The students at José María Cañas elementary school in Piedra Blanca de Mora have a real guardian angel, says school board member Rosa Emilia Barrantes. Indeed they do. Her name is Jo Ann Caldwell Rothwell, and she’s an art teacher from the U.S. state of Texas.
Ever since the spry 72-year-old moved to this poor mountain village about 45 minutes west of San José, she’s been looking after the four-classroom schoolhouse. She’s volunteered hundreds of hours teaching English.
She’s helped raised funds to fix the school’s plumbing, fence in a play area on the mountain terrain and buy everything from desks and pencils to uniforms. Right now she’s trying to raise money to build an addition at the overcrowded school.
“I really believe that Jo Ann has given those people the sense that someone thinks they’re important,” said Chuck Leake, who operates a Yahoo discussion group that supports her projects.
Rothwell’s husband’s banking career led the couple to Costa Rica in 1987, and they never looked back. While Rothwell still speaks with a gentle Texas drawl, she says she’s lost touch with most of the folks back in Austin and other areas across the United States where they lived.
When they first came here, the couple lived in Ciudad Cariari, northwest of San José.
“Then we realized the Cariari area was not Costa Rica,” Rothwell said.
So, in 2000, they moved to Piedra Blanca, about an hour’s worth of winding mountain roads from San José.
Most families in agriculture-based Piedra Blanca struggle to make ends meet. Uniforms can be prohibitively expensive, and even pencils and notebooks can seem like costly luxuries.
The students are worse off when they go to high school. The nearest school is a ¢350 ($0.70) bus ride away, which means that going to high school costs ¢700 ($1.40) a day.
That’s pretty steep for single-parent families that earn less than $100 a month. Eager to be a part of her community, Rothwell attended a local town meeting when she first moved to the dusty village.
Afterward, a woman approached her and asked if she could teach them English. She agreed and eventually started teaching children in the school.
“Before I got here, they had heard hardly a word of English,” Rothwell said.
But she also wanted to help the crumbling infrastructure of the school. She and her husband contacted local groups: the Canadian Club, the Women’s Club of Costa Rica, a Yahoo discussion group called Gallo Pinto and a smattering of individuals all took an interest in the school and have been helping out ever since.
As Rothwell, or Joana, as everyone in Piedra Blanca calls her, walks through the school, she points to everything that was purchased with outside donations. Paint, desks, a remodeled cafeteria, even a big purple garbage can came from generous outsiders.
Daniel Castro, who works in construction and lives in Piedra Blanca, said that Rothwell has really made herself a part of the community. He sees her walking its dirt roads all the time.
“She really wants to collaborate with us,” he said.
Castro pointed out that Rothwell provides a valuable service to the students who go on to high school. Before she arrived, English wasn’t offered at the small elementary school.
“They all went to high school behind (in English),” he explained.
With Rothwell’s help, Piedra Blanca kids who go on to high school have more of a base in the language and are more caught up with the other students.
While all have benefited from her efforts, one student’s life will likely be tremendously changed by the Rothwells’ generosity. Carla Gabriela Araya was a shining star in the elementary school, academically well ahead of the rest of the students, and a wonderful person as well, said director Rafael Angel Agüero. Yet her family was so poor that moving on to seventh grade was an uncertainty for her.
Thanks to the Rothwells, the 12-year-old has gone on to high school, where she says her favorite subjects are English and French. If she keeps her grades up, Jack Rothwell has pledged to send her to college. Carla Gabriela wants to work in tourism.
“I have a lot of affection for Jo Ann,” she said, adding that without the angel from Texas, her life would have “a lot missing.”
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