Keith Holder could very easily be called the Pied Piper of the Shantytown. Children naturally flock to him. As he walks through the poor community of La Verbena in San Felipe de Alajuelita, south of San José, kids dart out of buildings to say hello and teenagers come up to shake hands and pat him on the back.
“I love these kids,” he says. “I have a great relationship with them.”
That goes without saying. The youth of this sprawling slum turn to him for advice, counsel, encouragement and, occasionally, financial help.
“It’s all about relationships,” he muses as one boy thanks him for providing financial assistance to get his immigration papers in order.
Most of the community’s residents are Nicaraguan immigrants who came here seeking a better life. However, without proper papers, getting a job at a decent wage is difficult, if not impossible.
Holder knows this, and he also knows that along with proper documentation, education is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty.
“Educación Plus has about 80 sponsored children,” he says, referring to the Christian educational charity for children he founded in 1992. “With money donated by people in England and the United States, we provide uniforms and school supplies to about 450 children at the beginning of each school year.”
Originally from London, Holder, 56, settled in Costa Rica 14 years ago to begin work in three shantytown areas around the capital: La Verbena and Tejarcillos in Alajuelita; Metrópolis de Pavas, west of San José; and Balcón Verde in Los Guidos de Desamparados, south of the capital. Today, four Costa Rican employees work with Holder and Educación Plus to carry on the ministry, while he also raises money in England and the United States.
“It costs $30 a month to sponsor a child,” he says. “That’s used for school supplies, but also to help their families and improve their lifestyles.”
The missionary also raises funds for annual summer-camp programs for children, as well as big Christmas parties every December in each of the shantytowns; this year’s parties took place earlier this week.
Walking through San Felipe, Holder is besieged by children, teens and mothers who want to share their struggles with him, seek advice or simply receive a word of encouragement.
Stopping by one house, he turns into a tough father, letting one teenage youth know of his displeasure that he has dropped out of school. Then, softening up, he puts his arm around the boy’s shoulder and gently explains that he has arranged for a restaurant owner to hire him several hours a day. The boy seems moved by the pastor’s generosity.
“He wants to be a chef, so this will be a good way to help him get a foot in the door,” Holder explains.
Several blocks away, a small child tugs at Holder’s shirt.
“I want you to see my house,” he pleads.
Holder takes a few minutes to follow the lad along a twisting, muddy path between shacks to a small room no larger than eight by 10 square feet that serves as a home for four people.
“We share the bed, and some of us sleep on a mat on the floor at night,” explains the youngster’s “sister-in-law” (many couples in this community may be together for decades but never formally marry, Holder explains).
The missionary looks around the cramped shack and notes that the girl cooks for the family on a small burner in the corner.
“That is, when they have food,” he remarks. “Right now they have only one egg in the house.We’ll send some food here this afternoon.”
The girl invites Holder to look at the small patch of land behind the one-room shack. Muddy water – sewer water from the house behind them – seeps under their house, adding to the pervading stench in the community.
“That’s one of the worst situations I’ve seen here,” says Holder. “What’s even more tragic is that she was extorted to be able to live there. A mafia charges each family to live here, even though the property belongs to the government. This family paid about $70 to be able to squat on the property.”
As the missionary ends his several-hour walk through the community, the entourage of children and some adults following him grows. Some are going to the Bible church nearby to help a visiting work group from Kainos Christian Fellowship in Swindon, England, paint the auditorium. Others are lining up for an Educación Plus teenage Bible study that night. Holder expects at least 60 youngsters to show up for the session.
“The trip here has helped me to understand that many people back home have similar problems to the people here,” explains Ann Hutchinson, one of the working visitors from Swindon. “Their housing may be better, but they still struggle with similar things.”
“Working here has helped me understand that I must be more patient with my students who have problems,” adds Hutchinson, who teaches psychology at a sixth-form college in England.
Holder says that in addition to contributions to keep the program going, he needs a few good people to help out with administration, publicity and development in the San José office.
“We could use people who would be willing to raise their own support and come here for two to three years to help out,” he says.
Meanwhile, he carries on much of the work himself, dreaming up new plans and strategies as he walks along, drawing a larger and larger crowd that follows the Pied Piper through the shantytown.
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