Trip to Costa Rica ‘changed my life’ says ODSS student

March 15, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Baker

“This trip changed my life,” Annabelle Mathieson, a Grade 11 student at Orangeville District Secondary School, explained shortly after her return from a ten-day stint in Costa Rica.

Indeed, that was the opinion of an entire classroom of local students, who each leapt out of their proverbial comfort zone to experience a new way of life last month. The group, consisting of 27 students and four teachers, traveled to the impoverished Central American nation each with a mission in their mind – to do whatever they could to help.

This is the third straight year that ODSS has offered its students the opportunity to participate in a service-oriented trip. Since the first excursion in 2017, also to Costa Rica, close to 90 students have taken part. Speaking to the Citizen last week, ODSS teacher Susie Chamberlain, one of the leaders behind the trips, reflected on what, exactly, these missions mean to her students.

“They’re everything. It’s difficult to put into words exactly what the students get out of these trips… I’ve heard many of them say before that it’s a trip of a lifetime, and in many ways it really is,” Ms. Chamberlain said. “To have the opportunity to travel to a foreign country and experience first-hand an entirely different way of life, but not only that, to actually offer assistance and help out people that perhaps aren’t quite as fortunate as we are, it’s an invaluable experience.”

Spending nine nights in Costa Rica from Feb. 15 to Feb. 24, the group traveled the length and breadth of the country, visiting six different communities along the way. 

Their first stop after landing in the national capital of San Jose was the relatively rural community of Tortuguero. Here, the team met the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education & Rainforest Conservation (COTERC). Founded in 1991, the organization works hand in hand with the local Cano Palma Biological Station to study wildlife in the area and protect Costa Rica’s tropical rainforests. 

While in Tortuguero, the students were introduced to a group of turtles, while also, later, spending their time picking up garbage at a local beach and planting trees along the shoreline.

The “awful” condition of the beach really shocked some of the students and offered something of a reality check into how things are in different parts of the world.

“It was an eye-opener for sure,” said Grade 12 student Rebecca Hodder. “It was crazy seeing it in the condition it was in. There was plastic washed up everywhere. And it wasn’t just local garbage, we found containers and packaging from all over the world. Once we were finished, we had 12 huge bags full of plastic.”

On day two, the group visited Tortuguero National Park and embarked on a boat ride where they had the chance to see various regional birds and animals in their natural habitat. Day three involved travel to a third community – Sarapiqui. There, they spent time painting the fence of a children’s nutrition centre.

“It wasn’t a particularly fun job, but with 30 of us banding together to do it, it took us three, maybe four hours. If one of the locals had to do that by themselves, it would have easily taken a few days,” Ms. Chamberlain said.

The highlight of the trip was to come. Travelling to Arenal, a northern community known for its prominent active volcano, the group had a chance to spend time in two local schools. It was here that her students, Ms. Chamberlain said, made connections that would last a lifetime. 

For Ali Rozycka, a Grade 12 student at ODSS, it was particularly special. As one of the only members of the group who could fluently speak Spanish, she was able to actually talk to the young students.

“It was amazing. I’ve never experienced anything like what I experienced at that first school. We went into the classroom, introduced ourselves and then had a chance to go out and play with them,” Ms. Rozycka said. “Spending time with them, hearing their stories, it was so special. I definitely made a few new friends that day – some of them even took down my down number! It was really cute.”

“All it took was playing a game with one of the kids, or letting them braid your hair, and we had a new best friend. They were so loving and welcoming,” said Grade 12 student Natalie Brown.

The first school, Sector Angeles School in Alajuela, definitely made a lasting impression upon the students, Ms. Chamberlain said. Upon their return to Canada, the group decided it wanted to continue supporting the school, raising funds to pay for basic school supplies to send down south. 

“On the bus after visiting Sector Angeles, we made a pact. We’re not going to just leave these kids. We’re going to take care of them. All 27 kids committed to donating money, or running activities that will raise funds for school supplies and shipping,” Ms. Chamberlain said. “It was amazing – this was completely thought up by the students.”

Following the school visit, the group partook in a hike at Tennoria National Park in Rincon de la Vieja, carried out general trail maintenance at a volcano park and learned about Central American history while visiting Santa Rosa National Park in Guanacaste. While in Guanacaste, they were treated to a cooking class at an outdoor kitchen in a home in the jungle.

Now, having returned to life in Canada, many of the students say the trip has changed the way they go about day-to-day life. After being, essentially, cut off from technology and other luxuries we take for granted, many are committed to living a more simpler life after witnessing first-hand how things are in Costa Rica.

For Ms. Chamberlain, she’s focused on establishing a solid link with the Costa Rican elementary school, while also, potentially, keeping an open mind regarding any future service-based trips.

“It’s funny, after last year’s trip we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to do one this year. But the demand for these trips is absolutely phenomenal – they are completely driven by our students,” Ms. Chamberlain said. “I think it all goes back to that first trip to Costa Rica and the buzz that generated. The students who participated talked about it for the rest of the year, and it’s filtered down (through the grades).”

She continued, “These trips offer such an incredible experience. It’s amazing to think about the memories our students have made and the impacts these adventures have had on their lives.”

While there is nothing planned, as of yet, for next year, things could quickly change if there’s enough demand, Susie added. 

“This group we have, all they’re asking about right now is what we’re going to do next year. It’s always a possibility, but we don’t know yet if there will be another one. What I would really like us to do in the future is go back to that school. If we’re providing them with resources,” Ms. Chamberlain said.  “I want to see if we’re doing the right thing, if what we’re doing is making the impact that’s best, or see if there are other ways we could assist.”

Anyone with an interest in donating to the cause, is asked to email Susie Chamberlain at

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