Teen helps others, challenges self in Central America

schandler@newsobserver.comSeptember 22, 2013 

Heather Elliott, 17, of Raleigh holds a baby sea turtle in Panama, where she spent time this summer on a Girl Scout Destinations trip.

COURTESY OF HEATHER ELLIOTT

  • New career path

    Heather Elliott once wanted to be a marine biologist, but lately she’s been considering a different career path – and her trip to Central America this summer had a lot to do with that.

    “After this I thought about how great it would be to be an electrical engineer that has an environmental lean to it,” she said.

    A lot of the homes and facilities she saw run on solar power, which is great, she said, but sometimes the power cuts off on cloudy days.

    “I thought it would be really great if I could do something in the future to find a way to make some kind of solar energy or some kind of environmental innovation that would make it possible for them to have power without having to have expensive fossil fuels or gas,” she said.

In the days before Heather Elliott left for a two-week trip to Panama and Costa Rica this summer, she was mostly focused on getting everything on her packing list. Now that she’s back, she’s looking way beyond her suitcase and seeing the world in a whole new light.

Heather, now a senior at Broughton High School in Raleigh, made the trip with Girl Scout Destinations, a program that groups individual Scouts from around the country for trips that cater to various interests. Heather’s trip, called “Scuba & Sea Turtle Adventure,” was a partnership with Outward Bound, which emphasizes personal development and leadership through adventure travel.

There were all sorts of fun activities on the itinerary, like ziplining through a tree canopy and learning how to scuba dive, but there were more serious items on the agenda, too.

Much of the trip was spent at San San Pond Sak, a wetlands area on Panama’s Caribbean coast with a facility dedicated to protecting local sea turtles. Heather an her fellow Scouts took shifts patrolling the beaches, watching for poachers as well as for sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.

“On the last night I actually did find (a sea turtle), when I was on patrol,” Heather said. She collected the eggs and brought them back to the hatchery, where she got to help measure and protect them.

In all, the group released 486 baby sea turtles during their stay in July, she said.

“It was really crazy” to get to handle the eggs and young turtles and to watch them make their journey back to sea, she said. “It was nothing you’d ever experience normally.”

Heather already had a soft spot in her heart for turtles after encountering them as a kid on vacation on the North Carolina coast with her family.

“I’ve always loved sea turtles because we’ve gone to the beach so many times when I was little and we saw baby sea turtles hatching quite a few times on Sunset Island,” she said.

In addition to the work with sea turtles, Heather’s group also pitched in with an ongoing project to restore mangrove forests, an essential part of the wetlands ecosystem. The girls collected recyclable bottles and cans and used them to plant delicate mangrove seeds.

While staying in the nearby community, they cleaned up beaches and interacted with local schoolchildren and taught them about sea turtle protection and environmental conservation, though Heather said that the kids, many of whom used water from rain barrels, had a lot to teach their visitors, as well.

During the trip, Outward Bound programs added a personal growth element to the experience.

“A big part of it was we had to gain leadership and just build ourselves while we were there,” Heather said.

Working on herself and working alongside people from a different culture really changed her perspective, she said.

“The whole experience just made me have a different outlook on everything,” said Heather, 17. “When we were there we were always talking about how they don’t have running water most places, at least where we were, and … it wasn’t something they even thought about, but for us it was such a big deal. … You come home and you have a whole new appreciation for everything we have.”

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