Written by Alex Carelli
What did I find in Central America? What did I do? What did I change? These questions have been swirling through my mind as I have been attempting to find a semblance of normalcy and make my way in a new city. It’s, interesting, looking back and trying to place myself on those dirt streets in that ramshackled village with children swarming at my feet and waist speaking in their imperfectly beautiful Spanish. It’s strange, looking back out my floor to ceiling windows to the blinding chaos of the one and only New York City and placing myself on the deserted beach near where I saw that dead monkey hanging on the wire. Who did I become during those months? Who am I now?
There is no doubt in my mind that those countries – that country – Costa Rica, changed me. And there is no doubt in my mind that in my own small way, I changed it.
What did I find? What. Did. I. Find. I found the beauty in simplicity. I found death and life in the bloodied broken wing of a bird on a Tuesday afternoon, and I found hope in the dark smiling eyes of the children I taught. I found how hard it is to make change, and how there are always three steps forward and two steps back. I found the ease in which children and people make connections across language and cultural lines when you pull a little compassion and understanding into the equation. I found the raw, exquisitely visceral wonder in turning a piece of hopeless land into the black gold of possibility. I found that even in the worst of situations, human good can always come through. I found that when you give people a choice, a chance, an opportunity – they will take it. And they will run with it, as far as they can go. I found these things and many more, and I took them with me.
I spent my time in Costa Rica working on two main projects that I conceptualized early into my time in Playa Potrero: a Community Garden and a Women’s Empowerment Group. By the time I left, both of these had been fully realized and had taken on a life of there own. These two projects spoke deeply to my passions, and I recall many moments of working to manifest these ideas and thinking, “This is it. This is exactly what I want to be doing. This is perfect”. At Abriendo Mentes, I was able to creatively solve problems, implement solutions, and brainstorm ways in which we could make this community better and more livable for its inhabitants. I was able to channel my passions into projects, and I poured all of my energy and heart into making sure they became a reality.
The process of taking an idea and watching it grow and take shape into something I was never quite sure would manifest was exhilarating, empowering, and life-changing. I left Costa Rica knowing that I had changed something. I created something new. I planted an idea and I let them run with it.
By the time I left, the Community Garden had seedlings sprouting, compost composting, and the beginnings of a beautiful public space in the making. Many of the surrounding families had taken an interest in the compost pile, and were throwing their fruits and vegetables in every morning. Each day when I would head over to water, Jeffri, a three year old boy that lives next door to the space, would come over and help me haul buckets of water (well, I would give him cups), weed, and tend to the growing plants. I taught him how to stay on the paths between the sprouting veggies, how to gently pick off the browning lower leaves, and how to evenly spread the water throughout the bed. Other children would find sprouting mango pits in the streets, and bring them back to plant in the bare patches of earth. They were learning the trade that has been forgotten by many members of their community. They were learning how to care for the earth, and the fulfillment that comes from nurturing the land and watching it thrive.
By the time I left, the Women’s Empowerment Group was running on it’s own fuel. Local women had stepped up to leadership roles, and were actively organizing activities and meetings to keep the momentum going. The group steadily grew from 5 to 15 and then to 20, and the women kept coming. They were learning dancing, box making, rug weaving, card making, and had ideas about businesses and options to turn their group into a sustainable economy. These women, many who had been beaten or abused by men or have never been able to find steady work, were empowered by their new found opportunity. I remember hearing one woman say after completing an activity, “I am so proud of myself”. Proud. Proud of MYSELF. That’s what we created. We created an outlet for self-empowerment. We created a way for the women to see the value in themselves, and run with it. In the group, they saw a future, they saw ideas, they saw possibility. It was incredible to see how a conversation could turn into a such a life changing and powerful manifestation. The women gave me so much hope.
So, did I change anything? I think so. If nothing else, I know I changed myself. Strangely enough, I didn’t go to Costa Rica to “find myself”. I didn’t go to learn things about myself I didn’t know. I didn’t go to find a book of stories, life-long friends, or the perfect photo. I went to let it all go. I went to see what happens when you leave your ego behind; when you leave your clothes, your house, your other life. When you leave all the things you thought mattered, and give your life up to a cause that is greater than yourself.
I believe I accomplished that task. I threw myself into the unknown, and out of it my passions emerged. Passions that were perhaps slightly buried under the buildings, fancy dinners, urban outfitters clothes, wedge heels, book after book after book. Passions that were obscured by the vintage shops, the indie flicks, art museums, internships and concrete streets. It wasn’t until that was all gone, it wasn’t until I had no other options, that I was able to fully realize my SELF. And not only realize it, but USE it for the only thing I knew how, GOOD.
I want to thank Abriendo Mentes, and Meradith, for giving me the outlet with which to do this work. I want to thank Omprakash, for believing in my thoughts and ideas. I want to thank my boyfriend, for going every step of the way with me. I want to thank the people of Costa Rica, for everything they allowed me to give them, everything they accepted graciously, and everything they gave me.
And we just want to thank you Alex! – Abriendo Mentes