Fort Hays State University sends group to Costa Rica through Global Leadership Project

The grass at the edge of the drop-off looked dangerously slick for wet feet, especially when combined with the momentum of running. "Take a deep breath … it's now or never … run and jump as far as you can," I thought.

Then I did. My feet left the ground, and I remember inhaling water before I could hold my nose closed. The rocks slid from beneath me as my feet made contact, and my head slammed into the rocks below.

I resurfaced fairly quickly and tried to wipe the water from my face, clear my nose of water and breathe.

"Are you all right?," my friends called.

"I hit my head on the rocks," I said. "But I'm OK."

I cleared my eyes of water, and they helped me out of the river, told me to sit down and drink water, and watched me to make sure I hadn't blacked out.

I had climbed into a van two days before ready to experience a new world and boy-howdy if I didn't jump right in. Forgive the pun.

Dr. Christie Brungardt, assistant professor of leadership studies at Fort Hays State University, had forwarded me an e-mail almost six months before regarding an opportunity to travel to Shiroles, Costa Rica.

The e-mail said that the purpose of the trip was a service project, but information about the work was sparse. Applicants were only told they would either be working with an orphanage or doing construction on a church or houses.

I knew immediately that I was interested, so I applied. Applicants wouldn't receive follow-up information until February of 2014, but I was giddy with excitement, especially since my good friend and co-worker, Kaci Ferguson, from Phillipsburg, had applied as well.

The committee that selected our group, headed by Dr. Curt Brungardt, director of the Center for Civic Leadership, and Brett Whitaker, advisor for the university's Global Leadership Project, chose 11 students and one faculty member.

There was much preparation, and it seemed a bit daunting at the time. We needed to get our shots, sign papers for Experience Mission, the organization that we were partnering with, and gather and pack all of the necessities.

Despite the chaos of planning, the group made relationships a priority from the beginning. Chris Oulette, one of a few comedians in the group and from East Millinochet, Maine, glued us together by organizing our first "pre-take-off" dinner. I was nervous at first because Kaci was the only person I knew well, but I relaxed after arriving at the restaurant. The whole experience turned out great.

It was on the bus ride to the airport that we really began to know one another. For example, Korby Boswell, who is from Onaga, has a passion for St. Jude's and is NOT a country music fan. Daisy Saavedra, from Garden City, reflects much of her quiet and beautiful personality in her photography, and our sponsor, Kathy Kelley, of Tulsa, Okla., is a lot like a mother: She cares about everyone, makes a conscious effort to include each person and is fiercely protective. Our nickname for her was "Momma Kelley."

We also found out that the service project would be construction on a church. Experience Mission has partnered with locals for this project and has been sending groups to work on it since 2011. Interns are also hired to guide the groups as they are immersed in a new culture.

When our plane landed in Costa Rica, we found the interns, Jordan Moya and Karis Heinze, outside the airport. I was immediately sure that I would like them because of their warm welcome and inquisitive nature.

We rode in a bus for a couple of hours before stopping to eat. Our driver walked up to our table at dinner and told us that the president of Costa Rica was at the same restaurant. We thought he was playing a joke, but we were convinced after seeing the bodyguards. The president was kind enough to allow us to take pictures with him.

After that, the people we met were the most influential factors in our trip.

Victor and Sara are the local partners for Experience Mission in Shiroles. They have three sons and a daughter.

"The residents taught us the importance of building relationships with others and to never take for granted the individuals that have been placed in our lives," said Brenna.

Sara, her daughter and her sister cooked for us. They made wonderful homemade meals that gave us comfort and strength before and after we worked each day, and we were each able to help them cook throughout the week.

Jordan told us at one point that Sara said she loved us and wanted to serve us to the best of her ability. This touched our hearts because she had known us for such a short time but loved us as though she had known us for a lifetime.

Victor and his sons guided us through each day of work. Much progress has been made over the last three years, and the locals expressed hope that the church would be completed this summer or soon thereafter.

During our week, we finished a wooden floor by hammering planks into place, but the nail pile had many casualties. We painted rafters, including paint wars here and there, and we helped put wooden panels on a wall.

As Korby said, the people "were so patient and kind to our entire team." They helped and encouraged, teased and laughed rather than becoming frustrated or annoyed.

It became apparent shortly after arriving that Victor feared nothing and loved to instigate things. Truthfully, his antics became frequent and fun to observe. "Jessie, why do you fall for Victor's tricks?" asked Chris.

In response to Victor's playfulness, our group's main goal soon became to find a way to scare Victor. We put lizards and bugs on his clothes, put a drill as close to him as possible without hurting him, then turned it on and more. Sadly, nothing worked.

We were given the opportunity to work with local children each day at "Kids' Camp" as well. Reading to the kids, performing skits, playing games and coloring were the activities of choice. The children readily accepted us, and there was fun to be had by all ages. In fact the first day, we played freeze tag on the rain-soaked lawn and laughed until our sides hurt as we swung the kids around in our arms.

The locals love, "fútbol," so our nightly routine became playing with them at a soccer field across the road from where we were staying. One night it was so muddy that it was only a matter of time before we were covered from head to toe. The locals probably thought the Americans were crazy after we had our mud fight.

Our last evening in Shiroles was beautiful. The sunset filled the sky with brilliant colors. In that moment, Carly said later, "All the sweat and work we had done was over, and there was a moment of peace and the feeling of accomplishment set in."

We are sad that we had to leave our new friends, but we know that our "friendships … will last a lifetime," said Brandon.

I think Momma Kelley summed it up best: "It was life-giving to witness everyone coming together to help strangers. All of us were changed for the better in the process. Love, kindness and goodwill toward others abounded. It was truly a beautiful experience."

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