Although snorkeling with sharks, kayaking in mangroves, and floating on inner tubes through ancient limestone caves can all make for an exotic vacation, the seven Girl Scouts who had those experiences in Belize and Guatemala last summer had a higher purpose.
"They delivered school supplies and books to Ocean Academy High School on Caye Caulker, a tiny island in the Caribbean off the coast of Belize, and hosted a Girl Scout camp there for the students," said Susan Collins, transition specialist at OCHS and the leader of Girl Scout Troop 47980 based in Oregon City.
"The girls earned the funds, researched the destination, and planned the two-week educational and service trip. They researched three places they wanted to go before settling on Belize and Guatemala," Collins said.
The Scouts were most interested in the Mayan ruins and the wildlife in Belize and opted to take a side trip to Guatemala to visit Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site containing the ruins of an ancient Mayan city.
The girls learned some valuable lessons, Collins said, including appreciating that they have access to free education, unlike their counterparts in Belize.
"Students in Belize have to earn the money for their tuition, school supplies and uniforms," Collins said. "They were pretty fortunate to go on this trip, and the most valuable thing is the skills they built: conflict management, geography, cultural awareness, management and planning.
"This trip is similar to a Rotary Exchange, where the goal is peace and international friendship; they have friends in Belize now," Collins said.
The Girl Scouts also made a decision to spend their money on "experiences rather than accommodations," Collins said, adding that they mostly stayed in small cabins or youth hostels.
Collins took part in all the activities and excursions right along with the girls, but what she loved most about the trip was "watching the leadership piece. Every day one girl was in charge" of the day's itinerary.
"That way the girls felt empowered," she said.
Susan Olson was the adult co-leader on the trip and said she enjoyed "snorkeling and all the time we were able to spend in water, whether in the ocean, on the beaches or in a cave."
She also learned "that it can be hard to share leadership responsibilities when all the leaders are strong women. It is hard to step back and guide the decision-making process with the girls, but then follow through with a decision that I might not make myself, like going to a pizza joint instead of the seafood restaurant that serves local specialties."
Olson added, "Working together for a common goal helps to develop leadership skills and helps the girls develop as a team."
It is important for Girl Scouts to do humanitarian work, Olson said, because "we learn more [when] we interact with people who are different from us. It helps us to be grateful for the blessings we have."
She noted: "Most of all, I personally have had great conversations with people from other countries and cultures while working toward a common goal. For me, I always feel that I have received a much greater benefit from volunteering than anything others have received."
Collins added that the Girl Scout organization "develops courage, confidence and character through experiential learning, while encouraging [girls] to make the world a better place."
Hannah Teel, 16, a sophomore at Oregon City High School, and 15-year-old Kyla Wheeler, a sophomore at West Linn High School, noted that they learned things about themselves and the people they encountered on the trip last summer.
Teel enjoyed immersing herself in the culture and meeting the people in Belize and Guatemala, adding, "The people were so willing to give the little they had; they gave us their time and stories."
Teel said she also learned that she is outgoing and likes to push herself to try new things.
"Hannah was very adventurous; she won the prize for being the most adventurous eater by eating fried pig's tail and super-spicy salsa," troop leader Collins said.
Wheeler had not traveled very much before, and on this trip she learned a lot about people's lifestyles and how similar and different they are to her own.
"This trip really taught me how lucky I am to get an education and have an organization like Girl Scouts, so that I can experience different cultures," Wheeler said.
Teel is a member of the OCHS symphonic band and is on the soccer and tennis teams, among other activities, but said that being a Girl Scout gives her "many opportunities to try new things and help people."
She added that it is important for young people to get involved with humanitarian work because "it sets us up for doing this when we're older, and when others see us doing this, then they'll want to try it."
The other girls who took part in the trip to Belize and Guatemala are: West Linn High School students Isabella Cannelos, Maia McNamara, Alanna Murphy and Cassidy Paasch, and Clackamas Middle College student Paige Olson.
For more information about Girl Scouts, visit gsosw.org.