There is no dearth of things to see, do and experience for expats moving to Costa Rica. From its biodiversity to its water sports, from its outdoor activities to its rocking nightlife, this country has a lot to offer people of all ages. You could spend months exploring the various beaches, forests, national parks, hiking trails, clubs, restaurants, bars, cinemas, theaters and concert halls all across the nation.However, not every expat moves abroad purely to have a good time – if you want more from life than a bit of hedonism, you may want to seek satisfaction by looking beyond the most obvious interpretations of pura vida (meaning pure life, or the appreciation of simple treasures). Fortunately, this popular expat and tourist destination offers plenty of opportunities for making a difference to the society you live in.
Giving back is not just about money or material things; many people use their time and expertise to bring about a positive impact through their social activities. Volunteering helps you become an integral part of your community as you work towards improving it in certain ways. Depending on your skills, interests and experience, there are several options that you can choose from, including tutoring underprivileged children, caring for the elderly, restoring heritage buildings, or maintaining the ecosystem. Some people find volunteer work so fulfilling, they dedicate all their time to it for months or even years, even if it means leading a fairly basic lifestyle for that duration. Others may choose to have full time jobs and lead active social lives, but also allocate a number of hours each week or month towards their charity work.
Volunteering In Costa Rica
Although Costa Rica is one of the oldest democracies in Central America, a sizeable percentage of the population here still has access to only the most basic living conditions. This problem only gets more severe as you travel further inland. Also, due to limited resources, many of the forests and man-made structures in the country are in dire need of maintenance and repair. There is a significant requirement for volunteers in several areas, such as community development and wildlife conservation. A quick online search should give you a huge list of community projects that you can choose to get involved in. Many of them are for a specific duration, which could range anywhere between seven days and six months. Do bear in mind that most community work is available in and around San Jose, the capital.
Here are some of the areas you may choose to work in.
A number of Costa Rican people are homeless and live below the poverty line, mainly because of the increase in unemployment rates over the years. Project Childcare aims to provide individual assistance to children from difficult and under-privileged backgrounds in San Jose. As a volunteer, you will play the important role of working along with local staff to ensure improved educational, emotional and hygienic conditions for these young people.
You may be assigned to orphanages, schools, daycares, community centers or soup kitchens. Alternately, you may have to assist a teacher or a caretaker already located at the project site. The interaction may vary, but in general, you will be required to provide individual attention affection and motivation to the children. Any experience in teaching children and organizing games or activities will help considerably.
Costa Rica’s healthcare system is quite well developed, but there is always a need for additional assistance to support the local doctors, nurses and caregivers. The range of local institutions in San Jose looking for volunteers includes general hospitals, nursing homes, clinics for disabled children, assisted living homes and ambulance services, to name a few. However, before signing up for any volunteer work, it is important to have realistic expectations about the tasks that will be assigned to you, especially since the insurance regulations in this country are quite strict and will make direct contact with patients rare. If you are a physical or an occupational therapist, this project will probably be ideal for you. It is also suitable for medical and nursing students, as they can assist with rehabilitation activities, feeding, bathing and the distribution of medication.
If you are in the final year of your medical school, you may also be allowed to shadow a senior doctor, check a patient (under supervision), take down vital signs and set up surgical equipment. If you do not have any qualification or experience in healthcare, you may be asked to provide general care, prepare beds and distribute medicines. Volunteers are also required for administrative and filing activities. The amount of independence you get in such a project will directly depend on the level of training and expertise you demonstrate. Being able to speak Spanish fluently will be an advantage in most cases.
Teaching children and adults from low-income communities can be a highly rewarding experience for both charity workers and learners. As Costa Rica is rapidly becoming the tourism capital of Central America, anyone who wants to build their career in this industry should be able to speak English fluently.
If you are a native English speaker, you can offer your students the perfect opportunity to improve their command over the language through practice. This not only enhances their communication skills, it also boosts their confidence. As a volunteer, you may be given work in a local school, an orphanage, a community center, a local fire station or students’ homes. The work is varied, but in general, you will have to tutor your pupils either individually or in a class. If you are working to support local staff or other volunteers, you do not require any prior experience or qualification in this field. The organization that you sign up with should provide you with a crash course on Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) as well as all the training material required to get you started. Do keep in mind that you will have to dedicate a significant amount of time to a project like this, since learning a new language is not something that can happen overnight.
