People kept bringing gifts to the man who was trying to eat his bowl of chili under the small tent by the stairs.
One woman brought a plastic bag with new clothes for girls. A Tico couple donated 4,000 colons for a pair of bracelets. A U. S. Embassy worker dropped off her business card and suggested that she can help coordinate more support with her contacts.
In a way, the entire crowd of approximately 2,000 have come because of this man, Tim Stromstad. Or at least they are here for the 35 abandoned or abused children he fosters at Hogar de Vida. After all, the proceeds of this 7th annual Atenas Charity Chili Cook Off go to the children’s home, as they have every year. That means every cent from each food transaction, voluntary donation, and ticket sale. Before the event, fundraisers had already garnered $12,000 and confidently expected to reach a festival record, $30,000.
When asked Sunday about all these gifts coming not only from long-time neighbors but also from complete strangers with no ties to Atenas, Stromstad leaned back and said how easy it is to be overwhelmed.
“If you want to see a grown man bawl, just keep asking me questions like that.”
Stromstad founded Hogar de Vida with his wife, Dena, in January 1995 without much money and a responsibility to their first branch in Guatemala. After monthly donations from Joyce Meyer and her son, the Christian shelter had a base to work with. Now, it’s the Atenas community and fundraisers like Sunday’s chili cook off that take care of much of the operating costs.
“We’re the fruit of good-hearted, good-willed people,” Stromstad said.
No better indication is provided than this annual festival at Quinta Romavista park where the community of Gringos and Ticos gather. The park is tucked behind a sloping gravel road and between whispering trees in a town that boasts as having “the best climate in the world.”
More so than another sun-laden afternoon, it was an atmosphere of both celebration and purpose that surrounds the cook off. Howard Patterson saw this first hand when he moved to Atenas two years ago from Colorado. Almost immediately he became one of the lead organizers for the festival. Once he saw where the money was going, he said he knew he was on board for the long haul:
“All it took was a trip to Hogar de Vida, and now I’m hooked.”
As the kids splashed in a narrow pool or ran through mounting crowds, the festival goers and judges took to the chili tables. Twenty five teams competed for first prize awards in categories under people’s choice, showmanship, and the overall best chili.
A gamut of diverse bowls lined the long tables, ranging from brisket-based to spicy thai, or from chili with coffee beans to chili with Fritos and cheese. Each trip up to a competitors table wound up in an embrace and good conversation. In most other public settings it may be frowned upon to take one’s spoon around the room and demand for more. Not here.
Nearly a third of the contestants were Costa Rican natives and a Tico team won gold for the first time in the cook off’s short history. Marcela Sánchez and Mercedes Pérez of team Costa Rica Chica’s Chili earned the judge’s highest honor for overall best chili. The ladies work as cooks at Kay’s Gringo Postres under the direction of festival founder, Kay Costello.
Dragonfly Thai from Manuel Antonio won the people’s choice award, while team Pirate’s Island came away with the showmanship prize.
After the awards ceremony, another oldies cover song played and dancers fueled with nostalgic swung along the basketball court turned outdoor ballroom. Argentinean wine poured into plastic cups. Some were rendered immoveable with chili hangovers. And as the end neared, all the energy expended from the record amount of attendees and volunteers made up a whopping five-figure gift.
As he talked with one of the many donors, Stromstad’s words spoke not just to his encouraging non-profit, but to the power a community like Atenas shares through solidarity and spirit.
“We work hard, and we love hard, and we see kids lives changed in the process,” he said.