San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Christmas comes to Costa Rica orphanage

In front of the Fundación Hospicio de Huérfanos, a robust evergreen is covered in decorations. Across the path, an enormous nativity scene covers the front wall; the Three Wise Men are almost life-size. Within its many buildings, the Hospicio staff has displayed Christmas trees, paper candy canes, and Styrofoam statuettes of snowmen. Every room is festive. Christmas has come to the orphanage.

“There are a lot of activities all month,” says Nuria María Montenegro, assistant director of the Hospicio. “On Christmas day, every child receives a gift.”

When people think of an “orphanage,” they often picture something Dickensian: a dark brick building filled with ragged children. But the Hospicio looks more like an open-air elementary school. Quaint brick houses fill the campus, separated by lawns and brightly painted tires. Children play in the central road and swing on the swing sets. Some walls are covered in murals, including one of the Little Prince. Beyond the rooftops and lines of wafting laundry, the Central Valley sprawls bucolically below.

The Hospicio was originally founded in 1869, under the name “La Trinidad,” in a property in Barrio Aranjuez in San José. In 1990, due to the age and poor condition of the building, children were transferred to a new facility in Vista de Mar, in Goicoechea. The Hospicio is technically a private institution, but it works close with the government-run Child Welfare Office, or PANI.

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A girl spends a quiet moment at her bed. Hospicio residents have their own beds in dorm rooms divided by gender.

Alberto Font

The year that this branch was built, Montenegro was looking for a job, and she was hired as a receptionist. She worked her way through the ranks, and 23 years later, Montenegro holds one of its highest positions.

“We have a capacity for 120 children,” Montenegro says. But because of budget constraints, they only have 91.

“They may stay here until they turn 12 years old,” says María Lineth Rojas, the Hospicio’s official spiritual leader. “Then they have to go another hospice.”

Montenegro’s team works hard to help the children live well-adjusted lives: They attend a regular public school, located only a mile away. The Hospicio has a thriving “padrinos” program; interested adults (known as “godfathers” or “patrons”) visit the grounds, play with the kids, and even take care of them for a weekend.

The Hospicio grounds open into a large meadow, where 11 dairy cows provide fresh milk and the staff cultivates a greenhouse. Several children inhabit each cottage, where they sleep beneath pastel-colored blankets and eat meals together in a spacious living room.

“It’s like a family,” says Montenegro.

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Situated in the hills, the Hospicio campus overlooks the Central Valley.

Alberto Font

Since she arrived, Montenegro has received a steady stream of letters from former orphans who have since grown up. They tell her about significant others, enrollment in university, travels to distant countries and forthcoming marriages.

In keeping with this familial atmosphere, December is packed with celebrations. Volunteers pour through the Hospicio’s doors, along with donated food, toys and clothing. The staff saves special donations throughout the year, and when Christmas day arrives, they distribute gifts to the children.

Officially, the Hospicio is a secular institution, but the Christian tendencies are strong. Throughout the month, children participate in “posadas,” or Spanish wassailing. Each day, they gather at a different house on the Hospicio grounds, and all the children sing a holiday song.

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Children regularly visit the Hospicio’s pasture, where dairy cows graze.

Alberto Font

On the day of our visit, a few dozen children clustered in one living room and received lyrics to “Tendras un Hijo” (“You Will Have a Son”). The scene was chaotic; babies squealed in their cribs, toddlers tumbled, young ’uns sucked thumbs and older kids tinkered with various toys. But there was no roughhousing, no bullying, not even a shed tear. They all sang together, an enthusiastic chorus of tiny voices.

None of them seemed related, but true to the Hospicio’s mission, they did look like a family.

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Children stroll down the campus’ main road. Each child receives at least one gift on Christmas day, most taken from public donations.

Alberto Font

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