When Dr. leitz first mentioned the Costa Rica travel course to me I was very intrigued. My greatest passion in life is traveling and immersing myself in new cultures. I had never been to Costa Rica before and knew very little about the country and its culture. All I knew was that Costa Rica has no military, and what better place to study peace than a country without a military. My time is Costa Rica was life changing to say the least. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and was able to experience things I would not have been able to had I not taken this travel course.
I’ve been called a peacenik, hippy, and tree-hugger, mostly by my super conservative grandparents. When I told them that I was taking a course though the University for Peace about Peace Communications, I could feel their eye-rolls over the phone. But I wasn’t deterred by their pessimism. This Travel Course sounded like it was an opportunity to put knowledge into practice by meeting with organizations and actual people working to make change on so many different social levels. I am the kind of person who wants to take on the world and make drastic changes, but I honestly don’t know where to start. Meeting with the many organizations helped to bring me down to earth and realize that change is small and incremental (not to mention hard work), but with the power of solidarity and community, change can be made.
~Co-Authored By: Esther Levenson and Ashley Lynch~
As our group stepped off the bus one by one, the environment was overwhelming as there was trash burning, sewage streaming down the street over crates and broken glass. Students in the group portrayed a variety of reactions seeming disturbed, uncomfortable, and saddened by their first impressions of the El Triángulo de la Solidaridad community, a squatter community located on the outskirts of San José, Costa Rica.
Today we received a warm welcome from this squatter community, spending time with locals who opened up their homes and businesses to us to learn from. A squatter community is a vacant area of land that is built upon without any legal permission or documents stating ownership. Many migrants in Costa Rica, mostly Nicaraguan commonly take land and make it their own, usually by paying the “shark,” who is typically the first person to find the land which they claim as their own. When this happens, they further lend the land to other families and collect payment for the land. People began building the community in 2000 and now there are about three thousand inhabitants that live in the “ranchos.” “Ranchos” are essentially small living areas enclosed mostly by sheet metal and crates, utilizing the resources readily available to them to build shelter for each family. Despite the small size of the ranchos, each can hold up to ten individuals. El Triángulo de la Solidaridad is not the only squatter community in Costa Rica, there are others in Puerto Arenas, Limón, and Los Cuadros.
We visited el Triángulo community with the purpose to learn the initiatives of Boy with a Ball, an international non-profit organization. Their mission or culture, “is to better cities by reaching young people and equipping them to be leaders capable of turning and transforming their communities,” (Boy With A Ball Website). The Boy with a ball ambassador Kim informed the class of the goals of the organization which are to invest in community, honor community, and connect with the community. The foundation objective is to transform communities and they do this by slowly integrating into squatter communities and sustaining their presence by offering programs, support, and employing local leaders. The organization’s headquarters are located in Atlanta, and they have programs offered in Texas, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Kenya, and Costa Rica.
The program framework across all Boy with a Ball location consists of three pillars;1) formation of leaders, 2) tools, and 3) recreation. Within these categories, there are several specific, consistent, or one-time events that take place to achieve their given goals. Within formation of leaders, Costa Rica offers mentor and leadership groups that inspire the people of the community. For tools, they offer English classes, tutoring, micro business opportunities, and scholarship. In recreation, there are boy, girl, and señoras groups in which the foundation focuses on filling the desires of the people by developing customized activities such as soccer, cooking, Zumba classes and more. Overall, their tutoring program is the largest as well as their community tours, which is what instigated the tutoring. For today’s visit the class was able to really experience community (REC), through local community guides that showed us the inside of the “ranchos” in addition to sharing their personal stories.
The name of the community, El Triángulo de la Solidaridad, is representative of its triangle shape and the solidarity of the community in coming together to support each other. The community is divided into four zones labeled by the colors red, orange, yellow, and green. Each zone has their own clean water source and allotted electricity that the families within the zone have to come together to pay for. These zones operate similar to other communities each having a market, church, businesses, and even arcades.
Living in this small, poverty stricken environment, there are several problems that the community constantly faces. The biggest challenge currently existing is the dispersion forced on this community by the government due to its desire to build a highway. Due to the construction of the highway, the government has mandated relocation for all people living there, splitting up the close knit community they have created. One of the more hidden problems that was learned through speaking with the REC guides was the increasing amount of young pregnancies. Many girls become pregnant at around twelve or thirteen, many times impregnated by their step fathers, which is normative in Nicaraguan culture. Additionally, there are problems surrounding drugs and gangs in this community. There were various murals and graffiti art posted around the area, however when looking closely at the drawings they depicted issues of domestic violence.
Although the community faces many challenges the presence of the Boy with a Ball foundation has positively affected the community. For example, before the foundation integrated into the community the average education was a third grade level. After the implementation of the tutoring program the education level has increased to a sixth grade level. Also many of the REC guides were a part of the scholarship program studying at local universities which is a big accomplishment. Another success is the decrease in gang and drug presence in the community due to the programs and activities offered by boy with a ball, such as soccer.
