My family and I just returned from a week of volunteer service at a community center in the Bajo Tejares neighborhood of San Ramon, Costa Rica. I’d like to thank uVolunteer for helping us plan such a memorable trip and encourage other families to plan a volunteer vacation.
Why did we go? My husband Mark and I have been blessed with two healthy daughters, a comfortable home, a well-stocked refrigerator, and educations that have led to interesting work. Six years ago our family spent 2.5 adventurous years together living in Germany where the common challenge of the new language and customs kept life exciting. Now we enjoy being back with family and friends in the Boston/New England area, but lately it feels like our lives…and our teenagers lives…have been too busy with everyday stuff to experience something new and significant as a family. I also felt that we all could use more exposure to the realities of the world outside our Boston bubble to make us more appreciative of our many advantages.
But how can you attempt to accomplish these goals within the constraints of a two week summer vacation? My internet searches last March brought me to uVolunteer. Their placement working with children in the community center sounded like suitable work for every member of our family.
Their requirement of only a one week commitment per family made it easier to plan a trip that combined both tourist excursions and volunteer work. The location in Spanish-speaking Costa Rica would give our 14 and 16 daughters a chance to test their school book Spanish and allow us to visit a country known for its’ “buenas vistas” and friendly people.
We started making preparations for the trip despite knowing that our Spanish skills were not suitable for in-depth adult conversation but hopeful that children would be a more forgiving audience. My husband said “Si” to the idea of the trip but unfortunately that was one of his only Spanish words he could recall and his time at work was too demanding to do much studying.
I started an intense program of Pimsleur cds on my commute which really helped to kick start my studies but wasn’t sufficiento (Some advice: good plan but give yourself more than 4 months to complete and practice).
We started to think about activities that we could initiate with children that didn’t require a lot of conversation.
We bought wiffle bats and balls and started to collect used Legos from neighbors. Our daughters prepared their techniques and materials for making friendship bracelets. We had intended to ship these materials ahead but the price of postage was crazy expensive so we packed light and brought the Legos on the airplane in a second set of baggage for just a minimal fee.
Our first four nights in Costa Rica were spent with a rental car exploring Playa Hermosa, Monteverde and the Arenal Volcano area. In hindsight, it was a good decision to plan our sightseeing before the volunteer week as it gave us a chance to adjust to the weather, food, and pace of the country (all of these items were just fine) and we arrived in San Ramon on Friday night August 3, 2012 relaxed and ready to work.
We were met at the dorm by the uVolunteer team and other volunteers which included some great college age kids and another family from Texas. Saturday was spent on a helpful uVolunteer staff guided tour of San Ramon that helped us get oriented to the town, the dorm, and each other. Sunday was a free day. Some volunteers chose to take a day trip to Arenal but having traveled first we decided to hang in San Ramon where we had a nice day exploring the un-touristic town and taking a short taxi ride to a local waterfall and swimming pool park.
Our volunteer work week started with a moving tour of the Bajo Tejares neighborhood.
We saw the living conditions of some of the children and families we would later interact with at the community center. We met the center staff who were so obviously dedicated to their jobs and the struggling community.
Children between the ages of 3 and 18 drop into the center before or after their school hours (some attend school in the morning, others in the afternoon) to work on their homework, play sports, or just hang out together. After a walk back to town and our dorm for lunch (about 1.5 miles, bus available), we spent our first afternoon plunging into our job of “giving the kids some attention”. It wasn’t hard to find kids – especially the younger children – who were ready for some attention from the new pack of volunteers. But with limited Spanish we were glad that we could draw them in with a huge pile of untested Legos and the novelty of the wiffle bats and balls.
The first day was particularly hot and I think all of us were relieved when 4:00 arrived and we could get back to the dorm to nap, eat a fantastic home cooked meal (gracias Dona Isabel), reflect on our day and strategize (how do you say “stop that please” or “whose turn is it now” in Spanish) for the week ahead. And the week ahead turned out to be very rewarding.
One unanticipated plus of staying in the dorm was spending our free time getting to know the other volunteers. Some of them were working with us at the community center, others worked at area orphanages and still others just stayed briefly before leaving to do environmental volunteer work in other parts of Costa Rica. Our high school girls seemed to get a lot out of the collegiate style communal living arrangement…and Mark and I didn’t mind our trip 30 years back in time. Mark and I also spent time in the evening “teaching” conversational English classes which uVolunteers organized at the local university.
We truly enjoyed this chance to hold more in depth conversations with some very nice Costa Ricans.
Now that we’ve been home a week, I find myself thinking often of the individual kids and women that I met at the center. It bothers me to think that the kids are still there and will be growing up too fast without the educational and financial tools they need too to face a daily struggle against the unemployment, drugs, and crime that infect their neighborhood. But I am remembering the funny moments, the warm smiles and hugs and small linguistic triumphs rather than our daily linguistic challenges. We may have donated our time but these families gave us back so much more with their lessons in resilience and the spirit of “pura vida”.