Caitlin Gilmartin - General Care Projects in Costa Rica
After graduating college with a degree in communications, I was still unsure of the direction I wanted to head in with my career. After talking with a friend of mine who volunteered with Projects Abroad in Bolivia, I just knew I had to take some time off and volunteer abroad. I contacted Projects Abroad, still unsure of what my future would hold, and they helped me sort through the details seamlessly. I decided that I would volunteer in Costa Rica for one month.
While I had travelled to many different countries with my family and friends before, I had never lived alone in another country prior to this trip. I was a little nervous, but more excited to begin a new chapter of my life!
Living in Costa Rica
My host family welcomed me with open arms and made me feel as comfortable as possible. They showed me around the neighbourhood, introduced me to the rest of their family next door, and my fellow volunteer who also lived in the house. While it was great having another volunteer to adventure with throughout my time there, I was also able to explore independently if I wanted to and I learned a lot from my host family.
My host family spoke very little English, and I spoke very little Spanish, so most of my week-nights were spent on the porch with them having an amusing conversation of half English, half Spanish, talking about our days and the flowers and the stars. On top of that, we would take nightly walks around the neighbourhood, enjoy family dinners together (avocado, whitefish, rice, beans, fresh fruit – it was delicious!), and even touching family moments like the unfortunate passing of my host grandmother. Being able to support my host mother and her family during a time of loss was touching and she really appreciated our presence at the services.
My placement was not far from where we lived, but we did have to take a bus and walk a few minutes there each morning. While the other volunteer in my house and I worked at different places, they were around the block from each other so we were able to travel to and from work together. Once at my placement, I worked with two additional volunteers who lived nearby as well. It was nice to meet and interact with the other volunteers on a regular basis, including doing things like going to the mall and the movies together outside of work.
In addition to my placement and spending time with my host family, on my time off I was able to travel to several beaches on the weekends, go zip-lining, visit volcanoes, hot springs and even attend a music festival! I met wonderful locals who helped show me places off the beaten path, and let me experience the “tico” life! We also visited local restaurants and art festivals, the pool and the city life. Costa Rica is a beautiful country and the flexibility of this programme allows you to enjoy all aspects of it while helping others!
My Care placement
I worked at the Centro Infantil Osito Feliz (Happy Teddy Bear), caring for students aged 6 months to 8 years old. Some students were there all day like a type of preschool, while other older students came after school until their parents were done with work. We worked with the children on English lessons, art lessons, group play and outdoor activities. Although the centre itself was small, we took the children outside on most days to the park across the street so that they could get some physical activity in and learn team-building exercises.
I spent most of my time with the younger children, specifically spending a lot of one-on-one time with the 6 month old and another 2-year-old girl who was autistic. When I first started working with her, she did not want to play, walk, eat, or talk very much at all. By the end of my month there – she was walking on her own more regularly and playing with me, and other children, most days. I was very sad to leave her when the time came for me to return home, but I was happy to have made some difference in her life and hopefully improve the future of her care!
In addition to my daily activities and roles at the centre, my fellow volunteer and I took it upon ourselves to do some remodelling while we were there. Projects Abroad approved our request to repaint the walls, tables and chairs while we were there and even supplied us with all of the paint and materials needed to complete the job! By the time we were done, the centre looked much happier and the children loved the new colours!
Once I got to my new home in Costa Rica, the staff supported me from day one. On top of transporting me to my host family, introducing me to my fellow volunteers, and giving me an orientation of the programme, they also took me around the city and showed me helpful locations (banks, restaurants, bus stations, etc). Also, they came to my placement with me the first day of volunteering to make sure everything was okay. Knowing that you have an organisation behind you full of support and information makes the entire transition much more comfortable and enjoyable. I had as much independence from the company as I wanted, knowing that I could reach out if I had questions or concerns, but also explore the country, have fun and experience things on my own.
I loved my experience with Projects Abroad so much, that it actually led to me teaching English and living abroad for another year and a half in other countries after my time in Costa Rica. I am now back home getting my Master’s in Social Work, but I owe all of my experiences and future goals to that very first step I took with Projects Abroad! It really changed my life!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.