BRIGHTON — Their trip to Costa Rica was designed to give Siena Catholic Academy students a chance to practice their Spanish, but the people they encountered didn’t always make that possible.
“We’d say ‘Gracias’ and they’d say ‘You’re welcome,'” 13-year-old Lauren Piluso explained with a giggle Feb. 27 as she and the other eighth-graders who traveled to Costa Rica with Spanish teacher Dawn LeBeau during the February school break recounted stories of their trip. Nevertheless, she noted, “We tried to put the effort in.”
As the students chatted around a conference table at school, the camaraderie among them was apparent as they teased each other, finished each other’s sentences and spoke over one another with excitement.
LeBeau said her sister, a fellow teacher who has traveled the globe with high-school students, inspired her to take her students on the Costa Rica trip. She was also influenced by a trip she took to Spain when she was an eighth-grader.
“I remember it being such a life-changing experience,” LeBeau said. “You become so aware of the world outside of your community.”
Lauren said she also liked the opportunity the trip gave the group of eight to bond before they move on to high school in the fall.
“It’s like our graduating class,” she said. “Why not go to Costa Rica with an amazing teacher?”
At first, Principal Timothy Leahy was not enthusiastic about the trip due to insurance and safety concerns and “just being able to sleep at night,” he said. Yet feedback so far has been positive, Leahy added, with parent praise for the excellent job LeBeau did in providing such a memorable experience for the students.
Jane Shewman, who organized a fundraising event to help students earn money for the trip, said her son, Sean, has often expressed interest in traveling, so she couldn’t deny him this opportunity.
“It opens up their world view … to see how other kids live and go to school,” said Shewman. She added that the coffee sale, through which Sean and three other students raised $900, was arranged through Picture Perfect Enterprises, a company that uses proceeds to help educate children throughout the world.
Sister Patricia Carroll, assistant superintendent for government services and administration for the Diocese of Rochester’s Department of Catholic Schools, said trips for eighth-grade students are not common. To receive diocesan approval for the trip, LeBeau had to follow strict guidelines. Among those guidelines are ensuring that students do not have independent time, and having every adult chaperon sign a code of conduct and undergo a criminal background check, Sister Carroll said.
Along with safety issues, such trips also bring up the issue of affordability, Leahy noted.
“Some families can afford it, but some families can’t,” he said. “And the school doesn’t have kitties of money to offer.”
About half of the students, including 13-year-olds Emma Keller, Liz King and Julia Devine and 14-year-olds Taylor Dennison and Sean Shewman, raised a portion of the trip’s approximately $2,000 cost by baby-sitting, cutting lawns and participating in the coffee sale. Zach Bornemann, 13, and Julia Sanger — who attended Siena last year — also went on the trip.
To be eligible, the students needed to meet academic expectations and sign contracts regarding how they would behave on the trip, LeBeau said.
Typical teenagers, all the students raved about the “zipline,” a steel cable on which they sailed through a forest in Monte Verde, and about sitting in hot springs in Aranal. But another of their favorite memories was visiting an elementary school where they interacted with children in grades kindergarten through six. The Siena students donated such supplies as chalk, erasers, pens and pencils to the school, and the Costa Rican children sang songs and played games and soccer with them. The Siena students were impressed with how happy the children were even though they had so little.
“It’s kind of shocking at first,” Lauren said of the experience.
“They’re happy playing on logs,” Taylor added.
Sean said one of the girls they met was thrilled to have her picture taken with him. They also had the opportunity to practice their language skills at the school, as the children were among the few Costa Ricans they met who did not speak English.
“As long as (the Costa Rican students) spoke slowly, (the Siena students) kept up with them,” LeBeau said.
LeBeau said the trip also featured lessons on ecology and conservation with visits to the rain forest and mountainous volcanic areas. Sean laughed as he recounted seeing a raccoon steal someone’s lunch right off the beach.
They also had the opportunity to participate in traditional dances with the Costa Rican Folkloric Ballet troupe and, with lessons from a native artist, made ox-cart wheels, a traditional Costa Rican craft, LeBeau said.
“They learned a lot,” LeBeau said, adding that the trip was an incredible experience she hopes to share with more students in the future.
“It was so fun to be with all of them,” she said. “I truly missed them when we got back.”