Juliana’s Story: From Surviving to Thriving in Costa Rica

My name is Juliana Garofalo, and I am a Group Leader from the Institute for Collaborative Education [ICE] in New York City. During the summer of 2016, I had the privilege of participating in the No Barriers Learning AFAR program with ICE students in Costa Rica, and I watched students engage in a powerfully transformative experience for 10 days.

Even though our students are from New York City, an incredibly diverse city with countless options and opportunities, many of our students do not have access to travel to new places and experience new cultures in places where they, as New Yorkers, are in the minority. This leads to discomfort and, thus, the possibility for growth.

On our very first night in Costa Rica there was a knock at my door.

I opened the door to two of our male students, their eyes wide with fear. One of the men exclaimed,“Juliana, there are worms crawling all over his bed! Can you help us?” Armed with my flashlight and trying not to giggle, I followed them to their room. The two “worms” were hardly visible to the naked eye. No longer than the width of my pinky finger nail and no wider than the smallest of pins, it took several minutes of reassurance and full bed checks to calm down the young men.

Within five days of that first night, one of those young men picked up a live cockroach and set it free out the window of the bus.

15033740_10154762175582193_932817984_n

At the closing ceremony, that same young man spoke to the group about how the trip impacted his life. He is a soccer player and played soccer with the men in Rancho Quemado every afternoon. He was able to immerse himself in the community in a way that no one else could until our final night in that location when we had the mejenga. That night the children of the community joined us, and this was a defining moment for this ICE student. At the closing ceremony he told us that he had been thinking about his future as being defined by how much money he would make, but after his time in Costa Rica he wants to coach kids soccer as well.

When we got to the homestays at the end of the trip, the students experienced the height of their discomfort.

They were nervous about the language barrier and about being culturally appropriate and about sleeping in a home with people they did not know. I watched them leave with their host families and felt torn by my desire to protect them and my understanding that this was the best challenge they could be faced with. The highlight of the trip for me was seeing their faces that next morning after their first night in their homestays. They were beaming. They were all talking over one another sharing stories. In the face of what they believed to be an impossible situation, they flourished.

15046164_10154762176227193_1447687925_nAfter the homestays and our two days working with children in La Carpio, the students were energized.  One young woman, Auden, told us about her father who is an immigrant from Iran and how she has not had any interest in learning to speak his native language until being forced to try using her limited English during the homestays. After meeting the grandmothers in La Carpio, Auden also shared with us how she wants to have more patience with her mother and wants to show her more love and appreciation, as she shows her father. Upon returning to school this fall she has joined the soccer team, inspired by the mejenga, and she has gathered the strength and self-confidence to consider submitting her poetry to contests or publishers.

Another young woman, Thien An, who in elementary school lost her mother to cancer, opened up about her interest in becoming a nurse and taking care of others. This young woman has struggled socially and academically throughout high school and cried throughout the entire closing ceremony. Another student, Emma, who attended the No Barriers Summit during the summer of 2015, also cried during the closing ceremony, and it was the first time that anyone in the group had seen her cry despite knowing her since 6th grade. Her tears came after the student beside her, Athena, told her how talented she is and how she needs to share her talents (art, photo, and dance) with the world. One of the students, Ashley, discovered her desire to connect with her Colombian heritage and family after connecting with the Costa Rican people and culture.

14996297_10154762175797193_1858208107_nMy other favorite moment of the trip came in two parts with two students. Alayisha and Saschael were perhaps the most anxious about the conditions, mostly meaning bugs and sweat, in Rancho Quemado, and I was concerned about their ability to be engaged in all that the trip had to offer.

Both our local guide, Yehudi, and our leader from No Barriers, Gemera, are bird experts, so we were able to do a lot of bird watching throughout the trip, especially in Rancho Quemado. Some mornings the bird walks were mandatory, and others they were optional. One evening we gauged the group’s interest in the possibility of a bird walk the following morning by doing a blind vote.

As everyone’s heads were down and eyes were closed we asked the group is anyone would like to go on a bird walk the following morning. Alayisha’s hand was the only one that went up. The next morning only two students showed up for the bird walk, Alayisha and Saschael.

This might seem like a small moment, but it was a huge victory. The two girls, covered head to toe in bug spray with hoods over their heads to “protect from the bugs” who seemed the most likely to say no, were the first to say yes to Costa Rica and all that was provided for them through the Learning AFAR program.

Thank you for taking 13 New York City kids and showing them that even though New York City is full of diversity, there is a big world for them to experience and that they can not only survive in it but also thrive.