January 18, 2010
In the last week we have settled in to our home-stay in Santa Anna (a small neighbourhood of the Capital city—San José). Our host family is incredibly kind, welcoming, and helpful. As well, Norma and Fabio are very patient as we attempt to become more accomplished at speaking Spanish (they speak very little English, so the transition to Spanish has necessarily been quite speedy). During the week we are working in La Carpio with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (CHRF), headed by Gail Nystrom. This first week has been a very intense introduction to the area, but it is important to describe the history of the La Carpio community, as well as the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, first in order to provide the context to our daily work.
The community of La Carpio originated over 20 years ago when Nicaraguan refugees began squatting on Costa Rican owned land in order to escape civil war, the destruction by natural disasters, and the devastating effects of desperate poverty and hunger. Using the limited resources available—usually plastic and corrugated iron—these Nicaraguan people build makeshift housing. Their toughness and resilience led to the current community of La Carpio, which today numbers 34,000 people. Although the people of La Carpio have signed national treaties with the Costa Rican government, guaranteeing education, healthcare, and decent housing, there is a vast difference between the materials promised and the reality for the large percentage of illegal immigrants living in La Carpio. An increasing level of prejudice against Nicaraguan immigration has made it even more difficult for the people of La Carpio to receive health care or education outside of their community. And finding jobs that offer wages that support a family is becoming more and more unyielding. The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation has been working with these immigrants since 1997 in order to shift the chronically impoverished into an upwardly-mobile and more comfortable community. Owing largely to the work of Gail Nystrom, the founder of CRHF, many people in La Carpio have greatly improved their lives. The CHRF has built three learning centers—The Montessori School (also a community center), a The Model Education Center, above the medical clinic, and another daycare and educational facility in an area called La Libertad—in La Carpio—all of which provide concrete daily schedules based on the educational level of the children attending and also include meals and snacks for the children. These efforts have combined to dramatically increase the percentage of healthy children in the community. The CHRF has also constructed a permanent medical clinic run by a very qualified Doctor. Gail has designed and implemented many other projects in La Carpio (including building home furnishings such as bunk-beds, helping women start their own businesses, housing street children, and other personal projects for individuals). By focusing on the importance of increased autonomy for women, education for all children, hygiene, and the use of personal skills to take advantage of the resources available, her work has contributed an incalculable improvement to the quality of life for a great number of people.
Last week Claire and I worked mainly in the Montessori School helping the women (all are local women being trained to teach) with the children, as well as touring all the other projects and getting settled in the area. It was a very intense week as we attempted to get to know everyone (speaking only Spanish—there is only one woman who speaks a very small amount of English), working with the children on games, songs, English, cooking, and all the other madness of a classroom filled with 20 children between the ages of 3 and 13, and at the same time trying to process the entire experience.
We are looking forward to another week—hopefully feeling a bit more stable with a little more experience under our belts!
On another note, we have all been discussing the Haitian earthquake that has devastated Port-au-Prince in the past week. Partners in Health is an organization that we may possibly be working with soon, so please send any support that you can to this incredibly well developed organization.
In the 2nd semester of her 3rd year at UBC, Sarah Kingstone is traveling to Costa Rica in honour of her humanitarian heart. She has given me permission to post her blog entries as she embarks on what will undoubtedly a life changing experience. Come along for the ride!