San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Atenas School Gets Helping Hand

Though the Costa Rican education system is said to be free, many schools are struggling financially. Especially vulnerable are those in rural areas, where government funds can be insufficient to provide students with an adequate education. That is why private initiatives of all backgrounds try to make up for the deficiency.

Based in the coffee town of Atenas, northwest of San José, U.S. residents Linda and Fred Macdonald took the initiative to help a local school. In March, they started the San Isidro School Fund in favor of the elementary school of the same name, located in a low-income neighborhood of Atenas about 12 kilometers from the town center.

The school was founded in 1906, when first and second grades were installed in private houses. Starting in 1928, a simple wooden structure served as the first schoolhouse of the district. The present school, with its cheerful mural facing the street, was erected in the 1990s, and includes a kindergarten and three classrooms in which 48 students, ages 5 to 13, are instructed by three teachers.

Linda says the idea for the fund was born 18 months ago, when she enrolled two Nicaraguan children from her neighborhood at the school.

“Talking to the teachers, I recognized the need to help,” she says.

Originally from Boston, the couple has been living in Atenas for three years. Fred is the founder and editor of the one-year-old newsletter Atenas Today, which he distributes regularly via e-mail to members of the area’s English-speaking community.

First steps to a fruitful collaboration with the school were made when parents and other volunteers painted the school building from top to bottom with materials donated by the Macdonalds. Later, the school’s director, Irene Fonseca, presented a list of the most urgent needs, including teaching materials, a rice cooker and support for food supply and transportation for the students.

Linda sent the list to her brother-in-law, Robert Fowler, a businessman based in the U.S. state of Georgia, who agreed to donate the long-awaited computers and a copy machine to the school. In March, the Macdonald family decided to officially initiate the school fund, submitting the list to members of the Atenas community. To date, $15,000 has been collected, including 10 computers with Internet access and a photocopier. Basic services provided to the students, such as hot lunches and free transportation for those who live far away, are now fully covered, thanks to the donations.

School director Fonseca says that the barrio’s main source of income is agriculture, and many parents cannot afford to pay for all the needs at the school.

“The government provides a certain amount of money, but it is not enough,” Fonseca says. “Four years ago, parents and other volunteers constructed our third classroom to teach computer skills. Eventually, the Education Ministry informed us there was no money to buy the computers.

“The donations from the school fund enable us to offer adequate education to our students, providing them with computer skills and learning materials, such as textbooks and other reading material.”

Encouraged by the positive response from teachers, students and parents, the Macdonald family plans to make the project an ongoing campaign. Fowler, the main sponsor, considers the San Isidro School Fund “an excellent example or pilot project to motivate other communities to do the same for their schools.”

And what do the students say?

“It’s great learning computer skills,” agree 11-year-old schoolmates Kevin Camacho and Rodrigo Rodrigues.

For more information or to make a contribution, e-mail the Macdonalds at


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