I thought I was well travelled, after all, I have visited many major cities in the United States. I certainly thought that I understood poverty and homelessness. My mom is a social worker who has worked with non-profit agencies. Certainly I have been exposed to families dealing with poverty, hunger and homelessness through my volunteer work. I have to admit I was ill prepared for what I encountered during a class trip to Costa Rica.
We were riding in a bus heading away from San Jose, Costa Rica, having a good time listening to music and joking around. Our destination was an orphanage located about 15 minutes south of the city. As we headed out of the city, the neighborhood changed dramatically. In the city, the houses were concrete structures with a flair of the Spanish culture. As we travelled out of the city, we transitioned from the densely populated areas of San Jose to the more sparsely populated suburbs. Suddenly the hillsides were littered with shacks that locals referred to as shantytowns. The houses appeared to constructed of scrap wood with tin or cloth roofs. The neighborhood children were thin, just skin and bones. My heart bled for them; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The farther away we travelled from the city the more desperate the situation seemed to be. We observed kids scrounging through garbage looking for something to eat.
As we approached the orphanage we noted that it was surrounded by fences. It left me puzzled as I thought that fences were for jails, not for orphanages. For a minute I was panicked, I wasn’t prepared to deal with troubled kids. We were later told that the fence was there to keep the people out, not to keep the orphans in. Upon entering the orphanage it was clear that this was a facility that met the children’s basic needs: food, shelter and clothing, nothing more. It was also clear that the people outside the orphanage went without these basic necessities.
After the soccer game I headed outside to play with the younger children. The children clamored for my attention. After a short time I figured out that they wanted piggy back rides. The orphans started saying “a mi porfavor,” which means “me please.” I would take one and put him/her on my back and walk around. As I paraded around with them they laughed and giggled. As soon as I finished with one, there would be twenty more orphans waiting for me, screaming for me to take them. After an hour of piggy back rides in the hot Costa Rican sun I was exhausted and needed a break. I then went inside to help with the arts and crafts.
When I arrived inside, the activity in process was finger painting. There was definitely more paint on the children’s faces than on the canvas. It was a constant task to try and clean up the children. I soon discovered this was not my area of expertise. My next stop was the gym, where we handed out the items that we brought as well as food and other non-perishable items to the local residents. The look on these people’s faces was of relief and happiness. We had people tell us that without the food we were giving them that they would go hungry. It felt so good to know that I was making a difference in someone life. As we handed out the last of the supplies I realized the need far exceeded what we had to offer. We then went back to play with the children on their makeshift “jungle gym.” After about an hour, it was time to leave. We said our goodbyes to the children, who begged us not to leave saying this was the most fun they had in a long time. We boarded our bus and as we left the compound we saw the kids running behind the bus, waving and blowing kisses. I took one last look at the orphanage and the shantytown and silently hoped that things would get better for them. I also knew that for many of them that would not be that case.
After spending time at the orphanage, I realized that I take a lot for granted; food, shelter and people who love and care for me. These are things that certainly were not a given for the orphans and almost certainly not a reality for those who lived outside the orphanage. I learned that I have much to give, even though my resources are somewhat limited. I learned that my time and willingness to interact can and did make a difference in the orphans and in me.
I found myself flooded with emotion, scared, confused, overwhelmed, saddened, yet energized with a desire to help. I really had no prior insight into the level of human despair I would encounter. I really had no understanding of how desperate the need was for the measly amount of supplies that were bringing them. I had no appreciation for the fact a smile or taking time to play a game would bring joy to me and to the them. “It’s the little things;” a phrase I’ve heard all my life, “that mean the most to others.” Who would have thought that ten days in a small foreign country would have given me insight into myself and energize me to make the world a better place.
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