A three-week trip to Costa Rica was life changing for 22 students from the Sunshine Coast.
Elphinstone Secondary School teacher Dave Lewis has been taking groups of high school students to Costa Rica to do community service for the past six years.
"It started out with me telling the students about my experiences volunteering overseas, and they were so enthusiastic and keen I started up Student Challenge," Lewis said.
Student Challenge is a program where students who are selected fund-raise locally for their plane fare to Costa Rica and then work in a volunteer area in the country. In the past students have worked with sea turtles, plants and other animals. They also often build something lasting for the residents of the area they are in, such as a dining hall or shower area.
"It's not a freebie or a relaxing vacation. The students work hard, and that work is rewarding. Our philosophy is nothing for free," said Lewis.
Sechelt student Ryan Marsh agrees that the trip he recently took with Student Challenge was a lot of work and very rewarding."I enjoy working, so it was great. And I noticed the people there are all happy. Even though they're poor and hungry and they don't have the greatest life, they're happy," Marsh said.
It was the impact of the people in Costa Rica that Marsh says has changed him for the better.
"It was just such an amazing experience, and I've made so many new friends," he said.
The 22 students from Gibsons, Sechelt and Pender Harbour secondary schools set off for Costa Rica on July 5 with Student Challenge after a lengthy selection process. During the decision making, applicants were put in different team-building and problem-solving situations where their ability to deal with stress and change was assessed.
Students who were approved to go spent 19 days in a remote area of Costa Rica where a local man is trying to save a diverse forest area for the locals to enjoy.
Students cleared pathways, planted indigenous trees and flowers, built shelters and helped restore a labyrinth in the centre of the forest.
"It was a lot of work, more than I imagined. But it was also paradise," said 17-year-old Erin Crossman.
She explained the heat was extreme and took a little getting used to, but the humidity was the big change.
"The humidity was 100 per cent or 110 per cent all the time. If you just stood around, you'd be wet from the humidity," she said.
But the heat and humidity made for a diverse ecosystem in the protected forest area the students worked in.
"On one edge of the driveway there were 50 different types of tropical flowers. There were wild fruit trees, seed trees, fig trees and palm trees. It was like walking in this extraordinary garden," said Lewis.
Another attraction in the forest were the animals and bugs that seemed to pop up everywhere.
"There were monkeys in the trees above us, and we saw tarantulas every day. There were also scorpions and big ants that bite. We were bitten by something every day," said Crossman.
Lewis noted the bug bites students sustain in places like Costa Rica are not life threatening, and even the most squeamish students got used to flicking huge spiders off their tents in the mornings.
Students also saw numerous types of frogs and birds, beetles and bugs."Sometimes you'd feel like you're walking in the middle of a zoo," said Lewis.
Students had the chance to go whitewater rafting and kayaking with the owner of the property they were working on.
"Rafting and kayaking were so much fun," said Crossman.
At the end of the trip students were exhausted and left to reflect on their adventures.
Crossman says she's planning to travel now and expand her horizons. Marsh says he's changed his after-school plans.
"I was going to work for a year, go to school and work, work, work, but now I'm planning to go back to Costa Rica. I want to learn to be a guide and take people on tours there," he said.
Lewis says all the students ended up with different perspectives on life and says it was a valuable experience for everyone involved.
"That's one of the main reasons we do this. It's an experience that's hard to describe and has to be lived," he said.
This is the sixth time Lewis has taken students to Costa Rica. He plans to continue offering the program to high school students on the Coast in the future.
For more information on Student Challenge, look for flyers and information on local school bulletin boards in the spring.