AM Youth Programming has Physical Benefits that Extend Beyond the Classroom

By Molly Burns

Whether it be memories of Saturday morning soccer games, making friends in PE class, or pre-ballet recital jitters, for most of us childhood memories are inextricably linked to sports and team activities in one way or another. While organized sports and extracurricular activities for kids to stay active and healthy are completely immersed in the culture of most developed countries, many developing countries, specifically in rural areas, usually lack team sports for youth and physical education at school.

Children who are denied the opportunity to join a team or participate in athletics are missing out on much more than a way to stay healthy. Research has shown that sports and physical education programs help to improve behavior, retention, and the development of social skills in the classroom. In this way, sports not only provide an outlet for children after school, but also positively affect school performance.

An AM Participant works on her jump rope skills at a recent Fun Friday.

An AM Participant practices her jump rope skills at a recent Fun Friday.

Beyond the benefits to health and school performance, sports and athletics play a huge role in the development of self esteem and act as an equalizer for those who are less privileged. According to the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace, “In disadvantaged communities and populations, where people are often defined in terms of their needs and deficits, sport provides a powerful counter-balance to these perceptions. Participating in sport draws on people’s strengths and assets — energy, enthusiasm, natural and acquired skills, the desire to excel — and the universal capacity for fun and enjoyment.”

Averaging three hours of classroom time a day with a school year that is comprised of 85 days a year, the children of Potrero who Abriendo Mentes (AM) serves need and deserve sports and other activities to channel their energy. However due to limited funding, formal  physical education is not included in their school day. This is where Abriendo Mentes and our partner organization Lacrosse the Nations (LtN) come in. AM offers a wide range of physical activities for youth participants. Whether they are joining us for Zumba or Bootcamp or participating in a game of kickball at a “Fun Friday,” AM offers a myriad of ways for children in Potrero to stay healthy, active, and happy. While physical play will always be an important component of our Youth programming, we are excited to share the many advances our partner Lacrosse the Nations has made in expanding the sports activities available to local children in the community.

An AM partner since March 2012, Lacrosse the Nations (LtN), offers Lacrosse practice four times a week to children of all ages (although there is a focus on grades 5th and up). Children are not only taught Lacrosse skills, but the program works to build on existing AM curriculum by incorporating English words and phrases into practices while placing an emphasis on the importance of team building and mutual respect. When asked about the impact of LtN on its participants, Sheila Serafino, LtN’s Program and Activities Coordinator since August 2013, expressed that “there is a correlation between kids who are physically active, participating in other AM programs, and also doing well in public school.” However it isn’t just Potrero’s best students who are benefiting from lacrosse practice. According to Serafino, “with lacrosse, you don’t have to be an all-star student to do well, so children that may be struggling in other aspects of life can come to practice and it’s something they can do well and be proud of.”

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An LtN participant works on his throwing skills at a practice last week.

If lacrosse doesn’t spark interest, AM provides many other options for fitness and fun. Zumba and boot camp classes are offered for children and adults three times a week to stay fit in a group environment. These classes are well attended by community members of all ages (sometimes even local dogs will get in on the fun). AM’s “Fun Fridays,”a program-wide afternoon of a planned activity, will often consist of fitness-focused activities such as yoga, field days, and soccer games. We have even hosted our own Potrero Olympic Games at a past Fun Friday. While not always situated in a traditional team environment, these activities focus on fitness, as well as foster creativity and self-esteem.

While working to provide sports and exercise related activities to AM participants may not be an obvious priority, the inclusion of these programs is critical. Not only do sports work in conjunction with educational programs, but they help to impart a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem for children of all skill levels and backgrounds. Come to Potrero and you’ll see these themes at play in a more intangible way. If you’re lucky, you might catch a young boy skipping home from practice down a dirt road, lacrosse stick in hand with two jerseys, all his own, draped over each shoulder. A childhood memory in the making.

