Learning Through Service

June 16, 2010

Just outside San Jose, Costa Rica, nestled at 6,000 feet among rows of coffee bushes and lush vegetation on the road to Limón, sits a bustling hub of activity: Escuela Santa Elena. Established in 1965 with only two small cinderblock classrooms, the school doesn't have anything extravagant, like school buses, air conditioning, or reliable phone or Internet service when it rains (which is often in a rainforest). What the school does have are caring, dedicated teachers and 96 future leaders from this agrarian mountainside--and, for a week in March, two dozen visitors from Baylor University.
Inside the classrooms, Baylor freshmen Alma Torres and Paloma Becerra conjugate the verb forms of "to be" for sixth graders, while freshman Gaspar Terrazas teaches the fifth graders how to find the area of a triangle -- all in Spanish. Two Baylor professors, Dr. Randy Wood, BA '70, PhD '78, and Dr. Trena Wilkerson, instruct teachers how to use educational software such as Rosetta Stone. 
In the courtyard, junior Parker Stalls and Oscar, a local father, drag a screed to level a section of the new 1,500-square-foot concrete slab mixed and poured by students and community leaders such as Eduardo Barquero Rodriguez, who says he wants to complete one last project at the school before he is too old to work. 
On the playground, freshmen J.D. Luna and Will Brunson take on a herd of boys in a game of futbol. Doctoral student Brandi Ray and freshman Maddie Stiers paint the steel bars covering the cafeteria windows a nice shade of green.
This was no ordinary spring break for the Baylor freshmen and juniors, graduate students and School of Education faculty. 
But these are not ordinary students. Thirteen of the 15 undergraduates are current or former members of Baylor's Hispanic Families in Transition Engaged Learning Group. Before their first day of class at Baylor, these students were already committed to helping provide better opportunities for Waco's Hispanic population by teaching through Baylor's Learning English Among Friends program (LEAF), coordinated by Wood. 
What they're doing at this quaint elementary school in rural Costa Rica is an extension of that desire to serve others. About a quarter of Santa Elena's 93 students are immigrants from Nicaragua, whose parents crossed the border to Costa Rica in search of a better life for their families. Many of the parents work for farmers in nearby fields.
The Baylor students have traded the R&R of a normal college student's spring break for a week of hard work, helping some folks who aren't used to getting much help.
"Being able to teach and play with both first grade and fifth grade classes is undoubtedly the most meaningful thing for me," says Terrazas, a Sunland Park, N.M., native. "Even though we are on a service trip to improve the school's physical conditions, we are also able to bring smiles to the students and teachers of Santa Elena School. The whole experience is an eye-opener for me and all of us on this trip because we see that we take a lot of things for granted by just living in a country full of opportunities, whereas kids in other countries, as in Costa Rica, are happy with simple gifts, such as pencils and pens." 
"What our students are doing is really remarkable. We are working them extremely hard," says Wood. "We are up early and walking a couple miles each way [between Hotel Villa Zurqui and the school]. I feel like the whole team, from the students working in the classroom, to the students kicking the soccer ball or playing basketball, or just loving on the kids, everybody seems to have his or her own little ministry. All we had to do is just encourage them, and they get up and do it. Some of the kids are painting for days. Others enjoy being in the classrooms. It is good that we had a variety of things for people to do."
Principal Patricia Solano Salazar, who also teaches the third and sixth grade because the school can't afford to pay another full-time teacher, did not quite know what to expect from the Baylor group. 
"I thought they would just come do a little painting and that's it," she says. "But what the Baylor students are doing is much more than that. They are painting the entire building, mixing concrete, and also helping the teachers and students in the classroom as well. The Baylor students have had a very positive impact on Santa Elena. You have been a lot of help."

How we got here
Last year, Wood's ELG had a trip planned to Honduras, but political unrest there called for a change of plans. Wood had heard from a colleague about a Christian international school in Costa Rica, and so he, Wilkerson and Dr. Doug Rogers, BS '78, went on a scouting trip to see what they needed. 
"We originally thought we'd be of service there, but they didn't really need anything," says Wood. 
The trio went back to the hotel, not knowing what to do next. Yanina Castro, owner of Hotel Villa Zurqui where they were staying, knew right away where Wood could help.
"I didn't know he came from a university. I thought he was from a church or somewhere, but I thought it was a nice thing for him to help," Castro says.
"When Yanina mentioned St. Elena, the expression on her face of need and what we could provide for them really tugged on my heart from the very beginning," Wood says. "When Principal Solano and English teacher Ileana Barquero came over [to the hotel] to talk, the look on their faces was like, 'We've never had anyone volunteer to work with our kids. What in the world do you want to do?'"

