Adventures in Costa Rica

This post is part of a volunteer time off series, which gives employees a chance to reflect on their trips, ask critical questions, and share what they've been learning. To learn more about our VTO program, check out David Fouse's post.

In November of 2018, I traveled to Costa Rica’s most impoverished area to help teach children at a daycare. With only a couple of months of Duolingo Spanish under my belt, I was excited to find a program where I could help out without being fluent. As an English major and a French minor, I also looked forward to picking up a third language from native speakers.

Volunteer work is important because it’s a time to do something completely for others. For most of us, such experiences are rare. All day, we do things for work, for school, for ourselves. We pay bills and do chores, perhaps taking a moment to hold open a door if there’s someone behind us. Volunteering for a week is a chance to change that, immersing yourself in another culture and seeing how you can contribute while expecting nothing in return.

The child care program I volunteered with is located in La Carpio, although I stayed closer to San Jose with a host family. It took me not just a plane flight, but two long bus rides to get there every day, giving me plenty of time to rehearse my Spanish before arriving. On my first day, I was already challenged to find my way around, as my homestay mom did not speak a word of English. Imagine trying to communicate detailed information like, “You need to wait here for the bus that comes from the north and is headed to downtown San Jose, after which you need to get on the pink bus going west, but NOT the bus that has an X in the name” -- all without words! It was a nervous game of charades. I found myself automatically trying to respond in French, since many of the Spanish phrases sound similar.

Eventually, I made it to La Carpio, a slum in Costa Rica built on a landfill where the original settlers -- mostly immigrants from Nicaragua -- gather the materials that piece their houses together. The volunteer agency assured me that I was going to see an area that most native Costa Ricans never even see!

As I opened the door, I was immediately bombarded by children climbing over each other in every direction just to hug me. I would sing songs to them in English and they would teach them back to me in Spanish. At lunch time, we would all wash hands, one at a time, at a sink out in the back next to a lone toilet shielded by nothing but an old sheet. We would do arts and crafts on borrowed crayons and whatever scraps of paper we could find. Then we would have physical exercise time -- and let me tell you, these kids had some energy! Doing pushups and sit-ups quickly became more exhausting for me than for them. I decided to teach them acro yoga to switch things up. This quickly became the children’s favorite lesson. For me, it was a fun and meaningful way of connecting with them that completely transcended the language barrier.

One of the funniest moments was when one of the kids had swallowed his gum. Unfortunately, my Spanish knowledge did not extend to such words as “gum” and “swallowed” so he was incredibly patient with me. He said the phrase painfully slowly several times over. I kept apologizing, saying “I am sorry! I don’t understand!” Eventually, I asked him to speak it into my phone translator. It turns out this dear, smart child had broken it down so simply for me: “Teacher, I have swallowed my gum - it goes from my mouth, to my throat, to my stomach. Do you not understand this?” He was so confused why I didn’t get it and looked at me as if I was the five-year-old!

Although I spent most of my days teaching, most of what I had to offer was simply being there and smiling with them. I’m convinced that the children would have had the same enthusiastic, caring reaction even if I never spoke a single word that they understood. I simply had to share in their smiles and offer them my time and energy. They also found it hilarious when I was completely clueless to their games and rituals. For example, they had this song that was about a snake that every kid knew, accompanied by an elaborate dance that got faster and faster. As I watched them sing and move their way around the room, I had no idea what was going on!

When I reflected on my experience, a few things jumped out at me. First, I was surprised at how only a week allowed me to connect with these children in a meaningful way. At the end of it, I could not bring myself to tell them I wouldn’t be coming back. I hope they weren’t sad at my absence, but more importantly, I hope I made an impact on them.

Second, I discovered that both language skills and volunteering are wonderful -- and that combining them would be even better! I plan to volunteer again, likely with French-speaking kids so that I can really contribute to their education. Skills like language are so valuable, especially with an increasingly global, multicultural world. Being able to speak even a little bit of another language can not only help the kids in their schooling and college, but will help open doors for them in the future.

Third, I returned home with a newfound gratitude for all the wonderful comforts we enjoy here in America -- not just the (hot!) running water, but the education and opportunities all around. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the chance to volunteer abroad! You’ll come to appreciate the beauty of places and people far away from you and the beauty of those a little closer to home.