Sophomore Maggie Matassa's Story of her Summer Mission Trip to Costa Rica

Sep 10 2014

Article by Maggie Matassa, Class of 2017:

This summer I, and three of my Kellenberg friends, Emily Macaluso, Dana Flynn and Keira Vassallo, had the unique opportunity to make the world a better place when my Girl Scout troop went on a service trip to Costa Rica.

We flew into San Jose, the capital city, and spent our first day touring the sights and staying in a fancy hotel. As I soaked in the hot tub with the other girls that first night I thought to myself, “Hey, this is going to be fun!” The plush surroundings just weren’t what I was expecting on a service trip, but, hey, I wasn’t complaining. The next morning, after a delicious breakfast, we set off for our next destination, the tiny village of Zapotal, in the clouds of the rainforest. First we stopped at INBio Park, a conservation reserve, and learned about all of Costa Rica’s plants and animals. We watched a movie that explained to us how the Costa Rican flora and fauna helped the rest of the world and why it is so important to preserve the diversity of nature. There, we watched a baby sloth climbing down a tree at a hilariously slow pace and we got up close and personal with tarantulas, snakes, brilliantly colored poison dart tree frogs, and hummingbirds. One of the highlights, though, was the butterfly vivarium. We had beautiful blue morphos and many other species landing on our fingers, our shoulders, our heads and anywhere else they felt like landing. It was just amazing to look over at one of my friends and see her covered with butterflies while she was laughing and pointing at me as I got covered, too! For lunch, we ate in a resort-like, open-air restaurant, being watched the whole time by a four foot iguana. Still not what I was expecting for a Girl Scout service trip…

Next stop was the Our Lady of the Angels Basilica, a huge, ornate church with a wonderful story. A simple wood cutter’s daughter found a doll in the forest one day while bringing her father his lunch. She brought the doll back to her home and put it in a carved box in her bedroom. The next day as she went to deliver her father his lunch, she again saw the doll on the same rock. Thinking she had made a mistake, she went home and checked the box. Sure enough, the doll was gone! This happened for five more days. Finally, her father took her and the doll to the village priest. When the same thing happened to the priest, he knew it was a sign from the Blessed Mother and a beautiful basilica was built in Mary’s honor. Today, people come from all over the world to pray to Our Lady of the Angels, drink from a blessed stream, and ask for healing.

As we continued climbing up into the rainforest, the landscape began to become more rugged and signs of civilization become harder to find. It was becoming a little more in line with what I was expecting. I was starting to get a bit nervous…I hadn’t seen another town, house, or even a person for many, many miles. Finally, we arrived at Zapotal, up in the clouds at 8,000 feet. The entire village—from the youngest to the oldest—came out to greet us!   Fifteen of us climbed out of the buses with tentative smiles plastered on our faces. We had come to help out these strangers with whom we could barely communicate. “So how is this gonna work?” I wondered. We were led into their Community Center, basically a simple room with some cooking facilities and bathrooms. The women and children danced their traditional dances for us in full costume and shyly, but warmly, welcomed us to their village. For the next four days, we would arrive at 8AM and begin work, priming and painting the elementary school, planting indigenous trees around the schoolyard and playground, and building stairs down to Zapotal’s fútbol, (soccer), field using “eco-bricks”. Then, after a short mid-morning snack, we would work until lunchtime when we would have to drag our sweaty selves back up the huge hill to the Community Center for a delicious, traditional Costa Rican meal prepared by the women. It was during our lunch breaks that we began to truly get to know the people of Zapotal. The little children would swarm us, sitting on our laps, playing with our hair or just holding our hands.   One bold little boy, Sebastiano, would try to entertain us with his tae kwon do moves, or try to make us laugh—wrestling his buddies, singing songs, whatever he could do to show off for us. Sebastiano became our mascot, and wherever we were, Sebastiano wasn’t far. It took a little longer for the older kids to approach us, but eventually, we began to communicate with bits of English and Spanish and learned about each other.

The highlight of our days, however, was quitting time, when we would join the Zapotal men and teenagers and play fútbol until dinnertime. On the fútbol field, we communicated without words. We split evenly into teams, so we were mixed in with the locals; it wasn’t us against them, but us all together having fun. We made friends over high fives, helping hands up, and team cheers. There was lots of laughing and teasing, but the Costa Rican’s take their fútbol very seriously. I’m happy to report we American girls held their own.

At night, we would drive 45 minutes to our eco lodge, El Toucanet, a very rustic lodge with no television, computers, clocks, or other modern conveniences. Luckily, we had hot showers most of the time. Groups of three or four of us shared cabins in the forest; unfortunately, we had to share our rooms with an assortment of Costa Rican bugs. Every once in a while I would hear a blood-curdling yell and our fearless leader would come running to remove an unwanted visitor, usually a spider the size of my hand! None of us missed our technology, and found that we had more time to hang out and talk with each other. Being unplugged for a few days made me realize how much attention is required to always be “connected”, and I think the other girls found it just as relaxing.

The last day of our stay in Zapotal was as wonderful as it was difficult. It was wonderful because we organized games and races for the 13 elementary school children whose school we had painted. After a game of kickball, we played some relay races. We were having so much fun and laughing so hard that the moms asked if they could join in. It was really something to see, with everyone screaming and cheering in English and Spanish! Then, we presented the Principal of the school with an entire suitcase full of school supplies. We also had an extra special gift—we had collected four teams worth of unused CYO soccer uniforms. The Zapotal villagers were speechless, and their excitement and gratitude was one of my proudest moments. Leaving these open, warm and simple people was very hard. We had forged a bond, in spite of the language barrier, and made friends with the people of Zapotal against the odds. There were many hugs, kisses and tears. That night, our group was a little more subdued than usual, as each of us tried to absorb some of the life lessons we had learned from our amazing experience.

The rest of my trip was exciting and filled with once-in-a-lifetime adventures.   We tracked and found a near-extinct quetzal bird, toured a coffee plant, zip lined through the jungle, had hummingbirds sitting on our fingers, and watched with wonder as the monkeys played everywhere we went. But my heart and my thoughts keep going back to my time spent in Zapotal. The work was hard—we got dirty, sweaty and blistered– but I enjoyed every minute of it, knowing I was making a difference in the lives of people who don’t have the same opportunities that I have been given.   The warmth and openness of the people of Zapotal and the friendships I made are what I will remember most about my Costa Rican adventure.