San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Peace Corps Costa Rica volunteer walks memory lane

The Costa Rica Peace Corps Group No. 1 trained at Kansas University (KU) in October 1962, spent two weeks at Camp Crozier, Puerto Rico, and, on Jan. 23, 1963, stepped off a Pan Am flight at Juan Santamaría airport. We were met by Education Minister Ismael Vargas and U.S. Embassy and Costa Rican government officials, then each was driven to a pensión (inn) via the old road through Heredia – the autopista (highway) was being built – by a different greeter.

Group 1 was managed by Dr. Thomas Gale of KU. The first representative was Frank Appleton (of the publishing house family, and schoolmate of U.S. President John F. Kennedy). We spent 10 initial days in further training at the University of Costa Rica. In early February, we were given assignments as teachers of English or science. I was assigned to the liceo (high school) in Santa Cruz, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Another volunteer and I landed in Santa Cruz on a LACSA DC-3. The school year had not started and the liceo was closed; no one knew we were arriving. Dr. Oscar Chavarría had brought his two young sons to watch the arrival of the daily flight. We all watched as our luggage was loaded onto an oxcart. The doctor took us to the Pensión Arredondo and went to find the person he knew would take charge of us, doña Odette Héctor. She showed up in a short time and took us to her home in Santa Bárbara, where we stayed the night.

Doña Odette was an English teacher and our colleague at the liceo. (She later became a legislator.) We took our meals at the home of Dorita de Cabalceta. I roomed at the STICA office and after a few months rented a house in front of the park.

Teaching English at the liceo was a wonderful experience. I got very involved with the students, especially in helping them plan their futures. Thirteen of the students were able to become American Field Service students at high schools in the United States.

One great experience was a trip with several students to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast. In 1964, there was only a small pulpería (corner store) about where the Diria hotel is now. We slept in sleeping bags on the beach. 

Of course, on the first day I showed up at the Liceo Santa Cruz, I was told I would soon meet my wife (well, not stated quite like that!). Alicia Guillén was the French teacher. She was living with an uncle’s family. On our first date, we went with two teachers to a fiesta in the town of 27 de Abril.

I returned to Costa Rica in mid-1964 to work in the planning office of the Education Ministry as a Ford Foundation intern in Latin American education. While I was there, the chancellor and dean of education of KU showed up, and the minister assigned me to show them around and assist in planning an exchange program. They offered me an assistantship to do my graduate studies at KU. On July 2, 1966, I married Alicia and we went to Kansas.

Alicia and I have three children and four grandchildren. I work in education, workforce development and other areas in 30 countries with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), UNESCO, the Organization of American States, World Bank, U.S. Department of Labor and United Nations Development Programme projects, and at the University of Costa Rica and State University at a Distance (UNED) in Costa Rica, Point Park College in the U.S. and the University of Carabobo in Venezuela.

JFK and the Volcano

On March 3, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica, and that very day Irazú Volcano erupted and began spewing ash over the Central Valley. Most of our Peace Corps Group No. 1 met Kennedy at that time. It is worthy to note that Irazú continued erupting until Nov. 23, 1963, the very day Kennedy was killed in Dallas.


1963. Peace Corps Costa Rica began operations during the administration of President Francisco Orlich, shortly after a visit to the country by U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The initial group of 26 volunteers arrived Jan. 23, 1963, and were assigned to the Education Ministry to teach English and science classes. Among the first communities to receive volunteers were Ciudad Quesada, Grecia, Liberia, Nicoya, Palmares, Puntarenas, San Ramón and Turrialba.
1960s. Volunteers helped form and were members of the National Symphony Orchestra, helped form the first troop of Boy Scouts in Costa Rica, and engaged in physical and health education, fine arts, agricultural extension and community development projects.
1970s. Volunteers worked in areas such as reforestation and environmental projects, precursors to the important ecotourism sector of today’s economy. Special education and cultural activities were also areas of focus, as was agricultural production.
1980s. Tourism development became a central focus of the Small Business Project in the 1980s. USAID asked for Peace Corps volunteers to help out with its small-business development project. The Peace Corps gained more independence and credibility, and its approach to community-based development was adopted by other organizations around the world. The Caribbean Basin Initiative opened the doors of the international marketplace for a wide variety of nontraditional products. Volunteers worked in new areas such as reforestation, housing projects and work with cooperatives, while continuing work in the more traditional areas of health, nutrition, agriculture and community development.
1990s. This was a time of transition for Peace Corps Costa Rica. The focus was on education in areas such as business skills, preschool and the environment. The Children, Youth and Families at Risk project was begun to address the increasing problems stemming from rural-to-urban migration of the population. With USAID’s departure from Costa Rica in 1996, Peace Corps announced the upcoming closure of its program in Costa Rica. The program was reduced to a single project (Children, Youth and Families at Risk) with just 24 volunteers. However, at the request of PANI, Peace Corps agreed to maintain its presence for an additional five years with supervision out of the Nicaragua Peace Corps office.
2000-2001. Peace Corps Costa Rica operated with minimal staff and volunteers in a closeout mode. However, due to strenuous lobbying from the Costa Rican government to preserve Peace Corps in Costa Rica for the benefit of marginalized communities and populations, Peace Corps made the decision to renew and strengthen its presence in the country. The Children, Youth and Families at Risk project was maintained. In the following years, a new Community Economic Development project was started, followed by a Rural Community Development project.
2010. At the request of the government, a new Teaching English as a Foreign Language project was initiated with the arrival of the first 25 volunteers in October.
Source: Peace Corps Costa Rica

Read about present-day Peace Corps Costa Rica volunteers in next week’s edition of The Tico Times.

Comments are closed.