Eighth Graders Focus on Community Engagement, Conservation During Puerto Rico Leadership Journey

Fifteen members of Calvert’s Class of 2023 traveled to Puerto Rico earlier this month, April 8 to 14, for an experiential leadership journey that focused on conservation, community engagement, and cultural immersion. This invaluable experience, made possible through Calvert’s Institute for Leadership & Purpose (ILP), featured seven days of team-building and exploration that encouraged the students to look outward and think globally, as well as inward to identify and overcome their own hesitancies and fears.

“I think this entire trip has helped us learn the importance of deep experiences, getting to know local people and processing what we learn,” Claire S. ’23 wrote in the student-led trip blog. “We have had the chance to do that this week and we are all grateful for the opportunity.”
Guided by Middle School art teacher Katie Leonard, world language teacher Diana Talbott, and ILP Director Sarah DeCamps – as well as local artists and nonprofit instructors – the students experienced Puerto Rican history and culture while helping to refurbish an ecotourism center on the island.

On April 9, their first full day in Puerto Rico, the students met with nonprofit leadership to understand the mission of APRODEC, or the Alliance for Economic Development of Ceiba, which works to improve citizens' quality of life within the region. Prepared with a firm understanding of APRODEC and its goal of converting a former U.S. Navy base into an eco-tourism center, the students broke into groups to help repair and refurbish various parts of the facility.

“The projects we worked on included fixing up a room that will be the infirmary for the community center, working on the garden, designing mosaics for the visitor bathrooms, and adding cable to the railings so everything can be up to code,” Henri J. ’23 said.

As work on the former base continued, Henri and his group completed their infirmary project and had the opportunity to view their classmates’ efforts. As a group, the Eighth Graders then met with APRODEC’s lead landscaper to plant plantain trees around the grounds.

“It felt really good to see that the room we started with on day one, with so much stuff in it, looked very different just a day later,” Forrest M. ’23 wrote. “George and Myles finished tightening and adding safety cable to the railings. Claire and Caroline and Carson and Jameson finished painting a mural behind the community garden. Lila, Marianna, Victoria, Elle, and Rosie finished the mosaics in the bathroom. All the work groups had done their jobs.”
In addition to their work with APRODEC, the students met with local artisans and community members to learn more about Puerto Rico’s history and culture, which largely springs from the intersection of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous (Taino), and European influences. In addition to speaking with artist Samuel Lind, the students prepared sofritas with Chef Nivia, who spoke about Puerto Rico’s food cycle, and learned a traditional Puerto Rican dance with a local Loiza group.
On Tuesday, April 11, the group ventured 200 yards through shallow water to reach Wuanikí Bawa, a small rocky island adorned with ancient petroglyphs, or drawings carved into stone. While there, the students experienced an ancient indigenous ceremony and prayer after discussing the petroglyphs and their significance to the Taino people.
“After the ceremony, we hopped back in the water, following a rope back to shore,” Lila S. ’23 wrote. “Overall, seeing Wuanikí Bawa was an incredible immersion experience and I am so happy I was able to experience this special part of Puerto Rican culture.”
Back on solid ground, the students’ leadership journey continued with a visit to CIROM, a sanctuary, research, and rehabilitation center for marine life, where they considered the importance of sea urchins for the health and longevity of our planet’s coral reefs.
“Since a lot of coral reefs die because of the algae covering the coral, sea urchins are really important to the coral reef ecosystem,” Myles B. ’23 said. “We learned that once the sea urchins eat the algae, scientists can re-introduce a coral reef back into the ocean.”
Having left their mark on APRODEC – in more ways than one – the group then said their goodbyes and headed to Old San Juan, the historical heart of Puerto Rico’s capital city. While there, they explored the old forts that once defended the city and tasted a few more local delicacies, including piragua, while navigating their way to significant local landmarks.
“Many of the sites were monuments or parks commemorating a special part of the history of Old San Juan,” Jameson E. ’23 and Elle G. ’23 shared. “We also visited a fountain and sculpture that honors the ‘roots’ of Puerto Rico: the Taino people, the Spanish people, and the African people.”
To wind down the leadership journey, our Calvert travelers settled at Casa Coral, where they stayed for the final days of their adventure, which were spent hiking in the rainforest and experiencing the beauty of El Yunque National Park. Later, the students participated in a reflection exercise that encouraged everyone to think critically and speak honestly while digesting this remarkable opportunity.
“Each of us shared something that ‘rocked’ us… something that will ‘stick with’ us… and something we want to ‘leaf’ behind,” Graham G. ’23 explained in a blog post. “We passed the rock, stick, and leaf around and each of us got a chance to share our memories, lessons, and the fears we will leave behind.”
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.