realize for the first time that the way they’ve done things isn’t necessarily the only way or even the best way to do things. There are many, many ways for one to approach different situations and lead with love and kindness.”
Setting students up for success
When students sign up for the trip, O’Connell meets with the Office of Student Life and the Rutherford Health and Wellness Center to see if the trip is a good fit for them.
“Living in a homestay versus being in hotels or hostels is very different, so we look at the behavioral side from Office of Student Life and then also from the health and wellness side, making sure that mentally and physically we think that this would be a good fit,” O’Connell said. “We want to set them up for success.
In addition to working at the school, the group will explore the La Fortuna area, seeing Arenal Volcano, taking an ATV ride into banana plantations, participating in a river rafting safari trip, and experiencing zip lining through the jungle.
The activities are fun and are included as appreciation for the students’ hard work, said Hoffman, noting that one year she saw the volcano spurt.
“Jeff and I have always come home very proud of their work, dedication, communication, kindness, and willingness to engage,” Hoffman said.
Follow the trip's progress by visiting the group's blog.
Pictured: Students on the school's last trip to Costa Rica in 2019.