Where Teens are Summer Camp Counselors
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Where Teens are Summer Camp Counselors

Program Manager Lucia Fernandez says children in La Fortuna, Costa Rica are very eager to get a spot in a summer camp run by Rustic Pathways students. The kids look forward to the day when local school principals select the participants. How many are chosen depends on the number of Rustic Pathways teens who sign up for the Summer Camp Leadership program. Sometimes there’s disappointment when there isn’t room for more children.

“The principals used to text me to ask, ‘Do you have a space for one more?’” Fernandez said, “The kids want to go to the camp, so it’s great that we’re having two more summer camp sessions next year because they really want to come.”

The camp is prized for multiple reasons. It’s not everyday that local children are able to spend time with young people from another country. Plus, the camp promotes academics and character development. Overall, it’s a win-win with benefits for both the local children and the Rustic teens organizing and leading the camp.

Fernandez says the program gives Rustic students many things they’re seeking. It allows them to do adventure activities, see different parts of the country, learn Spanish, practice their leadership skills and spend time with the local community.

“A lot of things are really nice about this program, but the first one is the cultural exchange and the interaction that they can have with the community and the children,” Fernandez said. “They spend six days with the Tico students, and they get to know a lot of Spanish words and share a lot of time together. So that’s my favorite part of this summer camp program.”

Before the teens reach the camp, they first get to know each other during a white water rafting trip. Then after leading the camp, there’s also built-in time for reflection and more bonding when they travel to the Pacific coast for snorkeling and relaxation. Along the way, friendships with young and old are made as they interact with local residents.

Finding Connections

Friendships are formed right out the gate when the teens go on a two-day white water rafting trip. It gets the adrenaline pumping and allows the teens to see a beautiful part of the country. Country Manager Wainer Ocampo says the rafting also has another purpose.

“It’s intentionally planned at the beginning because we use it for team building,” Ocampo said. “We teach them things like following instructions and paddling together. We start introducing Spanish words so that they can get in camp mode, and they can use those words and leadership techniques in the planning and running of the camp.”

Domenica Dillon found this all worked very well when she participated in the Summer Camp Leadership program back in 2016. She won a scholarship to attend the program after going through a very challenging year at school. During the program, she says she reconnected with herself and began to heal as she made new bonds

Dillon says those connections included the children. During the camp, the Rustic teens organize games and other activities based on a curriculum. The counselor-to-student ratio is  low so the teens can make strong ties with the kids. Dillon says it surprised her how hard it was to say goodbye to the children when it was over.

“It was difficult to leave them after developing a bond… It was really hard. They were wonderful kids,” Dillon said.

Dillon carried those memories with her and now runs community programs for children as she pursues her master’s degree in management at Clark University.

Other program alumni have had similar experiences, including Rachel. She traveled to Costa Rica for the program in 2015. It was the first of three trips she took with Rustic. She says the program was the perfect balance of fun, community service, and learning.

“In Costa Rica, I learned how to be a leader and how to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as me. In creating a curriculum for the children… I learned the importance of working with others,” Rachel said.

After traveling with Rustic, Rachel continued to give back by interning for the Foundation for MetroWest, which provides financial and educational resources for nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts.

Fernandez says many aspects of the leadership program help teens envision how they can make a difference like this in future. Every day during the camp they have opportunities to see firsthand what makes an impact on the children.

“I think we put into practice a lot of things like leadership skills and values such as inclusion and respect,” Fernandez said.

Along the way, it helps that this is all done amid the scenic backdrop of Costa Rica’s mountainous landscapes.

Taking in the Views

From beginning to end, the program has sweeping views that students can take in as they enjoy the activities. Ocampo says the rafting takes place on the Pacuare River, which is used for international rafting competitions and is among the most popular rafting destinations in the world.

The Class III and IV rapids are spread out over 67 miles. Along the way, the waters race through rainforests filled with wildlife and views of the Talamanca Mountains.

Later the students kayak amid the tranquil waters of a lake that skirts the lush landscape surrounding the well-known Arenal Volcano. The lake is one resource the country uses to create renewable energy via hydroelectric power.

The students also zipline in the La Fortuna area, and they stay amid the mountains about fifteen to twenty minutes from a main road. There’s lots of green in view there along with various wildlife. If they’re lucky, students may see animals ranging from birds and butterflies to monkeys and coatis.

Then the students head to the coast where they travel to the deserted Tortuga Island for snorkeling, sandy beaches and palm trees. This combination of nature and cultural interaction has helped make this program a popular option for many years. Rachel says there shouldn’t be any hesitation about going on the journey since there’s so much to gain.

“My biggest piece of advice for anyone considering Rustic is to do it! Rustic has taught me some of my biggest life lessons,” Rachel said.

Dillon agrees with that thought. She says the program gave her a better outlook going into the next school year. It helped prompt her decision to study abroad as she got older. And, it has stayed with her as she navigated further schooling and work opportunities while meeting people of different backgrounds along the way.

“My Rustic trip genuinely helped me become a person I am very happy and proud to be,”
Dillon said “The students in my program and the students in the camp made me learn to have patience, be grateful, and never judge someone without knowing their story.”

To learn more, please view our Summer Camp Leadership program page.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer 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.