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Volunteering in Costa Rica

It all started one evening while I was surfing the Internet looking for a trip to Costa Rica and found a small notice about a trip sponsored by the Lisle Fellowship. My wife Mary and I called the trip leader Dianne Brause and after asking her many questions we decided to go. Along with a group of people of divergent ages and backgrounds, we would avoid the normal tourist haunts and visit with people in their own communities.

On this first trip one of the communities we visited was a small cooperative called CoopeUnioro on the Rincon river on the Osa Peninsula. Originally a cooperative of gold miners, it converted to ecotourism in order to save the river from destruction. However, attracting tourists was hard since CoopeUnioro is located 12 kilometers up the Rincon river with no public transportation. The only ways to reach it was by on foot or horseback or, during the dry season in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

We fell in love with the people and peacefulness of CoopeUnioro and soon filled their small lodge with our group of 20. Ricardo, the main organizing force behind the cooperative, became our river guide.

After a couple of days, Ricardo pulled me aside and asked what I did for a living. When I told him I was a retired electrical engineer, he asked if I could help him build a hydroelectric generating facility for his cooperative. I hadn’t even thought of returning to Costa Rica at this point in my trip, let alone committing to help design and build a hydroelectric facility a world away from my home in Arizona.

But once Mary and I finished this first 2-week trip with Lisle we were hooked on Costa Rica and the people. The next year Dianne decided—with my encouragement and commitment to help—to lead another trip to Costa Rica. We would spend more time at CoopeUnioro and help with their medicinal garden and tree planting while surveying Ricardo’s water source for the hydroelectric facility.

Our next challenge was to find a source of funds. As it turned out, my wife and I financed the complete project one step at a time.

On our third trip to Costa Rica and CoopeUnioro we brought most of the equipment required to complete the project. Ricardo brought the four deep cycle batteries we bought in San Jose two at a time by horseback from La Palma.

The final fabrication and assembly of the equipment was truly a joint effort. Ricardo and others in the village ran the pipe from the water source while with a neighbor assembled the electronics and the Pelton wheel—a device that looks like a miniature water wheel turning a generator that converts the force of the water to electrical energy. Parts that weren’t available in the village were modified from parts removed from the rusting equipment formally used to mine gold in the Rincon river.

When everything was done we turned on the water, adjusted the equipment to maximize the available power to the batteries, and connected the wiring from the village to the power from the Pelton.

What a feeling it was to see the lights at CoopeUnioro aglow and to see the smile on Ricardo’s face as I turned on the switch. One little notice on the Internet led us to a special organization called the Lisle Fellowship, www.lisleinternational.org, that made it possible for all this to happen.

BEN WATKINS is a retired electrical engineer in Arizona.

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