Sewickley Academy students recreate project originally painted in Costa Rica

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

It was something so simple, but it made such a big difference.

That was Sewickley Academy senior Lauren Gedeon's impression of the colorful animal mural she and five of her classmates painted on an outside wall of a Costa Rican elementary classroom building.

With help from high school students at Colegio de Santa Maria, Gedeon and other Sewickley Academy students — juniors Olivia Ragoowansi, Mike Manzinger and Erik Dietrich and sophomores Lily Friday and Georgia Dunkerley — completed the mural in one day at the Escuela San Rafael in Santa Maria de Dota while participating in a student-exchange program there.

And now they can see the artwork in their school, too.

A picture of the mural was printed on canvas by Sewickley Gallery & Frame Shop and now hangs in the senior school cafeteria, along with another canvas print featuring pictures of academy students painting the mural.

At first, Alison Howells, academy lower school Spanish teacher, who was one of the chaperones on the trip, printed out a large image of the mural and created a display at the academy. When Claudia Gallant, assistant head of school, academic affairs, saw the display, she wanted a more permanent installation made.

Howells also came up with the original idea for the mural and asked chaperone Sarah Lyon, academy lower school art teacher, to help.

Lyon asked students, ages 5 to 9, to draw pictures of animals native to the country, such as sloths, jaguars, quetzals — a colorful Central American bird — and the yiguirro, the national bird of Costa Rica. She then re-sketched their drawings on the building wall and enlarged them for the mural.

She drew the outline of the pictures, decided on the placement and color scheme, and guided academy students as they painted. Costa Rican students visited the academy in January and were able to see the replica of the mural in the cafeteria.

Gedeon said she liked the idea for the mural, especially at the elementary school, because the students are young and were excited about the project.

While academy students were painting, students could see them out the windows of their classroom and would point and smile, she said.

“One little boy was pushed by his friends to tell me which of the pictures he drew.

“He was talking Spanish, a million miles an hour,” she said.

Gedeon, who has been learning Spanish since the fifth grade, said she understood most of what he said and didn't have trouble understanding people speaking Spanish there. All students who participated also take Spanish classes at the academy.

While in Costa Rica, students stayed with various families in the successful coffee-farming town. They all lived within walking distance of the school.

“They completely immersed themselves into the other students' lives at school and at home,” Lyon said.

They not only attended classes at the high school but also went zip-lining, visited a natural hot springs, took nature hikes, planted flowers and put down mulch at the high school, and painted a hallway in the elementary school.

They stayed for nine days in Santa Maria de Dota and then toured La Fortuna, Monteverde and Atenas.

Gedeon said students on the exchange trips don't usually complete service projects, but she and her classmates were eager to paint the mural, which helped them gain service hours they need to graduate.

Each student had to apply for the opportunity to go on the trip and each was responsible for paying for the trip, Gedeon said.

Judy Stewart, global-studies coordinator, said the trip also fulfilled a portion of the requirements for the academy's Global Studies Certificate Program and met goals of the academy's global-studies program — making cross-cultural connections, developing second language skill and broadening global perspectives.

Stewart said in the past, teacher Debbie Osterhout took middle school students to Costa Rica, but this is the first time the country has been included in the exchange program. Lyon said Costa Rica was added to the exchange program because of its natural beauty, Spanish language, safety and available interesting sights.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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