TJC, UT Tyler Students Aid Costa Ricans On Service Trip
By FRED M. PETERS
DOS RIOS, Costa Rica -- Two years ago, the New Economics Foundation conducted a worldwide study of happiness and found Costa Rica ranked at the top.
Although the overall study was a detailed analysis of the level of ecological and social efficiency of each country, the most-cited portion of the research has been the personal rankings of overall happiness on a 10-point scale. Costa Ricans ranked theirs at 8.6.
The authors of the study proposed that Costa Ricans, or ticos, are happiest because they are not in a hurry to pursue material wealth or escalating annual incomes.
Pura vida, or the good life, is uncomplicated here, full of friends, family and balance with nature.
Such land proves fertile for educational service projects like those sponsored each year by Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler. About 20 people from both schools including the college and university presidents visited the country in May.
This was the fourth year for the project, which was initiated by TJC President Dr. Mike Metke. Students paid $2,110 each for ground and air travel and lodging.
The five TJC students applied for, and received, $1,000 awards each from the college's student service fee administrative committee, to help with expenses.
On the trip students were exposed to the unscathed beauty of one of Central America's most scenic lands and its most joyous culture while being challenged by its primitive surroundings.
Local efforts led by Peace Corps volunteers to connect Costa Rica's rural mountain regions with opportunities for technological and humanitarian advancement move surprisingly slow.
Students working through the Peace Corps learn the value of helping others and the appreciation for some of the simple comforts from back home.
"Being here has been humbling, just to see how they live and how many things they don't have that we take for granted every day," said Karen Davis, a UT Tyler student majoring in health studies.
Yet, students and faculty alike were overwhelmed by the hospitality of residents and their interest in connecting with American visitors.
"The need is great," UT Tyler President Dr. Rod Mabry said. "These people are just as appreciative as can be, but they have very few resources and very few services they can use to have a better quality of life."
Mabry and his wife, Merle, accompanied TJC President Dr. Mike Metke and his wife, Donna, on the trip. For Metke, it was not only familiar territory but the home of lifelong friends.
Metke spent two years assigned to the region as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. He helped the communities of Quebrada Grande, Dos Rios and Las Lilas build roads, bridges and establish school systems. Each time he returns (he has been back about 10 times since his service ended), he visits villagers whom he met when he was in his early 20s.
"It was the experience of a lifetime for me -- living in the rain forest with settlers who were trying to carve out a better life for themselves and their families in a place without electricity or running water," Metke said. "Our small settlement was two hours by horseback from the nearest town, if the river could safely be crossed by horseback. Otherwise we were cut off from the rest of the world and we had to rely completely on each other.
"Like so many others who served, I got much more back from my experiences than I could ever give. I learned that happiness is mostly internal. These people who had so little were some of the kindest, most generous and happiest people I would ever meet."
After four days in Dos Rios, the travelers enjoyed six days sight-seeing in other parts of Costa Rica, including the Monteverde cloud forest, the Caribbean port city of Puerto Limn and the nation's capital city of San Jose.
But their initial focus was in the Guanacaste mountain region, where the town of Dos Rios welcomed them for three specific service projects, two hours by car from the nearest city and almost an hour from the closest paved road.
Ms. Davis and five other Tyler volunteers worked with local villagers to perform general maintenance and upkeep at the free health clinic and to add plantings to its flowerbeds.
Meanwhile, four blocks away, the remainder of the Tyler coalition -- TJC and UT Tyler nursing students -- delivered information on basic health topics to high school students.
"They don't have an ambulance service here, so they need to learn these basic skills to help save lives," said Denise Hudson, a TJC professor of licensed vocational nursing, who helped plan "charlas" or informational skits for small groups.
About 100 students took part in the sessions, translated by Peace Corps interpreters and one bilingual student from Tyler. Topics included basic first aid techniques, such as bandaging and splinting, cardiovascular health and the Heimlich maneuver. With high humidity and no air conditioning, the environment was a stark contrast to U.S educational settings.
During the sessions, one student described regular fainting spells she suffers that cause her classmates to laugh at her. Nursing students suggested that the girl may be suffering seizures. The following day, while delivering first aid kits to the school, the girl was observed having a seizure.
"I recognized the signs and symptoms because it was something I learned in the nursing program," TJC nursing major Necole Edwards said. "She was actually on some epilepsy medication, and I asked how long it had been since she'd had an adjustment to that medication and it had been some time. I suggested she tell her parents to take her to the doctor to possibly have her medication adjusted.
"It made me feel like what I was learning was worth it," Ms. Edwards said.
Daryl Lambert, the Peace Corps volunteer who arranged the projects, was translating to students when the episode occurred.
"It was absolutely amazing to see the look of fear in the girl's eyes turn to a look of hope and relief when the nursing students told her that she had a very common and very treatable medical condition," he said. "Then they gave some advice to the high school faculty and her best friend regarding what may trigger episodes and what to do in case of one occurs."
Ms. Edwards said the service portion was the best part of her time in Costa Rica.
"I was told that most people feel that way. I'm thinking about taking some Spanish classes to brush up and possibly going back next year."
Jamie Kingsley is already thinking about 2013, too.
"While in Dos Rios, I made such a bond with the people," Ms. Kingsley, a TJC foreign language major, said. "I still communicate with one of the community leaders through email and want to continue helping them.
"As a foreign language student, one of the best ways to learn is to throw yourself into the language and culture," she said. "Even the children taught me new sayings and helped to correct me on things that I said wrong."
When the work with students ended, there were hugs and traces of tears.
The children wanted to know when the group from Texas would return.
"I think it is very important for college students to see another culture, even if you're just there for five days, you're seeing that the world is a big place," said Katherine Krueger, a Peace Corps volunteer in San Carlos, another part of Costa Rica, who came to Dos Rios to help with the projects.
Lambert hopes the work will continue and even expand. The beneficiaries are both Costa Rican and American, he said.
"I really hope that it is a gateway to capacity development, development that focuses on educating people and enhancing the locals' ability to recognize a need for something and bring about a change that fulfills that need," he said.
For U.S. students, it is an opportunity to improve communication skills and contribute to the lives of others. There is also the prospect of inspiring a student to one day join the Peace Corps.
Presently, there are about 130 Peace Corps volunteers in Costa Rica, many in rural and isolated regions like Lambert's. For the Tyler visit, he sought the assistance of Ms. Krueger and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Ken Ferrell, who left their assigned communities to assist with interpretation and project management.
Ferrell and Ms. Krueger face similar circumstances in their assigned towns. They know the challenges Lambert faces in Dos Rios, as well as the value of having participation from U.S. college students.
"Impact can happen in two ways and one of those is in one of the core values of the Peace Corps and that is creating cultural exchanges," Ferrell said. "The second type of impact is when American groups come and do training programs, where they're teaching people skills that they can then share with the rest of their community. That impact is significant."
Tyler planners will work with Lambert and others in Costa Rica to ensure a successful project for 2013.
"This is a really exciting time for students and they learn so much," Mabry said. "We're proud to be a part of a joint project with TJC working here in Costa Rica. These students have seen amazing things and have had wonderful experiences.
"I do think it is a project that has long-term potential. First of all, it is very good for TJC and UT Tyler to do things together. And, secondly we have just tremendous expertise at both institutions that can be used to help the people here."
Metke was instrumental in arranging for local volunteers with construction experience to help build a classroom at Las Lilas school two years ago. He hopes other East Texas residents and businesses become involved.
"I'd love it if this became a community project that included others who can donate money or expertise," he said.