Special Needs Care
If you have a lot of patience and energy, along with the zeal to contribute towards the development of students who face physical or intellectual challenges, you could consider joining the Special Needs Care project in San Jose. This gives you the opportunity to work in a school for children with learning disabilities or in a center that caters to adults with autism.
As a volunteer, you will be required to work alongside a teacher, helping to run the classroom or offering attention to a specific individual. The school for children with physical challenges is divided into different categories, focusing on the visually impaired, the hearing impaired, and kids with physical disabilities. If you are assigned to the center for adults with autism, you will play the important role of teaching these people new skills, which could include baking, knitting and horticulture. Your assistance will also provide the families of these adults a break from their caregiver duties.
The volunteers on this project work along with Costa Rican biologists to help with study sea turtles. Volunteers are also required for protection-related assignments such as the egg protection program. The exact work will vary depending upon the time of the year, but in general, it will include beach patrols, building hatcheries, cleaning shores, counting the sea turtles, tagging turtles, locating the nesting females and collecting their eggs. You may be required to live at one of the four coastal locations around the country. You will need to be prepared for shift work in this role. Many volunteers turn down projects like this as the living conditions are very basic and the workload is huge. If you decide to sign up for it, keep in mind that you will have to dedicate at least two weeks to the project.
Numerous construction and renovation projects are underway in San Jose, and there is a huge need for volunteers from overseas for these assignments, mainly because many of the structures are underfunded and rundown. As a volunteer, you will work along with local construction workers. The work will involve restoration activities such as painting, gardening and landscaping. At times, you may be given a choice of location, which could include schools, colleges, universities, community centers, orphanages, retirement homes and hospitals. While some experience in construction work is preferred, it isn’t mandatory. As long as you are high in energy and have a positive outlook along with a reasonable level of fitness, you should do just fine with a project like this.
Based in the central highlands of the country, the eco-agricultural conservation project needs volunteers to assist local communities by strengthening their coffee production operations. You will not only help the locals grow their coffee but will also enhance various other agricultural efforts through reforestation.
The specific role you are given primarily depends on the time of the year, but in general, you will be required to provide support to local farmers. In addition, be prepared to get involved in picking coffee, roasting beans and packaging the final product for sale. In some cases, volunteers on this project spend their spare time teaching English in the local schools.
The Holiday Experience
Contrary to the name, this project is not for those who visit Costa Rica on a holiday. Instead, it is held during the weeks of Christmas and New Year, offering volunteers the opportunity to participate in a variety of assignments to help the local community during the festive season. The work involves interacting with underprivileged children and senior citizens, cleaning community centers and organizing some holiday celebrations.
The community projects mentioned above are just a few of many that could be of interest to you. Others that are available include youth development, marine or rainforest conservation, environmental preservation, and wildlife (mainly endangered species) protection.
Many expats get involved in charity work after they have settled down in their new home and have some time to contribute. However, it is possible for you to register for volunteer work in Costa Rica even before you move. In fact, a number of community workers travel to this country just to be a part of certain community projects, and return home once their work is complete.
Unfortunately, these assignments are not available for free; you will be required to pay a fee to volunteer in such cases. The fee may range anywhere between US$350 and US$5,000, depending on your location as well as the duration of the project that you sign up for. At times, you may also be asked to pay a registration fee in the region of US$300 when you first sign up with a community service network. Moreover, you will be required to bear the costs for your flight ticket, visas and travel insurance.
The amount you pay generally goes towards your accommodation (single or sharing home stay), meals (breakfast and dinner), and maybe even a local commute to the volunteering site. In some cases, dormitory style lodging with basic amenities may be provided. The program fee also includes airport transfers in Costa Rica. Any extra expenses for sightseeing, shopping, and eating out will have to be borne by you.
No Cost Volunteer Programs
Of course, you can avoid paying a program fee completely if you travel to Costa Rica independently and find a legitimate organization that is involved in community work. Most of the local NGOs are severely understaffed and will probably jump at the chance to have a few extra helping hands.
The most common community work programs in Costa Rica that do not charge a fee are: Escuela Futuro Verde, Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center and WANGO. Visit their websites for more details on signing up with their projects.