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Bringing the family to Potrero

Ted Haile has been Abriendo Mentes’ Technology Coordinator since September 2013. He moved to Potrero from Los Angeles with his wife Kristina, and three sons, Jonathan (11), Noah (8) and Orion (5). He is a software engineer by trade, and his current job allows him to work remotely. During their time in Potrero, Ted teaches daily technology classes in the Abriendo Mentes’ technology lab as well as working online, while Kristina home schools the boys, using local culture and influences to add unique and innovative material to her self-written curriculum.

Ted Haile

Ted Haile

Ted’s role as Abriendo Mentes Technology Coordinator involves leading the daily program of adult and youth technology classes. I began by asking him how he approaches these classes.

“Initially, I observed a lot to see how the students are using the internet and what level they are at. I am now trying to improve their ability to use the web to help them become more connected in the world and better equipped to embrace opportunities that technology can present. My classes have three goals:

  1. To give students the ability to search the internet independently and effectively.
  2. To improve their translation skills.
  3. To improve their typing and understanding of technology.”

As the conversation continues, I was very interested to learn more about Ted’s perceptions of the children he is teaching:

“They’re pretty awesome! They are very interested in learning about the web and how it can help them learn new things. I’ve never taught before so it has been very interesting for me and great to see their eyes widen when I teach them something new. I’ve also worked hard to keep them engaged and to keep the content of the classes relevant.”

Ted teaching his technology class

Ted teaching his class in the Abriendo Mentes technology lab

I went on to ask Ted what he hopes for the future of Abriendo Mentes’ technology program,

“I hope that we will be able to incorporate a vocational approach to empower people to become entrepreneurs.  Potrero faces numerous issues due to its rural isolation but I hope that the internet and our classes will give our students the opportunity to make money online. This is a long-term goal and hopefully, the children we are working with today will be the entrepreneurs of the future.”

Ted has come to Costa Rica with his family after previously spending a year in Spain. It is clear that travel is a passion for the Haile family but what made them want to come to Costa Rica?

“We wanted to experience the ‘pura vida’ culture that Costa Rica offers. We were interested in the culture, environment and history of Central America and wanted our kids to experience these things first hand. We also wanted to come and get involved with Abriendo Mentes. It has welcomed us into the community and provided us with a network of friends and activities that we have loved.

“We have found this experience both amazing and challenging but I would definitely recommend it. Moving to a different country with three young children was never going to be easy but I think that the challenge is good and our experience has already been extremely memorable, much more so than if we had stayed in the States.”

So what’s next for the Haile family? After Abriendo Mentes, will they return home or keep travelling?

“Keep travelling. We’re planning to visit Medellin in Colombia next and hope that it will offer us the history and city life that we experienced in Spain mixed with the Latin American vibe that we have enjoyed so much in Costa Rica.”

I was interested to know how they have found home schooling their three boys, who often partake in activities offered by Abriendo Mentes and Lacrosse the Nations. I have met them all and can say that they are polite and intelligent young boys who are a pleasure to be around and comfortable interacting with the local children. It is interesting watching them communicate in a mixture of English and Spanish.

“My wife is an excellent teacher so we find home schooling wholly positive. She is able to tailor the curriculum to each child and focus on what they are interested in. I am conscious sometimes that they are missing out on the social aspect of traditional schooling but we always make an effort to participate in local activities so they have the opportunity to interact and socialize with other people.”

Ted is clearly enjoying his time with Abriendo Mentes and his laid back yet diligent and keenly observed approach obviously works with the students, both youth and adult. I finished by asking him what he will miss about Potrero and what he has learned.

“My daily commute! I walk home from classes along the beach right around sunset so I will definitely miss that part of life here.  We have also enjoyed being part of an inspirational and fun group of volunteers who have embraced our family and made us feel part of a very special community.

I think the main thing I have learned from living in Costa Rica is to slow down and embrace a more relaxed lifestyle. While staying here I have dropped my iPod in the ocean and cracked the screen on my tablet. At home, this would have been very stressful and required many hours of sorting out but here I have learned to be more chilled and not see it as such a big deal!”

