Emily Hart - General Care Projects in Costa Rica
I never fancied myself as someone who was good with children. I have never babysat a day in my life and have never really interacted with anyone under the age of ten. All my cousins are older and I am the youngest in my immediate family. That is why many people (including myself!) were shocked to learn that I was spending my spring break volunteering with children in Costa Rica.
Usually for spring break my friends and I head to the beach and spend our time lounging on the sand and going out at night, but this year I was in the mood to shake things up a bit. After doing some preliminary research I booked my trip with Projects Abroad. The only spring break programme they offered was a care option so I decided to take a chance and see what happened. And boy, I am glad I did!
As our taxi sped along the dusty highway the first day of placement I was a nervous wreck. It did not help that the friend I was traveling with was an experienced camp counsellor with four younger siblings; she could not be more excited. I kept asking myself the same questions over and over, “Would they like me?” “Are they going to be able to tell that I am completely clueless?” “Will I be able to communicate with them?” I was torturing myself.
The taxi rambled on through picturesque horse pastures and majestic blue mountains but I could barely enjoy the scenery. I am sure that most people would think playing with kids all day would be a dream-come true but at this point I was questioning my decision to volunteer. We finally pulled up to a small pink house hidden behind shrubbery and protected with a cast iron gate. This was Pasitos, the day care centre we would be helping out. I tentatively exited the car and followed the other volunteers and program coordinator to the main classroom. This was it.
Volunteering at the Care placement
I expected the kids to run and hide (obviously they would sense my inadequacy with their age group.) However, as soon as the kids saw us standing in the doorway they came running with open arms, squealing with delight. I was caught off guard when the children demanded that we play with them right off the bat, they immediately accepted us into their world.
I was still nervous that I would not be able to relate to these kids until I met the first child, a girl named Maríangel who reminded me so much of myself at her age. Marí stuck out to me because she was always dancing and singing- something I did when I was a kid. During music time, her voice was the loudest and her dance moves were always on point during Cabezo, Hombros, Rodillas, y Pies. She was a blast to play with.
Also on that first day, two of the boys, Byron and Omar, dragged a box of plastic animals up to me and we started playing “zoo”. I wracked my brain to try to dig up my seventh grade Spanish vocabulary and soon Byron, Omar, and I were duelling with our “tigres” and “dinosaurios.”
Using the Spanish Language
I was shocked at how much Spanish I was able to recall. I now feel completely comfortable and competent going to Spanish-speaking countries and communicating with the locals. When I studied Spanish in school I never felt like I really grasped the language; I guess I just needed to get out and use it in actual conversations for it to make sense. I returned to the United States with a renewed enthusiasm for learning languages and I now want to make Spanish my minor at college.
Each day at Pasitos was enlightening. I never knew how much fun small children could be. They are at the perfect age where everything is still new yet they understand most of everything you tell them. There were of course times when my fears were realised and I did not know how to handle a situation (such as a bathroom accident) but generally I was very impressed with myself. Looking back on my experience, the only regret I have was that I was not able to stay in Costa Rica longer. I wish I could have spent more time with the kids to see them grow and develop stronger relationships with them.
The Projects Abroad experience
My spring break with Projects Abroad was an overall outstanding success. I wanted to push my personal boundaries to experience things I would never ordinarily get to do and I definitely accomplished that. I have come to appreciate the simple joys of playing make believe and dancing and singing without a care in the world. The kids at Pasitos seemed so happy and carefree all the time, despite whatever economic or domestic hardships they were facing. I admired them for this and thank them for literally pushing me outside my comfort zone to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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.