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Reversing the poverty cycle

One woman is trying to improve the education in a Costa Rican neighborhood sandwiched by a garbage dump and sewage plant.

Gail Nystrom with children at a school set up by her Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation. (Alex Leff/GlobalPost)

Photo caption: Gail Nystrom with children at a school set up by her Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation. (Alex Leff/GlobalPost)

LA CARPIO, Costa Rica — As many as 5,000 families are just scraping by in the neighborhood of La Carpio, propped precariously on a cliff in western San Jose, out of sight and out of mind from the Costa Rican capital.

When Gail Nystrom first laid eyes on the barrio more than 20 years ago, it was a patchwork of squatter homes, built with black plastic sheets and sticks by Nicaraguan migrants seeking new opportunities here, she says. Drugs, crime and poverty ruled the unpaved streets, and education was scarce. Many of the immigrants had not gone to school past the elementary level and could not read or write.

Through her Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, Nystrom is determined to reverse the barrio’s poverty cycle.

The squatters began to find employment, and upgraded their homes little by little, to cardboard and tin, then some cement walls and floors and even a decent roof to protect them from Costa Rica’s fierce rainy season downpours.

And the kids began to learn, with a lot of help from Nystrom. With a master’s in special education from the University of Denver, Nystrom left the United States for a Peace Corps mission in Costa Rica in 1978 and stayed on to work in a number of at-risk communities that aren’t usually on the tourist map. In 1997, she started the foundation and has sought to empower locals to climb up out of poverty through community-building programs, education, better health care, work opportunities and home situations.

She’s driving her van to La Carpio and the sun is beating down on the fields beside the road, where Costa Rican water and sewage authorities plan to build a water treatment plant. At the other end of the barrio lies a landfill. “So they’re literally surrounded by other people’s garbage,” Nystrom remarks.

However, despite the barrio’s undesirable location, the 60-year-old Virginia- and New Jersey-raised educator sees its potential. “This community is going to be the crocus,” she says, stopping the van briefly in front of a Virgin Mary painting at La Carpio’s entrance. “People love this community, and they take care of it.”

And yet, perhaps no one loves La Carpio more than Nystrom. The foundation started a service providing hundreds of bunk beds to homes in which children were sleeping on the floor. Her efforts, supported by donors and local and international teenage and university volunteers, also have brought about such projects as a clinic and pharmacy building, and several early-learning centers, run largely by trained Carpio community members.

Twenty-seven-year-old Costa Rican Yessenia Mairena lives in La Carpio. She assists the foundation’s tutoring programs as well as working with a women’s crafts-making cooperative.