I had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica in 2002 during the time when my son was participating in the Institute for Central American Development Studies program through his college. He was an Environmental Studies major and this sort of experience intrigued him. Fortunately, he asked me to tag along for a while. His duties were to teach English to children and adults in Malpais, as well as to work on ecotourism for a zip line. Needless to say, he encouraged me to try the zip line out. I was deathly afraid of heights, so this was no small feat for me. The early platforms were embedded in the trees making it hard to tell how high it was. By the last zip line, I had overcome my fear and was exhilarated by the breathtaking view of the valley far below. The locals were extremely kind and patient with me as they helped me through that experience.
I was struck by the beauty of the landscape and the diversity of wildlife that I saw. As a young child growing up in New Jersey, I spent the bulk of my time outdoors in the woods, exploring streams, looking at bugs with a magnifying glass, making a village for some ants, and creating a pond for a bunch of frogs I captured. The frogs weren’t too thrilled with my design and they all jumped out. I also had a “pet” Monarch butterfly that I lured to my finger with honey and I would run alongside it as it flew. These moments were magical. I truly felt at home in nature.
When I visited the Childrens’ Eternal Rainforest with my son after a long chugging bus ride up the mountain to Monteverde, I continued to be overcome by the beauty and the diversity that I witnessed. We had a guide take us into the forest so we could learn more about the habitat and all that lived there. I remember he told us to watch out for the capuchins above in the trees, “they might pee on you”, and sure enough one tried. The birds with their rainbow of colors were breathtaking. I never knew there could be such overwhelming beauty in one place. We went to an enclosure that housed butterflies from at least three different habitats based on elevation. It was thoughtfully designed to make learning fun with all the beautiful butterflies fluttering around. There were children on the path in groups, laughing with excitement as they observed nature around them. I spoke to one of the teachers to find out what kinds of experiential learning they offered and was so inspired. It brought me back to my childhood and reminded me of the need for children to get outside and connect with nature.
My experiences there stayed with me, so when I returned home, I kept in touch with Childrens’ Eternal Rainforest and have supported it ever since. I learned more about the history and how it all got started. Being a teacher myself, I was inspired to learn that a classroom of Swedish students wrote letters and raised money to help protect the rainforest and its inhabitants. I have since read that the area preserved is about the size of Seattle which is where I’ve lived and raised my children. This goes to show that one teacher and one classroom of students can make a lasting difference.
Since that trip, I have spent more of my volunteer and professional work in environmental education and advocacy. I attended a school called IslandWood where, as a graduate teaching intern, I taught students in grades 4-6 who were bussed to the site and learned about the multiple habitats that supported wildlife there. We were outside all the time, rain or shine, to explore and discover. I witnessed so many magical moments in those children. I ended up spending 10 years as a volunteer and professional interpretive guide at parks in the Seattle area.
Inspired by the Swedish students, I set up a student-centered Students Saving Salmon club in local high schools. Students learn about salmon habitat restoration and do water quality testing in local streams throughout the year. They inform citizens and local governments about what actions and policies are needed to protect salmon habitats including the forests, streams, and ocean. Since I was involved in government myself at that time, I coached students to advocate for environmental protection at the city, county, and state levels. Many have gone on to become change agents for a more environmentally sustainable future. Honestly, this is the snowball effect that my trip to Costa Rica spearheaded. There have been many levels of involvement where I sought to expand my reach to include students in the creation of climate change policies, green infrastructure, and a community-wide Backyard Wildlife Habitat Project.
As we see more and more development worldwide, I feel an urgent need to have a hand in protecting some of the wild places we have left. Fortunately, with the resources that I have, I can help. This is why I felt compelled to give a gift to help secure a tract of adjacent land to the already preserved rainforest in Costa Rica. I am forever grateful to the initial group of students and others along the way, especially now for the leadership of Friends of the Rainforest and Monteverde Conservation League.
By Rainforest friend, Valerie Stewart.