When Rachel Wilson was pursuing her undergraduate studies at Texas State University in geography, environmental resource management and horticulture, she began leading volunteer trips with friend Lauren Markey in 2013. As both women developed a passion for philanthropic travel, the duo established Las Olas Travel, an organization that combines the adventure of traveling with the compassion of volunteering.
A sustainable volunteer program designed to help global communities, Las Olas Travel offers travel experiences to both student and adult groups.
Wilson is now pursuing a master’s in international sustainable tourism at the University of North Texas and at CATIE in Costa Rica. Associate editor Cortney Erndt sat down with Wilson to discuss how student groups can become involved in volunteer work.
Q. What kind of programs does Las Olas Travel offer?
A. We currently offer volunteer programs in Costa Rica and Nicaragua involving reforestation, wildlife monitoring, exotic animal rehabilitation and at-risk children.
When we work with exotic animal rehabilitation, we are working with a sanctuary that operates sustainably — it buys local produce or grows it, recycles and composts. The sanctuaries are dedicated to the release of the healthy animals into their natural habitat.
Q. Which program is most popular with student groups?
A. The wildlife rehabilitation project is a partnership with a local animal sanctuary. The facility was specifically chosen for its dedication to rehabilitate and release animals. This project is one of the more popular ones because volunteers are able to feed, bath and exercise with animals like howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, sloths and tropical birds. Everybody loves holding sloths and baby monkeys [laughs]!
For volunteers who are more people-oriented, they can work with local children in schools and orphanages. Their day consists of designing and teaching English classes and playing with the kids.
Q. What is it like to participate in reforestation?
A. The reforestation projects give volunteers hands-on experience in the field. Students learn about the different native species of trees, how to collect seeds, and the importance of a healthy rainforest and ecosystem. They also get to physically plant seedlings and maintain saplings.
In 2015, I led a trip to Nicaragua working in reforestation and environmental education. The best part about this project was picking two little saplings wrapped in black plastic to put in my backpack before hiking a mile up the mountain with shovels and machetes to plant the trees.
Not only was the view incredible, but the group could see the whole lake and town below. It was comforting to know in 10 or 15 years, these trees would be an essential part of the rainforest’s health.
Q. Do you have any advice for student groups participating in philanthropic travel?
A. Educate the locals about environmental issues, such as recycling and littering. In regard to social responsibility, we educate our volunteers in cultural sensitivity. We are there to help, not control. We are not experts, just volunteers. I think the educational component is a very important part of the programs we coordinate.
In Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the main language is Spanish. However, many locals know how to speak English. This can be comforting to students visiting for the first time.
However, students should be encouraged to try communicating in Spanish out of respect and to learn more about the culture. We provide students with the pre-departure information they need and even give them a “welcome packet” that details different aspects of the country and culture.
There’s no better way to learn than to become immersed. Travel and volunteer work teaches students so many skills and lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom setting.
Las Olas Travel