Students and faculty from Tyler Junior College and UT Tyler finished their week-long service project Thursday, having helped with reforestation, the rehabilitation of a medical office and the expansion of a small school in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province.
Las Lilas is the smallest of the towns they served, and nearly everyone who lives there came to a closing ceremony Thursday to thank the people who helped with the school project.
The expansion this summer involved building three new bathrooms to replace the single toilet that had served students and teachers for decades. In 2010 a similar group from Tyler built the school a new classroom.
"It was in poor shape and rather than try to rebuild or restore it really needed to come down," TJC President Mike Metke said.
Metke spearheaded the project after seeing the conditions. Now the school has what it considers a luxury, and what most East Texans take for granted at schools and elsewhere.
"One for the boys, one for the girls and one for the staff," Principal Alba Rosa Soto said via translator.
Soto said help from Tyler was the only way to make it happen.
"The money [given by the government] for building in this small town is very small," she said via translator. "It would have been at least four or five years."
Former student Marcela Gorgona is enrolled in college in nearby Liberia. She said after years of service projects, people from Tyler deserve credit for more than a building.
"The impact of everybody is not only the help that we receive from Tyler but you have helped us all to be able to help each other," Gorgona said via translator.
"Those who have done volunteer work always get far more back than they ever give," Metke said.
The trip brought back memories for Metke. He lived in Las Lilas as a peace corps volunteer in 1967 and he built the original school building that the current one replaced.
"It makes you a different person," he said. "It stretches your mind. It never shrinks back to what it was and I think that's really good for our students."
Decades later, this community is more grateful than ever.
"This has been life saving," Soto said via translator.
The nearest major city to Las Lilas is Liberia, which became Tyler's sister city Tuesday. As part of that agreement, TJC will be offering 2 scholarships a year for students to study in the United States.