When Donna Shanor’s brother, a law-school-bound senior at the University of Oklahoma, was murdered in 2006, she knew she had two choices.
She could choose to let herself die inside, or she could live.
The 31-year-old, who was working as a social worker in Austin, Texas, at the time, chose life, and within a year and a half, she was on her way to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica.
“[His death] flipped my life around,” she said. “I decided I needed to do something different.”
Today, she lives in a rented apartment in Bribrí, Talamanca, in southeastern Costa Rica, a culturally vibrant and socially alive corner of the country, where she works promoting children’s rights and developing programs for local kids as part of Peace Corps Costa Rica’s Children, Youth and Families at Risk program.
She’s traded her laundry machine for a bar of soap, her car for a good pair of walking shoes, and the variety of food found in the United States for a monotonous diet of beans and rice.
“I love it, though it’s been a roller coaster,” said Shanor, who knew some of what to expect from her experience beforehand, as her father served in the Peace Corps in Somalia. “There are moments when I say this is the best time I have had in my life, and days when I am frustrated because I feel that I am not making enough of an impact.”
But after only 12 months on the job, she’s already turning around lives.
Shanor started a teen group called Grupo Esperanza, which encourages kids to get involved in environmental protection and AIDS prevention. “People listen when kids take the lead on these issues,” she said.
She took the group to volunteer in a nursing home one afternoon. At first, they seemed uninterested. One girl kept sending text messages on her phone. When Shanor approached the girl, she said, “I just need to finish this text. One second.”
Ten minutes later, the girl was still texting. Shanor went over to her again and said, “C’mon. What’s up?” The girl responded, “I don’t have anything to say to these people. What are we supposed to talk about?”
Shanor replied, “Just ask them about themselves. Tell them about what school is like these days.”
“It was amazing. At first, they had no interest. But, at the end, I couldn’t get them to leave,” Shanor recalled. “The nursing home said this was the first group of locals to volunteer with them, and you better believe the kids want to go back.”
Shanor is also involved with Junta de Protección, part of Costa Rica’s child welfare service, helping train community leaders and families about children’s rights, finding activities for kids and encouraging local youth to get involved with art, sports and other activities.
Some of the most rewarding experiences come from the unexpected moments, she said.
“Once, when I was reading a book, a girl approached me and asked what I was studying. I said, ‘Nothing,’ that I was just reading. She asked me again what I was studying. She couldn’t understand the concept of reading for fun,” Shanor said.
“The other day, I saw her with a book in her hand,” she continued, explaining that the incident might not be something she can measure in a report to the Peace Corps, but “this girl reads for fun now.”
While Shanor said she has accepted that the Peace Corps won’t bring her brother back, she knows she is doing something he would be proud of. And she knows this is what she came for, whether it’s walking down the main street in Bribrí or hanging out with teens at the local soccer field. Like the 139 other Peace Corps volunteers in the country and the 8,700 worldwide, she’s collaborating with very different people to help make the world a better place.