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Peace Corps Costa Rica: An opportunity to serve

When Elisa Molina’s mother moved her family from the Dominican Republic to the United States more than 12 years ago, she envisioned a university education and a high-paying job for her daughter.

So it took some convincing on Elisa’s behalf when the 24-year-old decided to leave a secure job at the Pan-American Health Organization to return to Latin America, where she accepted a two-year stint on a meager monthly allowance with the Peace Corps.

“I had to explain to my family what the Peace Corps was,” said the Buffalo State graduate, who was drawn to the Peace Corps by the opportunity to do something “beyond the cubicle.”

Her mother challenged her with: “You spent five years in college and now you want to go to Latin America and not earn anything?”

“I had to present the Peace Corps as a good government job, but with low pay,” Molina said.

After obtaining a somewhat skeptical blessing from her mother, Molina arrived in Costa Rica in March 2010.

It didn’t take long for her to start making things happen in the small artisan community of Guaitil de Santa Cruz, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Working in Peace Corps Costa Rica’s Community Economic Development program, she helped launch a full-blown campaign against dengue fever, she’s getting chairs installed at the local school, and she’s working with a group of teens who have started a microenterprise selling pineapple jelly.

“For me, there was none of that wait time to get adapted,” said Molina, a native Spanish-speaker. “I could get right in and get going.”

Community members were slightly confused when Molina showed up on their doorstep last year. They were expecting a white-skinned, English-speaking Gringa, Molina said.

“I had to convince them that the United States is not all one color or race,” said Molina, who is known as “the Dominican” by her neighbors in Guaitil.

Molina’s Latina background is complemented by a type-A, get-things-done attitude she picked up in the United States.

“I didn’t want to waste any time,” said Molina, blending Spanish and English fluidly in the conversation. “I know how much the government invests in each volunteer. I wanted to make sure their money was well spent.”

It took her only three months to get together a group of young entrepreneurs, help them design a business – which they named Guait Fruit – and facilitate sales opportunities. The microenterprise was funded almost entirely by selling shares to friends and family in the community. Little by little, they are building it into a legitimate business.

“It’s really cool to see what they’ve come up with,” Molina said.

Molina said she it was challenging for her to live at the economic level of the community members, arriving with zero savings in her bank account.

According to Steven Dorsey, director of Peace Corps Costa Rica, the agency is supposed to challenge volunteers to live at the economic level of the people they work with. “The whole principal behind Peace Corps service is that you are given a stipend that will allow you to live at the level at which community members in the assigned community live. You are not going to have lots of money to go on vacations. You are going to be living like most of the members in your community live, which is at a fairly low economic level.”

Molina said she bought “The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Living on a Budget” and has been using it as a manual not only for herself, but also to help those in the community. 

At the halfway mark for her time in Costa Rica, Molina sat sipping coffee in a café in San José and listed off her next tasks: work with a women’s co-op; get more chairs for the local school; and legalize Guait Fruit as a business.

“We’ve done so much so far, but there is so much I want to do,” said the Peace Corps volunteer.


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