By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – Fordson High School Key Club members spent spring break in Costa Rica with Rustic Pathways providing sweat equity on agricultural projects and helping school children improve their English language skills.
Key Club, a student-led service club sponsored by Kiwanis International, provides character-building and leadership opportunities for high school students, while Rustic Pathways provides safe service opportunities for students to help people around the world.
Faculty adviser Zinab Zriek said that during the trip March 28 to April 3, students focused on two major projects: English language immersion lessons with elementary school students at San Francisco School in La Fortuna, and work on a nursery garden and greenhouse through the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (National University of Distance Education) in Sabanilla, Montes de Oca.
Zriek said UNED leads green initiatives to research plants and trees that can be used by schools and communities to help feed people, develop new commercial products, and reforest and beautify natural areas.
She said the teen volunteers learned about seed collection, germination and transplantation, and the local ecology, plant use, refertilization and recycling.
They also worked with elementary school children to help support the English language curriculum through songs and games, and by letting the students practice with native English speakers.
When they weren’t working for others, the group had a chance to visit local hot springs, hike through a local jungle to scenic waterfalls, and ride a zip line.
Ali Fakih, 16, said seeing a culture where education is revered and nothing is wasted by the rural poor was eye-opening.
He said the Costa Rican people he met did not waste anything, including water, and they reused and recycled everything.
“After seeing their lifestyle, it really changed me,” Fakih said. “I will try to not waste so much.”
Zriek said in Costa Rica they were expected to reuse their water bottles, and they became aware of the wastefulness of American culture.
“They reuse and recycle,” Zriek said. “It’s not like that here, and we take those little things for granted.”
Fakih said the children they helped with English lessons even valued their learning time.
“They want to learn everything they can possibly learn,” Fakih said. “A minute of education is never wasted.”
Safa Khalil, 17, said the students they met in Costa Rica did not take their education for granted like students in the United States do.
“They feel lucky for just going to school,” Khalil said. “They are very grateful to have that opportunity to learn.”
They used songs and games, including “Duck, Duck, Goose,” “The Hokey Pokey” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to teach the children basic English words.
Waleed Ahmed, 18, said the school children taught the volunteers some of their songs and dances.
Mohamad Mansour, 17, said the students at the school grew their own food in an adjacent garden, which he said was a sharp contrast to Americans’ trips to a grocery store.
Zriek said all of the students take part in the agriculture and farming process.
“They have classes outside,” Zriek said, “They help their fish grow, and they feed their fish. They have lime trees; they have chickens that produce eggs. Their lunch is their hard work with their agriculture outside of their school.”
Mansour said many of the students walked miles on their own to get the school, in contrast to how many students in the United States are driven to school.
Khalil said that despite wearing a hijab, which identified her as a Muslim, the looks they got from Costa Ricans were curiosity-based, and they were friendly and open-minded.
“We were getting ice cream, and someone came up to us and said, ‘Costa Rica welcomes everyone, no matter what religion you are,’” Khalil said. “He knew the issues happening worldwide, and said, ‘Costa Rica does not care about that.’”
Khalil said she was nervous about how she would be perceived before leaving for Costa Rica.
“Seeing how open-minded and friendly they are changed me a lot,” Khalil said. “Having small conversations with the kids and them being friendly and not holding anything back really changed me.”
Mouhamad Diallo, 17, who is black, said the children had not seen many African-American people up close before, so they were initially hesitant around him.
“Once they got over their initial reluctance, they were all very friendly to me,” Diallo said. “That speaks volumes to how open they are.”
While the younger children had just rudimentary English knowledge, the school teachers and the Rustic Pathways leaders translated, as did Mohamed Ahmed, 18, who has taken two years of Spanish language class.
He said it was strange not having Wi-Fi or high speed wireless Internet access for a week, and the group spent more time holding actual conversations, and only used their cell phones to take photos.
Mansour said he became aware of the contrast between the American consumption and Costa Rican conservative resource usage.
“As Americans we always want more,” Mansour said. “We are never satisfied with what we have. It made me feel that we are spoiled.”
The agricultural volunteer work at the school included clearing land of grass, rocks and weeds, then plowing the soil and planting sweet potatoes for the school children’s eventual consumption.
At the university research center they carried tree trunks and dug holes to support them upright for grapevines.
Zriek said they were told they did as much work in one day as the local staff could have completed in a week.
“We were sweating bullets,” Zriek said. “We just jumped in the pool when we got to the villa.”
Mansour said he is now more appreciative of what he has.
“These people work so hard just to get food and the materials they need to survive,” Mansour said. “As Americans, everything comes to us very easily.”
Waleed Ahmed said the United States could learn from Costa Rica’s eco-friendy practices.
“I really thought going there that these poorer countries should be looking at the United States and want to be like that,” he said. “In reality, the United States should be looking at their concepts. They reuse everything.”
Diallo said that while Costa Rica is beautiful, it is a land of poverty.
“Not everyone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth,” Diallo said. “Everyone should realize that you have to toil sometimes in life. The Costa Ricans are an embodiment of that.”