In La Carpio the emphasis is on helping the parents work

Women have jobs at the coop sewing shop where bags are made that are sold at Juan Santamaría airport. A.M. Costa Rica/Shahrazad Encinias Vela

Costa Rica’s reputation is one of a social democracy, a peaceful society with little inequality and first-rate ecological practices and policies. In western San Jose in la Carpio, the preconceptions are put to the test.

La Carpio is a large slum of almost 35,000 people comprised primarily of illegal Nicaraguan immigrants. Foreigners made up 90 percent of the local population when people began placing plastic and corrugated iron shacks on the land 20 years ago but the number is closer to 60 percent today.

The community spawned for a variety of reasons including the devastation of a civil war, the destruction by natural disasters and the desperation of poverty forcing people south for refuge.

Most of the immigrants do not have the proper identification papers that allow them to be legally employed. Often, they work in construction and housekeeping and receive approximately a third of what equally qualified, legal residents and Costa Ricans are paid.

A child who benefits from the daycare project has no trouble grabbing a nap. A.M. Costa Rica/Shahrazad Encinias Vela

To the north runs the Río Virilla and to the south the Río Torres. In La Carpio´s backyard is the EBI de Costa Rica S.A. Landfill, Costa Rica´s largest dump. The geography then blocks all routes but one in and out. La Carpio gains nothing from neighboring communities because it is so isolated.

The community does not benefit financially from being the country’s dump driveway either. For what EBI earns for bringing 200 tons a day of trash through the area, la Carpio gets zero percent, according to Gail Nystrom, founder and executive director of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation.

Ms. Nystrom and the foundation have been working to improve La Carpio since 1997. The efforts there are among the 50 projects operated by the foundation in Costa Rica.

Ms. Nystrom has lived and worked on the foundation for the past 20 years. Born and raised in Virginia and New Jersey, she came to Costa Rica in 1978 as a member of the U.S. Peace Corps and worked to set up special education classrooms around the country. Remaining in Costa Rica after her Peace Corps assignment, she worked to support at-risk populations as they search for ways to improve the quality of their lives.

The foundation provides a stipend of 3,000 colons a week to the 30 women who teach for it, and, La Carpio parents can leave children at the day care center while they go to work their way out of poverty.

The community centers give the kids three meals a day and serve as supplementary education, teaching the kids more than reading, writing and math of the local elementary school.

The curriculum is akin to a Montessori school. The children have the independence of choice of activities, and the teacher acts as a guide.

A child with two parents can attend for around 12.000 colons a week, and prices vary from there depending on the child or children´s parental situation. Ms. Nystrom said the foundation works payment out with individuals from there.

Because most of the families come from homes with inadequate kitchen or bathroom, she said she can respect the amount they can offer.

The foundation also runs nine different cooperatives offering micro-finance opportunities to other women in the community, builds bunk beds and houses for families in need and has a clinic to address basic medical needs. One opportunity uses discarded coffee bags that the women sew into a marketable bag that is sold at the Juan Santamaría airport.

All of the foundation´s work is made possible from donations of goods, services, and financial resources by volunteers, friends, and sponsors. And Ms. Nystrom said she is committed to keeping administrative costs as low as possible to ensure that virtually all financial resources are applied directly to communities in need.

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