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WNY's Great Kids: Amherst Students Spend Vacation on Mission Trip

A group of Amherst High School students traveled to Costa Rica during their February break, not for vacation, but for service. They returned home with much more than just souvenirs and photos, but rather life lessons that can't be taught in a classroom.

This week's 2 On Your Side "Great Kids" are the 27 Amherst teens who stepped out of their comfort zone and entered a remote village in Costa Rica on a mission to make a difference.

"They had so little and it was eye opening," said Amherst High School Junior Alana Reynolds. "I actually just wanted to go for the vacation and I wasn't really expecting what the service was going to be like. And I got out of it more than what I thought I would."

The 60 children, from kindergarten through sixth grade, attend a modest school named Escuela Agua Azul, in a small village outside La Fortuna in central Costa Rica.

"The children that go to that school are the children of migrant workers and these kids will walk up to 3 miles each way to get to school because they know education is important to them," said Amherst High School Spanish teacher Chris Banas, the trip's organizer.

Despite their commitment to education, school supplies are scarce in their impoverished community. So the Amherst students spent months collecting supplies to bring with them donate.

"The kids came with reams of paper, coloring books, games, Uno, and reading puzzles for the little kids and it was really nice to see them take that initiative," said Spanish teacher Michelle Bernardi, who accompanied the students to Costa Rica.

The Amherst students also donated their time and labor, helping to paint the school, rip out old vegetation and plant fruit trees, because the more they grow, the more they eat. 

Part of the students' cost of going on the mission trip was to buy the paint and landscaping supplies once they arrived in Costa Rica. 

"The most challenging part was doing the physical labor, the work and everything in the heat," said Amherst High School sophomore Evangeline Manuel. "But with that it was a good experience and we felt good about ourselves after we did all of it because we knew we were doing all the work for the kids, for their families there, for their education."

Each hard work day ended with a friendly game of soccer, showing these two groups of students from entirely different backgrounds that maybe they weren't that different at all.

"They were just kids playing soccer and everyone had a blast," said Banas. 

While the Amherst students went to Costa Rica to give physical gifts, they came back with countless intangible gifts like learning the language, experiencing the culture, and creating friendships and lasting memories.

"It is the most soul-filling experience," said Bernardi.

The students believe they've been forever changed.

"I'll remember the smiles on the kids faces when we showed up and how sad they were when we left," said sophomore Joey Murak. "We meant a lot to them and it was really good to feel that."