San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Airline Opens English School in Drake Bay

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes!” – the familiar children’s song was projected from the lungs of nine young students at the inauguration of the Nature Kids English school, in the Southern Zone’s Drake Bay, May 12.

As part of Costa Rican airline Nature Air’s program to open English schools at the destinations to which it flies, kids at Drake Bay are learning these and other words to build a command of English they hope will one day land them jobs in the tourism industry their town depends on.

“I’m learning English so I can work in Drake Bay as a guide to be able to help tourists,” said Hubert Murillo, 11, who has attended biweekly classes since Nature Kids Drake Bay English School, the first of its kind in the area, opened in March.

Fellow student José Garro, 18, said learning English ties in with his future plans. “I want to speak English because in this globalized world it is good to know – it gives you access to more things.”

The school’s teacher, Gabriela Atencio, who grew up in the area and studied at Universidad Latina in Paso Canoas, a southern border town, agreed that young people like Murillo and Garro are on the right track.

“In this community we live on tourism. You need English for all kinds of jobs,” Atencio said.

Drake Bay’s school is the second one opened since Nature Air started the Nature Kids program; a similar school in Santa Ana, west of San José, has been so successful that it has outgrown its 200-student capacity since it opened in 2003, explained that school’s teacher Nelci Solís.

So far, the Drake Bay school seems to be on a similar track – since opening, it has attracted 80 students – both children and adults – eager to take advantage of the nearly free opportunity to learn English. From each student, Nature Kids requests ¢1,000 (less than $2) per month and two hours of community service, which can be completed by picking up trash, tutoring a fellow student, organizing a community event or doing another small project of the student’s choice to help the community.

Six bi-weekly classes are full, and, because of demand, two more will soon be added when long-time Osa Peninsula resident and U.S. citizen Pamela Nave joins Atencio to teach.

The idea for Nature Kids grew from the airline’s recognition of people’s desire to learn English in the 17 destinations to which it flies, most of which have a steady flow of tourists.

“We have always given money to organizations, but we wanted to have more of a direct impact,” said Nature Air sales director Alexi Huntley. “We saw a study that said people (in Costa Rica) who speak English can earn 40% more than those who don’t. Knowing English is a strong base for these kids.”

Nature Air – which operated under the name Travel Air until 2001, when it was taken over by new management – plans to continue opening Nature Kids schools at its destinations and is considering the Osa Peninsula town of Puerto Jiménez and Nosara, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, as the next spots.

“This is something we have to do as a business, and it feels so good to be able to give back,” Huntley said. “Doing the right thing is absolutely profitable.”

Hotels in Drake Bay have also contributed to the school by signing up to donate $25-$50 per month, explained Gena Terry, Nature Kids educational director and Huntley’s fiancé, and community members have pitched in by donating their time.

Atencio’s father – the only carpenter in the isolated Drake Bay area, to which many supplies must be brought by boat – put aside other work to build chairs, tables and desks, and students volunteered to paint the empty wooden house that became their school, choosing a bright, lime green for the exterior and similarly vibrant hues for the inside.

Others in the community have shown their support by making small contributions, said Nature Kids director of marketing and fundraising Michelle Kreger.

“One day I was just walking down the street and a woman came out of her house with a bunch of pencils in her hand, and said ‘take these, they’re for the students’,” Kreger said. “So many people have found ways to help.”

In the future, Kreger and Terry hope to use classroom’s adjoining “community” room as a library and place where workshops can be held in conjunction with the Corcovado Foundation, which channels aid to help conservation efforts in the nearby Corcovado National Park.


How to Help

Nature Kids is in need of donated books and volunteer tutors. For information, e-mail or call 299-6079.


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