The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation has been a fixture in this country since 1997`and has made a positive difference in the lives of countless families. This legacy of good work is due to the tireless efforts of its founding director Gail Nystrom and teams of volunteers from Costa Rica and around the world.
This legacy of hope will be celebrated on May 7 at a Gala event marking the 25th anniversary of the foundation. More details about this event follow.
I recently had a chance to chat with Gail about her life and experience in Costa Rica.
Please tell us a bit about your background growing up and what brought you to Costa Rica?
I was born in New York State and spent my early years between New Jersey and Virginia. I went to University at Radford College in Virginia, Geneseo State in New York State and got a degree in early child education and French. I earned a Masters degree in Special Education from University of Denver.
I came to Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1977. Or, as I now like to say, in the last century. I showed up, and I stayed. At first I coordinated with the MEP to set up special education classrooms all over the country. The second year I transferred to Amubri, which at the time was a twelve-hour trip from San Jose.
My job was to walk in the jungle to key houses where the people would meet with me from their homes to learn about how to write their own names, to create projects using scissors and glue, to learn to read. In the mornings, I worked at the little local school with children who were struggling to read.
I loved Costa Rica from the first time I set foot on the tarmac of the airport and each experience only made me feel more connected to this country. When the Peace Corps was over, I returned for one year to New Jersey and Denver and quickly returned to Costa Rica exactly one year to the day after leaving.
I got a job at Country Day School and in the afternoon, worked with recently arrived Salvadoran refugees. The toughest job I will ever love.
Because…refugee work involves everything, physical violence and trauma, death of loved ones, homelessness, no food, physical exhaustion, and chronic health problems, PTSD and, most of all, hope.
Your humanitarian foundation has been active for many years. What have been some of the high points of your work and what have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced along the way?
The work of the Foundation has been going on since 1977 when I came here. The organization was legally chartered in 1997 in order to provide a legal entity from which to work. But before it was a legally registered organization, I worked with “Street kids” from San Jose. There were about sixty of them and their reputation was as a danger to society.
They survived by stealing and running around the city. The general population was terrified of them, but I picked them up anyway.
We have worked to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable in the country by providing food, shelter, health care, health education, education, small businesses and empathy and compassion.
Around 1992, we began to receive volunteers from other countries and thus began our volunteer education program in which we hope to raise awareness of the difficulties of poverty and war and motivate young people to devise ways they can support people in their own communities.
Over the years we have worked with nearly 20,000 youth from all over the world teaching them about our model for poverty eradication and providing them with the opportunity to do needed projects for populations at risk.
Can you please share a special anecdote? An experience that really marked your journey and the way you see the world?
There have been so many. I think I have to say that the resonance I feel with the people and the situations that I experience. I know for sure that I was meant to live here and to teach many people about my model of poverty eradication.
It has to do with the look of joy on a child’s face when I come near, the gratitude in the eyes of a dying older person, the magic of the full moon on the ocean in Tortuguero when the turtle is laying, the silence of Amubri, the birth of my children, the people all over the country who were so welcoming and grateful. The time i almost died from Hepatitis and the knowledge I gain from going to Guaynabo,
In what ways has Costa Rica changed over the last 40 years?
There are way too many cars. The US fast food industry and the malls are taking over. The young people don’t remember their grandmother cooking over an open fire. No one was at the beach when you went there.
There were only a few hotels. I was a strange site with my blonde hair. There were no Candy bars and no tampax. And only a few supermarkets. The schools were quaint, and teachers were greatly respected. Everyone rode the buses and you had to wait in line for hours to get your driver’s license.
What projects do you have coming up?
After building hundreds of structures over the years with our enthusiastic volunteer groups, after covid we don’t have financing to build. But, we would like to continue our work in La Carpio and other parts of the country with our Family Well Being Centers. These are centers where we work based on our poverty eradication model to improve the quality of life of people in communities like La Carpo.
But, my pet project now is called “My Book is my Friend” in which we have workshops for people of all ages to teach the art of Reading actively and interacting with the stories in the ten books which are packaged in a “book kit”.
These book kits are large envelopes made with cloth and packing paper. In the kit is included a bi or tri lingual book, an inspirational piece of artwork, a gift like a bracelet or feather, a bookmark and a pamphlet telling you what you can do with your book.
We will be going to different education settings to do workshops with kids and adults engaging them in making collages, mobiles, pictures, and most important, a play with props made by the participants in the workshops. These workshops will be held on indigenous reserves where we will be creating libraries about, for and BY indigenous people. I want to return to Amubri where I spent the most happy times of my life.
This is how I want to spend this final 25 years of my life.
Anything else you would like to share with Tico Times readers?
I love the Tico Times. There were years when they did a lot of stories about our work and thus spread the word so that volunteers would come and help us. I consider the newspaper to be a voice of inspiration and ethical reporting.
We are currently preparing for the grand 25 year celebration of our work at the Hotel Marriott on May 7 from 4:00 to 7:30. This event will be a combination of exhibits of our work, interaction among differing populations, theater presentations, a crafts fair, a delicious Marriott dinner, and a multimedia presentation by the people of La Carpio who we have supported for over 25 years. We end with a special gift for everyone who attends, presented by the children of our programs. The purpose of the event is to educate, interact and motivate.
Our requested donation to this event is $250 per person, $200 for a couple or $2,000 for a table of ten. If any of your readers have been reading about our work all these years, this is a perfect time to be recognized and thanked in person as you enjoy the display of the progress we have made since that first Marriott event in 1996.
Thank you for sharing our dream.