There’s an undeniable truth that both people and places change us. Like droplets of food dye in a bowl of water, our lives are inextricably colored by the souls of people and places around us. And like a bowl of water, we are transformed, not in our bodies but in our beings—in our flavor, our presence, our soul.
For me, preparing for a week-long journey to San José, Costa Rica, with sixteen students and two other adult leaders was no different. Last October, I agreed to lead a student trip as a staff member with Student Impact. I’m a wife and mother of two, and my family enthusiastically agreed to support this journey. The goal, seemingly, was to get to our destination in June and somehow keep all these teenagers alive, both physically and spiritually, while encouraging our brothers and sisters in Alajuelita, San José.
But the final destination was not all God had in mind. Along the way, I found evidence of what Ticos (how Costa Ricans refer to themselves) call pura vida, or pure life. Pure life isn’t just about beaches and days filled with sunshine and surfing. Pure life, I’m coming to understand, is a life laced with trust, a commitment to those around you, and an interior freedom that leaves room to see God’s grace in all things.
First, about trust. One of my favorite parts of this journey was getting to interview team members. For four weeks, I sat down with eager students and their parents, hearing reasons why each individual wanted to step out and be a part of the first-ever Student Impact trip to Costa Rica. From students who’d been on multiple serving trips with Willow Global before, to one student who’d never been on an airplane, I was inspired by my students’ displays of courage, humility, and willingness to serve and step out in trust.
The gift for me as a leader was to see how quickly these students built trust among each other. Somewhere between our last of four pre-trip meetings and the international terminal at O’Hare, something really special happened. Sitting at the gate on our first leg to Panama, I looked around and saw students sitting together, laughing, breaking out their fidget spinners, and accompanying each other to get coffee and pastries. Trust was being built—and quickly.
These students, who represented nine different Chicago suburban high schools, were laying the foundation for life together, bringing their differences to the table and not just tolerating them but accepting them—all for the sake of a shared cause. In Costa Rica, this trust was the foundation for debriefs and devotionals. Trust was at the center of a challenging “family meeting” in which a team member, in tears, apologized for hurtful comments and was met with grace and open arms. I saw reconciliation unfold before me in a breathtaking and miraculous way.
Trust was how we were able to push through a tough construction project that required hard work from all of us. I’m so proud of how our team leaned into trust, and now that we’re back here in the U.S., trust remains. Although these students go to different schools, they worship together at our church’s Midweek service, they hang out outside of church and school, and I see them engaging online, supporting and cheering one another on. My students are together all the time—not just physically, but in heart and spirit too.
Second, pure life is about commitment. Our team was committed to each other, not just on-site but also in our dorm as we helped each other navigate and process hard moments and things we didn’t understand.
Our Costa Rican family put commitment on display, and not just to us but to the surrounding community. There was Pastor Richard, lead pastor of Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) Church in Alajuelita. And Carl and Jairo, our construction leads. Vilma and the ladies in the church kitchen kept us fed on-site, and Jorge and Ellie fed us in our dorm. Victor, our driver, kept us safe on the roads in our van, and William, Tony, David, and Ari hosted us and tended to our team’s needs with selflessness and grace.
Pastor Richard came to our worksite every day after his full-time job to encourage us with joy and enthusiasm. Carl did too, changing out of his work clothes to work alongside us as we mixed and poured concrete, cleaned and painted beams, and shoveled rocks.
On the Thursday of our trip, we walked down the street from the church to a neighborhood consisting of homes with dirt floors and sheet metal walls. Pastor Richard led the way with a smile and with purpose in his step, helping our team move past what we saw with our eyes and encouraging us to engage with our hearts. We interacted with members from the community by lisenting to stories and playing with the neighborhood children. At the end of our time with the children in the neighborhood, I looked around and saw my students deeply feeling the impact of poverty but also knowing they gave of of themselves fully. They ran around and played with kids like Moises, a five-year-old miracle baby with the most adorable bowl cut. Moises’ mother had carried him safely to term despite having donated a kidney to her husband.
My favorite display of commitment came at the end of our time with Pastor Richard. As we stood in a circle saying our goodbyes, Pastor Richard pulled out 19 paper scrolls. As he began to hand them out, I realized what was happening: Pastor Richard had typed up 19 personalized letters, calling out what he saw in each one of us, blessing us with his words of encouragement and love. This is living the pure life: not just getting things done with or for those around us, but calling out by name the ways in which the people in our lives reflect and carry the image of God.
Lastly, pure life is about interior freedom, the freedom found inside yourself even when outward circumstances are challenging. During our cultural orientation at the beginning of our time in Costa Rica, my friend Joel from Red Viva, a parachurch organization that partners with Willow Global, said something I’ll never forget: “As you’re working, remember, you’re not just a student team from the United States of America. You’re ambassadors for the prevention of violence and abuse. As you lay concrete and build the foundations of the sidewalks and shed, remember you’re also building the kingdom of God.”
In these three sentences, I could see anxiety, fear, skepticism, and apathy melt away from my students. This vision from Joel helped us open up interior space beyond concern for ourselves and moved us to lean in and live out our roles as ambassadors and kingdom builders. My students regularly used this language over the rest of our week together, and really, this is what our work was about. Beyond being gripped by new sights and extreme poverty, our trip was about being ambassadors and witnesses—not just to the things we put our hands on, but also to the ways in which God was already at work.
Torre Fuerte was holy ground. Pastor Richard, as well as those in Torre Fuerte and Red Viva, were our brothers and sisters. We were co-laborers with them, stepping into broken foundations and broken communities to be Christ’s hands and feet. Interior freedom, in this way, called us to the pure life, life that’s made available and more attentive to things outside of us.
Yes, we leveled a classroom floor and built sidewalks. Yes, we built an entire shed. Yes, we enjoyed some of the best food—like homemade arroz con leche and emapanadas—went ziplining and took pictures at one of the most beautiful waterfall gardens I’ve ever seen. But we were also changed. I was changed. In leading this team, my eyes were opened to more than just the final destination. God graciously revealed evidence of His pure, abundant life along the way, sneaking droplets of His presence in each person and in each part of the journey. And because of His grace, the color of my life has been changed.
The beauty is that pura vida—a life of trust, commitment to others, and interior freedom—is possible everywhere. As we say yes to God’s promptings, we’ll see the world around us change. But we’ll be changed too.
Ashlee Eiland is the content producer at Willow Creek South Barrington.