San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Program Nurtures Bribrí Community

PUERTO VIEJO, Limón – Alejandro Rodríguez,9, rushed from table to table serving plates of fruit.Faustina Vargas, 96, gazed calmly upon the familiesaround her, confident in the knowledge that the walkingstick she’d hidden under the bushes upon arrival wouldbe waiting to guide her steps back up into the jungle atmeal’s end.And Eugenio Morales, whose age his mother saidshe isn’t sure of but who might be 2 – well, Eugenio justwanted as many crackers as he could eat.THEY are among the more than 50 members of theBribrí community, one of the Caribbean’s indigenous groups, who benefit weekly from TheBridge, a non-profit program founded andadministered by Nanci and Barry Stevensat the couple’s home in the coastal town ofPuerto Viejo.The Stevens, who moved to PuertoViejo from San Diego, California, inJanuary, began meeting Bribrí people shortlyafter their arrival and providing soup tothose who came by the house. In subsequentmonths, the services they provided –paid for entirely out of their own pockets –grew to include job training, transport forpeople who needed medical care, microloans,providing groceries and other necessitiesto families and helping one womanfile a complaint against an abusive relative.The program’s goal is to provide Bribrífamilies with the resources and skills theyneed to become self-sufficient, accordingto the Stevens.The soup kitchen operates on Tuesday,Thursday and Saturday. At Saturday’s meal,the Stevens also hand out bags of food andshow a movie on their laptop computer.The Stevens also made it possible forAlejandro to go to school, and plan to send13 more students when school begins againin February.Though public school is free in CostaRica, students must pay for books and copiesof exams. According to the Stevens, inabilityto cover these fees, which can total $200per year, often deters Bribrí families fromenrolling their children in school.CULTURAL differences are anotherdeterrent. While most of the adults whoattend the Stevens’ lunches speak fluentSpanish, the young children often do not.Alejandro spoke little Spanish when hefirst met the Stevens and enrolled inschool, according to the couple, but he nowspeaks basic Spanish and some English aswell, and is a whiz on the Stevens’ computer.He walks an hour to and fromschool each day.HE is also one of The Bridge’s mostavid volunteers.“I’ll say, ‘Do you want to help withsomething?’ and he says, ‘Yeah!’” said Mrs.Stevens, 58, a wildlife artist, at the Dec. 11Saturday meal, as Alejandro rushed by onhis way to serve fresh fruit juice. “He doesn’teven wait to hear what it is.”According to the Stevens, the needs ofthe community they serve are overwhelming.Some families travel 2.5 hours eachway by bus for the free meal and a $12 bagof groceries.“I feel sometimes like we’re on a runawaytrain,” Mrs. Stevens said. “I knowthe destination’s a good one, but it’s movingfast.”The Stevens hope to expand the programand purchase the adjoining propertywith the eventual goal of constructing aBribrí community center. The centerwould ideally include a larger soupkitchen, 4-5 classrooms and a computerroom, Mrs. Stevens said. Her other ideasinclude a shop class and a forum for“Bribrí scholars,” the elders of the community,to teach their customs to young peopleso they are not lost.THE couple might eventually seek tobuild cabinas where volunteers with theprogram could stay, and Mrs. Stevens hasalready started to collect books for a children’slibrary.Mr. Stevens, 62, a consultant, said hespends 8-10 hours a day working to finddonations to sustain the growing program,which has received 501c3 status as an officialproject of the U.S. non-profitSerendipity Foundation.“We know someone’s going to join in,”he said. “We don’t know who, don’t knowwhere, but someone’s going to step up tothe plate.”Those interested in helping the Stevens’effort can visit The Bridge Web, whichincludes information on the program’sactivities, budget and how to donate, includingan online donation option.People can also sign up for a weekly ezinethrough the Web site, a publicationMr. Stevens began to keep those interestedin The Bridge up to date on the program’sactivities.OTHER options for contributing toThe Bridge include becoming a pen pal forone of the Bribrí school kids or providingchildren’s books in English or Spanish forthe budding library.According to Mr. Stevens, there is nolimit to what The Bridge’s members havebeen able to accomplish with a little help.“Just give them a chance, give them thetools and stay out of the way,” he said.

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