Junior Kaylee Dondi, Pittsfield High School PeaceJam chapter member, poses with Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize
Junior Kaylee Dondi, Pittsfield High School PeaceJam chapter member, poses with Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Students met Arias during this month’s PeaceJam New England spring conference held at the University of Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of PHS PeaceJam)

PITTSFIELD -- "Oh my gosh, he was so cool." "So humble." "I can't believe we got to meet him."

By the way one group of Pittsfield High School students gushed about Oscar Arias, you would think they had met a rock star -- but in their world, he is.

Arias is the former president of Costa Rica (1986-90 and 2006-10), and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his Central American peace plan. He then used his monetary prize to establish a nonprofit NGO, Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress.

Twenty-four students of the PHS chapter of PeaceJam met Arias earlier this month at the 2014 PeaceJam New England Spring Conference held March 14 through 16 on the University of Connecticut campus.

The students said the event and speaker were just the motivation they needed to continue their efforts to help others in their own school and community.

"It's not often that you hear from others that youth can change things," said Mia Smith, a junior who joined PHS PeaceJam for the first time this year. The group's goal is to effect social justice through community service and education.

Jessica Lojano, also a junior, previously did a history paper on Arias and described him as a leader who "worked his way up" and "wasn't just a president, but a friend to everyone in Costa Rica."

The PeaceJam students said Arias introduced multiple ideas and projects for peace, from demilitarization and more investment in education, to youth empowerment.

"He's such a global force for peace and so humble," Junior Mollie Scott said of Arias.

Scott described the conference as a place where "you were surrounded by a group of people who wanted to make a difference in the world."

In smaller groups, students, mixed in from municipalities spanning from Northampton to Newtown, Conn., shared ideas and did community service projects. Some students created literacy games for an early childhood education program. Others knitted hats for prematurely born babies. Students also had a Skype video chat with PeaceJam Afghanistan members, who promoted their blue scarf project -- a symbol that people across borders can work to live in harmony under the same blue sky.

In Pittsfield, the PHS PeaceJam group has dedicated its school year to responding to and raising awareness about homelessness and poverty in Berkshire County.

The spent a Saturday in February at the Stop & Shop supermarket on Dan Fox Drive, collecting toiletries for residents of Soldier On apartment and emergency shelter facilities. They've also visited classrooms to make presentations on these issues.

PHS PeaceJam advisers/teachers Lori Murphy and Kelly Ziemba are hoping the students can help inspire other PeaceJam chapters to be established in Berkshire County. Currently, PHS is the only one. Students meet once a week, for about an hour, and organize special projects and social gatherings around raising awareness of various community issues.

"At this age, it's easy for kids to get lost in their own lives and drama, but outside there are huge problems around them -- there are people who don't have food or belongings," said Billy Coles, a senior. "So, it's good to have that awareness,"

Junior Kaylee Dondi agreed, "That's why it's important to learn now how to be peaceful, to make the world better for the future."

To learn more about PeaceJam, visit peacejam.org.