Boy with A Ball correlates with peace-making initiatives, relating to many of the course concepts described in the Peace Studies major. Collective Identity is a notable topic defining how one thinks of the self, how one relates to other people, and group identify with a social movement. The idea states that it is “important in social movements because it binds the group together to work towards a common goal,” (Tactics & Social Movement; Kelsey Leach) showing a sense of community and togetherness. Here, there are countless daily examples displaying how the people living in this community work to instill togetherness and unity. People consistently help each other, raise all the children as their own, welcome everyone in, and support their neighbors as if they were all family. In speaking with one of the guides, this culture of support and protection was exemplified by the children who were so excited and devoted to the visitors who come into their community that they follow and join the tours to help surround its participants and keep everyone safe. This triangle of solidarity is raised with these values of collective identity and are born into this endless feeling of safety in togetherness.
In regards to communication, Boy with a Ball utilizes the external messages of a website as well as the social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter. However, similar to other organizations we have visited like Coopesilencio the most successful channel for the foundation is word of mouth. Hannah and the Boy with the Ball ambassador Kim, worked together at the University of Peace and that is how the tour today was possible. Although they utilize multiple channels the name of the foundation, Boy with a Ball presents a challenge to successful communicating the purpose and function of the foundation to receivers. The name was derived through a symbolic, personal experience of the founder Jamie Johnson, which is explained in the following video.
Although the name symbolic it is unclear and can be easily misconstrued as an activity or as an organization that deals exclusively with boys. It is important that the name is clear and message aligns with the organization in order to successfully expand into communities and be understood by donors. It would be helpful if the organization conducted a situational analysis of the foundation; strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. After conducting the situational analysis, they could utilize their strengths to clearly design a message that is simple to understand and aligned with their mission and purpose.
The children of the community were on school break preparing for school to start in February. In their efforts to support the community Boy with a Ball has a school supplies campaign that occurs annually to ensure that every student who attends the tutoring programs has all of the school supplies needed. Coincidentally, Chapman student’s donation to the foundation happened to be a variety of notebooks, pencils, backpacks and other supplies that will be put toward the campaign.
At the conclusion of our community tours we came together to reflect on similarities, differences, and our takeaway from this experience. Classmates shared similarities found in communities near home, such as the Santa Ana River Trail and mobile home parks exemplifying. The astounding differences were the personalities of the people and community compared to those at home, showing a different sense of comradery. In America, it is normal to know your neighbors, but the close family style relationship that this community upheld was something completely different. There was constant togetherness, helpfulness and sharing of smiles. Smiling is something that was incredibly distinct and defined the climate of this community. Many students shared their shocking realization that a community in this condition, with so few belongings could be truly happy. This realization was astounding as this is not the case with many communities in much better living conditions that do not face food, job and shelter insecurities every day.
The major takeaways from experiencing Boy with A Ball and the community therein surround appreciation and making a difference everywhere, despite any circumstantial and systematic barriers. Though there were several stigmatizations and negative preconceived notions about the day, by the end of the experience, the majority of the group did not want to leave. So many people connected deeply with children and adult locals and wanted to stay to learn more and be a part of the community. Their happiness levels were incredibly noticeable and intriguing to the outsiders who were not used to seeing so many people in harsh living situations with constant memorable smiles that never faded. People were genuinely happy, and that is something unique to find cross culturally. Overall, these experiences led the group to understand happiness, privilege and impact in a new way, knowing that happiness can be found in the darkest of places and there are infinite possibilities to always make a difference.
Studying abroad is an opportunity, brought to college students to expand their horizons and open the doors to travel, allowing a student to walk through those doors and reshape his or her perspective through observation and experience to find their place as a global citizen. Being abroad, there is an influx of emotions many face recognizing highlights from a personal and academic standpoint, different challenges as well as various surprises along the way. Learned travel is what I would call a course like this, overwhelmingly consumed with newness, happiness, friendships, and life changing memories to come back with. Since this was a peace communication course, much of the experience left myself and others in the class impact-determined, ready to utilize the knowledge to make a difference.
I am so thankful I was able to travel to Costa Rica and take this peace communication course. This trip really challenged my views on privilege and how I should be conducting my life. It made me realize that each small action I take has a ripple effect that stretches further than I’m normally comfortable thinking about. This discomfort was good though, it made me stop, self-reflect, and ultimately come to the conclusion that I have an obligation to change myself and the world around me. It made me realize I have to be a more conscious consumer and interact more responsibly with my environment. Every day on this trip I was pulled and stretched outside my comfort zone, but I loved it. I loved having my proverbial bubble popped.
