By Nellie Funk, ’12
It’s not often that twenty-one 8th-graders take a week off from school to travel to Puerto Rico, but at the Washington Montessori School in New Preston that’s exactly what we do. Every year our 8th grade class goes on a service trip to a Spanish-speaking country. This year my class went to Puerto Rico. We planted trees in El Yunque, a national forest, and volunteered at Nueva Escuela Juan Ponce de Leon, a Montessori school in Guaynabo.
Being in Puerto Rico was not a vacation. I had to be reminded of that quite a few times, but it wasn’t just a service trip either. Where we live, we can sometimes feel sheltered from the outside world, so traveling to a place with a whole new culture was an experience I will never forget. This trip taught me much more than what I had expected, because using Spanish in a classroom for nine or so years is much different than using it with people who don’t speak English and planting trees in a national rainforest is much more effective than planting them around my campus. My classmates and I are extremely lucky to have had this opportunity.
The first part of our trip was spent planting trees in the national forest of El Yunque. We planted native trees because invasive species were starting to take over and it was getting harder for the native trees to grow. We got to the rainforest at about 10 a.m. and met our guides Benjamin and Baby. We loaded the back of their truck with saplings of mahogany and other native trees. After the truck was filled, we headed off. Benjamin and Baby showed us how deep the holes should be to plant the trees. Once we got the hang of digging, we became confident and started to work faster. We also had the privilege of learning to use the machete to clear some weeds away. That was my favorite part.
El Yunque’s rainforest is nothing like Connecticut’s temperate forests. El Yunque is full of different noises. It was very humid. Unfortunately, we never got to experience any downfalls of rain. We were all hoping the rain would come because, if you were to plant trees for four hours with the sun beating on your back, you would wish for rain, too! Although this was rigorous work, in the end we planted 328 trees. I am proud to be able to say that; most 14-year-olds don’t get a chance to make such a difference.
On our second day in Puerto Rico, we traveled to Nueva Escuela where we would teach students English. My classmates and I didn’t know what to expect. When we pulled in I saw an outdoor basketball court and a concrete building, which was an elementary classroom. Across from the building there was the middle school and a “Children’s House,” for younger kids. This was a much different place than my Montessori school here, it was much smaller and it looked a lot different. After we received our assignments, I followed a teacher who didn’t speak any English to an elementary classroom.
Since I have studied Spanish since I was five or so, I should have felt confident, but I felt nervous and, to be honest, intimidated, even by little six-year olds. I sat down next to a girl and said, “Hola,” with a big grin on my face. She giggled and immediately started speaking Spanish. I couldn’t understand one word of it because she was going so fast. She then understood that I didn’t know much Spanish, and even though she was only six, she was patient enough to draw and act out words so we could communicate. Her name was Lysmar and I worked with her all day, matching pictures to English words. We drew pictures and wrote the English and Spanish words under them. I read her the books I had brought from home. This was challenging because I actually had to use all of the Spanish that I had been taught, that and a lot of hand movements just so she could understand the book, but all of it was an incredible experience. In just one day I became incredibly close to Lysmar. Saying goodbye was not easy.
When we got back from our trip to Puerto Rico we still had some work to do. We wanted to share our experience with lots of people, so my classmates and I chose what kind of format we wanted to use to explain to the younger kids at my school. One of my classmates produced a video, others wrote reports. I obviously chose to write this article.
In order to go on the 8th-grade trip, students have to help raise money for their travel costs. This begins in 6th grade when we run a pizza business. Every Tuesday we give pizza to all the kids who order it. By the end of my 6th-grade year we had raised $7,000 toward our Puerto Rico trip.
Part of our trip is funded by a Priscilla S. Whittemore Grant from the Connecticut Community Foundation. This grant goes to help group travel opportunities that “promote peace, justice and understanding of the people of this nation and people of other nations through educational experiences for persons in their intellectually formative years.”