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Brasilito perspectives

Written by Richard Julian

In this new series of blog posts I am going to delve a little deeper into what it is like to volunteer here in Costa Rica with Abriendo Mentes. I hope to use my position as Communications Coordinator to get a unique perspective into working with Abriendo Mentes and find out what life is like volunteering with a small NGO in Guanacaste.

Javi

Javi

My first interview was with with Javiera Gutierrez Merino, who recently finished an eight month term as the Lead Youth English Teacher in Brasilito; Abriendo Mentes’ satellite program in a town just a few miles away from our headquarters in Potrero. Javiera, Javi to her friends, joined the Abriendo Mentes team in March 2013 and taught in Brasilito for two of our sessions (the year is divided into four 3 month sessions).  AM has been working in Brasilto since March 2012, and while we have seen excellent progress over the past year, we still face many challenges helping this developing program grow and succeed.  In this interview, Javi discusses some of these challenges.

When she started with Abriendo Mentes, Javi admits to being frustrated by the small numbers of students who regularly attended classes. She wrote a blog when she first arrived and she stated that her main goals for her time here were to connect with her students, to build their trust in her and to ultimately increase attendance levels. I started by asking her if she felt she had achieved these goals:

Javi: Absolutely, yes. I had to work hard at it but the kids have told me that they trust me, some of them even call me Mom from time to time by mistake! I still have to walk around the town before classes start to make sure students are coming to class and I have work hard to make every single class is fun but the attendance has increased tremendously since I started and I am proud of this.

Javi trained to be a teacher in Santiago, Chile, where she has returned to begin her career in the Chilean school system. I asked her what the differences are between teaching in a public school and with Abriendo Mentes.

Javi: Here there are fewer rules, it’s not as strict. The classes I give are extra-curricular and I am teaching kids that are at risk from the variety of social issues that Brasilito is affected by. They can walk out at any time so I have to work with them and we’ve found that kids are more likely to return and participate regularly if they know they have the freedom to leave if they want to. It is much more rigid in the school system, it is very clear what is expected from you and what you should teach; here I have learned to be extremely flexible. I knew I was flexible before coming here but here you have to be even more so, and learn how to not give up.

Javi teaching an art class

Javi teaching an art class

Despite facing several challenges, it is clear that Javi has enjoyed her time in Brasilito and that she loves the kids. I asked her what one piece of information she will pass on to her replacement Kira, who took over the reins in Brasilito at the beginning of session four.

Javi: Be patient and care. Once the children understand that you care, they start to work with you and appreciate that you are there for them. I have seen this from their drawings, when I first started teaching, all of their drawings were only of themselves, after a while they started to include their friends and the local areas such as parks and the playground, now they always include me and even the assistant teachers in their drawings! I feel like I’ve made a real connection with them.

As the Brasilito program continues to grow, I asked Javi what she saw for the future of this project.

Javi: I hope that volunteers will live there soon and we will have an office there so we can become based in the community and become more a part of it, like we are in Potrero, this is so important. I also hope that the classes include even more creative and fun projects, such as art and games, as this will ensure attendance remains high and has been our most successful teaching approach. I am really looking forward to see the Brasilito project continue growing and become as successful as we are in Potrero.

It is clear that Javi put a tremendous amount of work into her time with Abriendo Mentes, and was also able to learn a great deal at the same time. Many excellent volunteers have done great work in Brasilito over the past year and a half, and it will be fantastic to see all of this hard work pay off as new team members arrive and Brasilito continues to grow and thrive as a key program of Abriendo Mentes.

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A Day Trip to Cartago

By Becca Hurliman

A couple weekends ago I took the opportunity to travel up to San Jose and Cartago for the day.  For the first time in a long time, I put on my blue jeans and packed a sweater in my bag and left my house at 4am to catch the bus.  Stopping at some nearby towns we picked up other sleepy-eyed adults and surprisingly wide-awake children and enjoyed a pretty quiet 6 hour bus ride.

