OROTINA, Puntarenas – It’s called Pillars of Hope – a school for teens with behavior problems situated on the grounds of an old eco-hotel, on a long, bumpy dirt road 15 kilometers outside this small, Pacific-slope town.
Sound familiar? For many, it might. Pillars of Hope is located in the same buildings as Dundee Ranch Academy, a school for troubled teens that was shut down in 2003 following a raid by the local prosecutor’s office, an investigation by the Child Welfare Office (PANI), a riot by the interned teens during which 35 ran away and the school’s closure amidst allegations of abuse (TT, May 23, 2003).
The owner of Dundee Ranch,U.S. citizen Narvin Lichfield, says he knew of no abuse at the school, but nevertheless is facing trial in February for charges including torture and false imprisonment, for which he faces up to 10 years in prison (see separate story).
Not only is Pillars of Hope being run out of the same buildings, the two owners of the program both worked for Dundee Ranch as directors, and the land is being leased from Lichfield – who also serves as an advisor to the program, according to one of the school’s directors. Both Pillars and Dundee have connections to the controversial World-Wide Association of Specialty Schools (WWASP).
Despite Pillars’ similarities to Dundee Ranch, however, the local PANI office was not monitoring the new school and had not inspected it when The Tico Times first contacted PANI two months ago.
Noelia Solórzano, head of the newly opened PANI office in Orotina, said she was not aware of Pillars of Hope until contacted by The Tico Times for comment on the school.
According to spokeswoman Fanny Cordero, PANI knew about Pillars of Hope, but had been told it accepts only students older than 18, meaning PANI had no reason to inspect it. If the program does accept minors, Cordero said, PANI would have to visit the facility and ensure that the minors are being protected under Costa Rican law.
According to the program’s Web site (www.pillarsofhope.com), an administrator
and one of the owners of Pillars of Hope, the school accepts students between the ages of 16-18.
Weeks after The Tico Times questioned PANI about the school, and after the program had been running for more than a year and a half, the Child Welfare Office visited and inspected Pillars of Hope for the first time Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, Solórzano said. PANI officials found no signs of mistreatment or overcrowding at the compound, which is registered as a language school, she said.
“(The students) are interned there to finish high school,” Solórzano explained. “They don’t try, like it was before, to work with kids with behavior or drug problems.”
A Different Philosophy
On a drizzly Friday afternoon in mid-November, the school’s administrator, U.S. citizen Ron Del Aguila, told The Tico Times that Pillars of Hope is “a totally different setup from what Dundee was.”
Standing outside the peach-colored stucco rooms as the occasional young person casually made his or her way across the grounds, Del Aguila described Pillars of Hope as a center for kids who are already advanced in the WWASP program, well-behaved or just need a place to think about their lives and relationships with their parents.
“The kids who are here are willing to come here. No one forces them,” Del Aguila explained. If students do seem troublesome, or are causing problems, they are sent home or transferred to a different facility, he added. The difference, he explained, means the controversial physical restraints and grueling punishments described by former Dundee students are not needed, or employed, by Pillars of Hope staff.
As he explained the program, an adolescent girl sauntered past, smiled and joked with Del Aguila, her relaxed manner and casual dress different from what was allowed at Dundee Ranch. The students at Pillars of Hope take classes to continue their high school education and can participate in a variety of other programs such as Spanish classes and an equestrian program with Spanish thoroughbred Andalusian horses belonging to Lichfield, Del Aguila explained. A yachting program is currently on hold because the boat – also owned by Lichfield – has engine troubles, he added.
Harold Dabel, a U.S. citizen who owns Pillars of Hope along with former Dundee Ranch director Fernando Bustos, a Costa Rican, told The Tico Times in a phone interview from his home in South Carolina that Pillars of Hope is registered as a private school and is awaiting accreditation in the United States from Northwest Association of Accredited Schools. The school, which has approximately 26 students, has permits from the Costa Rican Public Health Ministry and the OrotinaMunicipality, he said.
A former Spanish professor, Dabel was hired by Lichfield in 2003 to be a director of Dundee Ranch a few weeks before it was raided and shut down. Like Del Aguila, Dabel insists Pillars is run differently.
“Most of our students have already worked through different programs and levels and have reached trust levels… We don’t have to worry about them smoking cigarettes or getting drugs and things like that,” Dabel explained.
And for those who might be concerned about the program’s similarity to Dundee Ranch, Dabel said he refers them to the parents of the young people at Pillars, and those students who have graduated.
“Our students are having a lot of success,” he said.