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.
“Some people think that since they didn’t get an education their children will be the same way and they don’t support them in school,” she said, noting that the foundation has begun to break that cycle. She says her 7-year-old daughter Stefanie wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
Nystrom said Mairena might not have given the interview if it were years before. Before taking part in these community activities, the women were shy and not very confident. That’s changing. “You feel important,” said Mairena of her work experience. “You feel like you’re doing something good with your life, for the community.”
However, challenges remain for the children. For one, violence is a fact of life.
After snack time in a school started by the foundation, Nystrom leads a relaxing sing-along with the children, a song the teacher will learn to use during naptimes to come. But one 4-year-old seems to be sulking and refuses to sing. Nystrom explains that the girl’s brother was shot dead days ago after falling into trouble with gangs. In another kindergarten classroom, teachers marvel at the progress of another girl. In a fit of rage, her father had threatened to chop up his children with an axe.
Nystrom explains these are extreme cases, and the love in many families struggling to make it through poverty in La Carpio is overwhelming.
When passing through the barrio, everybody greets Nystrom, calling her by her adopted name, “Giselle,” which she says is easier than Gail for the residents to pronounce.
A young local woman holds a baby she has named Giselle after her American namesake. Nystrom doesn’t say it, but she has become a hero in this village of about 34,000. She says the Carpio community is ultimately its own hero. They are sandwiched by a city population’s garbage dump and sewage plant and disaster officials have qualified their dwellings as unfit for living. But, she says, La Carpio will blossom like the crocus.