As part of an annual trip organized by local residents, we first visited the Basilica in Cartago.  A pilgrimage site, many people from across Costa Rica make the trek to the Basilica each year on August 2nd.  There one can find holy water, which was stored away in empty Fanta bottles or in green plastic bottles shaped like a patron saint.

The Basilica at Cartago

The Basilica at Cartago

After that it was a slow, rainy drive through the city to Parque de Diversiones, the only amusement park in Costa Rica.  With our special day passes, we entered and headed toward the food court.  After filling our stomachs and waiting for the rain to subside, we headed to the roller coasters and other rides.  There is nothing like a fear-filled rush that makes people scream their heads off; fun was had by all.

Parque Diversiones

Parque Diversiones

I enjoyed a slice of cheesy pizza from Pizza Hut (the closest thing I’ve gotten to thick crust in many months), and then it was back to the bus for a long drive down the mountains to sleep Potrero.

When the bus came to a stop in Potrero around 11pm, one of the women said it best, “ah, we’ve arrived in our Potrero – the place that when you arrive, you don’t want to leave.”

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Carrera de Cintas: Guanacaste Tradition celebrated in Potrero

Written by Abigail Sampson One of my favorite things about Costa Rica are the festivals and ‘Dia de something’s…’ of which there are many, celebrated in even the smallest communities. A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of cowboys rode into Potrero for the ‘Carrera de Cintas’ and the town sprang to life.

Two riders compete against each other to catch the ribbon

The Carrera de Cintas (‘belt race’) is an event of showmanship and skill in which cowboys from ranches around the region bring their best horses to compete, socialize and barbeque. The atmosphere was festive, with a sense of friendly competition as horses raced in pairs on either side of a rope, their cowboys aiming to poke a small stick through a belt loop on a red ribbon strung across the lanes. Most of the cowboys were men, as is traditional, however women have been allowed to enter in recent years and there were several competing, giving the boys a run for their money. Kids raced too, on ponies that needed little encouragement to spring into action. Indeed the sheer numbers of horses and ponies made for a sizzling atmosphere.

A rider shows the concentration and skill needed to snag a ribbon

The whole day was a family affair with food stalls and picnicking taking place right next to the race track. The horses waiting their turn in the streets in some sort of organized chaos, traffic attempting to make its way past and spectators trying to simultaneously get in on the action and shelter from the cascading rain all made for a spectacular day. Want to read more? You can see Abby’s own blog here with loads more photos and details of how she took them.

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Potrero Fishing Adventures

By Lindsay Losasso

On a recent weekend, while I had some friends visiting in Potrero, we thought it would be fun to try something new and charter a fishing trip. I made arrangements for a half day tour with the father of one our AM students. We left from the dock in Potrero at 7 am sharp the next day, full of excitement.

The trip ended up being incredible from start to finish. Within about 10 minutes of hitting the water, we came across a family of three pilot whales, splashing about in the bay. I had missed all of the recent Potrero whale sightings, so I was beyond excited to get such a close up view. Then we set out for the Catalina Islands, catching a large black tuna on the way. We didn’t have much luck fishing out at the islas, but with the beautiful day and sightings of turtles and flying fish, no one seemed to mind.

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Pilot whale sighting right off our boat

We then stopped for a brief swim on the shores of Isla de Plata, a beautiful uninhabited island right off of the peninsula at Flamingo Beach. Then we headed toward the shore at Potrero beach. Our fantastic guides were determined to increase our haul, so after reeling in several sardines for bait, we started casting, hoping for some luck. After some due diligence and a few mishaps with some birds mistaking our bait for a free fish (oops!), we ended up with two sizable jack fish. Having no significant fishing experience, reeling in my huge catch was quite the event.

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Working hard to reeling in my catch

Just as we headed back to shore mid-day, the family of whales re-emerged to put on a final show of waving fins and spouting. A perfect end to a fantastic morning on the water in beautiful Costa Rica!

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What’s New with Trivia?

By Sheila Serafino

Do you know the name for a male rhinoceros? Or what large animal Indian howdahs utilize to carry their human passengers?

