San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Donations Reveal Hardships Of Costa Rican Poverty

WHEN Georgina Núñez first visited her “adopted”daughter María de los Angeles in her home south of SanJosé, she expected to see immediately the impact of the$24 donations she had been making every month for thepast three years. What the U.S. citizen found instead wasa skinny girl whose tiny frame revealed her malnourishmentand masked the fact that she is only six years old.María and her siblings “huddled together in theirT-shirts, shivering in the humid cold, trying to warm eachother with body heat; there was no food in the fridge; thewater had been shut off,” Nuñez said after her third visit.Her immediate reaction was to conclude that the organizationto which she made the donations, ChildrenIncorporated, was embezzling the money – money fromthose who need it most. But a closer look at the casereveals the difficulties faced by donors, charities andrecipients alike. Although every penny counts, charities,even award-winning ones such as Children Incorporated,struggle to stretch those pennies to make a permanent differencein the lives of the people they help.“There are so many children they have to help,” said María’s mother, Julia Peréz. “We’re all poor. There are just so many of us; how can things get better?They try to help, but they are giving us just a grain of rice.”Of the $24 a month donated by Nuñez, $12 is supposed to go directly to the child and her family, according to the Children Incorporated Web site.Generally, the families are given a basic food basket once a month, explained Sister Elizabeth Chávez, who helps distribute the donations in Costa Rica through the La Milagrosa convent south of San José.But parents often ask the nuns to use their monthly subsidy, which Chávez said amounts to ¢5,000 ($10.22), to pay water bills, electricity bills or school charges.Despite Costa Rica’s free public education system, students must buy uniforms and pay about $1 a month for costs such as photocopies. These are large expenses for a poor child, Chávez said.ALTHOUGH limited, the Children Incorporated donation is considerably larger than the average monthly income of the poorest tenth percentile of Costa Rican homes, which is ¢3,588 ($7.34), according to the latest State of the Nation report.Besides charity and government support – which Peréz says amounts to nothing these days – the family survives on the sale of lottery tickets. Some days this brings in as little as ¢1,000 ($2.04) and some days they are not sold at all.At least eight people must live on this income, including three other children, Peréz’s 20-year-old daughter, and the daughter’s two babies. None of the children’s fathers offer support.“I can’t even buy bread. Bread is too expensive,” Peréz said.THE family’s water has been cut, and with a ¢108,000 ($221) accumulated water bill, they cannot look forward to running water in the home anytime soon.However, they do manage to scrape up the ¢6,000 ($12) to pay the monthly electricity bill, powering the house’s loose hanging lightbulbs and old television set.Peréz said she used to clean houses and wash clothes; she also worked at a factory that closed down. Now, she doesn’t want to work all day because she is afraid of leaving the home unprotected. The door has no lock and the tin sheet covering the home’s window, which has neither glass nor bars, provides no security.“They will rob what little I have,” she said.Beyond the small television, a worn out couch with broken springs and a table that cannot be leaned on, lest it fall to the ground, furnish the tiny house. This, along with a broken refrigerator and a few pots, were donated by neighbors and family. But despite the poverty, the home is also filled with a family who manages to smile a lot, at least during a recent visit by María’s sponsor Nuñez and The Tico Times.NÚÑEZ is a Dutch social worker who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a 14-year-old son, but has always wanted more children, particularly a daughter. She found in the Children Incorporated program a good opportunity to “adopt” an impoverished little girl, providing a monthly check to help María find her way out of a life of hardship.A lack of Spanish-speaking social workers in San Francisco gave Núñez a reason to come to Costa Rica and take a three-month Spanish course. It also provided an opportunity to meet the little girl with whom Nuñez had communicated for three years by mail, sending birthday cards and Christmas gifts and receiving drawings in return.Nuñez’s initial visits to María were chaperoned by La Milagrosa nuns; later she went to the home in Tejarcillos in Alajuelita, south of San José, by herself. Pérez has provided varying accounts of how much support she receives from Children Incorporated. She told Nuñez, as well as The Tico Times, that her support from the La Milagrosa sisters is sporadic.Sometimes she is given money for food, sometimes she is given food, and sometimes she is given nothing at all. She told María’s sponsor that she has received about $3 a year of the $288 annually donated by Nuñez, leading Nuñez to accuse Children Incorporated and La Milagrosa of taking the money.However, after the complaints by Nuñez, Peréz reversed her earlier statements and signed a letter saying that she does receive regular support from the organization. Sister Chávez showed The Tico Times a little notebook in which the uses for the monthly subsidies of all 80 sponsored children in Costa Rica are delineated. María’s pages include payments to the water company, school, food baskets and cash for food.“Children Incorporated is very organized and demanding when it comes to keeping the books,” Chávez said.“Receipts are always required from parents when they are given cash to pay for certain expenses.”MORE than 15,000 children in 21 countries are sponsored through Children Incorporated. The organization receives more than $4 million in donations annually, most from people in the United States.Founded in 1964 in Guatemala, it has received seals of approval from various charity watch groups, including the American Institute of Philanthropy and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.The remaining $12 from a $24 donation that does not go directly to the family is divided – $3.50 for administration and $8.50 for emergencies for projects around the world, fundraising and advertising costs, and monthly subsidies to any sponsored children whose own sponsors may not have provided the contribution on a timely basis, Children Incorporated Account Services Sponsor Amy Williams told The Tico Times in an e-mail. She also said that La Milagrosa does “wonderful work.”REGARDLESS, Nuñez has decided to stop sending monthly donations to the organization and has received, at her request, a refund on all donations she has made. But she has not stopped supporting María. She now sends monthly checks to a Costa Rican who buys food for the family and delivers it to María’s school. However, in this case, she pays $60 in transfer fees and payments to get $24 worth of food to María’s table.But beyond a little extra food to eat, Nuñez wants to see more is job training and emotional counseling for Peréz and women like her.Sister Chávez agrees. Although milk, vegetables and other nourishment can improve the health of a child long-term, the most effective help Children Incorporated offers is regular meetings with the mothers and children, she said.“It is not easy to get women to become conscious of their own dignity,” Chávez said. “And that is the most important work we can do… getting them to say, ‘I am worth as much as anyone else.’ We are improving interfamilial relations, and, in the end, that helps the children.”

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