Kaiser Permanente volunteers in Piedades Sur, Costa Rica

group 2
‘Rich Coast’ is literally the translation for Costa Rica, and indeed, it is. It is as rich in culture, as it is in beauty. This past summer, I along with approximately 17 other AMAZING people, had the opportunity to open our hearts and lend our hands in building a concrete playground court for kids. For me, this opportunity was more than extremely special.
When I was a senior in high school I was nominated by my Spanish teacher to study abroad in Costa Rica, at the university. I would have stayed with a host family and done volunteer work. At the time my mother did not allow this due to fear of me being so young and being on my own. For many years it resonated in my heart.  It’s not that I couldn’t take a trip to Costa Rica, but I wanted to do something more meaningful (to me) than be a tourist.
Several years later, the opportunity which I thought was only once in a lifetime came back around. I officially had a second chance at a once per lifetime only occurrence. Courts For Kids was planning a trip to Costa Rica, ironically during the same time that I took off for an annual vacation-to where, I had no idea. It was an opportunity to stay with host families, volunteer, and be immersed in  a community so strong with culture and tradition. There wasn’t an opportunity to go to school, BUT there was oh so much to learn.
work site
Most of us arrived on the same flight, July 29th, 2015. For the most part, we were all physically strangers to one another. We’d spoken by emails and maybe some by phone. Upon arrival, we had a traditional Costa Rican breakfast and  checked out the neighboring city to Piedades Sur, which is San Ramon. We went to a museum, a cathedral and even a hotel where John F. Kennedy once stayed!
After a bit of sightseeing, we were well on our way to our temporary home, but soon to be permanent families. Traveling through the hills ,we were reminded of the physical beauty that Costa Rica is known for. All of the mountains and hills were so green and lush, a sight that words will never do any justice.
Our families were all so very accommodating to whatever it was that we needed, or they felt we needed. As if opening their homes to complete strangers wasn’t expression of generosity enough, some of them even offered up their own bedrooms (if there weren’t any spares) and made meals accommodating our dietary needs. The language barrier was something that I was afraid of, (since I hadn’t really practiced my Spanish for years)but somehow when spirits mesh well, conversation verbally, or otherwise, just flows. You know, it takes a special type of person to volunteer anything, be it their time or their home-this is why  my fear of barriers quickly diminished; the hosts and guests alike share similar spirits.
CFK group for Talent show
In addition to making the court, we had many activities lined up for us by Peace Corps Volunteer Laura Getz and our Courts for Kids leader, Darien Combs. One of the very first things we were treated to, was a festival of the arts celebration (a tradition for the students)at the school where we were building the court. We received a warm welcome, and watched so much talent take the stage. There was singing and dancing ; instrument playing- it was awesome! There was to be another festival of the arts performance on the last day of our full stay as a group, and we were invited to participate. Mervin Francisco, our dance captain as I will call him, ( also our unofficial cameraman) didn’t hesitate to come up with a dance routine, and recruit more than willing individuals from our group to partake in the festivities. Volunteer Antonio Fernandez, also recited a moving original poetry piece, which he wrote specifically for Costa Rica and its people. It’s a brave thing to perform in front of high school aged kids. However, from the sound of the cheers and applauds, it seemed as though they enjoyed us as much as we enjoyed performing for them.
cloud forest
We also went on several hikes through a couple of rain forests. “Watch out where you grab, if you fall” warned Laura. “There are snakes  that hang from trees….” With that statement, my anxiety got the best of me. I definitely made extra sure not to fall!
Sunday, the 26th of July,was a holiday. people from all over hiked or walked miles to pay their respects for past sightings of The Virgin Mary. Individually, people from the CFK group reported sightings of monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and interesting insects. Fortunately, I didn’t see any snakes!
On one of the evenings, we gathered around a table on the patio of one of the host’s homes, as the sun was setting, and learned how to make traditional Costa Rican tamales and papusas. Also, every afternoon around 3 or 4 we had cafecito time, which was a coffee break from whatever we were doing. It was a nice reminder to kind of sit back and reflect on the day that far.
While all of this sounds like fun and excitement, and it was, this trip did not come without hard work and dedication. Every morning, until almost the very last day, we woke up early and got to work on the court. We had a little system. Primarily, the wheel-barrel crew , shovel and rock crew, and concrete mixer/pourers/captain/carriers, remained the same. Occasionally we would switch, or have people float, but mostly we maintained our spots everyday. If there wasn’t enough space for everyone to work outside, some of us took turns painting a classroom over, or watching our honorary helper Phoebe, the 10 month old daughter of Antonio and Janette, our dynamic duo couple! The amount of teamwork we had, not only from CFK volunteers, but from the students and contractors was simply amazing!
With the weather being up and down, between blazing sun and pouring rain, each day was uncertain- but Mother Nature (and Father Time) were on our side. Once completed, the reality that it was almost over had set in. The first day of looking at the court space ,we thought “wow”, “that will take no time”! Looks are certainly deceiving, as it took more time than expected, yet somehow, it felt like time lapsed, and we were already saying goodbye.
pumping up balls
The last full day, our families came for the inauguration of the playground, where we presented them with tokens of our appreciation, in the form of a tasty pastry or heartfelt, homemade card. We had an opportunity to play a few different games on the court, with the children, before it was time to say our goodbyes. At the end of the day, we did one last ” rose, thorn, blossom.”  The rose represented the good things of the trip, the thorn… the bad, and the blossom…what you were looking forward to.  The room was filled with roses and blossoms, what else could one really expect? Many tears were shed many hugs were given, but most importantly many friendships were blossoming. The night, and trip had come to an end, and we went “home” for one last time. Many of the families had celebrations in honor of our stay there. Some of the families didn’t want to let us go, nor were we quite ready to say good bye to them OR to what the Ticos (local word for Costa Ricans) call the ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle. Its translation, not literally, but essentially, means “it’s all good.” The literal translation is ‘Pure life’.  Our very last morning there, we left our families and some of group saw each other again, on the bus back towards the airport. Others of us stayed to explore the country a tad bit more.
school kidsThis trip was everything I could have imagined and more. It tested my patience with myself, as well as my strength (both physically and mentally). It also recommenced my  hope in the world; that 17 strangers could come together, for one cause(to make people happy) and a community could welcome those 17 strangers into their homes ,with open arms. For me, this trip was 10 plus years in the making -which lasted 9 days- but created a lifetime worth of memories. I always like to say I never touch anything with half of my heart, and even if the good you do today is forgotten; do good anyway!  We came together as strangers and parted ways as friends and family, maybe not by blood, but by the compassion we all share and the Pura Vida mentality that we had, even if just for nine days, running through our veins.  – Roneesha Erby, volunteer
Finished court