Cassidy Lundy, 17, spent her summer vacation in a rural Costa Rican village, where she lived with an unfamiliar family who spoke a foreign language, traveling with no one she knew.
It was the trip of a lifetime.
"Honestly, I've completely changed as a person because of this trip," the Corona del Mar High School senior said. "The trip was really about breaking out of my comfort zone on so many different levels."
Cassidy spent two weeks in San Salvador with Walking Tree Travel, a Colorado-based high school exchange program that focuses on community involvement and creating global citizens through service projects and living with host families.
After experiencing a different culture, traveling with new people and helping others, Cassidy feels stronger and more capable.
"I think going on one of these trips can be one of the best experiences of your entire life," she said.
Walking Tree Director Paul Laurie, who served as a leader on Cassidy's trip, sees the students transform. He hopes they will become interested in forging global change as they get older.
Cassidy wasn't thinking about traveling when Walking Tree gave a presentation at her school, but she quickly realized she had to take a trip. Her mom was supportive.
The varsity track athlete chose Costa Rica — with its waterfalls and jungles — as the destination of her first trip outside of the United States. After spending her entire life in the Newport Beach "bubble," Cassidy was ready to see the other side of life.
"I felt ready to go and be independent and see the world," she said.
The other side of life landed her three hours outside the capitol of Costa Rica, in a small rural village in the jungle with 17 high school students from around the nation. The tiny village had just two stores.
"It was complete culture shock to be there," she said. But "after the first day, it felt like home."
Cassidy went with an open mind and a readiness to try new things from day one, Laurie said.
Wandering Tree offers students the chance to travel to Central and South America, China, Western Africa and Spain. The organization purposely doesn't offer the usual tours to Western Europe because it strives to give teens a contrast to the typical experience, Laurie said.
"We really want people to not just go and sight-see, but to see they can interact with the local people," he said.
Walking Tree also puts a focus on service programs meant to make the exchange program a true exchange, Laurie said. The company works with the village government to decide what projects are needed, and which ones have the community's support, he said.
Cassidy's group demolished a dilapidated building in the center of the village and started building a new community center.
It was heavy manual labor, and Cassidy would show up early, Laurie said.
"Manual labor is just something we don't experience a lot here," Cassidy said. "It was fun, and you just lose yourself in the work."
The trip wasn't all work. On hikes, visits to the beaches, surfing and trips to waterfalls, the teens got to see what Costa Rica had to offer.
"With Walking Tree, you definitely get every single aspect of traveling abroad that you could want," she said.
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