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Lakeridge High School Spanish students completed service trip, homestay this summer

COURTESY PHOTO - Lakeridge Spanish students on the peak of Huayna Picchu.Twenty-six Lakeridge High School Spanish students had the experience of a lifetime this summer, traveling to various cities across Peru with Spanish teacher Julie Pacheco-Toye. Pachecho-Toye chose to use Walking Tree Travel, a company that, in collaboration with The Smithsonian Institution, has developed dynamic programs to destinations around the world. The organization partners with schools and teachers to offer educational and service-based experiences around the world, with customized experiences and adventures.

Pacheco-Toye said this is the first time she has used Walking Tree Travel, and she was extremely pleased with the trip. "They have a global leadership curriculum, and every afternoon or evening we had a big group meeting to process students' experiences of the day," she said. "The last one was really special, hearing them reflect on the entire trip. There has been more growth on this trip than any other before."

The roughly three-week trip included many opportunities for growth. The group of students started in Cuzco, Peru, where they spent two days getting acclimated to the high altitude. Then, they spent ten days in Peru's Sacred Valley for the homestay portion of the trip. The village they stayed in is called Ollantaytambo, set on the Urubamba River amid snow-capped mountains. It's known for the Ollantaytambo ruins, a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside. "Most of the residents we stayed with were Quechuan (a South American people of Peru and parts of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador), had Incan heritage and spoke Quechua as well as Spanish," Pacheco-Toye said. "The homestay is the focal point of the trip, the central focus."COURTESY PHOTO - Nicole Konicke with one of the small murals she created at the school in Ollantaytambo.

While in Ollantaytambo, students completed a service project at a school, where they were painting and pouring cement to create an outdoor seating area for students and teachers. Pacheco-Toye said it was important to her to get to know the community and do something that the villagers actually wanted, not just what sounded good to her group.

"I wanted to have more of a service-focused trip," said Pacheco-Toye. In the past, her students would do a few small projects in various cities during a trip, never staying more than a few days. "It wasn't a sustained effort," she said. "(This time) we were able to make stronger connections, and we were working alongside community members to create something that the community desired."

Two Lakeridge students left a personal mark on the school as well — student artists McKenzie Smallen and Nicole Konicke painted murals to decorate the school's exterior.COURTESY PHOTO - Lakeridge Spanish students with students from the school they worked at in Ollantaytambo.

Pacheco-Toye said that it was exciting to see students come out of their shells and get to know people in Ollantaytambo. "Travel like this just opens the world up. The relationships that are formed are so special," she said. "And their language skills grow in ways that are not possible in the classroom."

Lakeridge student Tia Lempert said she was very nervous to be immersed in a place where the people did not speak English. "I did not consider myself a great Spanish speaker, so going on this trip was very scary for me since I knew I would have to communicate through a language that I am not confident in," she said. "Now I feel so much more confident in my Spanish, and I learned that facing my fears ended up being one of the best decisions of my life."

While in the Sacred Valley, Pacheco-Toye and her students traveled by train and bus to Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan citadel abandoned in 1539. They also completed a hike to the peak of Huayna Picchu, a mountain in the Andes that overlooks Machu Picchu and has an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet.

"My favorite memory from the trip is after the students all came down from hiking Huayna Picchu," said Pacheco-Toye. She wasn't able to go on the hike because of the altitude (she was recovering from pneumonia at the time) but said that the students seemed changed by the famous view at the peak. "They were so excited, they had this incredible energy," she said. "Something in them was different and they were electrified. It was very cool to see."

Next, the group headed to the world's largest rainforest: the Amazon. "A lot of students said they were nervous about the Amazon, but that it ended up being their favorite part," Pacheco-Toye said. "I think some of the nerves came from having to get vaccines and take Malaria pills, which is a little scary."

Some of Pacheco-Toye's students had a lot of travel experience, while some had never left the United States. "This was quite an adventure for your first trip out of the country," she said. While in the Amazon, Pacheco-Toye and her students visited a wildlife rescue center that housed tapirs, a puma, and an incredibly diverse assortment of monkeys and birds. They also did a lot of hiking, including a nighttime hike through the rainforest, and a botanical hike, as well as floating one of the Amazon's many rivers.

Lempert said her favorite part of the trip was exploring the Amazon with their tour guide. "We took night trips, we took day hikes, we took morning boat rides and watched the sunrise, and we saw so much wildlife that I had never seen before in my life," she said. "Spiders, monkeys, sloths, beautiful birds, bears, funky looking bugs, and so much more."COURTESY PHOTO - Lakeridge students on a canopy tour of the Amazon Rainforest.

Lempert learned a lot on the trip, but the biggest was to appreciate the little things in life. "I realized that things that seemed so important to me, such as clean faucet water and hot showers, are not nearly as important as I originally thought," she said. "I learned that appreciating the little things in life, such as making sure to spend time with your family, and to spend time doing the things that make you happy, are much more important than anything else. I learned to pay more attention to doing that with my life rather than focusing on the material things that don't mean nearly as much."

Pacheco-Toye believes her students walked away with many lessons, but one stands out. "I think students were surprised to see how open and happy people were despite having less by our standards. Students began to appreciate their privilege, and understand that people who don't have those privileges can still be happy," she said. "You can know that people live differently, but you can't really understand what that means unless you've lived with them."

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