It was fitting. Leaning up against a poster reading, “Dejen que los niños se acerquen a mí” (“Let the little children come unto me”), one could feel the jostling bodies of anxious kids and teenagers outside, on the other side of the thin, swaying wall. They were pressing forward, trying to get closer to the open door – coming unto a free meal that, for some of the young people, would be their only real food of the day.
That was the scene one recent weekday at the soup kitchen in the Triángulo de Solidaridad shantytown in Tibás, just north of San José, where a few hardworking women volunteer as many as six hours each day to cook lunch for more than 300 children. A Catholic priest launched the project in October 2005. More than a year later, exposure from The Tico Times and donations from Ticos and foreigners have made the work a bit easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Sometimes, “we have to tell them there’s no more,” said Juana López, 27, one of the project’s most faithful volunteers. On Oct. 26 she’d helped make two massive pots of traditional arroz con leche for the crowd, but she said that many weeks, there are too many kids and too little food. “They go off with empty hands.”
Helping López and the other volunteers as they sought to close that gap on that day was Mitch Zychowski, 56, a Pennsylvania resident who began visiting Costa Rica a few years ago.
On the plane during one trip home from Costa Rica, he picked up The Tico Times and read “Community Kitchen Helps Feed Poor Youth” (TT,May 5).
“I started crying on the plane. It broke my heart,” he said, standing outside the small building where the food is cooked and served.
Particularly attention-grabbing, he said, was the idea that volunteers didn’t have enough resources to feed all the kids who needed help.
“How would you decide what child to give it to?” he said, gesturing at the line beginning to form. “To her? To her? To him?”
The owner of his own business, Enjoy Coupon Book, a book of donated coupons that nonprofit organizations sell to raise funds, Zychowski now donates $700-800 per month to the community kitchen, and hopes to soon raise that figure to $1,000. He has visited at least once per month since May, bringing rice, beans and sacks of other groceries.
In his absence, his business partner in the Puerto Jiménez project, Costa Rican citizen Oscar Villalobos, and Villalobos’ cousin Gloriana Martínez, visit the kitchen to provide support and keep track of what supplies the women need.
The bulk of the donations have come from Zychowski’s own pocket, though he’s stepping up fundraising efforts in the United States. A recent golf outing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, drew 40 participants and raised $3,500 for the kitchen.
The May 5 Tico Times article helps him drum up funds as well.
“I carry this around Pittsburgh with me all the time – I bum money, is what I do,” he said with a grin.
Others far and wide have stepped up to help the kitchen as well, according to priest Luis Gonzalo Mateo, who discovered the Triángulo one day last year while taking a walk to get to know the community near his church, a historic building known as the Iglesia de Ladrillo (the Brick Church). He worked with a few residents to found the kitchen, not only to provide food for the community’s kids but also to give women in the neighborhood a group project.
Padre Mateo, as he is known, spoke to The Tico Times recently, sounding optimistic about the kitchen’s prospects. A jewelry store in Miami, Florida, that pledged $1,000 per month (TT, May 26) following the original article has sent payments, and people who stop by the church often make donations big and small, he said.
Mateo said the kitchen can always use more support.
López agreed, pointing out that although 300 kids are on the kitchen’s current recipient list, the shantytown holds many more children.
As in most of Costa Rica’s tugurios – communities with inadequate housing conditions– it’s hard to make a good estimate of how many families live in the Triángulo, where makeshift shelters are crammed onto lots that often hold several families. López estimates there are 500 lots with as many as 1,500 children, five times the number the kitchen is serving now.
The Spanish priest, 70, is also working on another ongoing project: raising money to buy land for 50 families from another illegal settlement evicted earlier this year, La Candela, near JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport northwest of San José. Padre Mateo is searching for a lot in the western or northern Central Valley where the families could build homes and start a school.
Though some evicted families received assistance from the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS), many families of illegal Nicaraguan immigrants didn’t get a penny, the priest said. Today, they’re lodged anywhere they could find shelter, “in this little corner or that,” he said, struggling to make ends meet to buy food or pay their rent.
“Who knows if we’ll find someone to support this (effort),” he said, adding that he’s raised $2,500 of the total $20,000 he hopes to obtain to buy a lot.
How to Help
For information on how to help with the community kitchen or purchase land, contact priest Luis Gonzalo Mateo at 222-5057.
For more information on Mitch Zychowski’s efforts, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org