In volleyball, each player has her own turn to serve. South Carolina senior student-athlete Sarah Blomgren took that to a new level this summer, spending four weeks serving others as a member of the International Student Volunteer organization in Costa Rica. ISV is a global volunteer organization that takes college students and other volunteers from around the world and places them in community development or wildlife/ecosystem preservation opportunities in different locations.
"We went to Providencia which is in the Los Santos region of Costa Rica," Blomgren said. "It was a rural town in a top-of-the-cloud forest. It's very isolated. As student-athletes, we're so blessed with what we have, so we try to give back when we can. So when this opportunity arose, I felt like there was a chance to give back to a community that doesn't know who I am, or doesn't know my status as an athlete. Just getting to know people from other cultures is a big selling point for me."
With only one dirt road in or out of the small town, Blomgren and the other volunteers went right to work.
"A lot of the people there are farmers," Blomgren said. "So for them to take their produce to the next town, they have to drive about an hour away. The road is a huge incline and it was all dirt, so we worked on paving it. We were hauling rocks and cement bags into the mixer. It was cool."
The labor work on the road encompassed most of her first week there. Tourists would think of going to Costa Rica for a beach vacation, but Blomgren had other plans.
"I knew I wasn't going to be near the beach with this project," Blomgren said. "There were other projects near the beach where people were working with sea turtles and wildlife, but I really wanted to be in the community and help people."
Blomgren, who won the community service award from the volleyball team as sophomore, is no stranger to giving back.
"I've always been involved with community service," Blomgren said. "It's something I've loved to do. I figured out that I had a knack for it when I first came to school at South Carolina. I love to travel, and I love adventure. To put myself in a completely uncomfortable situation where I don't know anybody, stay with a host family that doesn't speak English for two weeks, and try to help this community where I'd be immersed, it was just an amazing opportunity."
Blomgren and a student from LSU stayed with the same family in the small town, with a man in his 50s named Pepe and his three daughters in conditions that many Americans might consider primitive.
"They lived in a little shack with a tin roof right on the side of the mountain," Blomgren said. "There is no electricity. So there is no television or radio. There's no WIFI or anything like that. You didn't think about your cell phone for two weeks. We'd get back from work every day, and the girls were waiting on the front lawn to play with us. We'd play card games and 'hang man' with Spanish and English words. They taught us things in Spanish, and we taught them too."
In addition to adjusting different living conditions, the volunteers also had to adjust to a different diet.
"I'm lactose intolerant so 'no queso, por favor' for me," Blomgren laughed. "No 'leche' (milk) either. Their staple is gallo pinto, which is rice and beans. So I had a lot of that as they cook it with every meal. They don't put preservatives in anything so everything was so fresh. There were banana trees everywhere. One of the top ten cleanest rivers runs through the town."
With the only source of income stemming from their farms, coffee is not only a staple in the diet, but in their economic sustenance.
"The community is made up of 10 or 12 different farmers, and coffee (beans) was one of the big things they produced," Blomgren said. "One of the things we did was help switch their farms from conventional to organic. We worked on mixing the organic fertilizers all together and planted around 178 coffee plants. That was just on one farm. Oh, and the coffee was amazing."
In addition to building a road and working on the farm, Blomgren and her fellow volunteers hiked to the local elementary school, and worked with the children to teach them some English.
"There aren't a lot of schools like there are here," Blomgren said. "For some of these small towns, the only high school may be two hours away, so they may not go to school past grade school. Ecotourism is a big source of income there, so if you can speak English well, there are more opportunities to find work."
While the physical labor and working with fertilizer wouldn't be considered a glamourous part of the experience, the ability to connect with the people made it worth it.
"By the end of two weeks with my host family, we were all bawling," Blomgren said. "We became so close. There was so much love. I learned to get by with some every day phrases, but at the end, I just didn't want to leave them."
Blomgren clearly made the most out of gaining an education outside of the classroom.
"We talked about conservation of natural resources and preserving the ecosystem they have," Blomgren said. "So I want to take what I learned there and bring it back here. I'm trying to be more conscious of little things such as recycling and keeping the water running. I learned a lot about myself in realizing you can be creative when you're not on your phone all the time."
As she plays her senior season of volleyball, Blomgren already has plans for a return trip with her fellow volunteers.
"We're talking about going back there in May," Blomgren said. "I just grew a lot as a person and it made me want to see what else is out there in the world. I'd like to continue playing volleyball professionally after I graduate, whether it's in Europe or in Latin America, but obviously I'll have to learn a little more Spanish before I head back there. I'm just so pumped about what the future holds."