Garage startup Explorate brings students to Costa Rica, looks to cultivate network of NGOs


Courtesy of Sara Kurniawan

Explorate members traveled to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula in September.

Iris Swarthout, Audience Engagement Editor

When Weinberg sophomore Anna Simmons first saw a poster of a sea turtle in Sargent Dining Hall, she was immediately drawn to the image.

“It said, ‘Do you want to join us for an expedition studying sea turtles?’” she said. “And I do indeed like sea turtles … and I learned very quickly that it was an organization through The Garage.”

Explorate, a startup that aims to make volunteering feel more accessible, arranged a trip with students to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula in the second week of September, which Simmons said is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. It was the group’s pilot expedition.

Explorate co-Founder and Weinberg sophomore Sara Kurniawan said she helped lead the startup as the original founder graduated from Northwestern. The organization’s message quickly resonated with her, she said.

“I’ve always been really interested in social impact,” Kurniawan said. “The fact that (Explorate) was talking about international volunteering (made me) really interested in it.”

Kurniawan said Explorate seeks to build a global database of nongovernmental organizations to streamline volunteer connections. The Costa Rica expedition partnered the startup with nonprofit organization Latin American Sea Turtles to conduct environmentally conscious work on Playa Blanca, a beach on the country’s Pacific coast.

For Weinberg junior Max Feinleib, the expedition was different from his previous aquatic experiences. As a certified scuba diver, Feinleib has explored places like Roatán, Honduras, and the Florida Keys underwater. 

Feinleib was the only certified diver among the students, he said, and the group as a whole didn’t dive into the waters off Playa Blanca. Instead, he said the expedition worked with LAST to plant seeds for mangroves, which shelter sea turtle habitats, on the beach.

“We did some beach cleanups and we discussed with members of the community who have been seeing changes in the sea turtle populations since they’ve lived there,” Feinleib said. “So we were just really being immersed.”

Simmons said the group spent two days out on the water to catch sea turtles. If successful, the team could conduct measurements on the animals, including tracking down bodily parasites and calculating shell size, before releasing them back into the ocean. The goal was to monitor the sea turtle population’s fluctuations, she said. 

The group was unable to catch any sea turtles, Kurniawan said, but the outcome did not detract from the trip’s significance. 

“A lot of small to midsize NGOs actually depend quite heavily on volunteers and volunteers engaging with the program,” Kurniawan said. “It’s about meeting the NGOs where they are and being willing and able and open.”

Feinleib said he found the most value in learning from and listening to the locals. 

“It’s the power of when you listen to people’s experiences when you’re volunteering … (those) of the people you’re trying to help first,” Feinleib said. “It’s their experience, they know what is working well and what isn’t … so I think that’s a really important focus to have when you’re volunteering.”

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Twitter: @swarthout_iris

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