This is a guest post by Gwendolyn Hudson. Hudson was the winner of AARP's 2010 Create the Good raffle for a one week volunteer program in Costa Rica through Cross Cultural Solutions. She volunteered in a home for 30 children cared for by the foster parents, Doña Melba and Don Victor. In addition to her volunteer work, she visited local attractions such as the Irazu volcano. She also learned local dance, cooking, and was even able to learn some Spanish, which she has continued to study upon returning home.
There were moments: Like being in a dormitory setting and sharing space with strangers who were much younger; like our mutual ability to like each other right off the bat; like the rustic showers we took, never knowing whether there would be lukewarm water or not and for how long would it last and the feel of ice cold water splashing against this rather senior skin if it turned out otherwise. Like not forgetting to put the used toilet paper in the trash rather than flushing it. Like having the fresh, crisp cool morning air surround your face and taking deep breaths of this newness. Like the delicious, juicy mangoes we had at most meals. I live in a tropical area and love all kinds of fruits but the taste of those mangoes was sublime. There were moments when I observed Doña Melva talking about all the children who have become hers with such a joyful look on her face; like one of the kids coming to her to tattle and the hug and soft-spoken way she dealt with the minor offense. There were moments in the mornings when on the island in the kitchen there appeared a large mound of bread and butter and café con leche to be devoured after everyone gathered to give thanks for the breakfast meal. Believe it or not the youngest ones drank from regular cups, not sippy cups!
There were other moments that stand out, like the laundry room and the gazillion clothes that had to be separated, washed, folded, stacked into its designated body part and put away only to be selected soon again. There was a moment when a very determined, wet two-year old Brittany decided she needed to change clothes and was very selective about which underwear, top, skirt, and sparkly shoes she would wear for the rest of the day.
There were recurring moments, like hearing "Hola Gwen", each day from an eight year old Maritza as if we were the same age and had been friends for many years; or a mischievous look and grin from Alfredo who was always into something.
There were moments when the work was tedious: painting a wall, scrubbing the play area, washing windows. These were followed by powerful moments, when we realized that what we had done made a difference to Do ña Melva, Don Victor, and the thirty children, because it made them happy (and it's hard to find the time to wash windows when thirty children need attention). Don Victor's garden with roses, orchids, ferns, begonias and more was all the more serenely beautiful within an area of organized chaos.
There were tender moments of caring the children displayed for each other; the older ones keeping watch over the younger. Doña Melva's home is a showcase within Cartago and many groups are eager to connect with her and the children. I asked Nicolle if she ever grew tired of so many strangers coming to her home. She looked at me and with a genuine smile she said, "No." That look was equivalent to "Why would you get tired of people caring about you" There were many touching moments.
There were moments when I was physically exhausted and wished that I had been in better shape to deal with hilly Cartago and its sloping sidewalks and unfamiliar ditches. But how can you be too tired when there are Spanish lessons, a dance lesson (merengue anyone?), a lesson to learn how to make tortillas de maiz con queso, a tour of the city with the beautiful Basilica as the main attraction. Even our field trip to Irazu Volcano was an adventure: with the high altitude my ears popped twice, our aging van threatened to quit on us, the volcano was cloud covered when we arrived and then miraculously cleared away to reveal a gorgeous sight of blue green water.
There were too short moments with the excellent staff and other energetic volunteers who reminded me of my Peace Corps days in Ethiopia 41 years ago. Their bright eyed eagerness extended beyond their American cities into the hearts of the children. For the volunteers, and I include myself, we have a duty to let others know about our experience in Cartago.
The more I think about the trip, I am so happy that my lucky number was chosen last September at the AARP member event, where I casually entered a raffle drawing at the session on international volunteering. Little did I know it would lead to so many very special moments.
Have you volunteered in another country like Gwen? If so, share your story with us in the comments below.