By Philippe Devos
Tempatal is a scattered village on the northwest coast of Costa Rica, within walking distance of the Nicaraguan border. Most of the families that live here are larege and have to cram into tiny one-room sheet metal shacks that dot this shantytown. Across the street from where one family of 16 live stands the newest building in the village. It’s a dining hall for the one room school. The dining hall, or comedor in Spanish, is about the size of a large two-car garage, but not as well built. A corrugated sheet metal roof covers the steel A-frame that sits on a shallow foundation. Poured concrete slabs are held in place by steel rods to form walls.
While the comedor is new, it still cannot be used. About six of the rough concrete slabs are missing, leaving one wall half finished. The poured concrete floor covers the dining area but stops at the kitchen at the back, leaving only dirt. The wind that constantly blows through Tempatal whistles through the two doorways missing doors and the gap in the wall where the only windows should be. When it’s dry, the sandy soil blows through the comedor. When it’s dry, the sandy soil blows the rain in. The rain also fills the trench around the comedor like a moat around a castle. The shallow trench was never filled with concrete to make a path.
Six young volunteers from Canada and five from Australia dug the trench by hanbd. They mixed the concrete and poured it into moulds to the make the slabs they raised to form walls. They hoisted sheets of corrugated metal to the roof for the construction foreman to secure in place.
The foreman is paid by the Costa Rican government. The young people who built the comedor came here with Youth Challenge International, a non-profit organization that sends young people between the ages of 18 and 25 to Costa Rica and Guyana to do volunteer work.
Each challenger (as the YCI volunteers are called) raised at least $3,750 to go to Costa Rica. The money raised could employ 14 Costa Ricans for one month at the local minimum wage. Tempatal is one of the 16 poorest communities in the country. Malnutrition is a problem for the children who live there and the community hoped to do something about it. The Costa Rican government agreed to provide the school children of Tempatal a meal each day fi the school had a comedor. T he government provided a foreman and most of the material needed. YCI agreed to help build the comedors.
Classes were about to resume when the YCI challengers left Tempatal in February but the comedor wasn’t finished and challengers are not coming back. Wayne du Plessis, one of the Canadians who was in Tempatal, doesn’t know what will happen to the comedor he helped build. “The foreman said they don’t usually get finished,” admits the 22-year-old from Richmond Hill. The government-provided materials are gone and now the people of Tempatal who live in a community where there isn’t enough money to buy concrete to build homes, must find the materials and finish the comedor themselves.
The unfinished comedor in Tempatal is part of the tenth project YCI has run in Costa Rica since the organization began in 1990. Du Plessis is one of more than 1,000 young YCI “challengers” who have taken part in the program. With $350,000 of funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Mark Ely and his wife Christine Klar started YCI eight years ago as a breakaway organization from the British-based Project Raleigh (similar to Outward Bound adventure camps). “We thought we’d take the Raleigh idea and make it more suitable for the Canadian market,” says Ely. “WE wanted to make the experiences much more development-oriented and less adventure-based. We want to help people expand in their personal horizons, acquired life and career skills that are going to serve them and their country well into the future. We choose to achieve those ends by the voluntary acts of service to others.”
YCI offers volunteers a year-long program of four challenges. The first is a rigorous 48-hour outdoor selection weekend which involves a series of mental and physical tests and obstacles to simulate the demanding conditions challengers are likely to face abroad. About 180 Canadians pass the selection weekend and continue to the second challenge, which is to raise the funds to complete the program. Challengers raise about 80 per cent of the cost to run the YCI program. The other 20 per cent comes from donations from charitable foundations, private citizens and CIDA.
With funds raised, the third challenge is to volunteer for 10 weeks in Costa Rica or Guyana. There, about 30 challengers form Canada join about 20 from Australia and one or two from Costa Rica and Guyana. They are divided into five groups to participate in two projects over 10 weeks. The first project is often environmental, the second is usually community-oriented. The most recent group to return from Costa Rica worked in nature parks maintaining trails and buildings and then helped build two comedors, a community centre and a rural aqueduct. Although further along than the one in Tempatal, YCI left the second comedor unfinished as well. The rural aqueduct was also far from finished when the challengers left.
The challengers who didn’t’ work on construction projects worked with SEE International, a California-based organization that provides eye surgery to needful people in developing countries. Debbie Parliament, a 22-year-old from Newmarket, was one of those challengers. While du Plessis was building the comedor in Tempatal, Parliament and the other challengers in her group were screening people for cataract removal surgery in the communities around Nicoya. They did this after two hours of training from a local ophthalmologist.
“I wanted to make sure that the patients understood what we were doing. I really wanted to explain what was happening and make it very clear. It was hard for me because I couldn’t speak Spanish,” Parliament says. Even after taking a Spanish language class in Canada and 10 weeks in Costa Rica, she admits her Spanish is terrible. “My tongue wasn’t made to speak Spanish,” she recalls one Costa Rican told her.
Once the surgeries were booked, and with another 15 minutes of training. Parliament and the other challengers prepared the patients for surgery, observed the 40-minute procedure and helped the patients with post-surgery care. Later, with 10 minutes of instruction, the challengers returned to visit the patients in their homes to make sure they were properly caring for their eyes. With YCI’s help, SEE International performed 63 cataract removal surgeries’. “Some people thought that SEE International could have done this without us,” Parliament says.
And without YCI or other such groups, SEE works with local volunteers says Baillee Brown, president and CEO of SEE International. “It’s not that we need YCI to do the clinics. If YCI is some place, we use them. If they’re not, we use local people.” Brown says it’s easier to use YCI because they take care of managing the volunteers. Without YCI, SEE has to manage local volunteers. However, she says local volunteers are better at communicating with local patients.
Parliament and du Plessis have been back from Costa Rica for nine months. When challengers return to their own communities they must complete the fourth challenge, which is to perform 100 hours of volunteer service. Both Parliament and du Plessis don’t know what they’ll do for their fourth challenge. Past challengers have volunteered to promote safer sex to teens, plant trees and help developmentally disabled teens do errands, says Ange Valentini, YCI’s director of Canadian programs in charge of coordinating the fourth challenge.
Valentini is one of YCI’s paid employees. Six full-time employees, a handful of part-timers and countless volunteers work in Canada to select challengers, guide them through the four challenges and keep YCI operating. In Costa Rica and Guyana, two full-time staff are helped by volunteers to arrange the projects and supervise the challengers. Staff salaries take up one third of the money YCI raises. Transporting staff and volunteers to South America and around the project countries eats up another third of the money challengers raise. The rest of the money goes to maintaining YCI’s Toronto and Vancouver offices and supporting the challengers through the four challenges. YCI doesn’t supply materials or expert help for the projects but provides Costa Rica and Guyana with project coordination and labour through the challengers.
Back in Tempatal the comedor YCI built is still unusable. “As far as we know it’s not yet finished,” says Meredith Lee, YCI’s assistant field project director in Costa Rica. The comedor was built so the Costa Rican government could provide the undernourished school children of Tempatal at least one meal each day. “I would be surprised if they could use it,” Lee says. And so the school children are still hungry.