A clean start for children in Costa Rica

In a Costa Rican community controlled by drug cartels, local church leader, Bella Flor, has spent the last two decades bringing holistic transformation to the lives of children and families, whilst also getting her hands dirty by cleaning up the local environment.

Bella Flor talks to us about her motivation, her challenges and how being part of Viva’s partner network impacts her work.

What is your role?
I am a pastor and director of the Comedor Infantil La Tabla Posible (‘Children’s Canteen’ in La Tabla community), which is located in San Rafael Abajo de Desamparados, San José. I have worked here for 22 years, and have seen many generations pass through the centre.

What inspired you to start working with children here?
At the church I attended, there was an evangelistic campaign into the La Tabla community. I began to understand the great needs that the children were confronting. From that first day they would line up to be fed, regardless of whether we had food to distribute. La Tabla is a community of high social risk, where children are often abandoned by their parents.

Most of them are subject to violence from their relatives and we should not ignore the fact that some are exposed to abusive relationships. In addition, the community is dominated by drug
addiction, resulting in children working as ‘drug mules’ to earn money to relieve the hardship they find themselves in.

From that day on, each time I went into the neighbourhood, God began to underline to me the promise that he had given me: that he was going to make a transformation in this community.

Is there any particular story that was a motivation for you?
Several years ago I met a boy who was eight years old and looked quite unwell. Since I could not find his mother, I left a message with a person who knew her and decided to take him home to give him medicine and food. The boy begged me to let him stay at our house because he felt happier with us. Three days went by and, as no one contacted me about the child, I set about finding out who the mother was. When I found her, I took the boy to her home and I watched his mother treat him very badly, pushing him into the house and hitting him – all because the boy told her that he wanted to stay in my house. At that moment, I understood that my work ought to be much more than simply serving a plate of food to a child, but demonstrating the love of Jesus through my actions towards them.

What pleases you most about the work?
It has been amazing to see the hand of God at work during these last 22 years, demonstrating his faithfulness, which has transformed the lifestyle of children, and also of the community. My work is vital, because we opened a children’s canteen, not only supplying hot meals, but fulfilling the need for God’s Word to be opened up to children and teenagers. We also give school support; assisting with supplies or helping students keep up their attendance.

We develop recreation spaces. Our greatest achievement was the creation of a multipurpose court, as a space where young people gather, share and, above all, have fun together. With regard to the physical environment of the community, we work to clean it up through an educational programme about the collection and separation of rubbish for recycling. I really love what God has set me to do, knowing that I have been able to help change the way of thinking and living of some 2,000 children and young people. It has been wonderful to be the means by which God is bringing light to this community.

How have you seen your community change?
Now the neighbourhood is more attractive, the river that surrounds it no longer floods when it rains. Before it used to rise up and overflow through the houses. I have been able to see how the women, who were little girls 20 years ago, now bring their own children to the canteen. They frequently tell me that they do not want their children to go through the same things as they lived through in their own childhood. God has been good.

What would you say is your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge during all this time has been to gain the trust of the community to allow me to enter without having to ask permission. There are guards at all community entrances and people can be killed if they enter uninvited. There were many threats to my life when I first started in the community, but I have now built people’s trust. This has been one of the greatest steps of progress, because many people in the community are naturally distrustful and close up when help is offered.

How does being part of Red Viva Costa Rica help you?
Through their resources and programmes they provide me with the tools that greatly improves my work. Equally, the mutual support and the pastoral care helps me enormously. I know now that I do no longer work alone.

Would you recommend others join the network?
It’s very important to work as a team; to assess whether what you have done is good or bad. It is a great help in ministerial development.

In what others ways might the network help you in future?
It would be fantastic to have a department where professionals in psychology and skills development are integrated, and where we could effectively support children who are in need of assistance in those areas.

Bella Flor was talking with William Mora, Network Co-ordinator of Red Viva Costa Rica

This article first appeared in Life magazine, issue 11.