Growing up in Hereford, Texas, Ree Sheck was aware of the environmental consequences of her actions from a very young age. "My parents taught me to conserve water and electricity," she remembers, "and to leave a small footprint." In grade school, she joined Campfire Girls, which instilled in her an appreciation for flora and fauna—and marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for learning about the natural world.
It was when Ree began traveling during university years that her interest in nature and conservation grew into a lifelong commitment. While working toward her journalism degree and pursuing graduate studies in Latin American history at the University of Texas-Austin and Ohio State University, Ree seized opportunities to study in Mexico and Ecuador. She also lived in Guatemala for two years. "With my opportunities to travel and live in other parts of the world, I became more aware of the devastation caused by development gone awry," Ree says.
In 1984, Ree learned from a fellow journalist of a Costa Rican village called La Colonia de Guayabo. The village's two-room school house was in danger of closing due to a lack of funds and supplies. Moved, Ree established a nonprofit foundation to support the school, in memory of her son, Curtis, who had died earlier that year.
She continued to visit La Colonia de Guayabo as she worked as a journalist in Costa Rica and
researched a guidebook about nature travel, Costa Rica, A Natural Destination. She began dreaming of bigger things for the village—and she never forgot these dreams, even as she moved to Costa Rica full time in 1990 to work as Director of Communications for the acclaimed Monteverde Conservation League, a grassroots environmental organization based in the Tilaran Mountains.
The beginning of a beautiful partnership
One busy day in 1991, Ree was hard at work at Monteverde when she received a strange phone call from a travel company in the United States. They wanted to take a group hiking through the International Children's Rain Forest—an area, which Ree carefully explained, was "not open to tourism." But these were not tourists, as the voice on the phone—which belonged to Alan Lewis's right-hand man, Mark Frevert—was quick to point out. They were company executives interested in arranging a challenging, Outward Bound-style team-building excursion.
Unorthodox though it was, both Ree and the director of Monterverde Conservation League agreed to allow Mark and his fellow executives access to the rain forest—and so began a long and fruitful relationship between Ree and Grand Circle. "As I recall," says Ree, "we charged them $5 apiece or some such ridiculous amount—including overnight shelter." After the hike, Grand Circle first responded with a check for $100—"far more than what we'd quoted," says Ree—and later followed up with a donation of $1000, which bought the League a new copy machine and a telephone system. This was before Grand Circle Foundation even existed.
A few months later, Alan Lewis came to meet Ree for breakfast in San Jose. He was interested in bringing travel groups to Costa Rica, and wanted to offer mutually beneficial interactions with local communities. He also wanted to fund a project in the International Children's Rain Forest—the very same forest where Grand Circle executives had hiked a few months earlier.
It was during Alan's first visit to the Children's Rain Forest that he first told Ree about Grand Circle Foundation and asked her to join the board of directors. "I was speechless, and secretly terrified," says Ree. "But I realized I would likely be the only person around that board table who thanks God every morning for hot water in the shower. I would bring the perspective of the people who would benefit from Foundation grants."
Changing lives for future generations
Today, Ree works with an international agricultural center known as CATIE (Tropical Agricultural
Research and Higher Education Center), which combines science, graduate education, and technical assistance to reduce poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Dearest to her heart, though, is the community library that her foundation is building for La Colonia de Guyabo. Opening within a year, it will include a computer center to promote learning for students who cannot afford to formally continue their education. "Conservation has to do not only with natural capital, but human capital," Ree says. "I believe this center will help provide children, young people, and adults with better options and facilitate information so they can make better decisions far into the future."
Because of her continued commitment to changing lives for both present and future generations, Ree brings invaluable insight to the Foundation's Honorary Board of Directors—just as she helped shape our mission from her very first meeting with Alan years ago. And her passion for responsible travel in an ecologically fragile region is still reflected in the Overseas Adventure Travel small groups that visit Costa Rica today. "It's still a pleasure to discover groups traveling in Costa Rica and to share something of the Foundation with them," says Ree, "to thank them for giving back to the country they chose for a vacation and learning experience, and to tell them it makes a difference."