Published April 9, 2019
Chris Banas, a GSE alumnus (EdM ’12, Spanish Education), brought 27 Amherst High School students on a mission trip to Costa Rica to engage his students interculturally, as well as improve their Spanish proficiency. Banas has been a Spanish teacher in Amherst High School since 2016. Previously, he worked at Health Sciences Charter School for four years where he did two service learning trips to Puerto Rico.
“Two words, 'pura vida,' describe this mission trip,” said Banas. “This Costa Rican phrase is a way to say hello, a way to say goodbye, to say that everything is good, but more importantly a life style as pura vida is also an emotion, an attitude, happiness and a great way to live.”
The students entered a rural school named Escuela Agua Azul (EAA), in a small village outside La Fortuna in central Costa Rica to help 60 children, from kindergarten through sixth grade. EAA is a two-room school with separate buildings for bathrooms and a small kitchen, where they prepare food that is grown on school grounds. According to Banas, the students attending EAA are children of migrant workers and these children will walk up to three miles each day because they understand the importance of education.
While there is a commitment to education in Costa Rica, school supplies are low in impoverished communities, so the Amherst students spent months collecting supplies to bring with them. According to Michelle Bernardi, a Spanish teacher who accompanied the students to Costa Rica, the Amherst students brought reams of paper, coloring books, games and puzzles for the little children.
The Amherst students donated their time and labor, helping to paint the school, rip out old vegetation and plant fruit trees because the more they grow, the more they eat. Part of the students’ cost of going on the mission trip was to buy the paint and landscaping supplies once they arrived in Costa Rica.
“In the short week, my students were challenged mentally and physically when it came to using Spanish in all of their daily interactions and encounters,” said Banas. “The first two days were difficult, but by the end, they were no longer afraid of using Spanish with a native speaker, as their confidence increased. They saw the value in what they were learning in the classroom and most importantly, they saw how a little bit of kindness and hard work to help others can make the world a better place.”
All of the students played a friendly game of soccer at the end of each work day, which showed these two types of students from completely different backgrounds that they weren’t so different after all. “Playing soccer really made everyone come together and it gave me a sense of satisfaction to see everyone getting along so well,” said Banas. “It was a great way to end each day.”
Banas has impacted all of the students’ lives as they believe their experience in Costa Rica has changed their perspective on education. “I will forever remember the smiles on kids’ faces when we showed up and how sad they were when we left,” said Amherst High School sophomore Joey Murak. “We meant a lot to them and it was really good to feel that.”