‘Tis the season for volunteer work along the Caribbean coast

Costa Rican schools are back in session, but students from the United States are using their long summer vacation to do some volunteer tourism.

Two separate volunteer groups have been visiting the Puerto Viejo area to serve area schools.

Mi Jardin (My Garden) is a preschool through elementary school found on a gravel road on the forest side of Playa Chiquita. Its founder and director, Uta Epple, built Mi Jardin three years ago after many years as director of the Playa Chiquita School.

Ms. Epple, originally from Germany, has a practical view of education, adapting the methods of Waldorf schools to the reality of life in the Caribe Sur of Costa Rica. It is difficult to get the special materials used in a Waldorf program, and books are rare here. But the main thing is the spirit of the school. Teachers lead by example with kind words and gentle voices. Teachers show respect and, in turn, students are expected to respect one another. Every activity is a learning experience, including snack and mealtimes. No one begins eating until everyone is seated at the table with hands folded. The teacher sings a song about the mealtime gathering and students sing along, or not.

Will providing a better education for the children bring positive changes to the community? Ms. Epple and her teachers hope so.
Nina Epple and Michelle Zentner are teachers for the kindergarten group. Nina, Ms. Epple’s daughter, has a teacher certification from the Universidad Latina in San Jose. She chose to return to Playa Chiquita and teach here at Mi Jardin. She has been in public school classrooms and sees the difference between Mi Jardin, which operates independently of the Ministerio de Educación Pública, and other schools that follow state rules.  According to Ms. Zentner, who was a teacher in Panamá before coming to live in the Caribbean, this school is different from the normal system of education. The children here want to learn because the learning environment is real, she said.

As class continued, a morning rain shower created a deafening sound on the metal roof, and a torrent poured outside the open windows. Outside, the sounds of hammers and saws stopped. The volunteers working on various painting and building projects were forced to take a break and wait out the storm.

At Mi Jardin, Jeremy and Kerbi Smith, directors of The Concrete Jungle skate park ministry in Puerto Viejo, were hosting a group of friends from a church in Texas. Mornings the group spends at Mi Jardin on the various projects Ms. Epple has planned out for them. Afternoons they participate in games and activities at the skate park.

This group of five families has been spending summer vacation time volunteering in Costa Rica for the last six years, but this is the first time they have come to the Caribbean. Their church in Tyler, Texas, pays for materials but the families — parents and children ranging from elementary to high school age — come here to give freely of their time and energy.

Jason Smith, the group’s pastor, said they have several friends living in Costa Rica and want to show their support to these friends by coming to volunteer in the communities where they live. Jeremy and Kerbi Smith know Ms. Epple and offered to help her complete some projects around her school, such as painting walls and clearing land for a garden.

According to Smith, his group sees their work at Mi Jardin as a spiritual service to the community. “We love God by loving other people, whether we know them or not. There is a perception that Christians are closed-minded and self-righteous. But Christians who act that way are not truly reflecting Christ. We want people to see that there areChristians who really practice the Golden Rule.”

In addition, the parents in the group are working side by side with their children as a way to show them another side of Mom and Dad. They hope this family-bonding experience will continue in their communities back at home.

In addition to the school renovation projects, the group offered a Basic First Aid and CPR clinic. Two medical doctors in the group, also gave consultations to anyone in the community needing general medical advice.

Simultaneously, this week the Centro Educativo Playa Chiquita is bustling with its own volunteers, a group of 14 college-age youth spending a three-week session of combined tourism and service all over Costa Rica.

Group leaders Melissa Lehman and Cooper Kersey said they are impressed by the Playa Chiquita School because it is a melting pot of international culture. The administration is also very different from other schools because Playa Chiquita school, like Mi Jardin, operates more independently from the education ministry than other area schools.

Overland Summers, the organization sponsoring the trip, recruits college students from all over the United States for summer trips to Costa Rica, the most popular destination country. Overland Summers is connected with Field Studies Costa Rica and supervised by Gail Nystrom, founder and director of San Jose-based Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation.

Not every three-week tour includes a week of community service, as this one does. Ms. Nystrom connected this group with the Playa Chiquita School to do outdoor painting, build bookshelves, and do some guest appearances for the English classes, among other projects.

Overland Summers has been sending groups to Costa Rica for 11 years, and to the Caribbean for five years. The  feel safe and welcome in the Puerto Viejo area.

Although the U.S. Embassy has issued a warning to American tourists that the Caribbean is a dangerous place and to proceed with caution, the volunteers have had a very positive and trouble-free experience. These people are giving of their time and talents to the Caribbean community in spite of the risks involved.

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