Me neither. But thankfully trivia is a team game, and the other members of Shorty’s+1 brought their best to AM’s last Trivia Night of the season. Last week, thirty participants from nine teams utilized a lot of brainpower and raised over $120 for Abriendo Mentes. Congratulations are in order for Team T-Rex, who went home with the win among some pretty stiff competition including last month’s winner, Team Firefly.

Sadly, Trivia Night will go on hiatus until November as the Shack takes a break for the low season.  But with every ending comes a new beginning, this one with AM at Marie’s Restaurant in Flamingo for drinks, bocas, and… BINGO.  The festivities start at 6:30 pm, this Tuesday, August 27th.  All proceeds benefit Abriendo Mentes.  Thanks for your support this summer, and hope to see you at Bingo!

Team T rex winners

Team T-Rex takes the prize!

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Stories from Monteverde

This July break, many staff and volunteers made the same plan without realizing it: to check Monteverde off of their “must-do in Costa Rica” lists. Some traveled together and others made their plans independently, but they all have stories (and tips) to share from their cloud forest adventures!

Lindsay Losasso: The Aerial Tram Tour

I traveled to Monteverde with Vinny and my parents over the July break. We had a really great time and were so impressed by the stunning beauty of the area. One afternoon, we checked out the guidebook for suggestions for something to do and came across an aerial tram tour through the jungle that promised lots of good views of wildlife. It ended up being one of the scariest/funniest things I have done in Costa Rica. The ride was so loud I’m sure we scared off all the animals within a five mile radius, and the rickety trams were in desperate need of a little TLC (our carts were literally sparking). Thankfully we made it through in one piece. The torrential downpour during the last 20 minutes of the ride definitely was the icing on the cake. I can guarantee we’ll never forget that afternoon in Monteverde!

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Abigail Sampson: The Night Hike

A group of four volunteers and I spent a weekend in Monteverde during July break. We arrived in the little town of Santa Elena after a rugged journey in our tiny rental Yaris and immediately hit the trail for a guided night hike. I realized I had forgotten a sweater for the cooler climate, but luckily I had remembered two of the most important items: my head torch and camera. Our guide was fantastic at spotting all the night-time creatures, big and small. During our evening walk we saw numerous creepy crawlies, two poisonous snakes, an army of leaf cutter ants, sloths, tarantulas and lots of sleeping birds. It was definitely a challenge as I had never done night photography before and this time the animals really were wild, so I had to act quickly. In the end, I came out with some good shots, including this one of a deadly snake!

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Jenna Jablonski: A Day in Reserva Santa Elena

Abby, Richard, Francesca, Dan, and I had to change plans at the last minute when the road to Arenal washed out. So we chose a weekend getaway to the cloud forests of Monteverde instead. Little did we know, we would still get our volcanic views from a watchtower deep in the Santa Elena Reserve. From here, at the top of the lookout, we could see for miles above the canopy of the cloud forest… all the way to the Arenal Volcano! We spent an entire day hiking this amazing, underrated reserve, feeling like Avatars from the whimsical nature-inspired Disney flick. At one point on our dreamy hike, we noticed things falling from above. We looked up to see not just one but a bunch of monkeys! We continued  to spot amazing wildlife the rest of the day and engage all five senses in the beauty of the cloud forest.

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Faces from the Community/Caras de la Comunidad: Luz

Originally posted by Mujeres Activas de Potrero on August 13, 2013

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Luz Maria Rivera is a familiar face in Potrero. Almost any day you’ll see her behind the counter at Super Ceymi, gladly helping customers with their grocery list, but also with recipes, the bus schedule, and finding their way around town. Here’s more of her story…

Where are you from and how did you end up in Potrero? 

I am from San Jose, but I moved to Potrero with my husband and children to find work. My brother-in-law owns the supermarket Super Ceymi in Potrero where I’ve been working for thirteen years.

What’s the history of Super Ceymi? 