A new image
For several years, the little school has had more than its share of challenges. According to Solano, poor funding has led to teachers being overworked and underpaid. Solano says teachers make around $540 to $725 per month. Sometimes they get paid late; when the Baylor team was there in mid-March, the teachers hadn't been paid since mid-January. Resources are nearly always in short supply. Barquero says the school's remote location offers little housing for the teachers.
"The teachers have to take the bus because they don't have cars," she explains. "They have to be here at school by 7 a.m., and it takes two hours from San Pablo, switching buses twice." 
Each of the grade level teachers have one grade in the morning, then another from around noon until 4:35 p.m. Then, they prepare for the next day, with another two-hour bus ride ahead before reaching home.
These conditions have led to high principal and teacher turnover (most staying six months to a year), which in turn, has caused parents to become frustrated or disinterested in school affairs. 
"Parents would donate things, but they'd never see the result of their donations," says Solano. She says that recently, a thief tore open the sheet metal roof and stole the school's only DVD player and VCR. 
"Comparing the first school we visited and St. Elena, the needs were like day and night," says Wood. "But the teachers at Santa Elena are genuine and capable. I felt like they really have servant hearts. I could tell they loved the students so much."
Because of these committed teachers, change is in the air. Solano and her staff have settled in for the long haul, inspiring more community action. "They see I've been here for two years, and a lot more parents are helping out because of all the positive changes that have been happening," she says. "Last year, a parent group painted the front of the building to show that things are changing in the school, not just personnel moving and being changed around. We're giving the school a new image."

Uniting the community, 
inspiring action
The Baylor group worked alongside some of those parents and community leaders who want to see Santa Elena succeed, creating a ripple effect in the neighborhood. 
"It was shocking to see the progress. It's not like you could pass by and not see anything. To me, the cement especially made a big difference," says Castro, who worked harder than anyone, taking Wood to buy food and supplies and doing everything necessary to accommodate the group. Without the hotel owner, Wood acknowledges, the group wouldn't have accomplished nearly as much. 
"She opened doors everywhere. At the bakery, at the lumberyard, at all the businesses, even one that let me use their computer, because Yanina was there so they knew it would be okay. Having a leader like that in the community is critical when we go into these areas."
"The nice thing is when you see something going on at school, the neighbors say, 'Oh, I want to do something, too,'" explains Castro. "They're like, 'I'm embarrassed that I'm not helping. Why are they doing this over here when we have done nothing?'" 
In fact, local businessman Adrian Mesa, who donated sand and gravel, decided to give more materials to extend the concrete slab the students use for outdoor recreation on rainy days or school assemblies on others. Other members of the community have started a garden so the school can grow some of its own food.
"You created the beginning of something good. That's the best part, and now we're getting some other people involved," says Castro. "I made sure to tell the teachers and kids, 'They're coming next year! They're coming next year! They're not going to just forget about you guys. They might send you some more supplies or talk to you via e-mail. It's not just a one-time deal.'"

Santa Elena and Baylor --
a future partnership
Wood says a plan to continue the partnership between Baylor and the little school outside San Jose is moving forward. 
"Our beginning has really developed into a school-wide endeavor," he says.
As part of a graduate seminar, educational psychology professor Dr. Terrill Saxon, BA '88, MSED '90, took his class to Santa Elena and other area schools in May to research and work with students. 
"We placed several of our students in that school to observe and assist the teachers there as they went about their daily courses of instruction, and our students were also involved in the English instruction that takes place," says Saxon. 
Wood says his ELG group will go back to Santa Elena next spring, and he's getting e-mails from lots of Spanish and education majors who want to work with low-income Hispanic populations. 
"If we have a class form in the fall, that group might go down, and every six months we'd have a group going. Then there would be some continuity," he says. 
After teaching only upperclassmen and graduate students at Baylor for 22 years, Wood says teaching freshmen "has been the most exhilarating experience I've had at Baylor. Upperclassmen already have it together, mostly. Freshmen don't. And it's kind of refreshing to live through this first couple of years with them as they try to figure out who they are and what they want to do. And I love them.
"I feel very honored that Baylor's allowed me to do this here in my old age. I don't want my last 10 years at Baylor to be just a 'sit and rock.' That's not what I'm going to do. I want new experiments, and if I can get this thing worked out to Costa Rica, I'll be happy as a lark." 
For more photos from Costa Rica visit our website, www.baylormag.com.