goodbyes and gratitude

Today I had to say goodbye to everyone at the school that I’ve worked with for the six weeks that I’ve been here. The students, the teachers, the speech therapists…It was a hard, emotional day, but it was a happy one, too. Even though it was sad to say goodbye, I felt so loved by these people that I have only known for a month and a half.

In the morning when I brought the kids in Marcela’s class back in from recess, I found that tables from other classrooms had been moved into her room and that all the classes in that hallway were going to have their snacks there together. I then realized that it was because the teachers had all planned to throw me a little going away party. They had made little sandwiches and fruit salad. They bought iced tea, ice cream, and jello. They thanked me for how I’d helped them while I was there. It was so sweet. Most of these women hardly know me, and yet they helped put together an adorable way to say goodbye and thank you. I felt tears coming on, but I manged to hold them back because there was still a lot to do, since all the kids were snacking in one room!

After lunch, I had to say goodbye to the students in Marcela’s class. I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t get to say a good goodbye to Alexa (the most adorable little rascal of a girl!), because sometimes she denies hugs and goodbye kisses to be ornrey. Lucky for me, when Marcela told her to give me a hug goodbye, she jumped into my arms and gave me a huge hug. That time I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.

One of the teaching assistants that I’ve worked with a lot walked by after Alexa left and told me not to cry, because it’s not “goodbye,” it’s just “see you later.” It reminded me of the last day of camp, when we say the same thing, or that we’re just hitting pause…But it was a little harder to accept this time, as tomorrow I’m going to be heading to another country. I’m determined to come back to Costa Rica though, and soon. So it is only a “see you later,” I will make it a “see you later!”

In the afternoon, Rebeca (whose classroom I was in the first day in the afternoon and various other days) came to find me while I was working with Silvia’s class and asked if I could come down to her room for a bit. So down I went, and when I got there all the kids (ages 10 to 13) were working on drawings, and then one by one they came to give them to me and give me a hug!! Then they brought out a cake that had “Gracias” written on it, and gave me a little card and a bright green polo shirt, like the brightly colored shirts the teachers and assistants wear. Before I left I got even more hugs from the kids.

When I got back to Silvia’s classroom, she asked what Rebeca wanted, and I told her. She responded, “Well we have a surprise for you, too!” and whipped some chocolate cupcakes out of nowhere. After almost everyone had finished eating (one of the boys was taking a very long time to lick all the icing off his cupcake!), she pulled something out of her bag. She thanked me for all the help I had given her, especially because she has been having knee problems and can’t run after the kids who escape often, and told me that she knew that I had an impact on her kids, too. Then she should me what she had pulled out of her bag. She had taken pictures of almost all of her kids one day at recess and printed the pictures out on one sheet that says, “Gracias Nicole!” Needless to say, my room is going to have lots of meaningful decorations this year.

I kept thanking all of them, and I hope they know that I wasn’t just thanking them for the cake. I couldn’t express myself very well because I was on the verge of tears, but I hope they understood that I was thanking them for the experience. For the things I learned from them and for their unending friendliness towards me. They were thanking me, but all I could think was that I was not the one who deserved thanks.

Leaving the school was so hard. By the time I left, I was just crying. I hugged Silvia and the teacher assistants that I have worked with the whole time I’ve been here. They all wished me well, hoped I had a safe trip, told me to make sure I write them (I have all of their email addresses), and that we’ll see each other again soon because I’m welcome back at the school whenever I come back to Costa Rica.

Just like that it was time to leave.

I really can’t believe that my time here is over. Early this morning before I got out of bed I was thinking about the first few days I was here after the trip to Arenal. I was scared. I remembered having to remind myself of why I had come to Costa Rica, and why I was working in an education school. I remembered that I had to tell myself to SWAG it, to give it my all even though I was scared and out of my comfort zone.

And all of a sudden I realized that I finally understood the FDR quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I’ve always thought it was a cool quote, but now it really resonates with me.

