Last November, I read in The Times of London about a marketing executive who had taken time out of her busy life in the United Kingdom to work on a community project in Latin America with the help of i-to-i, a company that offers volunteer and other meaningful travel opportunities. The idea interested me very much.
I am a trustee and volunteer for a children’s charity with special needs in London’s wonderful RichmondPark. I had always wanted to spend time abroad and to visit Central America, so I decided to take two months out of my normal life and volunteered to work at Hogar de Vida, a children’s shelter in the coffee town of Atenas, northwest of San José. It turned out to be one of the best ideas I have ever had.
Three months after reading the article, I was on a plane to San José, with a certain amount of anxiety and doubt about what I was doing. I was used to traveling alone, but had never been to this part of the world; I wasn’t sure how good my Spanish really was, and I wondered how I would cope living with an unknown family – obviously with customs different from my own. Also, would I find it difficult working with children who had been abandoned or badly treated in one way or another?
My first hurdle was over as soon as I met the young family with whom I would stay. They were charming and helpful, and really made me feel at home and part of their family.
I immediately explored Atenas and liked it; the layout of the town makes it easy to find one’s way around and the green square in the center of town (I later realized this is a characteristic of most towns in Costa Rica) made it very attractive.
I was also immediately drawn into the family life at Hogar de Vida.When I walked onto the grounds on my first day – with some trepidation, I must admit – I was greeted by shouts and waves from about six little children playing outside one of the houses. I could not believe my eyes at how beautiful they were, but, more than that, how welcome they immediately made me feel. I knew that the 25 children in the shelter were separated from their parents, perhaps because of neglect, abuse or abandonment, and some had been through traumas about which I could only begin to guess. I thought it might be difficult to break the ice, but it wasn’t.
It was a really exciting time for me – arriving in a country about which I knew little and where I knew no one. My Spanish and my knowledge of the country improved dramatically, as I set off most weekends to explore a different area, ranging from cloud forests and volcanoes to beautiful beaches, not to mention learning about wildlife totally unknown to me before.
I realized that Costa Rica is a great holiday destination, and the combination of undertaking a volunteering activity and exploring the country is something I now strongly recommend.
It would be hard to say which was my favorite place – I loved the way the rain forest meets the beach in Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific coast, and the sunsets in Tamarindo, farther north, were some of the best I have ever seen. I also loved the lively atmosphere in the southern Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo, and the excitement of waking up in Arenal, in north-central Costa Rica, to see the volcano.
When I left Hogar de Vida and Costa Rica after seven weeks to return to the United Kingdom, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach – I left a little bit of me there with those vulnerable children and their sparkling, expressive eyes, their welcoming smiles and their waves and cries of “hola” and “adiós.” And I knew I would miss the beauty of the country.
I felt I wanted to do something for those children. I decided that a swimming pool, incorporating a paddling pool for the toddlers, would make a real difference to their lives, so I am starting to raise funds to build one for them.
Not only would a swimming pool enhance their lives considerably, it would also help them acquire an important life skill and be therapeutic in helping them overcome their ordeals. I am now raising funds in the United Kingdom for this project, and I hope a local school in Atenas can use it.
I hope also that Tico Times readers might like to contribute to the project; if so, please contact Tim Stromstad at Hogar de Vida in Atenas at 446-6212, or send me an e-mail at [email protected].