In the western suburb of Escazú, beautiful mansions with dazzling views of San José are a stone’s throw from overcrowded aluminum shacks clinging to steep hillsides.
The exclusive, private CountryDay School is just a short walk from the Barrio Corazón de Jesús public school, where students come to class in two shifts because they don’t all fit into the limited space.
This inescapable contrast – high-resolution inequality – is part of what inspired Escazú resident Patrick Goodness, 38, originally from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, to don a sweltering red velvet Santa suit and fluffy white beard last weekend to hand out toys to children in the low-income Barrio Corazón de Jesús neighborhood.
Goodness and his wife, Terri, moved to Costa Rica about a year and a half ago with their online advertising business. Their two children, Harrison, 7, and Ava, 3, go to CountryDay School. Goodness used to do about two or three charity projects a year in the United States, and now wants to focus on his local community here. He first handed out toys to children in Escazú last December.
Philanthropy has always been an important part of Goodness’ life. He studied to be a priest for eight years, starting at the age of 13.
“I started doing charity work when I was a teenager,” he said. “I want my children to understand that with this incredible blessing of our good fortune comes some responsibility as well.”
Harrison timidly asked if he could have one of the 300-plus toys his family was packing into their car. Goodness looked down at him.
“What did we talk about? Tell me what I said. Who are these toys for?” he asked.
“Other kids,” Harrison mumbled.
Goodness smiled under his Santa beard.
“I was really proud of them last year,” he said. “We gave away all these toys and the entire time not one of them asked for a toy.
This year, I think it’s a different story. One year older, one year wiser.”
The neighborhood children, meanwhile, were waiting at an empty lot overlooking the city, where word had already spread that Santa would soon be arriving. Goodness and his family took an informal census to see how many gifts he might need, as they almost ran out of the 220 gifts they handed out last year. This year, Goodness increased his toy stash to more than 300. Nervous and already sweating in the Santa suit, he worried the toys would run out.
“They were down there scouting the site yesterday, and they were already being followed by kids,” he said. “So I think there’s going to be a lot of kids today. I hope we have enough.”
Down at the lot, two girls wearing what looked like their Sunday finest were waiting patiently for Santa. Last year, both Fabiana and Stacy, 11, received Barbies from Santa.
They wondered what presents he would bring this year.
Carrying a big velvet red bag slung over his shoulder, Santa arrived on foot. “Who wants toys today?” he asked in accented Spanish, as the children, still shy, started inching closer and closer to him. A few women gathered around with small children on their hips, looking hopefully at the bucket of stuffed animals that Santa’s helpers were removing from the car. An assortment of stray dogs from around the neighborhood flocked to the area, sniffing about and getting underfoot of the excited onlookers.
The children formed two semi-orderly lines. Boys and girls parted like the Red Sea, with the youngest at the very front of the lines. Santa asked each child, “How old are you?” and “What do you want for Christmas?” as their peers wriggled with impatience behind them.
Goodness’ two children dutifully helped hand him the toys, which he dispensed one by one to each child. Several of the smaller children were terrified of Goodness’ Santa getup and recoiled in fear as their mothers accepted gifts on their behalf. Some of the parents standing in a corner joked about how they wouldn’t mind receiving one of the shiny new gifts themselves.
The older girls received pink Hannah Montana schoolbags with school supplies inside, while the older boys received bags in tougher-looking colors. Barbies and toy race cars were given out to slightly younger children, and the very small received stuffed animals and My Little Pony toys.
Every time the lines looked like they were diminishing, a new crowd of kids emerged from the neighborhood, rushing so as not to miss their chance at an early Christmas.
Children compared toys, and the boldest of them asked Santa’s helpers to trade in their gifts for something else.
Finally, after about an hour and a half of gift giving, Santa was ready to close up shop. He was slowly standing up when a girl arrived running, hardly able to talk for lack of breath. She got a toy as well, and then Goodness called it a day.
Goodness financed the event himself but hopes to solicit support from people living in the United States and Costa Rica to make more donations to the community.
“I shudder to think what it’s going to be like next year,” he said, smiling. “I think I’m going to have to solicit donations for next year’s event.”
Goodness is currently fundraising for the Barrio Corazón de Jesús school, which needs basic school supplies. He can be contacted at email@example.com.