I had a lot of fears when I decided to come here. I was afraid of being homesick. I was afraid of working with special needs children. I was afraid of being lonely. I’m sure I was afraid of other things, I just don’t remember the little fears anymore.

It turns out that I had nothing to be afraid of, but can you imagine if I had let those fears get the best of me? What if I had let the fears left over from my experience in Spain keep me from coming here? I would have lost so many wonderful experiences. I would have missed out on meeting and getting to know so many fantastic people.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now I know what that means. I know that fear is dangerous. I know that giving in to my fears will keep me from living life to its fullest. I’ve learned that I really have nothing to be afraid of.

Around thirteen hours from now my flight will take off from the San José airport and this experience in Costa Rica will be over. Although I’m so sad that the time has flown by so quickly and I’m leaving, I am also extremely grateful for the short period of time that I spent here.

Don’t worry Costa Rica, I’ll be back soon.



perspective and possibility

Last Monday morning there was a little assembly at school. The assembly was held in a an outdoor ampitheater-like area at the deaf school, which is across the street from the special education school (where I spent my time volunteering). I had known there was going to be a some sort of event because Marcela had been working on a little dance presentation with her class. When the assembly started, I learned that it was to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the school and to welcome a missionary team that had come from the United States.

I didn’t didn’t learn much about the missionary team until later, but the assembly was fun! A few groups of students performed, including Marcela’s class. A class of visually impaired students performed a simple choreographed dance routine with they help of their teachers; two girls (a younger girl from the school for the blind and a high schooler from the special education school) sang songs; Marcela led her class in a little dance routine that incorporated some fun movements and some elements of yoga (they do yoga every Tuesday); and a group of high schoolers ffrom the special education school performed a typical Costa Rican dance (with traditional clothes and everything!) to give the missionaries a little taste of their culture. They also sang “happy birthday” to the school!

The assembly was fun, and afterwards the kids got ice cream and cupcakes for their snacks. Although I had enjoyed the performances that the kids had given, I was mostly intrigued by the group of missionaries. I wanted to know more about what they came to do, so after I ate lunch I went to find them and introduced myself to some of the women. I learned that they were from a couple of sister churches in Texas, and that some of them had been coming for three, four, and five years. Although some of them come and fix things around the school (like the playgrounds), what’s really cool about this group of people is that it is made up mostly of physical, occupational, and speech therapists!

On Tuesday I asked one of the physical therapists if it would be okay for me to hang out with them on Thursday to see what kind exactly what kind of work they were doing in the school. She agreed enthusiastically, so on Thursday when I headed to school I was excited to see what they do!

When I got to school Thursday morning the therapists were all in the elementary school wing, about to observe some of the classrooms there. The point of the classroom visits was for the therapists from the missionary team to observe the students in the classroom environment, talk to the teacher and therapists at the school about what their biggest concerns are, and then give recommendations changes and improvements that could be made to the classroom routine or to how a specific student’s issues are approached.

To help all of this happen, I was supposed to translate! I had hardly been introduced to everyone when they moved into the first classroom. It happened to be the classroom I was in on the first day with the kids who have severe emotional and behavioral issues.

I had never translated before, so it was quite the experience. It was especially difficult because I still have a lot to learn about disabilities, and I knew nothing about physical or occupational therapy, so I lacked a lot of vocabulary. There were some moments when I was at a complete loss for words and had to ask whoever was speaking (whether in Spanish or English) to explain what they were talking about to me (instead just naming concepts), so that I could give that information to the other person in hopes they would understand what I was trying to describe. That worked sometimes, but other times I had no idea what someone was talking about (usually neurology related stuff), so someone would pull out their phone and google whatever word or concept that was tripping me up.

I’ll be honest with you: it was a stressful experience. Multiple people would be talking to me at the same time, in different languages, on top of the already loud classroom noises. Sometimes I would listen to someone speaking Spanish and turn to one of the American women to translate, but I would accidentally start speaking Spanish to her instead of English. But it was really cool to be facilitation communication between the members of the American therapists and the Costa Rican teachers and therapists. And for the most part I felt like I was doing a fairly good job, for my first time translating!

