By Nicole Veenstra
Thomas Saladino, a senior majoring in psychology, has experienced his fair share of service trips as a Bonner Scholar, but nothing could prepare him for the impact his first trip out of the country would have.
Saladino, along with seven Rider students and recent graduates, and two staff members, spent eight days in Costa Rica from May 14 to May 22, helping with a variety of projects in the villages of Cristo Rey and La Carpio.
The other students were seniors Chris Werner, Arly Collins, Jessica Zimmer, Jenn Moscatelli and Holly Fuller, recent graduates Angelique Olmo and Hilary Giunta, and staff members Kim Cameron, assistant to the director of the Center for International Education and Annie Pasqua, assistant director of Campus Life for Service Learning.
“I expected to see a lot of poverty, which there was,” Saladino said. “And I knew I was going to enjoy the trip, but not as much as I did. [Now] no matter what I do, I want to work with service in some way.”
Senior psychology major Arly Collins also credits the recent trip to the change in her future goals.
“The picture I had painted in my head was nothing like what I actually experienced,” Collins said. “The best way to describe it is to say everything was more intense. I never expected to be so affected, so much so that I want to make a career out of it [and] am now planning my life accordingly.”
Throughout the course of the trip, the team completed numerous tasks, including work with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (CRHF) and Nicaraguan immigrant communities, according to Pasqua.
Specifically, the first half of the week was dedicated to the village of Cristo Rey, where the team painted parts of houses and planted flowers, hoping to transfer the sense of home to their living spaces.
After painting a picture of home for Cristo Rey, the team moved to La Carpio, where they toured the area, played with children and lived with host families, according to Collins.
The kindness and welcoming spirits of the locals were felt instantly, Saladino said.
“We met a lot of great people,” he said. “They were the kindest and most loving people I have ever met.”
However, the one person who stands out the most in his mind was the founder and Executive Director of CRHF Gayle Nystrom.
“She was the most giving person I’ve ever met in my life,” Saladino said.
Nystrom founded CRHF in 1997 and has built two schools in La Carpio since.
Collins said the language barrier was obvious on both ends, but that Nick Anderson, an American currently living in Costa Rica and working for the non-profit service company Peaceworks, patiently helped the team transition their English thoughts into Spanish words.
“He was very patient and would try to teach us Spanish on our long bus rides,” she said. “Even though we were far from pros [by the end of the] trip, it did get a little bit easier to communicate because we had to pick up on the language in such a short amount of time.”
She reminisced about one of her most creative moments on the trip, which happened while staying with her “Costa Rican mom,” as she affectionately calls her.
“I once tried to explain that we visited the rainforest earlier that day by making rain sounds and whooshing noises over her poor plant,” Collins said. “Eventually she got it, but it was a struggle and a good laugh.”
Pasqua said Rider started the initiative for service learning four years ago, partnering with Peaceworks from the beginning in an effort to create relationships with international communities. Next year Rider will further strengthen its global relations with a trip to Belize.
Although no one’s experience was the same, there was no shortage of positive feedback from the team members.
“I feel more grounded, appreciative of what I have, thankful and happy now that I was lucky enough to be a part of such an amazing experience,” Collins said. “It truly did change my life and I will be forever thankful.”
Contact Nicole Veenstra at email@example.com