DECATUR — The Lutheran School Association's trip to Costa Rica this summer was a whirlwind of firsts for Aaron Johnson.
He'd never flown before. He'd never been out of the country before. He'd never seen the ocean.
“It was awesome, seeing it all through his eyes,” said Allison Nolen, high school principal. Johnson is a senior.
The nine-day trip took 18 months to plan and was booked through Educational Tours, which provided a tour guide and bus driver. The school sponsored the annual trip, which included students from middle and high school and adult chaperones.
“This was a biology trip that our biology teacher planned for two years,” Nolen said. “We took in all five regions of Costa Rica. We were looking at plant life, animal life, everything that there was. There are mountain ranges, hills, valleys, waterfalls, agriculture, the coffee plantations.”
The students could have chosen to sign up for a program that would have provided them academic credit for the trip, but none participated.
“We just kind of soaked it all in,” senior James Brown said. “We learned a lot of biology, what kind of plants are actually there. In a square foot, there are hundreds of species.”
The group also planted eight trees in the Monteverde rain forest area.
“It was always like it was raining, but it wasn't raining,” Brown said. “It was like a mist in the air. They thought it was cold, but it felt nice out.”
The elevation meant that, even in the rain forest, it was only about 65 degrees. They hiked a volcano, having to make a last-minute change in plans because the volcano they had planned to hike was active. Surrounding the volcano were rocks made of hardened lava from previous eruptions.
Seeing animals and plants they would never see in the United States was fascinating, but they also had a chance to visit with Costa Ricans.
“We were down on the beach, and there were storefronts, and we went downtown and got ice cream,” senior Charles Schlickman said.
They visited a high school there and learned that students have to get themselves to school through challenging circumstances. Some have to walk or bike for miles, through crocodile-infested swamps.
The school is made of concrete blocks, and surrounded by a fence and strong security due to crime and unrest. The local students, in turn, were amazed to hear that Americans have summers and holidays off and spend far fewer hours in class than they do.
“They could see the difference and appreciate our school and our building,” Nolen said.
“We played soccer and volleyball,” Brown said. “We couldn't really talk much because they didn't know much English, but we asked questions and smiled at each other.”
Nolen taught Spanish and English language arts before becoming principal, and the group did have an interpreter, so they could talk to each other in a limited way.
“The (Costa Rican students) would come to school soaking wet,” Nolen said. “(The swamp) was brown mud and crocodiles everywhere.”
Knowing what other young people go through to get to school, and the fact that they're willing to do it because they value an education that much made the American kids realize they're blessed, Brown said. Their school is air-conditioned and clean, and they're surrounded by people who love them and want the best for them.
Next summer, Nolen said, the school is planning a trip to Italy.