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Updated: July 24, 2013 6:17AM



Elizabeth Meraz and Jasmin Ramos will spend part of their summer vacation protecting the habitat of the endangered sea turtle in Costa Rica.

Sandy Esparza and Jadira Verduzco will spend some of theirs restoring the ecosystems of the Mono Lake Basin in central California.

And Aida Ramirez will help rebuild still-struggling New Orleans.

All five of the Blue Island teens, either students at or recent graduates of Eisenhower High School, will experience travel and service learning thanks to the efforts of their teacher and mentor Michelle Alfano.

Alfano not only convinced the students that travel for educational purposes is a worthwhile endeavor, she got their parents on board. Then she got much of the Blue Island community to jump on the bandwagon and donate funds enabling the girls to go.

“I don’t know what I hope to gain from it; I’m trying to go with no expectations,” said Jasmin, who will attend the University of Illinois to study math, psychology and pre-med later this year. “I’m just really excited to meet other people and to help with the turtles.”

This will be Jasmin’s second trip. Over spring break, she and Elizabeth, a junior at Eisenhower, spent a week helping rebuild New Orleans.

“I’ve lived in Blue Island my whole life,” Elizabeth said. “It’s really different to go to a new town with totally different people. It widened my mind-set. There’s so much out there to learn.”

Aida listened closely to Jasmin and Elizabeth’s description of their duties in New Orleans, which included helping to build and patch homes with mud. This will be Aida’s first solo trip. The fact that she’s going at all is a testament to how much she has grown over the past school year.

The senior-to-be admits she began class last fall as a shy and somewhat withdrawn student, hardly the sort who travels to new destinations, let alone to do humanitarian work. She insists that Alfano’s mentoring has made a difference in her.

“She has taught me that I can do anything I want if I put my mind to it,” Aida said. That includes going on to college after she finishes high school, something that wasn’t always on Aida’s radar.

Alfano said many kids in this solid, working-class community have their sights set on simply getting through the day. They aren’t thinking about grandiose futures, let alone exotic travel plans.

She wanted to change that — one student and one student’s parent at a time.

“I have met with all of these girls’ parents, for many of them I have visited their homes,” Alfano said. She knew before the adults would let their children travel across country or around the world, they would have to understand the purpose of such an undertaking.

“They typically want to know what service learning has to do with their child’s report card,” Alfano said. So she takes the time to explain the destinations, the missions, the purpose.

“If they don’t understand it, they will fear it,” she said.

In each case, Alfano explained how travel, particularly travel that involves service learning, can broaden a person’s perspective and world, building confidence, independence and a sense of resourcefulness that staying put cannot provide.

Elizabeth recalled how nervous she was to fly on a plane for the first time when she went to New Orleans.

“I wasn’t sure about all those little things, like what do I do with my luggage, how do I get my ticket?” she said.

But the nerves were for naught. Alfano drove her and Jasmin to the airport and walked them through every step of the boarding process. Now, as she prepares to fly to Costa Rica, Elizabeth said, the nerves have been replaced by excitement.

For Sandy, a nature lover, the chance to help preserve an ecosystem is the opportunity of a lifetime.

“To be able to contribute to a good cause means a lot to me,” the Eisenhower junior said.

Same for Jadira, who will begin studying biology at St. Xavier University later this year.

“I hope to gain experience working on an ecosystem, especially with animals,” she said.

Jadira plans to study veterinary science and loves the idea of helping to conserve an important part of the United States. Although she has traveled in the past, this will be her first service trip.

“Ms. Alfano taught us that if you are passionate about something, you can do it,” Sandy said. “That’s a really good life lesson.”

Alfano reminds them, “We have obstacles but we conquer them.”

Among those obstacles is the cost of participating in these programs, run by Rustic Pathways. Those expenses start at $1,700 for the Mono Lake Project and go up to $2,700 for the Costa Rica and New Orleans trips.

While all of the girls’ parents helped with expenses, the students also raised a considerable amount by reaching out to the Blue Island community.

Among those who made cash donations were the Blue Island Public Library, the Blue Island Fire Department, former Mayor Don Peloquin and teachers and administrators at Veterans Middle School as well as Eisenhower.

In addition, the girls sent letters explaining their mission to many local businesses and received donations from Krueger Funeral Home, Tenochtitlan Restaurant and Forever Photos Studio.

“It was a shock to learn that so many people actually read your letter and were willing to help us,” Elizabeth said. “They don’t think we’re crazy teenagers. They believe we have potential.”

Alfano practices what she preaches. Not only has she traveled extensively, she will take a year off from her Spanish classes at Eisenhower to teach English in a remote section of the Andes Mountains of Colombia, South America.

She learned about the program in January, when she visited her son, Joe, while he was working there.

“They have English teachers there who learned English from a book,” she said. “I could have walked into a job right there and then.”

She says both her husband and her three kids, all young adults, support her decision.

“It will feed my soul,” she said. “And I’ll be back for the 2014-15 school year.”



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