A volunteer meets life in small Costa Rican village

By Pat Jacoby

Special to Del Mar Times

In Del Mar we justify our lack of sidewalks as a point of pride — it identifies us as the “village” we claim to be.

There also are no sidewalks in the small central highlands town of Puriscal, Costa Rica, from which I just returned on a volunteer project. But there’s no civic pride evident in those muddy, rocky footpaths on the side of noisy roads; instead they typify the many contrasts in this lovely, emerging country. I took the footpaths many days on my way to — think contrast — an Internet cafe.

San Jose and the resorts on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts boast modernity, from the Marriotts to McDonalds; small towns such as Puriscal, on the other hand, hassle the problems of neglected infrastructure. One doesn’t put toilet paper in the toilet, I learned, because, as the sign said, “it will seriously damage the plumbing.”

I was in Costa Rica under the auspices of Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), an international volunteer organization whose mission is to achieve a shared vision of a world where people value cultures that are different from their own, are aware of global issues, and are empowered to effect positive change.

One of my jobs was to help teach English to a group of young adults enrolled in a National Institute of Learning (INA) school, developed by the government to assist the socially disadvantaged.

On my first morning the instructor asked me to introduce myself to the class, and serendipitously, he had in his hand a copy of “The Cat in the Hat.” It provided a marvelous opportunity to introduce the students to the internationally famous author “Dr. Seuss,” who was unknown to them, and to the Southern California area in which the late Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel and I lived. I was asked to read “The Cat” to the class of 19- to 30-year-olds, who were in their second month of learning English, but the whimsy seemed lost on them.

However, one had to admire the earnest, serious effort they put into their class work, many staying after class to practice one-on-one with us by reading English children’s books. I felt for the young adult who had to read “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with me, and practice saying “dwarf” several times in a strange language. The hoped-for result of the daily 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. regimen is to become proficient enough in English to get jobs with American firms, such as Hewlett Packard, which are opening offices in Costa Rica.

My other assignment was to assist an amazing kindergarten teacher in an open-air classroom where birds flew in and out and one mother bird placidly sat on her nest eggs in the rafters while the noisy five-year-olds played underneath her. The teacher and parents of the kindergarten students had built the classroom in a space between two wings of the school.

I served with four other volunteers in Puriscal — one from South Africa, one from Scotland and the others from Boston and New Orleans. We each were assigned to different schools in the area, from kindergarten through high school to the INA campus.

We lived in a well-organized CCS home with a staff that included several directors, a van driver who took us to our placements, and two cooks who went way beyond the traditional rice and beans with great platters of fresh fruits and innovative ways with vegetables. And not all was work — in the afternoon or evening we had such varied programs as salsa lessons, stretching exercises, cooking classes or a lesson in Costa Rican history.

In addition to Costa Rica, CCS has Volunteer Abroad programs in Brazil, China, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Thailand and Tanzania.

To ensure that the volunteer work is always locally designed and driven, as well as sustainable, CCS partners with existing local organizations. Often called a “mini Peace Corps,” but without the lengthy preparation time, volunteers can serve for two to 12 weeks.

Placements are always with sustainable community development projects, which include — beside my school experience — orphanages, health clinics and hospitals, homes for the elderly, or centers for people with disabilities.

The bottom line: although the work itself was meaningful, it was gaining access to a new culture by working side-by-side with those earnest INA students, getting to know the skilled kindergarten teacher who talked nightly by Skype with her daughter in Nebraska, learning to cook a plantain with a shy chef, and interacting with other local people that made the volunteer experience truly complete.

For more information on Cross Cultural Solutions, try (800) 380-4777 or