“I’ll get it,” shouts a boy of about 12 as he scrambles down the steep side of a gully that runs smack through the center of his community.
Barefoot, he jumps from rock to rock across the heavily polluted stream as he reaches out for the soccer ball bobbing in the swift current.
A few minutes later, the ball is being wiped off by a Christ for the City International (CFCI) volunteer who is spending a few minutes in an impromptu game before beginning a Bible class for area children.
Across the wide space that serves as the center point of the squatter community of La Cuenca in Heredia, north of San José, the CFCI team is setting up for the morning’s program at a community center that was funded by Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the U.S. state of California.
“This is like an all-year vacation Bible school,” explains Kim Barker of St. Paul, Minnesota, who has served with CFCI in Costa Rica for five years. “It’s actually a prevention program for the children. Nobody works with them, but we are trying to gain their confidence and friendship so that we can talk to them about the love of God.”
La Cuenca, where the class is taking place, is part of the sprawling low-income community of Guararí, where gangs, drug consumption and trafficking and prostitution are widespread.
The homes in La Cuenca are made of scrap tin, cardboard and wood – often old billboards. They have dirt floors, no glass in the windows and, for the most part, no flush toilets. Many families share outhouses, and the few that have toilets have poor septic systems at best; most simply flush out into gutters that run between or into the homes.
The population is made up primarily of illegal Nicaraguan immigrants seeking a better life than they had back in their own country.
“Believe it or not, they are better off here, no matter how bad their situation, than they were in Nicaragua,” Barker says. “However, many of the children do not go to school, even though education is free. The problem is they don’t have the mandatory uniforms, shoes or supplies they need to enter.”
Barker adds that the majority of families in La Cuenca survive on less than $80 dollars a month per family, but the cost of entering school is nearly $100 dollars per child.
The ministry here, called Transformations, works to prevent young people from succumbing to drug use and prostitution. Its founder Ronald Villalobos, a Costa Rican missionary with CFCI, knows all too well what those destructive lifestyles involve.
“I started with drugs at 7 years old,” he says. “And I lived on the streets, in the downtown zona roja (red-light district), eating from trash piles, hanging out with gangs. I spent 15 years there.”
Villalobos says he eventually began to use drugs to kill himself, occasionally wrapping 25 packets of marijuana into one cigarette and smoking it all at once.
“Finally, I went into an evangelical church because there were a lot of pretty girls there,” he says. “But they weren’t interested in me. I hadn’t cut my hair in 13 years. I was very skinny, not very appealing. But I was interested in the pastor’s daughter!”
Villalobos met a missionary from the Latin America Mission who changed his life, he says. After finding his faith, he began to visit addicts in derelict shelters throughout downtown San José, and was able to reach many of them because he knew what they were going through.
Later, after marrying that pastor’s daughter, he began CFCI’s Renacer (Rebirth) program, designed to rehabilitate adolescent girls living on the streets.
Two years ago, Villalobos saw the need to develop a program to prevent young people from becoming addicted to drugs. He began CFCI’s Transformation project, a program designed to transform individuals, families, communities and churches.
“Many of the churches in these communities are small and not open to working together,” he explains. “They need to unite to work for the common good of the community.”
Villalobos reports that in La Cuenca, churches have seen a sharp increase in attendance when they started working with small groups of women to improve community life.
“We provide something almost every day here,” Barker says. “We teach English as a second language and literacy classes for adults, as well as sewing and arts classes.”
The ministry also provides free meals in this and other communities one day a week. “Some of those who eat with us haven’t had a full meal all week. They exist on crackers and water,” Barker says.
Now, CFCI missionaries want to expand their ministry in La Cuenca by opening a soup kitchen to feed 500 children at least three times a week. The ministry is seeking funds to purchase kitchen equipment and stock sufficient food to develop a long-term program. It also hopes to build a desperately needed health clinic for La Cuenca residents, most of whom have no health insurance and whose medical needs go largely unattended.
For now, the ministry provides the “year round Bible school” and meets other needs as resources are available.
“I know that I’m gifted to work here, and I love serving this way,” says Kimy Booher of Lexington, Kentucky, who is volunteering here for a year. “What we do brings hope to a place that seems hopeless and in desperate need.”
Outside the community center, some older boys have picked up the soccer game, while a few younger boys trade marbles.
Inside, Villalobos, Barker and their team guide nearly 30 students through a craft project related to the Bible lesson taught by Molly McKinney of Trout Lake,Washington, who is a student at ScrippsCollege in Claremont, California.
“I hope that what we do will get them into a better life,” explains McKinney, who is serving as a volunteer for a few months. “Maybe it’s a bridge out of poverty for them.”
For more information on the Transformations program in La Cuenca, contact Ronald Villalobos at 864-2522. For information about Christ for the City International, visit www.cfci.org or write to the organization atP.O. Box 241827, Omaha, Nebraska, 68124
-5827, in the United States.