University alumni are working to build a sustainable community in the mountains of Panama.
Hodges Berry, graduating class of 2013, is interning about an hour-and-a-half in the jungle of Panama in the Kalu Yala Entrepreneurial Internship Program.
Kalu Yala is a new community that is in the process of creating a completely sustainable village based on the ideas of urbanism architecture, organic food, wellness, recreation, education, preservation and conservation of the natural environment.
The program is located in the rainforest highlands of Central Panama in a 7,000-acre valley, which backs up to the Chagres National Park.
Berry is in the Outdoor Recreation Program working to maintain the main park as well as individually creating a mountain board terrain/downhill course in the jungle.
Berry recently graduated in December with a major in Anthropology and minor in Ecology.
“The program drew me in as I wanted to work first-hand with a sustainable development model, gain experience in that, and move forward in sustainable surf tourism and development,” Berry said.
Interns stay for 11 weeks while they work on both group and individually based projects.
There are seven different programs based on agriculture, biology, business development, community outreach/education, culinary arts, health and wellness as well as outdoor recreation.
“It’s an off-the-grid study abroad program,” said Kate Stewart, president of the Kalu Yala Entrepreneurial Internships.
Stewart has worked with the program since its start in 2010. The program has seen 31 UGA students over the years work to create amazing projects that will develop the future community.
Interns have come from 16 countries, 44 states, and 132 colleges since 2010.
According to Stewart, the students are isolated and work most of the day on individual and group projects.
Berry said there are three other interns and five directors that stay in the jungle full time where he is located. He sleeps in a hammock every night underneath structures built and modeled after the indigenous people of Panama.
Berry spends four hours per day working with the Outdoor Recreation director, Zac Bron, to maintain the parks and hiking trails.
The rest of the day he spends experimenting and creating his terrain course.
“There are always other opportunities to help out and work, such as building ladders out of bamboo, planting plantains or herb gardens, exploring a new area for useful flora, or creating and implementing your own idea into the town,” Berry said.
Berry, along with other interns, presents his ideas to program directors, who in turn give each intern a budget to create practically any project. Budgets can range anywhere from $500 to upward of $3,000.
The program allows students and young professionals to gain cultural exposure, work experience and knowledge to create projects that will shape the future community.
“Internship is a study abroad, but based on what students are interested in,” Stewart said.
The program has three venues for interns to gain experience in a multitude of educational categories. One is focused on creating the town’s foundation in Kalu Yala.
The two other venues consist of establishing relationships with the neighboring town of San Miguel and the third is working business logistics in Panama City.
Stewart says the entire community will be based on the concept of walkability similar to towns in the United States such as Seaside, Fl.
The program started with Stewart’s brother, Jimmy Stice, CEO of Kalu Yala. Their father, a traditional real estate investor, was looking to invest in land when they stumbled upon the breathtaking area of Panama.
Stewart said Panama was a great opportunity because it is a global importance, the road systems are established and land was available.
Stice convinced his father to send him to Panama to search for land. Soon enough he was certain the land was perfect and plans started rolling. Kalu Yala started off as an intern program and has continued to see great success.
Stice graduated from the Terry School of Business in 2004 and has now overseeing the Kalu Yala programs.
Kalu Yala has worked with multiple investors to create the sustainable community and hopes to create a successful area.
“We are hoping that we are going to be a model for other programs in the future,” Stewart said.
The program allows students to create their own ideas and bring them to life. Stewarts said Stice is always looking for ways to keep improving and working hard to see what comes next.
Construction on Kalu Yala will begin this year, averaging around 20 houses per year. Stores, restaurants and even a mile-long zip line will be up and running by the end of the year.
“Our goal for first year is to create a unique experience combined with what Kalu Yala already offers,”said Marie Stringer, owner of Tropical Treetops zip line company.
Stringer also graduated from UGA in 2009 with a degree in natural resources recreation in tourism.
She has known the operators of Kalu Yala for years and wanted to start her zip line business on their property.
“My experience has been delightful, because of the enjoyment I've received from putting my ideas into action and physically seeing the help and changes I've made to the future community,” Berry said.