There are few thank you notes that stand out more than one the Rustic Pathways Foundation received from Esther Ceballo Ortiz this fall. In it she talks about how she grew up in the Dominican Republic and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia when she was 13.
“Like many immigrant students, I had difficulty transitioning to the states,” Esther said. “In the U.S, it is often hard for me to find spaces where I can speak Spanish and share my culture. As a result, I started to ‘shut down’ that part of me, a part that I dearly love.”
After a few years of ignoring her past, Esther decided to apply for a scholarship to attend a summer travel program with Rustic Pathways. She was awarded financial aid that made it possible for her to go to Costa Rica for the Surf & Service program in the summer of 2022. There she rediscovered what she had been missing.
“Words cannot describe the excitement I experienced when we went to a grocery store and found all my favorite childhood candies that I hadn’t seen in years,” Esther said. “As a native Spanish speaker, I could easily connect and talk with the local Costa Rican people… The locals helped me reclaim my identity and culture. I realized that there cannot be me without my culture.”
Esther went on to describe how she appreciated so many aspects of the program from seeing Costa Ricans “navigate life with a joy I admire” to “tasting the salty water” and finding that “mixing cement was so fun and rewarding.”
After the program, Esther began studies at Stanford University where she is majoring in public policy and finding ways to appreciate each day. She is like other students who have followed the same course. With the help of donors, the foundation has awarded $750,000 in scholarships to students in the past five years.
How the Process Works
The nonprofit arm of Rustic Pathways provides assistance on multiple fronts. For many years, it has raised donations for communities around the world. These are the same villages where Rustic students provide service when they travel.
In many cases, students inspired by their service program have chosen to become impact ambassadors for the foundation. They have led efforts to raise money for the communities where they traveled.
Now the foundation is focused on getting students to the villages in the first place. This year our Giving Tuesday goal is to raise $100,000 for scholarships.
Families can donate in three ways:
- Add a donation when registering for a travel program
- Visit our “Sponsor a Student” webpage
- Support the Rustic Pathways Foundation while shopping through AmazonSmile
Who Has Benefited
Students who have received these scholarships in the past come from all over the United States and several other countries, including India, Turkey and Albania. Here is a just a few of the students who have received financial assistance:
- A sister and brother from North Carolina who had never been on a plane before
- A former foster child who got to travel to Morocco where he had family he had never met
- A teen recovering after losing a close friend in high school
- A student from rural Idaho who loves animals so much she volunteered at her local zoo and started a Roots and Shoots chapter, inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall
In addition to these students, there are many others who received scholarships after witnessing a powerful event that changed them. Hana from Washington state is one of them. She described a key event in her life in her scholarship essay – the time as a child when she saw her parents’ homeland of Ethiopia:
“It was impossible for me to remain oblivious to the stifling streets overcrowded with people living on the roadside. To my left – a woman cradling two children in arms that could barely keep themselves up; to my right – a blind woman awaiting the sound of coins to fill her jar.
At one point, my mother went into a store to buy bread. As she walked out… there was a little boy walking down the same streets that my mom once lived, begging for food. My mom grabbed her wallet, but the child rejected her money… ‘I don’t want the money. Just give me the bread,’ he said.
Instantly, I wondered what my life would’ve been like if my parents had never immigrated to America. Poverty in the US is not remotely comparable to what it is in Ethiopia…
I’ve dedicated over 400 hours to community service since that day in Ethiopia and would like to continue gaining the skills needed to serve others abroad.”
Hana started these international service efforts during a two-week service program in Fiji with Rustic Pathways. For her and other students like her, these programs give them the firsthand experience they need to inspire future goals and projects.
As Esther said it best when wrapping up her thank you note:
“I hope you continue allowing more students like me to experience the Rustic Pathways magic. Thank you for helping me reclaim my identity. Thank you for giving me the most fantastic summer. Thank you for changing my life.”
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.