Super Ceymi was the only supermarket in Potrero for three or four years. It started as a very small business, with just a cement floor and only local products to offer. But soon, big food distributors like Dos Pinos began coming to Potrero just to bring products to Super Ceymi. Super Ceymi has been in business for 18 years now.

Why is Super Ceymi different than other similar businesses? 

1.) It has a big variety of products. 2.) Its location is very central, so people often come in to ask questions. We are always willing to help people with the bus schedule and directions to the beaches. 3.) We have good customer service and treat our customers well.

You mentioned that you work six days a week, sometimes 13-14 hours a day. What is your motivation for working such long hours? 

My motivation is my five children. I want to be able to support their education and see them succeed. They are already very successful in their careers. For example, one is an English teacher and another is an accountant.

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(En español)

Luz Maria Rivera tiene una cara familiar de Potrero. Casi todos los días, se puede verla detrás del mostrador de Super Ceymi, ayudando a los clientes con todo – recetas, el horario de autobuses, y direcciones. Aquí la tienen un poco más de su historia…

De donde es usted y como llegó en Potrero? 

Soy de San José, pero me mudé a Potrero con mi esposo y mis hijos por trabajo. Mi cuñado posee Super Ceymi, y he trabajado allí por 13 anos.

Cuál es la historia de Super Ceymi? 

El Supermercado Ceymi era el único super en Potrero por unos tres o cuatro años. Empezó como negocio pequeño, solo con piso de cementes y productos locales para ofrecer. Pero pronto, distribuidores grandes como Dos Pinos empezaron a venir a Potrero para repartir productos a Super Ceymi. Ahora la tienda tiene 18 años.

Porque es diferente Super Ceymi de negocios similares? 

1.) Tiene más variedad de productos. 2.) Tiene un punto muy céntrico, entonces la gente suela entrar con preguntas. Todo el tiempo ayudamos a la gente con el horario de autobús o direcciones a la playa. 3) Tenemos buen servicio al cliente y tratamos bien a los clientes con educación.

Ha mencionado que usted trabaja seis días de la semana y 13-14 horas algunas días. Cuál es su motivación para trabajar tantas horas largas? 

Mi motivación son mi cinco hijos. Quiero poder mantenerlos en sus educación para que tengan éxito. Ya son muy exitosos; uno es profesor de ingles y otro es contaduría publica.

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Speaking Spanish: A Training Plan

By Mary Cox

I never thought I’d be a runner, but with a training plan and encouragement of friends and family, I found myself at the finish line of more than one half marathon.  Through that experience I came to really understand that with dedication and structured training, I really can accomplish just about anything.  (Don’t look for me in the Olympics anytime soon, though…)

One of the biggest benefits to working here at Abriendo Mentes this summer is having access to excellent Spanish classes.  This drew me to the organization because I decided it was time to finally learn Spanish “for good.”  I’d studied it in high school, college and a little bit last year, but I needed that focused structure and place to really immerse myself.  I needed a training plan!

clases de español

This summer I took Spanish classes 5 days a week, 3-4 hours a day with an excellent Spanish teacher here in Potrero.  I have made excellent progress and can now communicate in and understand Spanish.  I’m no longer afraid to travel around alone because I don’t understand, and I’m even now brave enough to say “!Si, yo hablo Español!”.

To prove it to myself, I spent my last weekend here in Granada, Nicaragua, where they speak much less English.  It was a “graduation trip.”  I made all of my travel arrangements in Spanish, and even got through the travel hiccups that inevitably happen using only Spanish.  I held conversations with people on the bus, the owners of my hotel and people in the streets.  Long conversation is still a challenge, and the Nicaraguan accent made it even harder, but I’m proud of what I could understand and what I have accomplished with my two months of focused Spanish study.

As with running, I’ll need to keep it up when I go home.  I already have plans to get involved in activities that require Spanish, and I’ll continue lessons with my teacher here on Skype (yay for technology!).  I still have a lot to learn, but just like one day I will run a full marathon, one day I will easily have long conversations in Spanish, too.

¡Porque tengo un plan y dedicación, entonces puedo lograr (casi) cualquier cosa!

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