In Costa Rica’s northwestern province of Guanacaste, 28,000 families live in poverty, and 10,000 live in extreme poverty, as documented in a recent report from CEPIA, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the lives of women and children. In many rural areas, school attendance is poor, domestic violence is rampant, and social services have been slow to recognize the problems, much less fix them.
Laetitia Deweer has a solution: Guanacaste’s first large-scale community center, based in the far western town of Huacas. Deweer is president of CEPIA, and if all goes well, builders will break ground on the $400,000 project within the next month, she said.
“All the paperwork is there,” Deweer said. “But the government is very picky, legally. If there is a mistake, we will have to [revise the paperwork]. But we have to start before the end of the year. They have the obligation to spend a part of the money. I’m 100 percent sure we are starting by December.”
Bureaucracy aside, finances are also an impediment: The project is short $80,000, and Deweer and her colleagues are scrambling to raise the funds.
Deweer created CEPIA in August 2005 with a small group of dedicated colleagues, and the organization has exploded in the eight years since. On paper, CEPIA provides “culture, education and psychology for infants and adolescents,” but this moniker understates the urgency of Guanacaste’s problems: About half of Guanacaste’s teenagers do not expect to finish high school, and even when they do, the education is often poor. Among these untrained adolescents – who hope to join the workforce but lack basic skills – 40 percent will fail to find jobs.
“In this area,” Deweer said, “I think the local population was really low-educated, and the government was not present at all. The schools [lacked] quality and resources … and at the same time, foreign [investors] came here, and their only purpose was to make money. But nobody was professional in doing social development as well as economic development.”
Until now, CEPIA has been based in a three-bedroom house, which provides workshops, training and daycare for 500 women and children each year. The quarters are cramped, but Deweer coordinates about 70 regular volunteers to operate the makeshift facility. CEPIA is designed to help impoverished women – wives and single mothers – along with legions of underserved children. Here, women receive training in professional cleaning, computer literacy, tourism, and beauty care, among other skills.
Deweer now serves as general manager of CEPIA, as well as president. According to colleagues, Deweer is a powerhouse of organization and leadership, and although she relies on a large network of collaborators and volunteers, she has led the charge for the better part of a decade, while raising her 4-year-old daughter. A native of Belgium, Deweer studied Family Education at the University of Ghent and cut her teeth on a community project in Guatemala, followed by work in an orphanage in Mexico.
Working with children in Guatemala piqued Deweer’s interest in developing nations, and when she first came to Costa Rica, she worked for the Child Welfare Office. “I became really aware of the social problems. One of my best friends from Belgium, Lotje [De Ridder], came to Costa Rica to visit me, and I shared with her the idea. I was thinking of doing a public library. Here, the children have no art classes, no sport classes, no computer classes.”
It took some time for CEPIA to gain a foothold in the region. Nonprofit organizations and nongovernmental organizations are often criticized for short-term or halfhearted projects, but Deweer’s team slowly started to prove itself to the community, and now the organization is a household name.
“After a couple of years of working, people started to say, ‘Wow, CEPIA is still around,’” remembered Deweer. “If you ask people around here if they know CEPIA, 90 percent of the time they do.”
Despite the cramped quarters, CEPIA has many success stories. The new community center in Huacas will measure 1,000 square meters, and its expanded facilities will embellish CEPIA’s work by many times. A bilingual daycare center will attend to 80 infants per year, and the center will incorporate an art gallery, dance studio, sports facilities, computer suites and nine classrooms. CEPIA expects 1,000 annual counseling sessions, 200 volunteer opportunities, and interventions for 20 children with disabilities. Tech company Movistar has pledged $10,000 for computers, cameras, camcorders and software.
“This type of community center does not exist in Guanacaste,” said Gerardo Brenes, a founding member of CEPIA who is now running for a seat in the Legislative Assembly from Guanacaste. “CEPIA programs are new and have no government budgets. The community center is important to the region, for its comprehensive care of coastal Guanacaste’s youth [and] a better quality of life.” If elected lawmaker, Brenes said he would encourage the development of similar community centers.
Deweer’s efforts have started to gain international attention: She recently received a fellowship from the Central American Leadership Initiative, and she will join four other fellows in San José for a six-day seminar. “It will allow me to bring more attention to Guanacaste and the community center,” she said.
One of Deweer’s biggest concerns is teenage pregnancy, which she believes has become an endemic problem in Guanacaste – and Costa Rica in general due – to a lack of sexual education.
“We have a very big problem with underage girls and women who have no social security and have no access to prophylactics,” Deweer said. “It’s mostly the poor who get pregnant. The circle of poverty is continuing and continuing. It’s terrible. I think women here would have a lot of potential if they did not get pregnant and [instead] finished high school.”
While the CEPIA Community Center will not fix such large-scale problems overnight, Deweer has watched women become empowered through vocational training and therapeutic interactions with other women. The project will commence sometime in the next two months, whether or not the remaining $80,000 is raised by then. Still, CEPIA will require additional funds to start on the right foot.
Said Deweer: “This is not something you improvise.”