(On Friday I translated for them again. When I finally remembered férula, the Spanish word for splint, and used it instead of gesturing or pointing to a splint, one of the therapists from Centeno Guell smiled at me and said something to the effect of, “Look at Nicole, she’s learning the technical vocabulary!”).

Besides the fact that just translating for them was a cool experience, having the opportunity to observe them observing the classrooms and giving their recommendations to the teachers was really eye-opening for me. I don’t have the knowledge or experience to have the perspective that they have yet, and getting to see the kids and the school through their eyes was really fascinating!

After they finished the classroom observations, they went back to the cafeteria, which was where they had all their stuff set up. By “all their stuff,” I mean all the donated equipment they had brought with them, as well as the materials they had brought or bought in Costa Rica to make more stuff for the kids. The donated equipment included walkers, wheel chairs, bikes (not just regular bikes, but bikes made especially for therapy), splints, and orthopedic shoe inserts.

In the cafeteria, they had appointments set up with individual students, their parents (usually just the mom), and their teacher. What happened at these appointments was similar to what happened in the classrooms, but more tailored to the specific child. The therapists would spend some time working with the child and seeing what their needs were and giving recommendations on what might help them. Sometimes they were fitted with splints, or told that a weighted vest or scarf would be made for them. Other times, donated equipment would be adjusted to work specifically for them.

For example, one of the high school students had severe tremors in his right arm, which made it hard for him to walk, in addition to the trouble he already had walking. So they added an arm rest with a little handle for him to hold onto and straps to hold his arm in place to a walker. I didn’t see him before he had the walker, but when he came in to try it out for the first time, I don’t think he stopped smiling the whole time he was there. He was just beaming and saying “thank you, thank you!” (not gracias, thank you) as he walked around using his newly improved walker. It was really beautiful to watch him take so much pleasure just from being able to walk around.

In addition to translating, I also spent some time helping one of the women from the missionary team with some sewing projects. Instead of ordering things like weighted vests for kids at the school, she made them! It was fun to spend time with her, listen to her many tips about sewing, and just talk with her. Plus, I got to help make things that would help kids at the school!

I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with the missionary team on Thursday and Friday. Actually, “enjoyed” is a completely inadequate word. I am so thankful for the time that I got to spend with the missionary team. I learned so much in those two days. At some point when I was talking to one of the physical therapists, I realized that when I get home and start my classes for fall semester, I’ll have a totally different perspective on them than I would have if I hadn’t come here to work at Centeno Guell. Even those two days (that were really way too short!) that I spent with the missionary team will contribute greatly to that change in perspective.

Not only did I gain valuable experience and perspective, but I had the opportunity to make connections with wonderful people! They were all so encouraging and friendly, telling me to let them know when I was in Houston, or that I can sleep on their daughter’s couch when I visit the University of Texas at Austin. Not to mention that their careers complement my career plan!

What might be the best part of getting to work with the missionary team (can all the parts be the best part?) is that I have the contact information of the woman who organizes the trip, and she has mine! So guess what that means?? …I might have the chance to head back to Costa Rica (and Centeno Guell!) next summer with the mission team! I am so excited at the prospect of being able to be a part of their team. We’ll see what happens, but I really hope I am able to join them. The thought of coming back to Centeno Guell and helping to give to those kids (and their families, the teachers, the school in general) the way the mission team does just makes my heart happy.

I feel like every moment I spend here has the potential to be life changing. Every day holds so many possibilities! I hope that’s a mindset that I can bring with me when I go home next week (that’s right, this time next week I’ll be home…). It’s another one of those things that I’ve heard or told myself for a long time. But I never really lived it until now.

music is magic

After my first day at Centeno Guell, I’ve spent most of my time there working with the same two classes. On Monday and Wednesday morning and Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I work with Marcela’s class. Monday and Wednesday afternoon and Tuesday and Thursday morning I work with Silvia’s class. Both of those teachers work in the same classroom but, as you might have guessed, one is there in the morning while the other comes in the afternoon! Both Marcela and Silvia have little kiddos that are around five years old.

