A flash from the Past. Costa Rica Y2K
When I looked around me I noticed that almost the entire community was in a circle. It was as if a space ship had landed, or the second coming. They were all in a joyous mood, some clapping, some laughing, and some just smiling.
The children of the community were in the middle of the circle. They were jumping around, screeching with joy and queuing up to enjoy the new attraction in the school yard. I was standing just inside the circle and taking grateful handshakes and words of everlasting thanks.
I was in the highlands of Costa Rica and I could not have been happier. A week’s worth of work had resulted in a playground for the community school. I was most proud of the absolutely gregarious swing set I had built. If an inanimate object can be gregarious, this swing set was. It called out for attention and use. It was huge. It was actually too big for a grammar school. Back in the states the school district would never have let me build it. But here I had no such restrictions. The swing beam was a good 30 feet high. When the kids got the swing going full tilt it blew their hair back. On the way down their faces and smiles got distorted by an increase in G force. They screamed happy screams. They cried with joy. So did I.
I was here by the graces of a woman I can only describe as a 70’s “earth mother” who kept her promise to improve the world. Her name was Gayle. She ran an organization called the Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation. That was a name I found a bit grandiose at first but after my week of working for her, I realized she deserved it.
Her work consisted of bringing University or high school students to Costa Rica from the USA or Canada. They camped in her back yard. During the day, they went off to do good works.
Gayle tirelessly organized everything. She dealt with the schools and their students. She found funding. Most important she prioritized projects. There was no lack of worthy projects to consider. You could call it a triage of community needs.
When I walked into her office she was a bit wary of me. Well, most people were wary of me at that time in my life.
I was living at the beach and spending all my time barefoot in a hammock drinking Daiquiris and reading books. Not a bad life really. Except for when others around me would ask “so, what do you DO?” I told them about my past life, my career, but they would stop me and say “No. I mean WHAT DO YOU DO NOW?” I had no answer.
I was 40 something. My life’s course, my goals, my wishes and desires had been totally and irrevocably derailed by the unnecessary death of my only son. I divorced my wife of 18 years. I sold everything I owned. I bought a 4WD pick-up, filled it with tools and drove from California to Costa Rica. I had no idea where I would end up. I was hoping to buy an acre of beach front property and build myself a suitable shack to hole up in and escape from reality. It was not to be. I had run out of anti-depression meds and my mind was fixated on suicide. No wonder Gayle looked at me like a serpent that had just slithered under her door.
I went to see Gayle and check out the foundation at the prompting of an American priest who was hanging out at the same beach. “Dude, do something with your life” he told me. A priest who used the word “dude” pulled at my heart strings. He knew Gayle and gave me instructions how to get to her house outside of San Jose.
I packed up my tools and set off. I arrived at her home. It was located on a large piece of property with tents pitched all over the back yard in the shade of mango trees. I walked in and knew I was going to have to make myself mentally presentable, because the physical equivalent was quite beyond me at the moment. After a half hour rap, during which I managed to convey my life story, tragedies and all, she realized that I could help her, and in doing so help myself.
“So you have a pick-up full of tools?” she asked.
“Do you know how to use them?” Smart lady.
I replied as if it were a job interview, “Well, the hammer and the shovel, yeah. I can figure out the rest”.
She told me about a group of high school students on their way from Canada. She wanted to put them to work at a school in a new community called Lindora not far away. The community was built on land donated by the Costa Rican government. The fathers of this new community built something like 200 homes. When they were all done they had a lottery to see which family got which home, and they all moved in. The government built the school.
Gayle explained “They did not build a playground for the kids. Are you interested?”
Yes I was. Since my son’s passing, until that very moment, I had avoided children as much as possible. My mind started to heal with the thought of doing something for poor kids. Mine had been lucky enough to have everything his blessed heart desired. Doing some small thing for a whole school full of kids just filled my head with dreamy pleasures. My son used to spend hours on a swing set I had put in our back yard. So I asked “Can I build them a Swing set?”
“Do whatever you want. I am giving you six young men. You supervise them and do something within a week”.
“What is my budget?”
“How much do you have?”
Well, now I had a schedule and free labor. As far as materials, well I was on my own. At least I had no restrictions.
The next Monday a group of twenty high school students arrived with one teacher as the chaperone. We first met at Gayle’s compound. I could only take one guy with me, the others had to travel in Gayle’s van and some Taxis she used for transport.
The student with me did not speak a word of Spanish. His travel experience was limited to Canada and the USA, mostly Canada. To say he was awed by what went zooming past the car window is an understatement. “Look, that guy is carrying a whole bunch of bananas, and they are green. Why don’t they wait until they ripen?”
I had to admit that things like that once perked my interest and I tried to be informative without talking down to him.
