When Alvaro del Castillo wanted to start a Spanish school in the middle of the rain forest, people told him he would fail.
No one will come, they said; it needs to be on the beach or in the city.
But del Castillo, who was already operating Proyecto Asís, a nonprofit in the forests near San Carlos, in north-central Costa Rica, knew that some visitors wanted to see the real Costa Rica, not the noise and commercialism of the city or the party atmosphere of the beach.
So in 2000 he started inviting visitors to Proyecto Asís, in the rural San Carlos community of Javillos, to learn Spanish. Now he offers not only language classes but also social and environmental volunteer opportunities.
He didn’t fail. In fact, the project is thriving. Students come from all over the world – the United States, Canada, Finland, France – to learn Spanish, care for monkeys and birds at an animal rescue center, teach English in local schools and work on recycled craft projects with women’s groups.
Recently, del Castillo explained the program as freshly arrived student, Caitlin Williams, 15, from the U.S. state of Florida, held a tiny howler monkey named Nena in her arms.
She squealed as Nena crawled up and around her shoulders, Nena’s tail curling slightly around Caitlin’s neck.
Del Castillo smiled. It was for moments like these that he opened his center to students and volunteers.
“We are a Spanish school,” he said. “But here the students have contact with the animals and nature.”
Classrooms are open-air platforms with the sights and sounds of the rain forest as a backdrop. Students live simply with families, eating rice and beans and helping milk cows and make tortillas. Programs usually last between one and three weeks, with visitors selecting the projects that interest them most.
Bibi LeBlanc, who lives in Florida and home-schools her children, has taken her three boys to the center three times since April of last year.
“We all instantly fell in love with the place, the open air, the nature, the families, the animals,” she said.
She’s so enthusiastic about what Proyecto Asís does that she wrote an article for a home-schooling magazine and started a small company to promote the project in the United States. Thanks to her efforts, the project now has a growing family program.
Del Castillo, 33, who has an agricultural engineering degree from Universidad Nacional, added the animal rescue center only last year. Since starting it, he has forged alliances with the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the nearby Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, both of which bring all kinds of animals to the rescue center.
As of last month, the center had released 30 parrots, 15 parakeets, 10 caimans, seven porcupines and five sloths, according to del Castillo, who said the opportunity to work with animals has drawn a lot of visitors.
Asís volunteers also have the option to work with the Association of Women in Recycling and Handicrafts (AMURECI), a women’s group that makes and sells crafts from recycled paper and cans. Member Marta Carvajal said volunteers help with manpower to turn old paper and parts of banana into bookmarks, photo albums and frames. But she said that there is more to their experience.
“The benefit we think we have for the volunteers is the cultural part more than anything else,” she said.
Dustin Dresser, 20, took a semester off from the University of Minnesota in the United States, where he’s studying construction management and Spanish, to work at the center. Until he left in early July, he built cages and helped with women’s programs and taking care of the animals. He told del Castillo that the experience changed his life.
“I’m used to things being so go-go-go in the States. Here, it’s more laid back,” he said, adding that it became normal for him to wake up at 6 a.m., simply because he didn’t have Internet or movie theaters to keep him up at night.
But even as the program grows in popularity, del Castillo does not want it to get too big.
“We don’t want to work with too many people at once,” he said, explaining that a family atmosphere is one of the most important components of Proyecto Asís.
What: Proyecto Asís is a Spanish school and volunteer center in San Carlos. Visitors usually stay for one to three weeks. Aside from learning Spanish, they can also care for animals at a rescue center, help a women’s group make recycled crafts and teach English in a local school.
Who: Volunteers of all ages come from all over the world. The project recently launched a special program for families with children.
Price: $275-490 per week, depending on program and length of stay.
Contact Info: In Costa Rica, contact Alvaro del Castillo at 475-9121 or alvaro@institutoasis. com. In the United States, contact Bibi LeBlanc at (386) 822-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Web, visit www.institutoasis.com.