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I wrapped two hands around the end of an especially cumbersome log. On three, our assembled trio hoisted the offending branch out of the sand, maneuvering around piles of debris before dropping the log well away from the area we were attempting to clear. I brushed a few ants from my gloves (likely disgruntled after being relocated from a prime piece of real estate) and moved on to gathering smaller sticks and fallen coconuts. After a little over an hour, our group had filled several massive garbage bags with trash, moved enough dead branches to build a small log cabin, and launched upwards of two hundred coconuts at a termite nest nestled in the crown of a nearby tree. In front of us lay a mostly cleared rectangle, maybe 50 square feet in total. To our right and left stretched miles of black sand beach, marked along the coasts by the same piles of driftwood, trash, and debris we had just spent the afternoon clearing.

Covered from head to toe in sand and sweat, I couldn’t help but feel a little useless. Twelve Division I student-athletes had, for all our efforts, managed a dent in the landscape that would be practically invisible from a bird’s eye view. But when we regrouped at the edge of the beach, one of our in-country staff members, Braulio, gathered us to say a few words of thanks. The small area of the beach we had just cleaned was located directly in front of a leatherback sea turtle nest scheduled to hatch later that week. Plastics and driftwood pushed onto shore can block hatchlings from reaching the ocean – exposing them to harsh sunlight and sharp-eyed predators. In clearing no more than a fraction of the shore, we had exponentially raised the chance of survival for over a hundred baby sea turtles.

In that moment, I was reminded of my favorite parable about an old man walking on the beach at sunrise. Stretching out before him are thousands of starfish, washed up onto shore after a storm the night before. Soon, the sun will be overhead, and the starfish will dry out and die. The old man notices a small boy walking near the water, bending down every few steps to pick up a starfish and toss it back into the ocean. Shaking his head, the old man approaches the boy. “You’re wasting your time,” he says, though not unkindly. “You’ll never be able to save them all. What difference does it make?”

The boy picks up another starfish and looks at it for a moment. He tosses it far into the ocean, where it lands with a small splash. “It sure made a difference to that one,” he says.

My time in Costa Rica reaffirmed a belief that I hold about the importance of fighting for a sustainable future for our planet: that it only takes one person to create positive change. The people I met and worked alongside in Gandoca exemplify a way of life that is the opposite of a tragedy of the commons. They give back to the planet, instead of taking resources only for profit. They live in close harmony with nature and place high value on knowledge of native plants and animals. The people of Gandoca are far less responsible as individuals for anthropogenic problems like global warming, sea level rise, and climate change when compared to contributions from other nations. But they see that as humans, we are collectively responsible for a solution. From Gandoca, I hope to retain a more selfless inclination to work towards a better future for all who call this planet “home.”

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