DHS Travelers Receive and Give Service Here and Abroad
BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communication Director
When Stacie Freeman saw the destruction the December tornado caused in her hometown of Dresden, one of her first thoughts was to cancel the March trip to Costa Rica she’d planned for students at Dresden High. As the Director of Bethel University Global Studies program and a sociology professor who provides dual enrollment classes for Weakley County Schools, she weighed the cost of the travel against the loss of the cultural experience and, initially determined the local needs were too great.
“Why would we travel to Costa Rica to volunteer when our own home is in ruins? Why would we go clean habitats at an animal rescue center when our own streets are littered with debris?” she asked in a letter she soon sent to friends and family.
She then answered her own question, “These students have already lost too much. COVID has upended their high school experience, they’ve recently lost two coaches and mentors to illness and disease, and now this … a literal uprooting of their lives. I don’t want to add this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to the list of things they’ve lost. However, I also don’t want it to take away from efforts/resources to rebuild our hometown.”
The letter to past donors, global studies alumni, and her personal network of friends and family was the first outreach in several months of fundraising that eventually covered most of the costs of five DHS participants who had signed up for the March 19-24, 2022, trip. Whereas most high school and college students who opt to join her excursions to locales like Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica usually fundraise themselves to pay their program fees, Freeman made it her goal ease that burden for the Dresden representatives who had “lost homes, churches, neighborhoods, and/or jobs.”
As a result of her efforts, a total of more than $6,000 was donated, netting the student who lost nearly everything in the tornado complete funding and covering 75% of the others’ expenses.
“The students and I have been AMAZED,” she said. “They can’t believe the support and love they’ve received from people they’ve never met.”
The DHS group included Haley Brooks, Mark Maddox, Jacey McClure, LeeAnne Morefield and School Resource Officer Kristen Childress. Childress served as the team’s photographer. Dresden High alum and now Bethel University’s graphic designer Jai-Chandler Mathis, Mark McClure and Patti Vinson also accompanied the group. Additional travelers from Station Camp High School in Gallatin rounded out the team who collectively helped accomplish UN Sustainable Development Goals as they worked with non-profit partners Rescue Center Costa Rica. They put in a combined 244 hours in support of ending illegal wildlife trade by caring for the animals and completing a mural for the center. Mathis conceived of and mapped out the mural that featured the animals seen at the center. Students and adults completed the painting before they concluded their five-day trip. In all, their service had an economic impact of $7654 in the host community.
Morefield, who had previously participated in mission trips but was on her first volunteer experience out of the U.S., expressed gratitude for the support the group received and the opportunity to then support others.
“I was very grateful, especially being affected by the tornado. It showed me how much people actually see you and how much they’re willing to support you and how much they care,” she explained. “I knew I was going to work hard…. I didn’t look at it like ‘oh I get to go to Costa Rica and it’s going to be so much fun.’ The main thing was going to volunteer. Seeing everyone who was behind me did make me want to do it a little bit more; it gave me a bit more of a push.”
In addition to the work of caring for the animals and painting the mural that covered an outside wall, the group participated in multiple culturally immersive, authentic, educational experiences including a hike through the jungle to a waterfall, a tour of a family-owned coffee farm, and a day at the beach.
Morefield reflected on how what seems exotic to the traveler is a part of everyday life for the resident.
“My favorite part was being immersed into the culture. They speak Spanish. They eat different foods. And all the variety of animals that we saw in the shelters, we then saw healthy ones in the wild. And that’s what they get to see every day,” she recounted.
The multi-cultural aspect was not limited to interactions with Costa Ricans, Brooks noted that she was glad to have worked alongside fellow volunteers at the rescue facility who were from other countries.
“This trip gave me the opportunity to experience what it means to be a global citizen by immersing myself in Costa Rican culture, meeting people from all around the world including Norway, Canada, England, Sweden, and Denmark, and contributing to 244 hours of volunteer work at the animal rescue center. This trip was very impactful,” she shared upon her return.
McClure also referred to the trip expanding her cultural awareness. “I’ve come back knowing how to connect with people of other cultures and help communities outside my own.”
In addition to the intrinsic benefits of travel, the DHS seniors also earned three hours of college credit at Bethel, are eligible for the President’s Volunteer Service Award, and may apply their service hours toward the TN Scholars requirements.
Maddox considers the time away a worthy investment, adding, “The trip to Costa Rica with BU Global Studies was life changing. The bonds I created with the people on the trip will last for a lifetime. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I wouldn’t have preferred to spend my spring break any other way.”
Freeman began offering global opportunities to area high school and university students in 2011. Since then, she has taught and led more than 400 travelers who, in turn, have contributed in excess of 28,000 hours of service in countries like Vietnam and Cuba. Prior to her recent Costa Rican trip, she took a group to Colombia. In June she will introduce students from Greenfield and Dresden along with Bethel University alumni and students to Ecuador.
“Gaining a new perspective is such a gift, a great return on your investment,” she noted of the rewards of global studies. “This trip was evidence of that in so many ways. Donors invested to ensure those who lost so much in the Dresden tornado didn’t lose one more thing. Those Dresden representatives, in turn, invested in Costa Rica and came home with a deeper understanding of what they can do in the world. What a win/win!”
For more information on future trips, contact Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow BUGlobalstudies on Instagram and Facebook.