Trying to change the future

Trying to change the future

Social work student interning in Costa Rica, helps school "street children"

Jennifer Hietpas

Issue date: 3/29/07 Section: Student Life

Media Credit: Sublitted photo/Jennifer Hietpas

Mid-day heat radiates off of city streets, busy with traffic, as a public bus beyond full-capacity drives by past the multitudes of people strolling the narrow sidewalks. An emaciated dog sniffs the air as it walks aimlessly. Within the crowd, children carry large woven baskets on their shoulders and peddle goods to passersby – jewelry, fruit, pasteries or trinkets, to name a few.

This illustration holds true for many larger cities, specifically in Latin America. It is not uncommon for children to work in place of getting an education in areas such as Central America, senior Maria Carvalho said.

Carvalho, a social work and Latin American Studies double major with a minor in Spanish, currently is interning abroad with Defensa de los Ni�nos Internacional, a non-profit children’s rights organization in Moravia, Costa Rica.

Carvalho said social work fulfills her desire to help people.

"I don’t believe in going around and changing things," she said. "I believe in showing them that they can change themselves."

"I think it’s important for people to realize their strengths and social work has to do a lot with empowering people," she said.

"I can’t really see myself doing anything else," she said about why she chose social work as a major. "I was always interested in sociology and psychology and social work kind of incorporates them."

In the field

The DNI office in Moravia is the only branch in Central America, Carvalho said, though there are other branches of the Switzerland-based organization in South America.

On a typical day, Carvalho said she works on campaigning for the organization by constructing sexual abuse flyers, or creates lesson plans or activities for the children. In the afternoon, she accompanies a psycologist and teacher from the organization to a neighboring village, La Abuelita.

"(It’s) a smaller community, on the poorer side, and a lot of kids don’t have the opportunity to go to school because they have to work" Carvalho said, "so we’ll do activities with them like math, social studies or Spanish."

The schoolhouse in the capital, San Jose, has a much broader age range of students, she said. Parents can attend this school to see what their children are learning, though it is difficult to create lesson plans that accomodate such a wide age range. If students need help academically they can attend the school in La Abuelita, she said.

One of Carvalho’s current projects is to make additions to a coloring book designed to educate children on sexual abuse, she said.

"There are coloring books about sexual abuse, but (they) didn’t include anything about abuse by familiar people," she said. Therefore, her job is to create pages in Spanish with scenarios where sexual predators are familiar figures in their lives, such as a family member or friend.

Previously an assistant for the UW-Eau Claire Center for International Education program in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Carvalho contributed to organizing a fund for children from El Fortin, Nicaragua, whose families lack the necessary funds to send them to school.

With her help, these children were given things such as school uniforms, shoes, school supplies and backpacks.

Similarily, a contributor that funds DNI in addition to grants is Florida Bebida, a Costa Rican beverage company that donates its resources in the form of student scholarships and school supplies.




The international campaign "Don’t Call Me Street Kid.." was recently launched in Costa Rica by Casa Alianza and the National Children League (PANI). The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) sponsors the campaign, which has already been launched in nine Latin American countries.

Bruce Harris, Regional Director of Casa Alianza, Damaris Alvarado Canes of the Board of directors of the PANI and Bertus Meins, representative of the IADB in Costa Rica, presented the messages and fundamental objectives of the campaign, which aims to make society more conscious of the difficulties in the lives of children who live and work in the streets. Homeless children are children just like any other child. The campaign will run until the end of February 2003.

"To touch the conscience of the public and to change their vision of the children condemned to live in the street is the first stage in the fight against this social phenomenon that does not have to be", Harris said. "Although the PANI has the responsibility to take care of marginalized children, it is also the responsibility of the whole of society".

147.000 children in Costa Rica have to work to survive; 280.000 children of school age are not in to school. In the first semester of 2002, the PANI received 11,782 complaints of child abuse.

Through the public transportation system; radio, television, the message "No boy or girl must have to live on the streets", will be spread throughout Costa Rica. On Tuesday, December 17th, Harris and Rosalía Gil, Minister for Children and Adolescence, will distribute stickers to taxi drivers in the Monumental Radio program of Carlos Vetetta, "the Taxi driver’s Club".

For more information and to obtain an information package on the campaign, please communicate in Costa Rica at 253-5439 or

Bands of children back on streets in San José

Bands of children back on streets in San José
May 7, 2002
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Bands of young thieves, called "chapulines" in Spanish, have reappeared on the streets of San José, mostly in the downtown area and mostly at night.

The groups of children number upwards of 30 or more and seem to be directed by adults. Some of the youngsters appears to be only 8 or 9 years old.

The youngsters, mostly homeless children, will use their numbers to steal, to roll unwary passersby and to practice aggressive begging. The Spanish word means "grasshopper" and refers to the way the youngsters move in roving bands like the crop-eating insect.

A group about 10:30 p.m. Sunday on the pedestrian boulevard confronted about 30 policemen, and officers said they were unlikely to take much action because the youngsters were protected by the law.

This is the first sighting in more than a year of the roving bands. The last attacks by youngsters was on Avenida 2 about 14 months ago. Then about 15 to 20 youngsters, all dirty and badly dressed, got the better of two intoxicated tourists and took money. The group at that time were directed by an equally badly dressed man and woman who shouted instructions.

Shortly before the first round of presidential elections, social agencies declared the city clear of street children. Some bureaucratic problems with funding had been resolved, and some centers for children had reopened.

The arrival of the street children menace coincides with the end of high tourist season. Not all street children are chapulines. Some prefer a more solitary life or crack cocaine and petty crime.

The inability of the police to take action has some observers in fear of extra-official efforts by vigilantes. This has happened in other Central American countries where murder squads, some probably composed of off-duty policemen, routinely torture and kill youngsters.

Casa Alianza reported Monday that in April some 53 boys and men younger than 23 years of age were assassinated in Honduras, the worst month for such deaths since the child advocacy organization began to keep records.

The organization suggested that the situation was ironic that the deaths took place even as the leaders of many countries are prepared to meet in New York to discuss the rights of children in a special United Nations session.

Last week Casa Alianza said that in Nicaragua an anonymous caller threatened to start murdering street children and Casa Alianza staff after the press reported on Casa Alianza’s efforts to prosecute policemen who illegally detained street children. The caller or his family obviously had been a victim of street crime.

Because hundreds of children and youth have been murdered in Guatemala and Honduras over the past several years by police, unidentified individuals and groups in a so-called effort of "social cleansing," Casa Alianza said it is extremely concerned that even the threat of initiating such killings in Nicaragua should be taken very seriously.

As for the situation in Costa Rica, "Groups of kids will continue to appear in San Jose until society and the authorities decide to invest adequately in children and the social problems that cause the kids to move around in gangs instead of being with their families," said Bruce Harris, executive director of Casa Alianza.

"Education is supposedly free, yet many kids cannot afford books, uniform, etc. Parents, too, have to be held responsible. Yet if you are a single mother and have four or five children that too is very difficult."

Harris said that 51 percent of children are now born to single mothers in Costa Rica. "Street children, child prostitution and gangs are merely indications of the larger social problem of family breakdown," he said in a response to questions asked by A.M. Costa Rica.

In addition, he said that there is at least one psychopath or serial killer free in Costa Rica who is responsible for the murder of two street girls — Yvette, 14, and Jacqueline, 17, — some 18 months ago.