Monday, December 26

The Boy in the Yellow Shirt

When I was fifteen, I participated in a three-week service and language program in Costa Rica with the teen travel organization WestCoast Connection. I needed something to do with my summer, and I was interested in learning some Spanish and doing some community service. This trip seemed like a great opportunity.

I taught some local girls simple origami
at a day camp we set up and ran.
During the first two weeks of the trip, we took Spanish classes on weekday mornings and often worked on service projects in the afternoons. Some of these projects included painting and weeding an impoverished elementary school, helping local coffee farmers with their harvest, and running a day camp for the children of the community. They were simple and satisfying.

In the third week, however, we met Gail. Known as “Giselle” by the ticos (the affectionately self-deprecating term native Costa Ricans use to describe themselves) who can't pronounce her American name, this fifty-something-year-old woman described to us her life and work in Costa Rica over the last three decades. She began her efforts alone, but she has now accumulated a team of nearly 1500 volunteers dedicated to improving living conditions in the poorest areas of the country. She told us that her mission wasn't to give charity to the ticos, but instead to “help them help themselves”—in other words, provide a base of support from which they can build themselves up and improve their own lives. We were to volunteer with her over the next few days in the small shanty town La Carpio. Although her words were impassioned and her story inspiring, I had little idea at the time of what an amazing impact this small village would have on me.

We arrived at La Carpio by van on a hot July morning, and our very first greeting was from a small boy of maybe eleven or twelve years. Standing barefoot on the side of the road, he flipped us off. Many of the kids in the van laughed. I was horrified. I felt at once indignant and humiliated. Here we were in a foreign country, unpaid and of our own free will, to help this boy and the families in his community to have better lives and more promising futures. Why did he treat us like this? How could we possibly deserve it? This insult still stinging, I saw our group through the boy’s eyes. To him, we were a van full of privileged, white gringos with shoes and sunglasses who were invading his home and imposing our values and wealth on his community to make ourselves feel better. Although he didn't speak our language, this boy raised in the slums clearly communicated his bitterness and resentment with one finger.

We exited the van and stood uncomfortably on the side of the road, waiting for Gail to arrive and escort us to our project. After brief greetings and minimal discussion, she began to lead us through La Carpio. Feces and emaciated dogs littered the streets, and the smell of animal or human waste pervaded the air. The houses (if they could really be called that) were one-room structures built out of sheet metal and concrete, with no visible plumbing or electricity. Families of six, seven, even eight or nine, lived crowded together in these dismal homes. I avoided looking at the residents of the village. Being in this town made me feel nervous, uncomfortable, and even frightened. And so ashamed that I did. But I couldn’t help it, could I?

After walking maybe ten minutes, we witnessed the local police taking three small children away from their mother. The sobbing woman ran into Gail’s arms and wept. As our party left her behind, Gail explained that the woman could not care for her children, and therefore could not keep them.

Some kids at the daycare center
As we walked, my discomfort mounted. Tired-looking women sat under small vendor stands. Shabbily clothed men watched us pass. I was amazed how Gail calmly smiled and talked to anyone we passed on the street. When I believed I might actually start crying from an odd array of unpleasant emotions, we reached the daycare that Gail’s organization founded and runs for the children of the town. When we stepped into the quaint blue building, it was as though the dirty, sad life of the slum town was miles away. Children—from infants to elementary-age—were sitting in a circle while a young American volunteer talked to them in Spanish about food proportions. Gail invited half of us to join the children’s circle, while the other half would leave to build beds for local families. I stayed with the children. Immediately when I sat down, a young girl, maybe six, sat in my lap, and another beside me took my hand. We spent several hours coloring food pyramids, putting together puzzles, and molding Play-Doh. While we were outside coloring on the street with chalk, the other half of our group returned. Some switched groups, going from daycare work to bed construction or vice versa. I chose to stay with the kids.
As we walked through La Carpio, these boys saw us and
ran together to pose for "¡Una foto, una foto por favor!"
Soon after, several young boys showed up at the daycare, asking us to join them in a game of futbol. Thinking of the young boy we met upon our arrival, I hesitated. However, these boys were so friendly and inviting that I soon joined in the game. Soccer is a very popular pastime in Costa Rica, and in a village where a kid doesn't have much more than a soccer ball for entertainment, it was no surprise that these boys’ deftness and skill with the ball was astounding. Our teams were split with an even mixture of ticos and gringos on each, but the most active players of the game were the two team captains, both La Carpio boys. The captain of my team was maybe twelve. He was one of the oldest boys and wore a bright yellow shirt. I am not embarrassed to admit that I can be quite a klutz sometimes, and coordination and agility are not two of the skills that I can boast. But every time I touched the ball, no matter how awkward a kick or in what direction, that yellow-shirted boy congratulated me with touching sincerity and encouragement, “¡Bueno, bueno chica!” That boy’s—my captain’s—genuine praise and congratulation moved me deeply. I have so much in my life that he lacks—three meals a day, a stable education, daily showers, even a room of my own and a closet of clothes. This one thing, this unique talent with the soccer ball—something he has that I don't—he shared with me.

When it was time for us to depart, the captain of the other team shook my hand, and my yellow-shirted captain and I bumped fists. It was such an honor to feel accepted by these boys. For that amazing soccer game, our ethnic, economic, and language differences didn't matter at all.

The town we walked out of was entirely different from the one we entered. Although unpleasant aromas and skinny stray dogs still filled the streets, the people were no longer frightening, or even very sad. They were just...people.

This is a sweet baby girl who colored on the sidewalk with me.
But it wasn't the town that was different. Not really. Watching the dirty and even bruised children at the daycare give thanks and say a prayer for a small snack of pineapples, having them hold my hands and kiss my cheeks, feeling the pride of being congratulated in a foreign language by a skinny boy in a yellow shirt for kicking a decrepit ball a few feet towards our own goal—it was really me who was changed. The people of La Carpio were no longer frightening because I was no longer scared. I wasn't afraid of the unfamiliar, or of the new, or of people simply because they were poor, or dirty, or ticos.

We volunteered at La Carpio twice more that week. I helped out at the daycare again and even got to build beds for local families. Each time after we had completed our day’s work, the women of La Carpio prepared for us a lovely meal of rice, chicken, and salad. I couldn't help but wonder if they'd ever treat themselves to such a feast. And each time we visited the daycare, I saw my team captain lingering with his friends in the nearby street. He was still in the same yellow shirt, still holding a soccer ball, and he was still smiling.

(If you are interested in helping Gail to help the ticos to help themselves...please visit and make a donation. Every little bit helps!)


  1. Giannina EstevanovichJanuary 4, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    I really love your initiative and effort, it's an inspiration for such a young girl to have a huge heart and put it on action to serve others. I am Costa Rican, and as a third world country, we do have a lot of social problems. There are tons of places with heartbreaking stories and situations, but non like La Carpio, and most of us cannot dare to even get in there.

    However, 99% of the people that live there are immigrants from Nicaragua, some of those children were born here, but a lot were not, therefore, their families do not qualify for social help (like it happens for immigrants all over the world), although they do for free healthcare. We have a county with no army, free education for all kids (not only Costa Rican) and over a million people from other countries living here (legally or illegally). We do our best, but it gets out of our hands when our people struggle with poverty. It's reassuring knowing the authorities take care of children, even immigrants, even in such a dangerous place like La Carpio, when their parents can.

    PS. "Vamos chica" is not a "tico" expression, we do love soccer and our expression is "pura vida" ;o)

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