Aswarm of children gathers around Keith Holder after an intense game of soccer. The 62-year-old Englishman is out of breath after the two-and-a-half-hour match, and takes gulps of air as as he goes over the scorecards with the children.
“I always buy the winners something to eat after the game,” says a smiling Holder, known to the children as “don Jorge” for his middle name, George.
The children gathered around Holder laugh and play. They are wearing an assortment of hand-me-down clothes, and some of their shoes are falling apart. They are from La Verbena de Alajuelita, one of the worst slum areas in San José. For a couple of hours every Friday, the children get to forget about the abject poverty they live in and play a game they love at Alajuelita’s Centro Cristiano de Alabanza.
“If I were brought up in this area, I would come out a lot worse than them,” Holder says. “Football helps teach them that they aren’t worthless like they are often told.”
After spending the last 20 years working with children in some of Costa Rica’s most dangerous and poorest areas, Holder is used to the everyday reality of shantytowns. After the match, a group of kids pile into his SUV and he takes them back to their homes. The car rumbles slowly over an abysmal muddy road lined by wooden and corrugated-metal shacks. Piles of garbage and sewage are everywhere. Holder picks up children sporadically on his way through the neighborhood to give them the chance to ride around in a car, something he says they almost never get to do.
His goal, the missionary says, is to show the children he works with that there is a world outside of this poverty. Holder is the founder of Educación Plus, a Christian nonprofit that works with children in slum areas who are at risk of falling over the precipice into a world of addiction, crime and violence. Through education and building personal relationships with young people, Holder is doing the work he says God called him to do more than two decades ago.
“I have always believed that God was calling me to be a missionary,” he says. “I worked with young people in a pretty rough area of London a long time ago. All that was preparing me for working in a rough area here.”
Wearing an old soccer jersey and a baseball cap, the grizzled Englishman is approached by almost everyone he passes on the street in the neighborhood. He helps out families and children with food, clothing and other essentials; however, Holder is firm and not one to be pushed around.
“If I am too soft and let them get whatever they want when they ask for it, I don’t think I’m teaching them what they need to succeed,” he says.
For his work with disadvantaged children in Costa Rica, Holder was recently inducted as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or MBE, a high honor awarded by the British monarch for outstanding community service.
“It’s the first step toward everyone calling you ‘Sir,’” he says, laughing.
Holder’s path toward knighthood started 20 years ago when he joined a missionary society called Latin Link in England. Before going to Peru for his first stint of missionary work, Holder came to Costa Rica for a year to study Spanish.
“They said, ‘We are going to send you to language school in Costa Rica.’ I had no idea where Costa Rica was. I thought I was going to Spain or something,” he says.
As part of his language learning, Holder organized a group of local kids into a soccer team. He says he felt a special connection with Costa Rica.
“When I was here, I was like, ‘This is absolutely where God wants me to be,’” he says.
After working with street kids in Peru for a year, Holder realized his calling was to work in shantytowns with children before they had completely gone off the deep end.
“Street kids that still have some connection with their home are teetering on the precipice,” he says. “The ones that have cut that connection have fallen off it. Within three weeks they are in a gang; they have to be to survive. They follow the gang rules, they are into drugs, steal things and assault people, and there is always an adult behind them exploiting them.”
After his work in Peru, Holder returned to Costa Rica and founded Educación Plus in 1994, with the objective to get to kids before they end up on the streets.
“I came back here and visited kids in the shantytown,” he says. “The common factor with their parents was that they wanted their kids to be educated.”
Unlike some other charitable organizations that go in and provide school uniforms and food and then leave, Holder’s organization makes a point of working with kids and their families on a daily basis.
“One of the big things we do is get alongside the kids and their families,” he says. “If they bust their shoes or something like that during the year, as long as it is reasonable, we can replace these things.”
In addition, Holder works with parents and teachers to make sure kids are staying in school and not being left behind. Holder says a lot of times parents don’t want to visit the schools because they can’t read and write themselves.
“And then you get this conflict between the family and the school,” he says. “The school says the kids are a waste of time and lazy, and we will go in and visit and call the teachers out for being unfair. It is all part of our vision to represent these people before government and nongovernmental organizations because oftentimes they can’t stand up for themselves.”
Another challenge Holder faces in Costa Rica is convincing people to invest in his work here.
“You have to really persuade people that you aren’t lying around on the beach all day,” he says. “Costa Rica is presented, and rightly so, as a great tourist destination. However, I have also noticed Costa Rica is very good at hiding these pockets of poverty.”
Holder says shantytowns similar to La Verbena are all over the place in Nicaragua, but in Costa Rica the police will often move in and clear out makeshift shantytowns on a regular basis. Unlike many shantytowns, La Verbena has been around for 18 years. It is tucked away from any main road and is hard to find unless one is looking for it.
“La Verbena has some of the worst conditions you will see,” Holder says. “I even have friends who come here from Nicaragua and say, ‘Oh gosh, this is worse than Nicaragua.’”
He says one of the reasons La Verbena has been around so long is that the leaders of the community are corrupt.
“The so-called community leaders are actually a bunch of crooks,” Holder says. “They are not actually interested in resolving the situation. They have a bunch of poor people paying them money to find them housing and stuff. If the problem were to clear up, then these people would have to look for a new place to find income.”
While the situation for many of Holder’s kids is dire, he hopes that by continuing to build personal relationships and working with them on a daily basis, he will be able to help some of them find a better life.
“When your parents, uncles and aunts are in jail or on drugs, it is really hard not to get into the mindset that ‘this is what is going to happen to me,’” Holder says. “We want to instill in these kids a positive self-image. We want them to be individuals who can break this cycle and make their own choices.”
For more information about Holder’s work and Educación Plus, call 2227-8642 or visit www.edplusint.org.