Elizabeth: Next Stop, Jr. High

Spending the summer helping people and making new friends...what could be cooler?

From the personal journal of soon-to-be- eighth grader Elizabeth Wakefield:

I came to Costa Rica to work hard and help people. But what do I get? A nonstop party.

Not that I'm complaining. It's just weird...sort of how it is with J.P., I guess. At first I thought he was a jerk. But now... now I think I might be falling in love with him.

What have I gotten myself into?


Dear Diary,

Well, here I am on my way to the airport. I can hardly believe the big day is finally here! I'm excited but kind of nervous too. This isn't the sort of thing I expected to be doing the summer before eighth grade. Of course, eighth grade may not be anything like what I was expecting either, so I guess it all kind of makes sense.

Jessica is sleeping next to me in the backseat. Actually, to be completely accurate, she's sleeping on me and drooling on my shoulder. I'm a little surprised she decided to come along and see me off--we all know how she feels about her beauty sleep, and it is pretty early.

I'm glad she came, though. It's going to be incredibly strange being apart from her for such a huge chunk of the summer. Five weeks is a long time. Especially since Jessica and I have never really been separated before, not for more than a few days. Even though there are moments--OK, sometimes whole days or weeks or months--when I think that Jess and I have absolutely nothing in common, we've still always been close. They say that's how it is with twins, and I guess it's true.

In a way, this summer is proof of how different we are. Because if Jessica and I were exactly alike (like some people think when they see our identical long blond hair and blue-green eyes), we would both be spending the month of August in the same place. Instead I'm off to Costa Rica while Jessica is staying behind in Sweet Valley to hang with her friends in the Unicorn Club.

Jessica isn't the only one I'm going to miss. There's Mom and Dad, of course, and Steven (even though he'd never admit it, I know he'll miss me too). I'll definitely miss my friends, especially Maria Slater--she's the one who gave me this travel diary as a going-away present. She said she picked it out because it's small enough to take with me everywhere. She's smart that way.

"See? It's smaller than those paperback mystery novels you're always carrying around," she told me when I unwrapped it.

"Thanks, Maria," I exclaimed, running my fingers over the cloth-covered diary. "It's perfect!"

"You'll probably be too busy to read much on this trip. But you ought to write down everything that happens so you'll always remember it." She smiled. "Of course, the way you write, it will probably turn out sounding like a novel anyway."

"Thanks," I said again, reaching over to give her a hug. Leave it to a good friend like Maria to know me so well--and to choose the perfect gift! She really understands how important this trip is to me. In fact, I liked the diary idea so much, I bought one for Jess and left it on her pillow. She'll have a little surprise waiting for her when she gets back from leaving me at the airport!

I still remember how excited I was when I first found out about the Rain Forest Friends and their work. It was a few weeks after school let out for the summer. I was browsing the Internet for information I could use in an article I was writing for the school newspaper. The article was about student volunteering, and I was finding tons of interesting stuff I could use.

After a while I came across a link that mentioned California teen volunteers. That's when I found it--a Web site about an organization called Rain Forest Friends that sponsors teenagers to go all over Central America to help with lots of different projects. They had an urgent notice on the site, asking for volunteers ages twelve and up from southern California to join a trip to an area of Costa Rica that recently suffered heavy flood damage.

The villagers in the area had lost a lot of buildings--houses, community centers, schools--that they needed help rebuilding.

"Wow," I whispered, staring at the computer screen. It was almost too perfect--I mean, I'm thirteen years old, I live in Sweet Valley, California, and I've even done some volunteer work with Houses for Humans, so I have a little bit of experience with building. Plus I've always believed that volunteering is really important. I've spent a lot of time working at the local homeless shelter and other places, and it always makes me feel great to help someone else. The Costa Rica project sounded like an incredible way to spend part of the summer. I quickly scanned the rest of the Web site, then took down the phone number and went to talk to my parents.

I found them in the living room, reading the newspaper. They listened carefully as I told them all about the Web site and the Costa Rica project.

"Costa Rica?" my dad said when I finished, wrinkling his brow like he always does when he's thinking hard about something. Mom looked thoughtful too. "That sounds like a very interesting and worthwhile trip, Elizabeth," she said. "But Costa Rica is awfully far away. And you've never traveled that far on your own before."

I could tell what they were thinking--that I was kind of young to be heading off to the rain forests of Central America all alone. I didn't blame them for being nervous. That's their job as parents. But I had to make them understand that I could handle it.

"I know," I said. "But I wouldn't be by myself, not really. I'd be with a whole group of kids from nearby towns plus some adult supervisors."

Dad was nodding. "True," he said. He exchanged a glance with my mother. "Give us a little time to think it over, Elizabeth. Oh, and let me have that phone number so I can call the Rain Forest Friends and check them out."

I gave him the piece of paper. "Thanks," I said. "Whatever you two decide, I want you to know I appreciate that you're considering it."

Mom smiled and patted me on the arm. "You're welcome. Now could you set the table for dinner, please?"

"Sure, Mom." I headed toward the kitchen, humming under my breath. From the way my parents looked and sounded, I was feeling optimistic that they would say yes. Costa Rica, here I come! I thought happily.

Jessica thought I was nuts, of course.

I guess she overheard my parents talking about it because the first thing I knew, she was storming into the kitchen with her hands on her hips. "Are you crazy, Elizabeth?" she cried. "Why would you want to go to some lame rain forest where there isn't even any decent shopping?"

"Come on, Jess." I opened a cabinet and took out five plates. "It'll be interesting. Besides, I'll be helping people who need it. It's not like I'll be bored."

She rolled her eyes, opened the refrigerator, and grabbed a diet soda. "Yeah, right," she said. "Chopping your way through some snake-infested rain forest for the excitement of doing manual labor? Living in native huts where there probably isn't indoor plumbing or even a place to plug in your hair dryer? That sounds a little too interesting to me." She slumped down into her chair and popped the top on her soda.

"It's not going to be like that," I protested. "The villages we'll be helping are really more like towns. There's plumbing and electricity and everything."

"But I thought we were going to spend the whole summer relaxing and getting ready for our big eighth-grade year," Jessica said, pouting. This is probably a good time to mention that our school district is getting rezoned for next year--and nobody knows where they'll be going to school or with whom. I think Jessica has been feeling a little nostalgic and wanting to spend as much time as possible with her friends. She's probably worried that things will never be the same again if the Unicorns get split up. But at least she and I can be certain that we won't get split up.

I shoved her soda can aside so I could set down her plate. "There will still be time for that," I reminded her. "The trip to Costa Rica isn't until August." I sighed. "Besides, I'm not sure I'll want to spend too much time sitting around and thinking about our big eighth-grade year. Not until we know more about what's happening."

Jessica just shrugged and waved her hand at that, as if she wasn't worried at all. But I know she really is, and I am too. That's another good thing about going to Costa Rica--I won't have to spend my summer worrying about whether I'll get sent to a new school or not!

So I was thrilled--even if Jessica wasn't--when my parents decided that I could go to Costa Rica if I really wanted to. They said it was because I've always been so responsible and mature. That made me feel good, even though I think Jessica was sort of annoyed. She always tells me that being responsible and mature are way overrated, but I guess this time she was wrong.

Once I knew I was going, the days seemed to fly by. Maria helped me do more research on the Internet and at the library so I'd be prepared for life in Costa Rica. She even found an old Spanish phrase book in her attic.

Maria and I also found some information on the Net about constructing simple buildings. The most interesting Web site was called "Coco's Cost-Cutting...