By Sam Lauten, VI Form
I Go Back to Limón Because of Love
“Reading is just not a part of the culture here.” I blinked at the man standing before me, not quite sure how to respond. Five years, thousands of dollars, and dozens of hours on planes, buses, and on foot had been poured into building the “Learning Center” we now stood in. I had spent days drafting and rewriting my application to multiple grants, citing so many hopes and plans of how we were going to change so many lives bringing books and computers to the underprivileged children of Limón, Costa Rica. Now, there I was, standing in the embodiment of all of those dreams, being told that everything I had done was in vain.
In the past four years, I have traveled to Costa Rica five times. It began in eighth grade when my entire class journeyed together to Puerto Viejo, a small surf town on the east coast of the country. We spent ten days zip lining, hiking, and farming, and on the last day, we visited a transitional home ‒ a place for abused children to find refuge ‒ for a few hours. The trip was meant to be a bonding experience, with a small amount of service at the end. For some, that’s what it was. Many of my classmates did not experience the same overwhelming emotions that I felt when staring poverty in the face. This is not to say that they are cold or unable to empathize, but simply that it is extremely difficult to comprehend in a few short hours. However, something in my heart was struck that day. Standing in the epitome of poverty and depression, my world was forever changed.
And so it began: the hours spent fundraising and making plans to return that summer with a friend who shared my experience of discomfort with the thought of simply leaving Costa Rica behind. And so we went. Four times to be exact. And every year I came home with the same feeling. Disappointment. It did not matter how many books, toys, puzzles, iPads, or Macbooks we brought; we could not alter the cycle of poverty. No matter how many material objects we gave them, we could not undo the years of abuse or the ominous promise of expulsion from the home at the age of eighteen.
Every child in the transitional home has been abused in some way. Many of the older girls have been brought out of prostitution, and many of the younger boys are being set up to become involved in gangs. I have seen children with cigarette burns on their arms, knife scars down the backs of their necks. They have little or no belongings and get practically no attention from the government workers who live with them. In theory, every child would be there for a maximum of six months until they could be placed back into their home or with another relative. However, this is not always the case. For some, they remain until they are eighteen, at which point they are removed and are cut off from governmental assistance. However, few of these children make it through high school and rarely have any skills that they need to be employed. This creates a cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to break out of, especially if you are a girl.
There are always pregnant teenage girls in the home. This was the image that shocked me most of all during my first visit. Standing face to face with a girl of the exact same age as me living such a drastically different life was staggering. However, these are the girls I can most closely relate to. A month ago, on my last visit, I became especially close with a girl named Jenny.
She is the exact same age as me, down to the month, and was five months pregnant. Despite having no mutual interests, we were able to form a bond talking about makeup, school, her friends, and boyfriend from home, along with all the other things I would discuss with my friends from home. Although we were living completely dissimilar lives, our desire to connect crossed the language barrier between us.
On our final day, as I was leaving I told her she was beautiful and smart, and to never let anyone, especially men tell her otherwise. She teared up and grabbed my hand and told me that no one had ever called her beautiful before. She then handed me a poem she had written for me the night before and said that I was the closest friend she had. I promised her that I would be back so that I could meet her new baby. A few days after my return, I received a message from her saying she was thinking of naming her baby Samantha if she is to have a girl.
The thing is, it does not matter than I am making practically no impact on the country of Costa Rica as a whole. I don’t care. Showing these girls that they matter and that someone, anyone, loves them, is worth it. I am not under the impression that I have saved anyone or that I deserve recognition. I am not doing any of this because it helps me sleep at night; in fact, the effect is quite the opposite. I continue to go back to Limón because I have found something that I am passionate about. I go back because I love the girls that I have met.
I can think of so many other deeds which would “make the world a better place” that I have no interest in pursuing. I implore each of you to find something that makes you feel complete when you sit down at the end of the day. There are so many people on this planet who need help, whether it be in Southborough or somewhere across the world. Use your skills and the love within each of you to give to those who need it. Do not fool yourself into believing that your work does not matter because you have heard the words “Messiah Complex” or “Voluntourism.” Your contribution in this lifetime matters, and I hope that you never tell yourself otherwise.