BARTONVILLE — This summer, Guyer High School junior Kory Jones-Sherrod went on a grand adventure.
From late June to early July, the 17-year-old Bartonville resident toured Costa Rica and Panama. There, he earned his scuba diving certification, went on kayaking excursions and zoomed through the rainforest on a lofty zip line.
But the two-week journey wasn’t all fun and games; Jones-Sherrod also got a chance to give back.
It was during this trip, hosted by the nonprofit educational organization Outward Bound Costa Rica, that Jones-Sherrod developed a penchant for ecological volunteerism. He was part of a handful of teens who helped in a sea turtle conservation effort in Panama’s San San Pond Sak wetlands.
“It was an experience that I will hold with me forever,” Jones-Sherrod said. “It was an amazing moment ... getting to put [the turtles] in the water. They were super cute.”
He and his peers worked with local biologists to protect the region’s leatherback sea turtle population, which is endangered. Jones-Sherrod assisted in constructing habitats, cataloging turtle nests and releasing 51 leatherback hatchlings.
The team watched like hawks from the shore to make sure each hatchling reached the safety of the Caribbean Sea, Jones-Sherrod said. He and his peers also got to witness a mother sea turtle laying her eggs on the beach.
But the hatchling release was not without incident. Several baby turtles kept trying to turn back toward the conservation area — in the exact opposite direction of the water, Jones-Sherrod said. The group would then turn the wayward turtles around, setting them back on the right track.
And once, Jones-Sherrod almost accidentally squashed a hatchling while he was walking on the sand.
“My foot was this close to the baby turtle,” he said, indicating the short distance with his thumb and index finger. “I didn’t do it, but I still felt bad.”
Leatherback sea turtles are widely distributed, but their population is dwindling, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Globally, the leatherback population is considered “vulnerable,” but many subpopulations in the Pacific and Southwest Atlantic are flagged as “critically endangered.”
Poachers target leatherback sea turtles’ eggs and meat for food consumption, as well as for their skin and shells, according to the WWF. Climate change has also encouraged the destruction of the turtles’ habitats, making it harder for them to survive and reproduce.
But ensuring that the newborn hatchlings reached the water wasn’t the only volunteer effort Jones-Sherrod made during his trip. He participated in community service projects in an impoverished indigenous town on Panama’s Solarte Island.
“They were just happy to see us,” he said of the town’s residents. “They took us in as one of their own as soon as we got there.”
At first, Jones-Sherrod said the town’s lack of basic resources — such as clean running water — startled him. Eventually, though, he acclimated to the area’s pared-down setting.
During the Solarte Island visit, Jones-Sherrod said he got a chance to mingle with schoolchildren there. He read books to the younger kids and practiced speaking English with the older children.
Plus, Jones-Sherrod got to brush up on his own Spanish skills. Although he has taken Spanish classes at Guyer High School, he said trying to communicate with people in Costa Rica and Panama was a whole new ballgame.
Although the trip was challenging at times, Jones-Sherrod said it helped him appreciate what he has back home. It was a humbling experience that he’ll always remember, he added.
“It’s tough knowing that in other countries, they don’t have as much,” he said. “It really does open my eyes.”