Effecting Change a World Away
Every college student wants to make a difference in the world.
The members of the Widener University Presidential Service Corps fit this more than anything. Over the course of their college career, each student invests hundreds of service hours into a local nonprofit and commits to working for the betterment of their community and city. Four years of service culminate in a trip to Costa Rica to learn about sustainable global development and community action. So in March 2020, my path crossed with this group as they partnered with EcoGuardianes and ADE.
|Widener University Presidential Service Corps students meet before starting service work at the Escuela La Pradera in Poás, Heredia.|
Students from the United States often partake in “voluntourism,” which typically includes soliciting donations from their home communities to bring money and supplies into “undeveloped” areas of developing nations. They show up in a country, do a few service projects in the mornings, and spend their afternoons visiting popular tourist sites and purchasing overpriced coffee mugs and keychains.
At first glance, the Widener Presidential Service Corps trip might seem similar. A group of Widener students spent a mere week in Costa Rica and completed just over twelve hours of community service. What makes the difference is the level of investment of the staff and students before and after the trip.
ADE and EcoGuardianes served as local hosts of the Widener group and coordinated their service initiatives. We worked with our local contacts to find a meaningful service opportunity that had the potential to continue to grow and benefit the community even after the end of the group’s trip. By working with an existing local organization, students were able to invest in a system bigger than their week-long trip.
Tomás connected with local eco-warrior and community leader Elieth Gonzalez to develop a project idea for the Widener group. Elieth set up a meeting with the principal of her neighborhood's elementary school to discuss their needs and how Widener students could help.
The school, Escuela La Pradera, is located in a neighborhood which sources its water from a local spring. Unfortunately, trucks use the streambed as a dumping ground and the spring is contaminated with trash. Tomás took the fifth grade class to the river, where they witnessed the litter firsthand and took action. While the students picked up trash and cleaned up the area, we taught them about the importance of caring for their environment and community.
Back at the school, younger students designed and painted signs to put up in their neighborhood encouraging neighbors to keep trash in trash cans, protect their water resources and care for their community. They also painted a mural at their school inspiring other students to continue caring for the environment. The La Pradera art teacher worked with Widener students to design the mural, which featured the school year’s curriculum theme: insects. Every grade level got involved in helping paint the mural, while the Widener visitors dispensed paint and focused on keeping the kids' school uniforms clean.
Widener students also revived the school’s old vegetable garden, which had degenerated into a dusty field of scraggly weeds during the dry season. The group removed the weeds, dug new garden beds, and recruited La Pradera students to start planting and watering. The kids loved EcoGuardianes Science Director Sebastián's watershed game. Second and third grade faced off in a relay race to transfer water from buckets at one end of the garden to the other, using only a sponge. They learned that just as each one dipped their sponge in the same bucket to bring water to their team, every family in their neighborhood uses water from the same spring. It benefits everyone to keep the spring and streambed clean.
The teachers and Widener visitors also loved this game for its secret benefits: teaching the students to walk only on the paths between the garden rows and watering the newly planted seedlings as the sponges dripped onto the soil during their trips in little hands across the garden.
At ADE, we seek to “put the people before the project” and focus on developing personal relationships above perfectly executing every task on our project list.
Throughout the week, we encouraged Widener students to connect with La Pradera students. The visitors asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up and reinforced the importance of education in achieving goals. Even when the environmental mural eventually fades and the vegetable garden is overgrown with weeds, our hope is that the elementary students will understand not only the importance of taking personal responsibility in their community but the role of education in equipping them to do so.
In the same manner, we intentionally invested in Widener students throughout the week. Though our time was limited, we did our best to have meaningful conversations with students about their aspirations and how they could impact their communities back home. We hope that Widener students learned our philosophy on sustainable development and are able to apply it to their own communities. EcoGuardianes will use what we learned from working with Widener students to improve how we work in communities and demonstrate how we can collaborate with other local schools. By focusing on building relationships, the Widener students indeed have changed a small part of the world.
If you know of any student groups that are interested in learning about applied sustainable development, please reach out! We would love to work with you. Email ADE International Coordinator Justin Rickey at email@example.com.