Alexander abroad

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Reserve students help build school in Costa Rica

Kaitlin Arcand didn’t go all the way to Costa Rica to monkey around, but the monkeys wouldn’t take no for an answer.

It was a hot day May 7 in San José and Arcand and her fellow students from Alexander had left to explore the local rainforest. It was a lush, green, mountainous place, far removed from plains of Alberta, where snakes, iguanas and alligators waited around every bend. “They’d just pop up out of nowhere,” she says. Later, they found a group of local boys by a small waterfall, each of whom were swinging from vines into the rocky pool at its base.

At some point, one of the students looked up and saw that they had guests: white-faced monkeys. A whole canopy of them lurked in the trees above, stalking their every step. “We went back up [to the hotel]because we didn’t want our stuff stolen by monkeys,” Arcand says.

Last month, six students and two teachers from the Kipohtakaw Education Centre in Alexander travelled about 5,500 kilometres to San José, Costa Rica to help fix an elementary school. The trip gave the volunteers a rare opportunity to see the world outside their borders and to teach the world a bit about their home.

Setting out

Back home in Alexander, teacher Paul Jespersen clicks through pictures of the trip on his computer. He and the students spent 10 days in Costa Rica in mid-May as part of a charity trip to help repair the Citadel Education Centre, an elementary school of about 200 students near San José. “They don’t get any money for maintenance,” he says, and depend on volunteers for basic repairs.

Jespersen, who teaches at the Kipohtakaw school in Alexander, says he and teacher’s aide Brenda Baker proposed the trip to help their students see and contribute to another part of the world. The six students spent weeks selling bannock burgers and raffle tickets to raise the $22,000 needed for the trip, which was arranged through the charity group United Planet. Each needed top grades and attendance to qualify.

Arcand, a 15-year-old soccer player and pianist, says she decided to go on the trip to help her community. The 8 a.m. flight out of Edmonton was her first time on a plane, she says, and she was terrified. “I almost screamed … but then after [takeoff]it was just like a bus.”

It was almost midnight when they arrived in San José, says Baker, and they still had an hour’s drive to get to the hotel Monte Campana. The next day, they woke up, went to their balconies and looked down at the verdant mountain rainforest spread before them. “It was just incredible to see their expressions,” she says

The students spent their first day in orientation, learning the basics of Spanish and local customs. After some zip-lining and a trip to the beach, they headed downtown to meet their host families.

Strange new world

San José is the capital of Costa Rica, and packs about 350,000 people into an area a little bigger than St. Albert.

It’s very different from Alexander, Arcand says. “There’re no flat spots there. It’s all hills.” There didn’t seem to be any buildings taller than two stories either. There were hardly any traffic lights downtown, but plenty of vehicles. Four lanes of long skinny cars cruised along what Albertans would call a two-lane road, honking their horns with every turn, barrelling down the street at what seemed to be highway speeds. “I nearly got run over there!”

Pretty much every home had a chain-link fence, Jespersen says — Fatima school had two gates and a guard. “It’s kind of like how we all paint our houses beige,” he jokes. Also evident was a sharp contrast between the rich and poor; you could step out of a beautiful mall on par with St. Albert Centre and see a shantytown less than a block away.

The students lived with locals in simple two-storey brick and plaster buildings, Baker says. “Everything was wall-to-wall,” she says, with no yards and few amenities inside.

“The family ties are so tight there,” she adds; family portraits hung from the walls and multiple generations lived under the same roof. “They made you feel so welcome and loved that you don’t want to come home.”

Arcand started most days by cleaning her own clothes and bed. “Every day we had to shake our beds out because they’d be covered in tiny ants when we woke up.” They didn’t bother her, she adds; she was too pooped to care about them at the end of each day.

Breakfast and other meals consisted of eggs, rice, beans, juice, and the occasional mango, she says — a big change from the meat and potatoes she’d have back home. Every day, her host mother would climb up to her mountainside garden to pick fresh vegetables. “We had a lot of healthy foods out there.”

Communication was a challenge, Arcand says, as she spoke little Spanish. Most conversations consisted of pointing to lines in the little green phrasebook she had been given. One of her hosts knew some English, which helped considerably.

Time for school

The students spent the rest of their trip painting and plastering Fatima school. It was extremely small, Jespersen says. “The entire building would fit in our gym.” There was no playground, so the local kids spent their breaks running around the open air, metre-wide halls. “It was chaos. There were little kids everywhere!” The kids got a good education despite the cramped conditions, he says; Costa Rica has one of the best school systems in Latin America.

You could see this pride in education in the way the kids carried themselves, Baker says. “Their school uniforms were immaculate … their shoes were polished and their hair was done beautifully,” she says, despite the fact many families came from poor neighbourhoods.

When they weren’t working on walls, the Alexander students taught the local kids about First Nations’ culture. Arcand performed the traditional fancy shawl dance while others sang honour songs to the beat of the drum. The kids liked it so much they decided to hold a massive round dance with everyone in the school, Arcand says. “They kept calling for encores to do another but we had no time.”

The students came home on May 15, leaving gifts of balls, pencils and dream-catchers for their hosts and the kids before they left. Now they are working on a presentation of their trip for the community.

Baker also distributed pen-pal letters written by other Alexander students to the kids at the school they visited. Those students should be getting replies in the mail in the next few weeks, she says.

The trip showed the students how to be more assertive and self-confident, Baker says, and gave them a chance to see what life was like off the reserve. “The experience has opened their eyes to the world,” she says. “A lot of them are now saying, ‘I’m a world traveller. That’s what I’m going to be.'”

Arcand is one of those students. “It’s hard work,” she says, referring to the fundraising, “but it does pay off in the end. All First Nations’ schools should do this.” She herself now hopes to travel to Africa in the future, possibly to do volunteer work.

Arcand says she’s still in touch with her host family by email. Despite the language and cultural differences, she says, their lives were very much the same. “I lived in a tiny house, they lived in a tiny house.” Both grappled with the challenges of living poor. “I didn’t want to leave. It felt like it was my home.”

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.