Volunteering as a Social Worker in Costa Rica

6 minute read

When I reflect on the life I was living only 13 months ago, I am astounded by how much I’ve changed, both on a personal and professional level. Last year I was living in New York, working as a social worker and intensive case manager in an elementary school, while attempting to save money that I assumed would buy me an idyllic “happy” life. I loved my job and was connected to supporting the youth and community in which I worked, but I was too focused on how to keep moving up some invisible career ladder. I felt unsatisfied with my personal relationships and craved depth.

With the financial support from the Christianson Fellowship, I was able to spend the past 13 months working in Costa Rica with La Asociación CREAR. CREAR provides supplemental education and recreation opportunities for youth in the rural beach communities surrounding Playa Sámara. They strive to offer a wide variety of innovative programs, including an after school program in Sámara and El Torito; in-school assemblies and community presentations on critical environmental issues, such as energy and recycling; and biannual day camps offering art activities, trips to museums, cooking activities, music and dance lessons, and sports and physical activities. Programs in development include English classes for youth, lacrosse and surf clubs, and a tutoring program.

CREAR is located in the Chorotega region of the Guanacaste province in Costa Rica. This region has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country. In 2010, 21.3% of households nationally were classified as poor, while the incidence of poverty in the Chorotega region was 32.6%. This is in comparison with a poverty rate of only 17.1% in the central region of Costa Rica. Chorotega also has the lowest coverage of social services and highest housing deficit in the country. Primary school children in the area attend school for three to four hours a day and many do not advance to high school or university.

As a program development and social worker volunteer, I was able to have a considerable role within the organization and a good amount of responsibility. The involvement in various projects and opportunities for growth, both personally and professionally, were endless and invaluable. I never would have had the opportunity in the U.S. to work side by side with directors in a nonprofit on such significant initiatives.

When I first arrived, I was involved in planning and co-facilitating classes in the after-school and summer programs for youth, ages five to 12. I created an online reference of websites offering high-quality information to build a curriculum and lesson plan library, including ESL curriculum sites, to assist teachers and volunteers with lesson planning. I participated in the evolution of how CREAR’s classes were prepared by teachers and volunteers, which provided greater accountability and documentation and the classes were organized around monthly and weekly themes. For example, during the month of October the theme was “Ciencias de la Tierra” (Earth Science). Each week correlated to a subtheme.

Direct work with the children was often fun and gratifying. But occasionally, I would feel frustrated with the connections I had with the kids. I was able to communicate with them in Spanish, but I didn’t have all of the words to relate, ask questions, make jokes, and ultimately connect. It was only when I realized that I could share my silly sense of humor and that the kids understood this humor that I felt comfortable with the relationships we had forged. Though language is essential to communication, there are so many subtleties of non-verbal communication and attitude that contribute to relationship building.

I was able to work on and watch as many wonderful partnerships and collaborations with organizations, community members, and international and local volunteers developed and came to fruition. One such partnership was between CREAR and the Omprakash Foundation. Omprakash partners with grassroots health, education, and environmental projects all over the world and links them with virtual classrooms, potential donors, and volunteers. Their main initiative is encouraging and nourishing learning collaborations and connections within their network to support greater change.

One significant aspect of my work with CREAR has been collecting and compiling data and research to support the sustainability and growth of the organization. I led a project in developing and distributing needs assessments for local schools and families, in addition to a community-wide survey. The assessments and surveys are vital in determining the community-identified needs and can also offer useful information in terms of improving the services already being provided. This project was definitely a learning process in eliciting and listening to the voices of the community and adapting the manner in which this can be accomplished to eliminate bias.

My own volunteer work has been incredibly enriched by working alongside other volunteers, both locally and from all over the world. Each had a wide array of life experiences, a different cultural and professional background, and varying skill sets and expertise to offer. My involvement with volunteers extended further, as I was part of a project to develop and expand CREAR’s volunteer program. I revised and updated volunteer and internship positions, maintained these listings on several volunteering websites, updated the volunteer application form, created a volunteer manual to assist new volunteers in their transition to working abroad and with CREAR, and responded to those interested in finding funding for their volunteer trips.

During my time with CREAR, I was also invested in researching funding opportunities to support the sustainability and expansion of programs. I must admit that it was not an easy task, especially without a public library. Several websites were extraordinarily helpful in providing informative population data and statistics on need, including those maintained by Instituto Nacional de Estatística y Censos de Costa Rica (INEC), Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social (IMAS), Asociación Demográfia Costarricense, and Atlas del Desarollo Humano.

I was also able to contribute in other areas as well. I developed an earthquake trauma toolkit with resources for families and community members after a 7.6 earthquake in September, wrote a business plan in collaboration with TechSoup, helped plan and supported several fundraiser events in the community, assisted with publicity and outreach by attending meetings, and creating brochures for the organization on programs and services offered and worked on the information presented on CREAR’s website. I saw the expansion of programs to include English and music classes led by local instructors, an after-school program for first through third graders, the development of sports clubs, growth of the volunteer program, and evolution in how classes were structured and taught to emphasize a greater educational component.

I must offer my sincere and deep gratitude to the InterExchange Foundation for affording me this powerfully transformative experience. Additionally, my profound appreciation and love goes out to La Asociación CREAR, the directors, and the communities of Sámara and El Torito. These 13 months have impressed upon me that learning opportunities exist in every moment and what matters is one’s openness to this learning. I cannot imagine that I will ever be done with the ever-evolving process of exploring, questioning, and critically examining the nuances of culture, identity, and belonging.

Lauren T. By

Lauren volunteered in Playa Samara, Guanacaste, Costa Rica with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation