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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2007
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Short-Term Volunteering with Cross-Cultural Solutions in Costa Rica

Children in Costa Rica
The children of Escuela Puente Casa wash their hands before lunch.

What’s it like to volunteer in another country? It’s exciting and incredibly rewarding. Last spring I volunteered in Costa Rica through Cross-Cultural Solutions. I spent one month as a teacher’s assistant at Escuela Puente Casa, a school for disadvantaged children. I helped the teachers with different activities, such as preparing assignments or gluing decorations. Sometimes I’d sit at one of the desks, alongside the students, punching holes in assignments, or coloring cards with them for Parent’s Night. I also taught English lessons a few times a week and helped a boy practice reading aloud.

At recess, the children and I played games: jump rope, UNO, soccer and volleyball, and drew pictures with sidewalk chalk. My Spanish vocabulary was limited, and my grammar less than perfect, but I could ask questions like: “How are you? How was your weekend? Do you have any pets? How many brothers and sisters do you have?” The kids gave me pieces of candy and pictures that they drew. Every morning when I entered the classroom, they would chant “Hello teacher,” and kiss me on the cheek, a customary greeting.

Spending so much time with the children of Escuela Puente Casa, it was easy to forget that they live in poverty and many came from troubled homes. Many of the children’s parents are immigrants who fled Nicaragua to escape civil war.

A dirt road leads to the students’ homes, which are made from discarded materials such as aluminum, wood, and cardboard. They have no electricity or running water. They have no safe place to play, since many of them don’t have shoes, and the hilly strip of land where they live is strewn with shards of broken glass. They also face many difficult issues, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. Volunteers can have a positive impact by devoting time to the children, who are often neglected. Usually the parents, many of whom are single moms, are working hard to bring food to the table, and there is always a younger sibling competing for their affection. The teachers at the school are also busy, so they can’t give the students much individual attention. That’s where the volunteers come in—we have time to spend with the kids.

When it was finally time to say adios, I felt myself fighting back tears when they ran out to my bus, waving and shouting, “Goodbye Teacher!” as it pulled away.