By Nico Angerosa, FC 19 Costa Rica
Five months strong is something that I continue to remind myself of every morning here in Costa Rica. Between working with kids, living in community, learning a new language, familiarizing myself with a new culture and neighborhood, meeting new people and leaving my life behind for a year, it’s definitely overwhelming and a lot to juggle.
The most challenging adjustments for me as a volunteer in another country so far has been learning a new language while working and developing trust with the people I serve and work with. Fortunately, at my worksite, Rostro de María in Alajuela, I have been blessed with amazing people to work with. “Rostro” is a before and after school care program for school aged kids from 3 to 11 years old. It is right across the street from the school, situated in a very poor neighborhood that has occasional violence due to drugs and some of the kids’ behavior reflect their difficult home lives. There are a handful of women that work at Rostro and they have been incredibly hospitable, welcoming, and selfless, making sure that myself and Jenna (another FC volunteer who also works here) are comfortable and happy with the work that we do.
With that said, let’s talk about the kids I serve. Like I mentioned, some of their home lives are things I couldn’t imagine growing up in. Young parents, often divorced, living with either mom or dad who may always be going with other people. Some parents are drug addicts, older siblings involved in bad behaviors, and generally no mature, responsible guidance. Fortunately, some of the parents I’ve gotten the chance to meet are really wonderful.
These kids can be difficult. Work has been a great test of patience for me, but luckily I love kids in general and give them every benefit of doubt. Part of the challenge has been recognizing what is behind bad behavior. Is it because of a lack of attention at home and what they learn there or is just kids being kids. One of our more problematic kids, Carlitos (as I will refer to him to keep his identity private), has suffered through a lot. He is 9 years old, lives with his dad who is in his 40s/50s and doesn’t enforce rules, and his mom, who is rarely in the picture. His mom, who is a lot younger than his dad, is a drug addict along with her whole family. Her brother passed away due to a drug related incident. Carlitos was having a hard time listening and following directions and was being a constant bad influence on the other children. One of the biggest goals for him was to teach him respect and how to read and write.
When I arrived in August/September, my supervisor told me his story and how she almost had to kick him out of the program because not enough one on one attention could be given to him due to various reasons. She dubbed him as my disciple, labeled him as my mission, and since September, I have spent a couple hours each day with Carlitos helping him begin to read and write. He could not recognize a single letter, much less tell you what a letter was or its sound. It was all foreign for him. At the beginning, he was very resistant. He would sit there, sometimes for two hours at a time, unfocused, not wanting to do anything, pouting, crying, and going home miserable. His dad was disappointed and feeling hopeless by his behavior. With patience, understanding and perseverance, I tried to spend a lot of time with Carlitos. I’d bribe him with playing games he wanted to when we finished studying or show extra attention and care throughout the day. Now, five months later, he has moved on from single letter recognition and sounds to reading small sentences and letter-sound combinations. He seems to be happier, listens a little better, actually want to study and begs for me to study with him the second I walk in the door in the morning.
As I reflect on this small accomplishment, I can’t help but think what might have happened to him if I hadn’t been here: if he’d still be in the program, not getting individualized attention. It’s crazy to think that this 9-year-old struggling in class and home may never have had the chance to read and write in his life. It is in this situation I recognize the importance of treating someone not equally, but equitably; giving them the resources and the appropriate amount and type of attention they need to succeed and learn. Sure, there were more than enough days I could talk about when I was frustrated, hopeless, and wondering what in the world my supervisor was thinking telling a kid from New York with limited Spanish to teach a 9-year-old another language I’m trying to become comfortable with myself. Well, I can tell you my ability to express myself has improved immensely, and now understanding and expressing to Carlitos that I care about him and that, in fact, he is teaching me as much or even more than I am teaching him is much easier. Letting him know the impact he is having on my life and journey hopefully is giving him some control and responsibility in his life and lets him know that he can have the power to make a positive influence on someone else’s life, whether it be a friend or a random volunteer from the U.S.
The women that work at Rostro have seen a huge improvement in Carlitos as well and are thankful for it. I have a constant reminder that when I think I’m not making a difference, in just 5 short months I’ve helped a young boy feel empowered and start to discover new abilities. If there are two things I have taken from working with kids this year and in the past, it is that they are very honest (and I mean VERY), and they keep things simple with a clear perspective on any situation. They’re kids — why overthink something and not just take it for what it is?