Student volunteers find home away from home in Panama

In the early morning of Friday, November 25th, a group of 17 Trinity College School students and three faculty chaperones – Mr. Peter Mao, Mr. Luke O’Connell and Mr. Tim Clutton – headed to Toronto Pearson Airport to board a flight to Panama, where the group would spend a week working with, and learning from, the people of Guadalupe.

Students travelling to Panama were: Viana Biscoe, Jessica Bridges, Jasmine Chen, Lachlan Cowdroy, TianTian Dong, Doug Gibson, Merryn Hamilton, Anna Ionel, Dagna Jezioro, Xyon Johnson, Christian Mack, Vici Nix, Ashwin Raina, Miah Schmidlin, Phillip Whan Tong, Lily Wright and Carmella Ylagan.

After arriving in Panama City, we met our Evolve Tours guide, Luis. He was born and raised in Panama City and was able to share his wealth of knowledge with us. He is fantastic! During our time in Panama City, we visited Casco Viejo, a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site that dates back to 1673, which features vibrant plazas and picturesque brick-paved streets surrounded by colourful buildings. During our tour, we even had the chance to see the Panama Canal.

Then, we flew from Panama City to David before driving to Guadalupe, where we would be staying for the remainder of our trip. Los Quetzales Ecolodge was a perfect home away from home. After arriving in Guadalupe, we had the chance to savour some Panamanian empanadas, fried rice and other delicious treats. We also visited a strawberry farm, where we learned about hydroponic farming. Following the tour, many participants devoured the farm’s chocolate-covered strawberries.

We spent time volunteering up in the mountains on a reserve located in a cloud forest. Surrounded by green, we assisted with animal conservation. From hiking to gather vegetation to plant, to painting, to manually moving six cubic yards (approximately nine tons) of volcanic rock, we were quite busy. While our bodies were sore from all the physical work, we were elated to have this opportunity to give back.

Directly across the street from Los Quetzales Ecolodge, we also volunteered at the local elementary school. We assisted with building a greenhouse, running English-based activities in classrooms, painting and cooking. We even prepared 1,000 soil bags to be used by the students at the school to grow various plants and vegetables. The community will then be able to sell the plants at the local market to raise money for the school and the families of students at the school.

When not volunteering, we had a chance to visit a hummingbird sanctuary to feed its miniature residents. We learned about how there are 57 different species of hummingbird in Panama, with some unique to the area we are staying in. We also took some time to play volleyball and soccer with some of our hosts in the evenings. Playing sports at approximately 2,000 metres above sea level is no easy task.

There were also a few days of significance. Monday, November 28th was Independence Day in Panama. We visited Volcán to participate in the celebrations, where we saw marching bands from across the province of Chiriquí perform. ¡Feliz día de la Independencia de Panamá! On Tuesday, Miah Schmidlin celebrated her birthday. As a testament to the relationships we forged, her birthday truly became a special day with the community coming together to help celebrate. She did not have just one birthday cake, but three, and also celebrated with three piñatas. Miah’s newest and biggest fan (a young student) even gifted her a rose. What a great day!

Over the next few days, we continued volunteering and giving back to the community here in Guadalupe. We were truly at home and felt so welcome. We continued to serve at the local elementary school across the street from our lodge, and one of the teachers at the school invited us to tour her farm, Finca los Arandanos. We were the first group of “tourists” to visit it. There, we learned about how farms in Panama operate and the methods used to grow various crops. We even had the opportunity to sample the fruits and vegetables grown there.

On Thursday, our Evolve Tours guide and one of the women we worked with directly, Yeilyn, celebrated their birthdays. We surprised them with a birthday party. We presented them Canadian maple syrup and other gifts, and played pin the tail on the donkey, musical chairs and egg toss. Fun was had by all.

We took time off on Friday to learn about coffee and ecological conservation at Mount Totumas Coffee, located in the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest. We were toured by Jeff Dietrich, one of two brothers who established the coffee farm and private nature reserve, and participated in a coffee cupping. During our tour, we even had the opportunity to hike to two waterfalls.

On our final day in Panama, we visited the cloud forest one last time. It was rainy and cold, but we continued to work hard to move additional volcanic rocks. Afterwards, we were surprised by a performance by dancers dressed in polleras, the national dress of Panama. We then spent time creating a sign that will be placed on the pathway showing that we had been there and we had assisted with various projects on the nature reserve.

During our time in Panama, we met such outstanding individuals and community members, and we are so grateful to have had this experience. We worked hard. Really hard. We completed all of our service projects in the first few days of our trip. We completed projects in three days that other groups had taken seven days to accomplish. They had to find additional service projects for us to do, which we gladly took on! We are grateful for our Evolve Tours guide, Luis, and for having the opportunity to work alongside Karina, a community leader in Guadalupe and a true example of putting others before self. Both made us feel at home. We will truly miss spending time with both of them.

Our time in Panama may be over, but what we have taken away from this experience will stay with us forever.

- By Peter Mao, chaperone