When I first signed up for this trip, I had very little idea of what to expect. I knew I loved to travel and I needed a few more peace studies credits to graduate, so I figured this course would be a great way to spend interterm. Looking over the initial itinerary, I began to get excited about how many different NGOs we would be visiting; I’m trying to pin down what path I want to take with a BA in Peace Studies, so I’m eager to be exposed to as much variety as possible. However, one thing that cannot be read about on a syllabus is how intense and immersive the experience would be.
I loved how we got to really experience a taste (no pun intended) what life is like for fishermen at Coopetarcoles. Of course, for the people that make their livelihood in those fishing boats, the days are much longer and physically demanding than the sample that they shared with us. The experience of pulling fish out of the ocean, and seeing them prepared on a plate later that afternoon was really eye-opening for me; it highlighted how little I know about where my food comes from in the States. For me, our experience at the co-op felt like a much more natural way of living. This feeling continued as we visited the Villa Vanilla spice farm, Coopesilencio, and the Coffee Estate. Upon returning to California, I have promised myself that I will make an effort to buy as much food as possible from the local farmers markets to try to emulate the feeling of purity and realness of knowing where you’re food comes from.
Another aspect of the trip that really stuck out to me was the visit to Boy With a Ball. Seeing the way that the organization is run so smoothly, and with an emphasis on local leadership was very interesting. I appreciated the fact that Kim made it clear that she is not the “white savior” that came into their neighborhood to solve all the problems; she was already in the country working with other organizations when she discovered Boy with a Ball. The purpose of the NGO is entirely centered on the community. They have three main goals: 1) invest in community 2) honor community 3) connect with community. This focus was really apparent when we were walking around El Triángulo de la Solidaridad and children would call out greetings to us as we passed, or friends and family of our guides would open their doors to meet us. It was clear that, not only was the community itself close-knit, but Boy With a Ball had integrated into their system, rather than trying to become the system. Thanks to this extremely positive contact with the organization, I am interested in doing some research into Boy With a Ball branches within the United States.
This experience was a stark contrast to our visit with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation two days later. While the time spent with the CRHF was awkward and a bit tense, I’m really we got to experience two very different approaches to similar communities. One of the biggest differences I noticed was the fact that the CRHF was run almost entirely by Gail, alone. She has very good intentions and seems to have accomplished a lot of helpful things in La Carpio, however, nothing she can do will change the fact that she is an outsider, and therefore cannot fully relate to the needs and wants of the people who have lived their entire lives within that neighborhood. Additionally, being the sole leader of an entire NGO is certainly a physically, mentally, and emotionally draining position. Those obstacles are exactly why Boy With a Ball is lead by a team of people consisting mostly of locals.
While we were traveling all around the central and western parts of Costa Rica, I was surprised to find myself getting a little homesick and experiencing some culture shock. I had not expected to have any problem with those things as I had already spent a full semester abroad, and taken several solo trips before. However, there were moments, usually in the evenings when I would be exhausted from the day, that I found myself getting frustrated with constantly sweating, and finding bugs all over my backpack and in my bed, and having to remember to throw toilet paper in the trash rather than in the toilet. But through those moments, I took some time to breathe and remind myself that when you’re feeling uncomfortable, you are growing as a person and when you step out of your comfort zone, you expand it. I feel like I am returning to the States a little stronger and a little more self-assured than I was on January 6, the day before departure.
Throughout the two weeks we spent in Costa Rica I was challenged to push myself out of my comfort zone, stand up for what I believe in, and open my eyes to new perspectives. I had not left the comfort of California in over twelve years and although every day was jam packed with activities and we had freezing showers, and there were bugs in places you couldn’t imagine, and at times everyone wanted to go home, I loved every minute of the trip. I could feel myself learning and growing as a person in ways I hadn’t before and I could have stayed in that country and class for far longer than two weeks.
I went into this course with no expectations and a “go with the flow” attitude, and I think just taking each day as it was and enjoying all the small moments is what helped me get the most out of this experience.
I think the biggest thing we can learn from Costa Rica is kindness. I had heard before that Costa Ricans had the reputation of being nice, but every individual I encountered went out of their way to help. I think it is amazing that a nation can preach kindness instead of selfishness and its a message that should be spread. Someone who particularly stood out to me on this trip was Kim, whom we met at Boy with a Ball. I admired that Kim acknowledged that she was a “gringo” and that there would be obstacles she had to overcome before she could help the community. I felt like Kim was truly there for the right reasons and she wasn’t just there to build a resume and appear like a saint to the outsider. The Boy with a Ball organization far surpassed my expectations. I was worried that it would be extremely uncomfortable walking around the squatter community and that the day overall would be very depressing, but the residents were genuinely happy and welcoming which made the day one of self-growth. This day brought me back down to earth. For a while I had forgotten about all the hours I spent volunteering with homeless kids and I had forgotten just how privileged I was and that I don’t need to be wasting so much money on material things (being the shopaholic that I am) and that I could instead spend my time helping others. The Boy with a Ball organization I think did a great job in easing itself into the community in a way that the organization was accepted as part of the norm in the community and that the residents understood that the organization was here to help them as opposed to impose itself on them. Something that really broke my heart on this day was during our walk through; we had gone into one of the homes and while inside I saw 3 rats crawling around and chewing at the hanging plantains. Had I been in my own home I would have freaked out if I saw a rat, but I couldn’t freak out in this case because all I could think about was how sad it was that this is the normal for these people and they don’t think twice about it. The health risks that come along with living in a community with excess sewage and unsanitary food really made me appreciate my small apartment back at Chapman that sometimes is a little too cold. Because of this day all my problems really felt so small and I was able to realize how easy my life actually is.
