BY CHARLOTTE GYE
Charlotte Gye is 21 years old and starting university in the UK studying nursing. Earlier this year, she spent four months living in San José, volunteering for Red Viva Costa Rica. Here are her reflections on her time there.
I stood with a church leader, Pastor M, as he shared an incredible story with me from about six years before.
When he and his team were new to the slum and distributing food in a central area, where the slum’s little church now stands, a gunfight between two gangs broke out either side of them.
As it closed in on them, one of the gangs’ leaders, Fernando, came right up to the pastor and pointed his gun in his face and said, “you have three minutes to get out”.
Pastor M told Fernando to do what he needed to do but that he must be told, “Dios te ama.” (“God loves you.”)
Fernando broke down crying and fell to his knees. Pastor M tells me that in that moment he changed completely; he became a Christian, was no longer a threat to the community as he had been and is now a positive leader in it.
This story struck me, not because of its rarity, but because of the sheer number of people I met during my time in Costa Rica doing similar work in similarly hostile environments, all of whom have an overwhelming level of humility.
Many of these people – pastors of churches who are members of the network – work closely with each other to help local vulnerable people overcome and diminish the greatest problems in their communities.
Targeting violence is a huge priority for local churches who are members of Viva’s partner network in San José.
Although preventative measures are important in the short term, the team has found that education is the best solution to change people’s lives for good. If children receive good schooling and support and encouragement with their studies, they have a better chance to get a job once they leave school.
The care centre at Trono de Dios church, where I was based, has a hugely positive effect on many of the children’s lives.
Some children are not happy or safe at home and so Trono is a secure place for them. They receive food when they’re there – some of them three meals a day – and can have help with homework. The joy of the kids is visible from day one.
My role was as a teacher/carer/helper and a typical day at Trono included playing with the children and supervising play, helping with craft activities, getting involved with sports and spending time with the children.
More practical tasks were, of course, required of me too including serving food, helping change nappies and clothes, clearing up after messy activities and being an extra pair of hands for the teachers.
At other times, I was forced further out of my comfort zone as I visited four slums that surround the city, like that where Pastor M works.
I feel sick to my stomach even now thinking about the conditions some people – some children – live in.
I saw unsanitary streams running through some people’s homes and children playing with old, broken beer bottles. There are lots of unemployed single mothers, and many cannot find jobs for fear of leaving their children unattended at home because gun violence, drug gang warfare and sexual abuse are common.
Pastor M told me that he regularly hears stories of children being abused and raped, often by a family member. “Es normal para ellos,” he said. (“It’s normal for them.”)
In stark contrast, I was struck by the picturesque, natural beauty of Costa Rica. I was fortunate enough to spend some weekends at the beach and in the rainforest during my stay and I almost couldn’t believe places like that actually existed. I saw tiny frogs, just like the little plastic ‘pocket frogs’ I’d had as a child, and had both racoons and monkeys steal snacks right out of my bag.
I also loved how close families appeared to be. The family of my host, and boss, Hellen lived all around her, with her mother, brothers, sister-in-law and niece as her neighbours. My good friend Marta’s family ate together every Sunday and her sisters, niece and mother all lived together while she and her husband lived above his mother and sister.
My siblings and parents are spread across England so this Costa Rican family life really appeals to me. Even at work, I felt immediately welcomed into a close-knit team that felt like family.
The experience has been life-altering. I feel stronger in my faith and more familiar with the world which has taught me more about God.
For my year out from studying, I wanted to do something worthwhile and knew a Christian organisation would have the same approach to community development as me. Viva was my first choice because I already knew about them and was impressed by the work they do and after spending time with the network’s projects, I don’t despair but rather feel overwhelmed with hope and excitement for the future of the children and communities living in and around San José.