MAHWAH, N.J. – Amy Zambrano has done plenty of volunteer work in New Jersey.
The Paramus native teaches CCD, and has volunteered at a camp for children with disabilities and a nursing home, she said.
“I love seeing people smile and giving back,” said Zambrano, a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.
Zambrano said it was “on my bucket list” to bring her passion for volunteerism to projects overseas.
During her college’s winter break, she got to check that off her bucket list.
Zambrano joined about a dozen other Ramapo students on a roughly two-week trip to the Santuario de Lapas, NATUWA, a not-for-profit animal sanctuary in Costa Rica that rescues and provides a refuge for animals captured through the illegal pet trade.
“It was a life-changing experience … I did not want to leave at all,” Zambrano said.
The students lived on-site in a dormitory, and were awoken each morning by howler monkeys and screeching macaws. Besides feeding the wildlife, they were assigned a variety of projects including building pools for tapirs and jaguars, general maintenance and leading guided tours for visitors, according to Ramapo’s Director of International Education, Ben Levy.
It was the ninth trip to the sanctuary the college has offered to students since 2012, he said.
“It is a mutually beneficial experience where the support that students provide allows swift progress on important initiatives that would normally take the project much longer to achieve,” Levy said.
For Katherine Kowalchuk, a senior from Ridgefield Park, the trip was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“Animals have always just been something that I’ve loved learning about and seeing and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to go down to see them in what is essentially their natural habitat,” the nursing major said.
Kowalchuck said the best part about the trip was that “it wasn’t touristy.”
“I was putting work in to try to make something better and that really just made me feel good,” she said.
For Zambrano, a psychology major, the trip was just the beginning of what she hopes are many adventures overseas to do volunteer work. She is already planning to go back to the sanctuary in August, she said.
“My goal is to save money for each year and go somewhere different and do two weeks of volunteer work,” she said.