This summer I spent four weeks in the capital city of San Jose, Costa Rica.  I worked in an underprivileged daycare, lived with a host family, and tried my hardest to communicate with my sub-par Spanish skills. I wanted to share the story of my trip with you because it changed my life and I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity. Also, I would not have known about the organization I volunteered through unless someone else had told me about it first, so maybe this will inspire those who dream of volunteering abroad!

So why did I go on this trip?  I am required to do something called an “Honors Experience” as a Presidential Scholar here at EIU.  This experience can be anything from study abroad to an internship.  However, neither of these were an option because I’m a speech pathology major.  With both of these options out of the question, I knew I wanted to do a mission trip abroad. I searched and searched through local churches for a mission trip. My honors experience had to be at least four weeks long; any mission trip I found was one week to ten days long.  If I did stumble upon one that was four weeks long, it was outrageously expensive.  I am not made of money!  Slowly but surely my mission trip dream was falling through my fingers and I was running out of time to make a decision for my summer.  I was very discouraged.  Thankfully, a fellow Presidential Scholar friend had done her Honors Experience through an organization called International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ), so I decided to check it out per her suggestion.

I decided to take the plunge after inspecting IVHQ and reading countless reviews of their program.  They offer volunteer programs worldwide at extremely affordable rates, which include housing and meals.  I chose Costa Rica because the airfare wasn’t too terribly expensive, and because I at least knew a little Spanish, which is the official language of the country. I chose the Childcare option and knew I would be placed in either a Daycare or Orphanage setting once I arrived.

Fortunately, I did not have to go on this journey alone.  Two years ago I was assigned a random roommate for on-campus living here at EIU with a girl named Sydney.  Needless to say she’s my soul-best friend.  She is also a Presidential Scholar so it made sense for us to do our honors experience together.  She is a Christian and had the same mission trip dream as I did. Although IVHQ is not a Christian organization, we treated this trip just like a mission trip and had a “mission-frame of mind”.  To be honest, the whole world-from my backyard to another country- is a mission field, so it made sense to turn our scenario into a mission trip.

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Mackenzie and Sydney 

Once we arrived in Costa Rica we were placed in daycare called Bebitos. This establishment is for underprivileged families who can’t afford daycare and the government either pays for all of it or pays for half and the parents pay for the other half.  Children ages seven and under could come here.  The kids came and went throughout the day, but at some points there would be as many as thirty there at one time!  It felt very crowded!

These are the three women that worked at Bebitos. On the left is Noemy, the founder of Bebitos. She usually did behind the scene stuff so we never saw much of her.  In the middle is Noemy’s daughter Andrea who usually worked with the little kids (babies to three year olds).  On the right is Stefanie who worked with the older kids (ages four to seven).  Bebitos takes pride in being a learning environment; there are always learning activities going on for the kids! These women were absolutely incredible.  They really took the time to get to know us and were so appreciative of us being there. This picture was actually taken on our last day there.  We were all smiling through the tears! Noemy just hugged us so tight.  She told us that we were angels who had visited them; that we were so special and such a blessing to them.  They get a bunch of volunteers come to them through IVHQ but they told us MANY times how we were the best volunteers they had ever had! It really made us feel so special. They didn’t want us to leave! They even said we could come live with them for a few more months before we went home.

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From Left To Right: Noemy, Makenzie, Andrea, Sydney, and Stefanie

Each day Sydney and I brought an activity to do with the older kids.  Each week we had an overall theme (e.g., colors, shapes, parts of the body).  We would introduce the theme at the beginning of the week (teaching them the words in both Spanish and English). Then every day for the rest of the week we would have a fun activity or craft going along with the theme.  Definitely helped me brush up on my Spanish! I think this is another reason the women really appreciated us being there so much—not many other volunteers planned activities so it really took a burden off of their shoulders for us to take this over!

Aside from planning learning activities, we just helped out in any way we could at the daycare.  We cleaned, did dishes, fed babies, soothed crying babies, changed many diapers, simply played… AND FELL IN LOVE.  The language barrier was really tough, I’m not going to lie.  None of the workers nor the children spoke any English, and Sydney and I are far from fluent in Spanish.

However, there’s something about not being able to communicate fully with someone that really enhances the “language of love,” if you will.  I know it sounds so cheesy but I’m serious… smiles and hugs and laughter became our language and it was incredible.  Everyone showed us so much grace while we were there, especially the children.  If we said something they didn’t understand, they would not get frustrated.  Some of them would laugh and go about their day, not concerned at all.  Others, especially the older children, would ask us to say it again or say it slower.  If they said something that we couldn’t understand, or even noticed a confused look on our faces, some of them would recognize that and slow down or use different words to try and help us understand.  I learned so much from them, not only about Spanish, but just about grace.  They truly were just completely satisfied to have someone to play with—someone to love on them.

My time in Costa Rica is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.  I learned so much about myself.  Sydney and I got amazing opportunities to explore the country and go on adventures on the weekends, which was really incredible.  The best part, though, was definitely being able to pour out Christ’s love to those kids and to the women that worked at Bebitos. However, I believe that they, both the kids and the women, taught me more than I could’ve ever taught or shown to them.  Leaving them was so difficult, but they’ll have a piece of my heart for the rest of my life.

If you ever have remotely considered volunteering abroad, I am now a huge proponent! International Volunteer Headquarters is a great organization, and I highly recommend it.  If you ever have any questions—hit me up!  At least check out their website: http://www.volunteerhq.org/

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Makenzie Ward is a Communication and Disorder Sciences major. She currently works in the Student Community Service Office at EIU and volunteers at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center. Her favorite book is the Harry Potter series, if she has to choose, and she loves to cook and bake. You can reach her at her twitter handle @makenziea1024. 

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Eastern Illinois University's Civic Engagement and Volunteerism office is dedicated to cultivating citizens of character and integrity. We do this by offering EIU students purposeful opportunities and resources to complement the academic experience. By participating in these programs and services, students are challenged to explore their leadership potential through student-centered programming, service and experiential opportunities. Our programs and activities support Eastern’s mission of enhancing the learning, educational growth, and development of students.

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