Adrián Montoya’s parents can’t afford to pay the $40 a month to send him to an after-school nursery, but he still gets visits from Santa Claus.
“I got a water pistol last year,” the 4-year-old said, before curling up on a thin, fraying mat on the floor of the Salvation Army’s nursery in the impoverished neighborhood of León XIII, in northwestern San José.
The windows are bare, because thieves are able to reach their arms far enough through the window’s steel bars to yank out the curtains. The school is scarred with bullet holes, a reminder of the urban battleground outside its rusty fences.
A man was recently shot to death out front. Drug dealers ply their trade in plain day on nearby street corners. You can watch routine police sweeps from the nursery’s front patio.
“It’s the ugliest part of León XIII,” said Patricia Sequera, a Salvation Army captain who supervises the school. “The nursery is surrounded by problems.”
But inside, Montoya lies on his mat along with a dozen other children, pretending to sleep during nap time in what seems like a silent sanctuary surrounded by disarray.
Each year the Salvation Army in Costa Rica, as part of its Angel Tree program, seeks sponsors to donate Christmas gifts to kids like Montoya living in places like León XIII.
People and businesses such as Kraft, Scotiabank and The Tico Times have in the past donated enough support to deliver more than 5,000 gifts a year to at-risk youths around the country.
The Salvation Army collects the gifts and gives them to the children at special Christmas parties held throughout the country, featuring music, clowns, games and food.
It’s one of the Army’s many efforts to support the 900,000 living in poverty here.
In a country without an army, the “Ejército,” as members here call it, is quietly waging a war on poverty with its eight soup kitchens, three nurseries like the one in León XIII, three drug rehab centers and other programs for at-risk populations and those with disabilities.
Founded by British Methodist William Booth in 1865, the Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church and charity group with a quasi-military command structure that has spread around the world. Evangelists like Sequera don uniforms and hold ranks such as captain and major. Now in more than 100 countries, the Army is celebrating its 100th anniversary in Costa Rica this year.
“The Army has become very well known for its social work, but it was born in the spirit of the church,” said Miguel Aguilera, who runs the Army’s administrative headquarters in Costa Rica out of a dilapidated wooden building in south San José. He and his wife Angélica, both native Chileans, took over the operation here a little more than a year ago.
A 15-year Partnership
The Tico Times played a key role in launching the Angel Tree program, according to publisher Dery Dyer.
In 1992, Salvation Army captains Louise and Michael Sharpe asked the paper to publish a full-page ad with a list of children to be sponsored for a Christmas gift drive for poor kids in Costa Rica. The Tico Times agreed, and the program’s first year was a had hoped to sponsor 500 kids, more than 1,000 ended up receiving gifts.
“It enabled Tico Times readers to really participate directly to help needy kids,” Dyer said.
Readers have been donating ever since. In 1998, the Salvation Army gave The Tico Times an award for its help in launching and its continued support of the Angel Tree program.
Contributions exploded after the newspaper helped jump-start the program.
“It spread like mad, all over the country,” Dyer said.
Last year, Tico Times reader donations generated some 100 gifts and a total of $2,855 that was used to purchase thousands more gifts and finance parties and activities in lowincome communities around the country.
The program has signed on new sponsors in recent years, ranging from TV Channel 7 to ClínicaBíblicaHospital (TT, Dec. 1, 2006).
Despite the program’s success, there’s no doubt that in León XIII, charity programs like Angel Tree have room to grow.
“There’s a lot of need here,” Sequera said.
Some of the kids have been abused, others have never met their fathers, and still others have parents who are drug addicts. One child’s parents can’t pick him up after day care, so he is sent to a sitter who has been molesting him, explained the León XIII nursery’s director, Mario Jiatz. The child continues to go to the sitter because of a lack of alternatives; he has nowhere else to go.
For some of them, this is where they get their only food of the day, Sequera said.
Which must be why there are so many smiles here to break the gloom of the surrounding hood. Like the one on the face of Adrián Montoya, who is still rolling around quietly on his mat 15 minutes into nap time.
How to Help
For information on how to participate in the Angel Tree Christmas gift program, see the full-page Angel Tree ad in the News section of this edition, or call the Salvation Army at 221-8266 or 221-8502.