I saw smiles in Alajuelita

dsc08448.jpgAbout a month ago I decided to organize a collection of second hand clothing for poor children. The donations drive was a success and I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to help pass some of them out. Today I had the chance to visit to one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Costa Rica, a very large slum area called Alajuelita where thousands of people live in extreme poverty, most of them are children.

The planning was a little surreal, I had to pack the donations in my car and meet with the people of Education Plus, they work with children in these areas to help them stay out of trouble. We met half way and left my car in an enclosed church as it was not safe for me to drive, or park close to the area. The instructions: Dress simple, don’t wear jewelry, don’t carry any important documents or money and if you bring a camera, make sure it’s an old one that can easily get lost (or stolen).

The drive into Tejarcillos de Alajuelita was reminder number 1 as to why I decided to embark on this little mission. Dirt roads up a hilly mountain, the smell of sewage and rubbish is hard to avoid. Dump trucks barely pick up the rubbish once a month and whilst they do, it sits on the street where it mixes with the water that comes down the hill from people’s bathrooms (those that have one). The houses, “sticks and stones” as my grandmother would call them, they are not houses, they are not homes, they are slums, small collections of old wood, tin and maybe an odd window that they find thrown somewhere… the floor, non existent, just dirt and mud.

Most of the kids in that area go to a small public school, the local school has 3 shifts in a day so that they can keep up with the vast amount of children in the area. Some of them waited for us in a small shack, a “community centre” which also serves as a workshop for a couple of men that try to make a living making furniture. Gerardo, the cutest kid with a huge smile meets us down the path and helps us carry up our bags, the rest sit patiently holding their bibles in the shack where they have a couple of benches where they all crowd up on.

Education Plus holds little bible study sessions for these kids and although I’m not a religious person I just could not stop smiling throughout the whole activity. The kids, some in uniform, some dressed, some showered and some just barely awake, it was so great to see the effort they make to participate. Juan Carlos who works with Education Plus, he’s a star, the kids love him, he plays his guitar, gets them to sing, clap, teases them about everything… anything to make them smile. The morning activities were simple, sing some dsc08454.jpgsongs and play a game. The game: Answer questions about last week’s readings and you get to play the “bag game”. I had no idea what they were on about, I figured that those who answered right would get a little bag of candy or even just a lollipop. Turns out that the game consists of an old chair, a plastic pitcher and 5 little bean bags… those who answer questions correctly get to throw the bean bags in hopes of getting them into the pitcher. As simple as the game sounds, the kids loved and kept trying to cheat in order to get a turn at it. You see, the kids are divided into 5 large groups in the neighbourhood, and with these activities they get points for their group. The groups with the larger amount of points get to go to special activities like a soccer game or a free lunch, some even just a short trip out of the slum to a cleaner church, one with bathrooms and a concrete floor.

Keith Holder, the man in charge of Education Plus is known to them as “Don Jorge”, an incredibly sweet man that greets every single kid with a handshake or a kiss, they love him, he knows them all, calls them by name, asks them about their life and pats them on the head. Kids hug him over and over again, show him their new clothes, a new hairdo or even a little cut on the knee. Keith has been working with these kids for years, he’s seen some of them grow up to be great individuals, and he’s also seen others get into drugs and crime.

Towards the end of the morning, Keith disappeared in the hand of a little girl, he had walked up a bit further into the neighbourhood to talk to a 15 year old girl who recently got a job in a “car wash”… It looks like a car wash from outside but he knows she’s a step away from prostitution because it’s the real business of the place. He decides to head up to talk to her and her drug addicted mother to let them know that there’s much more to this “car wash” job, all of this in hopes that she takes his advice and tries to find a better job. As this happens I decided to step out of the shack to get some air where I’m approached by a very drunk man who decides to tell me that his wife gave him shit earlier for looking at me as I walked up the slum into the shack. Needless to say, I excused myself politely and headed back inside hoping that he’d not follow me and that Juan Carlos would notice and send him off. I had been reading a lot about these slums but at this point it all hit me, most of these kids grow up in the middle of drugs, prostitution and crime, I was freaked out by one man, they live this every day.

dsc08458.jpgAt the end of the morning, it was time to give out the donations, unfortunately we had very little in their sizes so we had to do our best to have at least one thing for each one. The boys were quick, if it fits it works… the girls, even if they had a great need for new clothes, they were picky, which I thought was very cute. 5 minutes later the bags were empty and most of the kids were out the door except for a few girls who decided to stick around. I’m mad at myself for not being able to remember their names, but most of them came up to me and had requests, one wanted a zip up hoodie, another wanted some new shoes for soccer. They were quick to become friendly, whilst they talked to me they were constantly touching my bag, dusting the dirt of my shirt, combing their fingers through my hair, holding my hands or hugging my leg.

It was hard to walk out of there and not feel that I needed to go back tomorrow. I was sad, I was frustrated because I knew I needed to take more photos for our website but I didn’t want them to feel that I was only there for today and would never come back.  I wanted to stick around and get to know the kids, give them a hug, but I was getting dirty looks from the women standing outside their doors and I had to make sure I stayed close to Keith and Juan Carlos for the walk back to the car.

As we walked back down the slum I was watching my dirty feet in my flip flops walk over small wooden bridges where sewer water was trickling through, I was sad but I was happy, I was about to burst into tears but thankful for being there. I was touched, not so much by the children but by the people who do this other than having a normal 9 to 5 job, for people like Keith & Juan Carlos who put their heart and soul into this every single day.

Today, I am certainly humbled, I am thankful and I am ready to work a little more to go back with that hoodie and those new soccer shoes.