Although I have enjoyed working with both classes, I especially like working with Marcela. She’s very bubbly, friendly, and open with me. Through her friendly nature, I hear a lot from her about the personalities of her students and what each of their strengths and weaknesses are. Having that knowledge has helped me to feel more comfortable with the kids in her class because I’m not relying solely on what I’ve observed through working with them.

Another thing I really like about Marcela is the amount of music she plays for her students. Part of their routine at the beginning of every class is to sing and sign along with a few children’s songs. Later in the day, they sometimes have either a little “relaxation” time or yoga, and she plays calm, relaxing music for those parts of the day. There are a couple things that I really wanted to share related to the music that Marcela plays.

I’ll start off by talking about Alexa, a little girl in Marcela’s class who has Down Syndrome. And when I say little, I mean little. Alexa is the smallest in her class. She is so tiny and cute, especially because she always wears her hair in pigtails. Although she doesn’t have a huge vocabulary, she is very social, talks quite a lot, and is rather bossy. She’s always calling me over to her, saying, “Venga! Venga!” and motioning with her hand for me to come. But even though she wants me to come, she always wants to do things on her own. Like when we were brushing teeth after lunch and she pushed me away, declaring, “Sola!

I discovered rather quickly that Alexa likes music and loves to dance. When they sing songs at the beginning of class, she’s always clapping, signing, and singing along excitedly, and looking over to make sure that I’m doing the same. Marcela has a hard time getting her to lie down during relaxation time or do yoga because she’s always sitting up to dance along with the music.

Yesterday at recess Alexa’s love for dance became even more apparent. Today is a national holiday in Costa Rica, celebrating the annexation of the Guanacaste province. So yesterday morning one of the preschool classes was having their snack time outside, eating food that’s traditional in Guanacaste, and playing music while they ate. They happened to be right next to the playground, so the music was blaring while Marcela’s class was at recess.

At some point during recess, a few of the teachers noticed that Alexa was standing in the middle of the playground, all alone, dancing to the music. Soon all the teachers were watching and some pulled out their cameras and phones to take videos of her dancing. I watched her for at least five minutes, but I know she had be dancing long before I started watching. She was totally doing her own thing and entirely focused on doing it. She just danced her little heart out and it was so amazing.

I’ve also noticed that one of the only times that all of the students are engaged (besides maybe recess) during the day is when Marcela is leading them in singing and signing along with the songs at the beginning of class. I love watching them all smile, laugh, wiggle, and sing along with the music. It really opens some of them up when their norm is to be very much withdrawn.

This is true for Nancy in particular. I’m fairly certain that Nancy is autistic. She doesn’t talk and doesn’t interact with the other kids much. Usually she sits quietly until she’s told to do something else. But when the music is on, she lights up. She follows along with the movements that Marcela demonstrates for them. She smiles and laughs. Her laughter is beautiful. There have been a few times that she has actually made and held eye contact with me while they’re singing. When the music is playing she’s a different little person altogether, completely full of joy.

Music has influenced my life so strongly. I know that without music, the relationships I’ve made through it, and the lessons it has taught me, I would be an entirely different person. I can’t help but think about how crucial it must be for these kids to have music in their lives. It allows them a way to express themselves and an opportunity to come out of their shells. I don’t know if I’ve witnessed many things in my life that are as beautiful as watching those two little girls experience music.

el centeno guell


Last Tuesday (the 16th) was the first day I went to my volunteer placement at the Centro Nacional de Educación Especial Fernando Centeno Guell (which is often just called “el Centeno Guell,” as I learned throughout the week!). I was expecting (based on my experience with ELAP in Spain) to learn how to get there, meet the person at the school that I would be reporting to, and have a chance to talk about what I would be doing during my time there. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

I did learn how to get to the school, which was pretty important, considering that I would have to get there on my own every day. When Andréa (the ISA staff member who came with me) and I got to the school though, it turned out that they weren’t really expecting us and hadn’t received a form they were supposed to have received from ISA. So Andréa and I filled out the form and then left. I didn’t really even get introduced to the volunteer coordinator that I am supposed to report to (I later learned that her name is Doña Lily). It was a little disappointing to have gone all the way there but not have any more idea of what exactly I would be doing during my time here in Costa Rica.