A personal highlight of the trip for me was my classmates. I love being put in conditions where you are basically forced to bond with people. Although my conversations with some classmates were briefer than others, I feel like as a group we were very curious, driven, and inspiring. A lot of the experiences I got out of each day were because of the people who shared the experience. The day we went zip lining pushed me out of my comfort zone, and seeing my classmates and professors also face their fears is a feeling only understood to those who were there. A day in which my values and beliefs felt particularly challenged was the day we visited La Carpio, and it was the support and perspectives from my classmates that turned that day into a positive and learning experience for me. I felt sick after the experience I had in that community and being with a group of people who all shared the same values as me allowed me in getting past that day and seeing it as an opportunity to understand the difficulty in starting an NGO and that its not smooth sailing incorporating into a low-income community. I do not think this trip would have been the same without the professors and classmates who came on it with me.
Academically, this course helped me see the successes and failures of NGOs. Creating an NGO had been a future goal of mine, and after this trip I now understand that it takes more than just a good heart and the right intentions to have a successful organization. It is about being able to acknowledge your privilege, and being able to serve the community on their terms.
I come back to America feeling blessed to have had this opportunity that so many others are not able to embark on. I feel blessed for the friendships I have made, and the connection I have established within my fields of study. I now look at the world with different eyes and hope to be the change in the communities struggling here in Orange. Thank you to Professor Labelle and Leitz for putting up with 23 restless students and for giving us the opportunity to find our potential as students; and thank you to my parents for not only financially making this trip happen for me but for pushing me into taking the travel course class that I procrastinated applying to out of fear. I come back with a restored drive to help others and find my leadership potential.
Sixteen days ago, I sat in a UPEACE classroom about to embark on an immersive whirlwind tour of Costa Rica, unaware of how the proceeding weeks would enlighten my perception of the “Tico” life. I would learn that there’s an huge difference between ordering pollo and polla (I wouldn’t recommend Googling that one), the easiest way to make friends is to pack your DEET bug spray in your backpack, and smiling is the most universal language, especially when your Spanish vocabulary is limited to “Como estas?” “Estoy bien, y tu?” “Bien, gracias.”
However, as I raised my hand in that classroom to contribute my personal goal while in Costa Rica, I insisted that I wanted to understand how these organizations operated at the grassroots level and what preliminary research they conducted. As I mentioned in my pre-departure blog post, I aspire to start my own NGO. I’ve found that the most difficult part of the process is to stop ideation and begin actualization. Of the many takeaways from this course and my experiences in Costa Rica, one of the most valuable is that the best way to succeed is to embrace failure.
“What is your major?” a family member asks. “Strategic and Corporate Communications”, I respond. “Oh, wow! What is your plan with that?!” “I really have no plan in what I want to do”, usually how I respond. Well, it is safe to say, after our excursion through Costa Rica I have a better idea or a clearer direction in where I would like to start my life journey. My major is very new to the world, which can be bad or good as some have told me. I look at it as an opportunity in life. I have and will always want to be in the small business world and can’t see myself straying far. I am very inspired by those who create their own small business or non-profits, it is just extraordinary. Traveling around Costa Rica hearing different stories, different goals, different experiences, different passions have opened me up so much in what my major has to offer. It allows you be more creative, be more effective, and be more successful in what you want to do. Every co-op, non-profit, social business, etc. had so much passion behind it. My friend always tells me “dreams don’t work unless you do” almost every morning before school, and I thought it was just a funny joke to get our day started, but it has actually become very real to me as I toured around Costa Rica. It stuck in my head from day one in Costa Rica.
In no way did I ever think nor expect this trip to influence and change my life in the way that it did. Obviously, like I said in the circle discussion, I loved Dr. LaBelle and the idea of Costa Rica, so that was enough to sell me on the trip, without even mentioning it was a peace communication course.
In a small excerpt from a journal entry I wrote during my tip, I said that “this trip is changing my life. I know it is and it is terrifying and welcomed.” I didn’t think I would be so open to change in moment, yet I was and I’m so thankful I was.