What I learned from my time volunteering in Costa Rica.
Updated: Apr 6
As many of you know I have spent the last 2 weeks volunteering as an art therapist in San Ramon, Costa Rica with MUSADE (Mujeres Unidas en Salud y Dessarollos), an organization that promotes equality and self-development of women who have lived and continue to live with domestic violence. My role as a volunteer was to facilitate therapeutic art groups and one-on-one art therapy sessions to the women and children in the MUSADE community.
In addition to the groups and sessions, I lead staff training courses to educate existing personnel on "what is art therapy", and how can they implement it once I am gone. I came here not knowing what to expect, and am leaving with an experience that exceeded anything I could have imagined. So what have I learned from working in this beautiful country?
A smile is worth everything.
Costa Ricans have a way of spreading joy. In the cities that I've lived in back home, it is not customary to smile at strangers that you pass on the streets. In San Ramon, most strangers you pass greet you with a warm smile and a small greeting of "Buenos". The results are contagious and helped me to realize that the warmth of a stranger can go a long way in improving your mood. Pura vida!
Communication is possible without words.
Working with people from different cultures has taught me that words are not always necessary. As a very, and I mean VERY basic Spanish speaker, words were sometimes not possible when communicating with people here. Although VERY challenging, my belief was reinforced that you can connect with a person on a very profound level through body language, facial expressions, and of course, ART!
Being Lonely is Okay.
There were many times throughout this experience that I felt lonely (and it felt scary). Although I was working with people, it was very isolating to be in a place where you have no friends or family, and you don't speak the language. Most things I did, I did solo. Eating meals, going on trips, hanging out at night. Despite a few moments of panic, I learned to be okay with the solitude, and in the process, I strengthened my relationship with myself. I even began to enjoy some quality alone time!
How to let go and trust.
One thing that this beautiful country really enforced in me was to stay present and TRUST. So many times I felt like I NEEDED to know the plan, or what will happen the next day. It doesn't always work like that in Costa Rica, where the culture is more relaxed and flexible. This drove me crazy when I wanted to know how many groups I will be running the next day and how many people will attend. I didn't always get my answers but I did strengthen my improvisation skills, and practice how to enjoy the moment and trust that it will work out in the end (which it always did).
Growth is Inevitable.
The new year for me is always a time for reflection and a marker for the progress I have made. Some of the experiences I had in Costa Rica I never would have been able to have just a year ago because I wasn't ready. This reminded me to be patient with myself, because real growth takes time and nurture.