A Week of Service in Providencia, Costa Rica

By: Genevieve Chiu-Schaepe

A Recap of sorts

After a long night of flying to Costa Rica and several hours of driving up winding highways, the seven of us entered Los Quetzales National Park. The dense cloud forest surrounded us, and before we knew it, our trip leader, David, pulled us out from the van to give us our first talk. I stood there among my peers (quite absently, admittedly) as the cool mist covered me and listened to David tell us about the harsh realities of climate change that were already affecting Costa Rica–sloths moving to higher elevations to escape the warming temperatures, trees and bugs and birds disappearing from the coasts, and rain, a big theme of the trip, becoming more and more unpredictable. He ended the solemn moment with a loud “PURA VIDA!” and shepherded us back to the van.

This would be the rhythm for the entire trip; we’d face the ugly truth of climate change, conventional farming, and soil degradation, and follow up by a “PURA VIDA!”, some tunes, a plan for the day’s work. David ensured that each of us got our fair share of mixing concrete, turning compost, and playing games. Some of my favorites included a camp game called “Big Booty,” intense rounds of kickball and capture the flag– in which one of my friends accidentally tackled a local and one of our faculty leaders split his toe.

Each day would start and end with the six of us bouncing around in the back of a little blue pickup truck from our homestay families’ houses to our work location of the day. When we weren’t working, David would facilitate discussions on water waste, plastic consumption, and Green Community’s ecological coffee plantations while we sat and ate strange fruits like the very seedy Granadilla or this type of lemon that was neither sweet nor sour.

The more David, Arturo, or Jonathan–the other two program leaders–spoke, the more we realized how committed they were to making Providencia sustainable. These three men work tirelessly to lead volunteer groups, coordinate work with the locals, and spread the message of sustainable living and farming through Costa Rica and beyond with their organization, Green Communities. I was particularly impressed by David, not only by the 5 inches of friendship bracelets he has stacked on his wrist, but how much integrity he has to eat vegan, live without electricity, and do backbreaking work under the sun all in order to see his life’s mission through.  

Fast Facts

  • Providencia de Dota is a small town in Los Quetzales National Park, up in the coffee-growing cloud forests of Costa Rica. There’s one way in and one way out, and most of it’s unpaved (part of our work during the week was to help pave a steep part of the road that’s largely affected during the wet season). Through the town runs one of the most gorgeous, gin-clear creeks, which we all drank, showered in, cooked with, and swam in.

  • If you see “Los Santos” on your coffee, it’s from this region!

  • Healthy coffee plants can live to 35+ years, but they usually get cut and replanted after 15 years

  • There are now 7,000+ ecological coffee plants thanks to Green Communities, and their goal is 30,000

  • Ecological coffee is a step above Certified Organic methods because they don’t use any chemicals (approved or not) and don’t cut down any of the surrounding landscape (yay polyculture! yay integrating agriculture into natural ecosystems! yay for soil quality and animal health!)

  • 2018 was the worst harvest year in the Los Santos region (lowest yields) due to unpredictable rain (shorter, more inconsistent rainy seasons, thanks to climate change, has been a growing phenomenon in Costa Rica and other regions globally)

  • 16,000-20,000 immigrants, mainly from Nicaragua, come during the harvest season to pick coffee (many Costa Ricans don’t pick their coffee anymore)

coffee farming and character growth

I want to start by sharing that I was very skeptical of the impact this trip would have on my life and on the community in Providencia before I left. This was a school trip, doing service in Costa Rica for a week, and it all felt very “cookie-cutter.” What difference could I, or four of my other classmates, make by helping out for a week? It turns out that any help is good help, and sometimes the best help is just to listen.

We did a lot of that during my week in Costa Rica–listening, that is. Probably more than actual hands-on work. Most of the time it was listening to David, our trip leader. Other times it was listening to our homestay siblings and parents, though they didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Spanish.

Priory, my school, has the expression, “listen with the ear of your heart,” and this felt particularly relevant on this trip. Our trip to Providencia was primarily to familiarize ourselves with the methods of ecological coffee plantations through hands-on work, and get to know a handful of locals through home stays. We turned compost piles of brossa, the outermost coffee shell, and formed assembly lines to fertilize plants, and even got to explore, first hand, the drastic differences between conventional and organic/ecological coffee. It’s really clever program planning, actually. You come with the draw of experiencing a new place and lending a helping hand, but you leave reinvigorated and reconnected to your priorities, how your food staples are grown, and a better grasp on the things you want and the things you actually need. Learning through experience at its finest.

I mentioned above that I felt skeptical of the program touting that we would make a difference in a community by coming for a week, and I want to elaborate on that. What I failed to recognize prior to the trip was that the scope of the work I was going to do spans beyond myself, or my group, or even the last month of volunteer groups. All I am, in the view of the organization, is an indispensable slot that needs to be filled week-by-week in order to make the change happen (and this statement isn’t intended to devalue or minimize the efforts of volunteers). What I’m trying to point to, and maybe this is obvious for everyone besides myself, is the importance of people like David, Arturo, Jonathon, and Brian (the man who runs Dream Volunteers which connects student volunteer groups to organizations like Green Communities). It’s their commitment to a life-long goal of making their community and beyond sustainable, and I, as a volunteer, am merely a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. But for being merely a drop in the bucket, a single volunteer out of hundreds that have come and gone, I gave and gained a lot. By opting in to just a single week of service, I helped community projects keep momentum, projects like road-building and converting conventional coffee farms into organic operations. By participating in a homestay, I contributed an extra income that helped my homestay family of four have more economic security. By experiencing the processes of conventional and organic coffee growing, I was connected to how my food staples are grown, and can now make more wise consumption choices. By going to the zip-line/ropes course park, I helped make a plot of untouched forest economically viable that would alternatively be cut down to grow coffee.

I would’ve never learned or appreciated any of these things hadn’t I participated on this trip. And even during the trip I was discounting experiences because they felt “touristy.” So this is a lesson for my future self, and for any of you if it applies: give it a chance. Give them a chance. Give yourself a chance. Get out of your own way, and give whoever or whatever a chance to change you.