For the birds

Reno teens save the world, one toucan at a time

Isaac Rubin and Esther Hayes of Reno shared these living quarters while volunteering on the Toucan Rescue Ranch in Costa Rica.

Isaac Rubin and Esther Hayes of Reno shared these living quarters while volunteering on the Toucan Rescue Ranch in Costa Rica.

PHOTO courtesy Isaac Rubin

More information on the Costa Rican operation can be found at

Last October, Isaac Rubin and Esther Hayes of Reno traveled to Nazareth, Costa Rica, to do volunteer work for the Toucan Rescue Ranch, a private organization where they would build birdcages and enclosures for various species native to the area. They worked to protect a variety of birds like toucans, parrots, macaws and tanagers. The Rescue Ranch is an hour and a half northeast of the capital city of San José.

The two received the opportunity through Leslie Howl, a friend of Rubin’s mother. Howell and her husband own the Toucan Rescue Ranch as well as a cattle farm. The couple allowed Rubin, 19, and Hayes, 19, to stay in their farmhouse until the young couple was able to fix up a shack.

The shack they constructed was utilitarian with only two rooms. Their living conditions were basic and sometimes harsh. They didn’t always have electricity, and water was rationed. Sometimes, when they couldn’t make it to a local store, they ate only beans or rice.

“I guess you just have to make do with what’s in front of you, as opposed as being able to go out and buy a burrito,” Rubin said.

Rubin and Hayes gained a great deal from their time spent in Costa Rica. “I definitely wanted to try to become fluent in Spanish, learn the culture of Costa Rica—how people live there,” Rubin explained. “It was a good experience.”

“We lived off the land,” Hayes added. “We grew papayas, coconuts, bananas, oranges, lemons and star fruit. Everyone had their own chickens and cows. They boiled their own milk and made their own cheese.” They were not only working with birds, but also volunteered their labor on the cattle farm doing various tasks such as working with livestock and repairing barbed wire fences.

The couple saw many cultural differences between rural Costa Rica and Reno.

Hayes said that outdated gender roles were still very prevalent in Nazareth, and it was typical for a woman to assume her place in the kitchen.

The two felt a strong sense of family in Costa Rica. “Reno doesn’t really have a sense of community, or even the United States for that matter,” Hayes said. “There were four generations living under the same roof. Our neighbors were our friends, there were no cell phones—we yelled to each other in the streets.”

It’s clear that this opportunity had a substantial impact on the lives and outlooks of these two local teens. They became strong advocates of international travel and expressed that it is particularly beneficial for young people to step outside of what they know.

“I would suggest just leaving, whether you’re with an organization or not,” Rubin said. “It will really bring light to where you are now.”