7 Rules for Volunteering in Costa Rica

FIMRC Ambassador Katarina Visnjic gives her top 7 tips for volunteering at Project Alajuelita!

1.       DOWN HERE WE ARE ON "TICO TIME"
All volunteers, myself included, arrive with a sense of urgency. It is ingrained in us as a result of the crazy schedules we have back in the States. We are trained to be efficient and to not waste time. And I think I speak for the majority of us when I say we are stressed out and exhausted all the time! So when you arrive to Costa Rica try to take it easy and relax! Our clinic is there to give medical care, but also to show the Nicaraguan refugees that they are important. We do not try to rush them in and out of the clinic because it is important that we spend a lot of time with each patient. It is vital that our volunteers focus on helping us provide quality of care. 

2.      FORGET PERSONAL SPACE
I mean it. Costa Ricans kiss, hug, and treat you as if we have known you all your life. Patients will hug you, the kids will hug you, and you might get a baby shoved in your arms unexpectedly. This happened to me on my first day. I was not even sure whose baby it was. In the US we are always concerned about other people and we tiptoe around everything. Down here, things are much more laid back so if you see someone leaning in for a hug, just go with it!

3.       YOU MIGHT GET CALLED "GRINGO"
.....or "Chino", or whatever else you look like. This is not meant to be offensive. After a month here I have yet to meet an unpleasant Costa Rican or Nicaraguan. They do not say things that are offensive and are generally very kindhearted people. In the US we are taught to be so overly politically correct that we sometimes go so far that we consider it inappropriate to label anything. Here, it is normal to be given a nickname based on what you look like or where you come from. They call me "Serbia" and "machita" and our awesome volunteer, Jason, proudly wore his "Chino" moniker for the two weeks he was here. We think it's cool that we are representations of our countries. Our days on the soccer field often turn into the World Cup! Remember that you have their respect, even if they point out something obvious about your appearance.

4.       LANGUAGE BARRIERS ONLY EXIST IN THE MIND
90% of our volunteers do not speak Spanish or speak very little. Do not let this stop you from interacting with the patients. Happiness and fun are both universal languages and are the most used in our clinic! The kids always want to play with the volunteers and this is a great way to keep them entertained while they wait for their appointments. If you can wave your arms around, point, and make faces, you have all the tools you need! Many volunteers start out the week feeling a little timid in an environment where they are not understood, but by the end of the week they are shouting, playing, and running around with the kids! Others come in without reservations and have a great time from day one. My advice is, the sooner you can become comfortable with looking silly, the better. 
 
5.       SIMPLER IS BETTER
Our weekly health education pieces are so simple that it sometimes seems that we are preparing material for children and not adults. However, many of the adults dropped out of school between ages 12 and 14. This means that their language skills and critical thinking skills have not developed the way we would expect. Pictures and posters are used a lot in our presentations because the visual memory skills of our patients is better developed than other learning skills. Therefore, leave any bulleted PowerPoints at home. 

6.       KEEP AN OPEN MIND
It can be challenging for some people to understand why houses here have enormous gates, bars on the windows, why air conditioning is used minimally, why Nicaraguans flee their country to live in the conditions they do, why their kids drop out of school, and how a diabetic patient might not know that they should not eat sugar. It is important to keep in mind that the USA is only one country out of 196 on the planet and that people live in many different ways. Instead of looking at our differences as strange it is better to embrace them and move on to more important things. 

7.       YOU ARE A ROLE MODEL
Both the kids and the adults will look at you as role models. You are well-educated, successful, and you are traveling the world!  Take some time to consider this and think about how you can use your role as a volunteer to make a difference. Think about health education pieces you could do, or come up with a motivational presentation that will teach kids the importance of staying in school. Every volunteer has something different to contribute and every idea will be appreciated by our staff and our patients. Your message will resonate with someone and you can and WILL make a difference here. 

I hope this post was educational. I hope to see you at FIMRC Alajuelita and Pura Vida!

To read more, visit Katarina's Blog here.