It was a vacation to a sun-drenched, exotic location — complete with long beaches, thick rainforest and lava-spewing volcanoes.
But students from Porter Creek Secondary School returned from a recent trip to Costa Rica with more than bronzed skin and big smiles.
They came home with a deepened sense of social conscience.
One scene remains vividly etched on their minds.
They witnessed it while driving into the costal town of Quepos, perched on the edge of Manuel Antonio National Park.
“There was a crack addict, a child prostitute and a baby taking her first steps,” said Grade 11 student Robert McMynn.
There was no video camera to record the toddler’s shaky feet, said Grade 11 student Justine Blanchard, noting a telling difference from Canada.
“The whole family was there to help her take her first steps,” said Blanchard.
“It’s scary to think that one day she could grow up to be a child prostitute or to buy drugs from that dealer.”
But there was beauty and hope in this scene, despite desolate circumstances, said McMynn.
“It’s still the little things that shine through.”
Simple joys seem to be enough, added Grade 10 student Randy Taylor.
“They were happy over the little things they had like being with their families and hanging out at the church,” he said.
For Costa Ricans, locally called Ticos, less wealth didn’t equate to less happiness, said Grade 10 student Rebeka Christensen.
“It’s not the materialistic things that are important,” she said.
“Especially the children and youth are very appreciative, happy, humble people.”
Seeing poverty first hand drew difficult comparisons for Grade 10 student Karlie Knight.
“Seeing their culture and how good we have it compared to them, I guess it kind of made me feel a little selfish in ways — for having all this stuff compared to what they have,” said Knight.
“And how happy a people they are, compared to some people I know, that have everything — and these people have next to nothing.”
During their two-week stint in the country, students met with Ticos involved in a wide variety of community-based projects, including a woman who works with a food co-operative and recycling program, the Coopesilencio.
Knight is returning this summer to serve there as a volunteer.
Students also met with a woman running a restaurant and cultural centre where she employs former child prostitutes, and with a man documenting illegal logging in the rainforest by foreign-owned companies that are building luxury hotels and homes.
While policing environmental policies is difficult for resource-strapped land inspectors, Costa Rica’s policies towards wilderness conservation are impressive, said Linda Hamilton, one of two accompanying teachers.
A third of the country’s forests and beaches have been deemed national parks, said Hamilton.
“This is a model the Yukon could use,” she added.
“It’s a way of preserving the incredible diversity of life in Costa Rica. It would be crazy not to preserve that land.
“The same can be said of the Yukon.”
In particular she noted the northeast Yukon, with its Peel, Snake, Wind and Bonnet Plume rivers.
The sights and sounds of Costa Rica also gave students a different perspective on home.
We’re lucky to have what we have, said Grade 10 student Jasmin Fitzsimmons. “I appreciate things more, like having a hot shower and shelter.”
Even basics in Canada seem more luxurious, said Blanchard.
“Before I went on the trip, I took things for granted,” she said.
“I didn’t like staying in those hotels where you had to share the bathroom. Now I have knowledge of what it is to have a great country. I’m really happy to be in Canada.”
This evolution in perspective is exactly what teacher Michael Toews hoped students would gain from the trip.
“Sometimes you have to force their eyes wide open to the big, bad, wonderful world,” Toews said.
“It sets the stage, at a very early age, to experience what the world has to offer. If you can catch them early, with nifty things like this, I think they feel things more deeply.”
Early exposure to other cultures, countries and languages helps to defeat apathy and disinterest, said Toews.
“It’s also fun,” he added.
The students had a simple message for their peers in the Yukon — go travelling.
“You can’t change someone’s perspective,” said Fitzsimmons. “They have to go out and get their own.”
Crossing Canada’s borders is essential, added McMynn.
“Go see the world,” he said.
“You have to. You can’t live your whole life in Canada.”
And if you do, be grateful for it, added Knight.
“I think that you should really open your eyes and see what you have,” she added.
“Because after seeing these people, and they have next to nothing, and seeing how happy they are, I think you should just walk around and appreciate life.”