The one cool thing about the outing was that Andréa took the time to show me around San José a little bit. We walked around the city center and she pointed out places like that National Theatre, a couple of museums, a few markets with lots of souvenir shops, and some other similar things. It was nice to have an idea of where to find the touristy types of things if I wanted to, especially the museums. We then went to the second ISA office here (which I hadn’t been to yet) so that I would know where it was for the ELAP meetings that are held every other week.

Saying I was nervous to head to Centeno Guell on Wednesday would be an understatement. Not only did I still not know exactly what I was getting myself into, but I was nervous about getting there on my own. I ended up getting there just fine (I take two buses every morning. It takes about an hour to get from the first bus stop to the school), and then sitting and waiting while Doña Lily figured out what to do with me. After about an hour, Doña Lily took me to the special education department of the school (there is also a department for the blind and another for the deaf/hearing impaired) and dropped me off with the teachers I would be spending the rest of the morning with.

Although I started in a classroom with three teachers and only three boys, it was the most intimidating and overwhelming group that I’ve worked with in the five days that I’ve worked at the school so far. Two of the boys were very autistic (Joel and Aaron) and the other had Down Syndrome (Randy). None of the them had any spoken language skills. Each one of them was a handful in his own way, but I realized pretty quickly that Joel was the most difficult of the three of them. When Kaylin (one of the teachers) was trying to start a lesson about the parts of their face with them, he refused to sit in his chair, and spent a lot of time throwing chairs around the room and pushing things off of the teacher’s desk. On top of that, Aaron kept trying to run away (I’ve been learning that this is a pretty common thing among autistic children).

To be honest, I felt pretty useless in that classroom. I had no idea what I should be doing to help because I have no experience with kids with special needs, especially severe cases like those boys are. For a little over two hours, I basically just stood there and waited to be told when to bring something to a teacher or to lock the door. At one point, Flori (the assistant teacher in Kaylin’s classroom) asked me if I was scared. I answered honestly and told her I was. She then explained to me that these kids were some of the most difficult in the school and that it was okay to be a little scared. If I learned anything that first day, it’s that the people (mostly women) who work in the special education department at Centeno Guell are extremely nice and compassionate. They are so encouraging and friendly, which made going back after that first day so much easier.

After lunch the students and teachers that are there in the morning leave and another group comes in for the afternoon, so I spent the afternoon in a different classroom. I was so relieved to discover that not all the classrooms are as intense as that first one was. In the afternoon I worked with Rebecca’s class, which consists five kids from ages 10 to 13 who are fairly independent. Working with them was night and day from working in Kaylin’s classroom. Most of the time I spent with them they were working on a craft, and later had recess. The most frustrating thing in that classroom was the fact that I had a lot of trouble understanding the students. There was one in particular that kept trying to talk to me and I had no idea what he was saying.

Needless to say, that first day was super overwhelming, especially in the morning. It was definitely scary to be in that room, and I spent some time wondering if I had made the right choice to come here and work in a special education center. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I hadn’t been expecting to be thrown into such an intimidating situation right away.

But despite the ways I felt overwhelmed that morning, there were some moments that were really beautiful, too. Like when Randy looked over at me from his chair and waved at me with his hand by his waist and smiled when I waved back. Or when Aaron came over to me while I was sitting down and hugged me and kissed the top of my head.

There are sweet moments like that every day, and I always look forward to those moments the most. I’m increasingly thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ll learn.