San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Volunteers Work Hands-on in La Carpio

In a beat-up old van, Gail Nystrom drives her five fresh-faced volunteers into the heart of La Carpio, a shantytown west of San José, to start their day of teaching, cooking, heavy lifting and whatever else might get thrown at them. The group is somewhat subdued, until one volunteer spots a dog apparently having a seizure on the side of the road.

“Wait!” yells Marguerite Imbert, a student at DartmouthCollege in the United States, who is volunteering for two months.

Nystrom slows down.

“Maybe he’s been poisoned,” Nystrom says. “Do you want to get out?”

The volunteers open the van doors and emerge onto the grimy street.

“Where’s the vet?” Imbert asks as she approaches the convulsing dog, the whites of its eyes showing, its snout in an ugly snarl.

The vet, whose office is right around the corner, appears while Imbert and Nystrom stand close, watching. The other volunteers begin walking up the street to the education center, where a crowd of kindergarteners is waiting for them.

A battered gray car pulls a U-turn and sidles up alongside two female volunteers, who have almost reached the center.

“Hello,” one of the three men from inside the car calls out in heavily accented English.

“You like it here?”

The women keep walking. It looks like it’s going to be another eventful day on the job.

Nystrom’s organization, the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, runs a health clinic and two education centers in La Carpio, a shantytown that began as a Nicaraguan squatter settlement nearly 20 years ago and has since grown to approximately 34,000 residents, according to the foundation’s Web site.

A native of the U.S. state of Virginia, Nystrom came to Costa Rica in 1978 as a Peace Corps volunteer to set up special education classes around the country. Seeing a need for education programs in some of Costa Rica’s most underserved communities, she founded the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation in 1997.

The small organization has always managed to draw volunteers, even though most of its recruiting is achieved through word of mouth. Unlike larger volunteer organizations that require participants to pay thousands of dollars for a “volunteer experience,”

Nystrom will take whoever shows up and is willing to work hard.

This year’s crop of volunteers – all young, well educated and from the United States – look to Nystrom for guidance in a way more like the absolute faith soldiers have for their troop leader than the feeling of obligation employees have for a boss. As she chauffeurs them to nearly all of their activities, they absorb her tireless attention to detail and begin to see La Carpio as she does: a community of people who could have better lives if enough people cared about them.

“The fact that we’re with her all the time … you kind of get her mind-set,” Imbert says. “You learn so much more about La Carpio just because she’s on the phone and you’re overhearing the conversation, and then she gets off the phone and tells us, ‘You know, this is really frustrating,’ and then stops the car to hand out shoes to alcoholics on the street, and then you stop to help dogs.” A few of the other volunteers laugh.

“It’s really hands-on.”

The volunteers have clearly adjusted to Nystrom’s pace, and say the rewards of working for a small organization that revolves around one dedicated person outweigh the occasional drawbacks.

“Here, you’re just given a lot of freedom, authority and responsibility from the getgo,” says Dana Freedman, a recent Duke graduate who with Nystrom’s help is working on a documentary on a Fulbright fellowship.

“If you want to start a project, Gail will just help you get on that track and do it.

It’s very tailored to your interests, but at the same time she’s very busy and you have to make it happen. It doesn’t have the structure of those other volunteer programs, but it’s not cookie-cutter. It’s very unique.”

Each of the volunteers pioneers his or her own project. Imbert is baking cookies for breast cancer awareness, while Freedman is making her documentary. Katie Skillin, a recent college grad on a travel grant, works as a teacher’s aide, while Bobby Gorman, a ColbyCollege grad who is deferring a consulting job to volunteer, is starting a business making bunk beds to provide better sleeping arrangements for La Carpio’s cramped houses. Marc Patterson, who just graduated high school and is about to enroll at GeorgetownUniversity, started afternoon classes for teenagers and adults who want to learn English and typing.

Each of these volunteers heard about Nystrom’s program through someone else: a friend, a relative, a professor. Though the organization’s Web site solicits volunteers, people tend to show up on Nystrom’s doorstep because someone recommended her to them.

Many of the volunteers describe their lives as being changed for the better.

“More than anything I’ve felt like I want to do something I’m passionate about, and Gail’s life is just so rich and rewarding, it makes me not want to settle for the average type of job,” Freedman says.

At the end of the morning, Nystrom waits as her five volunteers unload her van before she goes to change a flat tire.

“Are my Sherpas coming?” she calls out affectionately, as Patterson bounds down the stairs.

Asked how her volunteers have changed over the past 15 years, she has to stop to think.

“I feel like they’re more sophisticated and they’re more … I don’t want to say professional, but they have more ideas,” she says. “They’re not just playing with kids. They want to do things. They want to be more proactive.”

Nystrom recalls joining the Peace Corps and being impatient with the four-month training period.

“Our volunteers stay for four months and in that time they’ve built a house or started a program or taught English to 300 kids,” she says. “It’s very fast. And the way it works is that the people have a positive bond with me and the foundation. They see the foundation as an entity, and the volunteers come and go.”

She’s climbing a steep part of the road, passing La Carpio’s landfill on a semi-flat tire.

“It’s kind of like a train,” she says. “Like I’m a train and they’re the cars, but the train keeps on going through. That’s why we can go in and work so quickly and so effectively.”

Contact Information

For information on the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation and volunteer opportunities, call 8390-4192 or 2282-6358, e-mail or visit



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