We got to the school and met the director. Director is what they call a principle. Most of the students were going to put up white boards in the class rooms, and help the teachers teach English for a week. Gayle took me aside and told me I was going to have to speak to the Director about my plans. My Spanish is excellent, and I was not exactly intimidated by a 30 year old Principle. He seemed more intimidated of me.
“I am going to build a swing set” I told him.
His reply was conveyed with his quizzical look more than with words. I had to explain to him what a swing set was. It turned out my Spanish was not THAT good. But he finally shrugged his shoulders and I took that as him giving me permission. I told him how much space I needed, and he pointed at a thankfully flat piece of land.
My design was in my head. I mean, a swing set, right? My model was the swing set from Costco I had built for my boy. I took my six students aside and I told them what we would be doing. They were all enthusiastic and all had suggestions. Before I knew it, I had committed to a six seat contraption, made of steel with chains. We would use bald tires for the seats. As one of the students pointed out “The sides of the roads are littered with them.”
I put two students in charge of searching for suitable tires. They set out on a quest walking the streets of the town and the highway. They looked more like prospectors or misguided adventurers than students. I knew they would be fine.
I unloaded my tools and put the other four students in the back of the pick-up and we set off looking for a hardware store. It was not that simple. We ended up in the next town where we found 3” steel tubes. My design took another revision. These tubes were 30 feet long. They were hardened steel. The vendor could not cut them. This was going to be a very big swing set, how cool!
We (I) bought the tubes. I bought enough chain for twelve swing hangers. With a swing set as high as this was going to be, my original plan of using a clamp to attach the hangers, (like my Costco kit did) did not seem safe. So I improvised and bought lag bolts.
I knew I needed to install the uprights in concrete. Readymix is not even a word in Costa Rica. I had to buy cement, pebbles and sand. I had never mixed concrete before, so it was up to one of the students to figure that out.
After all that shopping we got back to the school just about the time we were going to lunch. We all piled into the vehicles and went to a park where Gayle was bringing the food.
A Canadian girl was with Gayle when she arrived. She was in tears. In fact she was in a state of shock. I needed to know why. I do not have any qualifications as a social worker, and certainly no future in it, but her anguish bothered me.
I put my arm around her and we walked over to a tree trunk that passed as a bench.
“Tell me what is bothering you” I said in a fatherly way.
“I just saw the poorest people anywhere! Gayle stopped to deliver them some rice and beans. They were living under a bridge with nothing but a beat up tarp for a shelter. The youngest kids ran around naked. None of the kids had shoes. The women were wearing rags.”
She could have go on for an hour, but I needed to get her settled down.
“So, you have never seen poverty stricken people before? Aren’t there any poor people in Vancouver?”
She looked at me like I had just asked her a trigonometry question.
“No, I have never seen anything like that before. I’m sure nobody lives like that in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada.
I sat there a moment to decide how to deal with this. I knew from talking to Gayle that these kids were from an upper class enclave back home. I could have told her that from the Eddie Bauer adventure wear they had decided to wear for the trip. “you are wrong” I said. “90% of the people in the world live below what we call ‘the poverty line’. A lot of those live beneath bridges.”
Now she looked at me like I had just told her the Bible was a fairy tale. “That is terrible. That is just horrible. It is wrong. Why don’t people help them?”
Now it was my turn to look perplexed. “Well, there are not many people like Gayle in the world. What do you plan to do with your life?”
“I want to be a doctor like my father” she said. I could see the wheels spinning in her head.
“That is a great thing to strive for. Once you become a doctor, maybe you should look into volunteering with a group of doctors called Doctors Without Borders.” I went on to explain that they go around the world trying to cure the poorest people of things like malaria.
“That’s what I’ll do!” she declared. She stopped crying, jumped up and ran back to join her friends. I’ll never know if she finished med school or joined DWB, I can only hope so.
Over the next four days my group and I got the swing set installed. As I said, it was quite the sight. Way too big. We had set the frame in concrete and I had scribbled my son’s name into the concrete as it dried. Again, I cried.
On the last day we tested it. I was the guinea pig. I sat inside one of the tires, and pumped my legs to get the swing moving. Before I knew it I was swishing higher and higher and higher. I was having so much fun that I forgot about the local kids. I looked down from the top of the arch of my swing and realized I had an audience. It dawned on me that these children had never seen a swig set before. I felt like an astronaut when I stopped. Children ran out to jump on a tire and try it themselves. But the testing was not over. I wanted all six seats swung in at once, by the students who built the set, just to be sure it was safe. I stood by and watched six Canadian high school students put the set through its paces. I watched the school children anxiously awaiting their chance. This was something both boys and girls could do. They were all excited.
Word went out in the community that the swing set was open, and parents drifted onto the school grounds in groups. Soon they were surrounding it. I called off the Canadians. I made a 30 second speech thanking Gayle and her foundation for the chance to bring a little joy to the children of Lindora, then I said “It is yours, Enjoy.”