College student Brandon Wesneski recently had a different kind of spring break.

And it makes him thankful for things that Americans take for granted.

Wesneski, who is from Canton and is a senior at Wilkes University, will graduate in May, and will attend law school in the fall.

From March 2 through March 9, he took part in the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program, which he said has been in place at Wilkes University for a number of years. Wesneski spent time in Costa Rica.

"It allows students to go on community service trips at a decent cost, rather than going on a more traditional break," he explained about the program. "The cost is off balanced by fund raising that we do. There are usually four different trips, two domestic and two international. This year the trips included Joplin (Mo.), New Orleans, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. Each trip is slightly different, but the goal is to help out in some way those that are less fortunate, whether it be because of natural disasters destroying their homes or more generally because it is a developing nation in need of a little help."

Wesneski said he got involved with the program because of his professor, Dr. Andrew P. Miller, assistant professor of political science, who has taught him classes such as international law and others on Latin American economic development.

"Dr. Miller sparked my interest in Latin America, so I figured what better way to put what I have learned in class into some context, so I chose to apply to go on the Costa Rica trip," Wesneski said.

Ten students, including juniors and seniors, went to a small town in Costa Rica called San Marcos, which Wesneski said is in the mountains, about two hours west of the capital, San Jose.

"As part of this trip I took a class that focused on the importance of coffee in this region," he explained.

He said that a couple days of the trip consisted of learning about the coffee processes and "actually getting out in the fields to pick the coffee fruit, most commonly known in Costa Rica as 'grano de oro' (grain of gold)."

"Really, coffee is the backbone of the Costa Rican economy," Wesneski said. "We spent a day in the fields picking the coffee in some pretty hot weather. The experience was meant to show us how difficult picking the fruit is. In fact, most of the pickers are not from Costa Rica. During the coffee season, Costa Rica sees a huge influx of immigrants, both illegal and not illegal, mainly indigenous Panamanians and Nicaraguans, who pick the fruit at a rather cheap rate."

"After a day of picking and seeing the process that it takes to get the coffee bean out of the fruit and dried," he said, it definitely makes you appreciate your cup of coffee "exponentially more."

Wesneski noted that they also performed several days of community service.

"One day we took part in a recycling project that a few women in San Marcos had put together," he said. "We picked up trash and recyclables alongside a stretch of road leading to a high school. There is a big problem with people not recycling, so this program is attempting to clean up the streets of San Marcos and teach people about sustainability and the importance of recycling because everything in the ecosystem is connected. So, it is important to have a clean environment. Then, for a couple of days the group worked at an elementary school in the mountains near San Marcos; the village was called San Guillermo."

Here, he said, they built an organic garden and planted several rows of vegetables.

"Once grown, these will be used by the teacher in the school lunches she cooks for the children," Wesneski said. "We also put in several tires in the ground and painted them different colors so the kids had something to play on at school. We then poured concrete for a 12-foot by 6-foot pad, which we then placed two tables on as a sort of patio area. This would have been an easy job had there been an electric cement mixer. We had to carry about a ton and a half of sand and a ton of rock, as well as numerous bags of cement, up 150 feet of steps to the school. We then mixed all of the concrete by hand before we were able to 'pour' it. In humid and hot weather, this was difficult work. We finished all of it in about two days, though. We also got to spend time with the kids who attend the school and they helped us paint and water the garden."

Miller was impressed by Wesneski's contributions on the trip.

"He was right out front leading the group and worked really hard," Miller said. "He's a great kid.

The task involving the concrete made quite an impression on the educator

"It was like one of those strongmen competitions on at 3 a.m. on ESPN," Miller commented.

Wesneski said the experience of the trip made him appreciate things in his own country.

"I guess what I got out of this experience is that we should be thankful for the little things that we have here in the United States," he said. "Each day, Americans consume copious amounts of coffee, but I do not think many realize just how much hard work is put in to obtaining the beans. Everyone should spend one day experiencing picking coffee because it will definitely make you appreciate your cup or two of coffee in the morning a little bit more."

"And also, the small technologies we take for granted here, such as a cement mixer, can be hard to get in the mountains of Costa Rica," he said. "We have to remember that we, in this country, despite the recession, are still very well off compared to other nations. Going to a developing country is definitely an eye opening experience. Most Americans go to developing nations, like Costa Rica, for the beaches and resorts, but do not experience what the country is really like. I think that if you go to a developing country and experience the 'real' country, you'll come away with a respect for the work people do in that country to live, and definitely be more appreciative of what you have back home. It will definitely be an experience I will never forget."

Wesneski reminded the public that the ASB program is always accepting donations to help fund these trips. Donations can be made online at the following address:

He noted that any donations made are greatly appreciated.

Wesneski is the son of Jodi and Rob Wesneski of Canton.

Eric Hrin can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email: