Friday, July 26, 2013

Embassy and Shoes

Wednesday was a big day at Salvando Corazones. Along with normal running of the house we had two different groups of visitors. The first group that came was the US embassy. Three individuals for the embassy came to visit the safe house and discuss the possibility of a human trafficking conference that we wish to put on. It was a very positive meeting. The embassy was very excited about our ideas and expertise and they agreed to pay for the trainings and conference. Several other specialists from different NGOs in Costa Rica also came to join the meeting and it was fun seeing 20 some odd people around our kitchen table. We also received a visit from the Pani (Child Protective Services). They came to evaluate the house and interview the staff and the girls. They had several major changes including more defined roles for each individual, a more fixed schedule, as well as other recommendations for the house. I felt that it was a very positive experience even though we were written up for several small things around the house (one of which was there were a pair of boots by the backdoor, which for some reason all shoes must be out of sight. What?). It is exciting to be meeting with such important people and seeing everyone come together over the issues of human trafficking and caring for the girls.

The last week has also been stressful for several emotional reasons. Salvando Corazones is a very new organization, and it was opened over two years ahead of schedule. There is still so much to still do in order to create a smoothly functioning organization. Meeting after meeting talking about rules, roles, and concerns takes a lot out of you physically and mentally. It is important to continue to remind myself that we are doing this for the girls when you feel beat down trying to deal with structural and management issues all day. A cohesive and trusting group is necessary to successfully open up a group home.

I have learned a lot especially from the new girl that has arrived. I have never dealt with a child so young on such strong depression medication. The different psychological problems that she is dealing with are extremely concerning. The combination of psychological problems as well as general behavior problems keeps all of us on our toes and constantly changing things around the house.

The best story happened last night. Yesterday was a difficult day for two of the girls. They decided to go for a walk off property on their own twice as they did not want to comply with the schedules. We are fairly remote, but still there are concerns and rules about leaving the premises unattended. Last night we decided to steal all of their shoes as a punishment for their unaccompanied walks and to prevent their “escape” that they were planning for the morning. One of the other volunteers and I snuck into their rooms with a flashlight very Watergate-esk. All the shoes were hidden away and a super interesting morning was to follow. The reactions of the different girls varied. One found it funny, one found it fair, and one decided that the world was out to get her and she was not going to class. Working with these girls especially when it comes to behavior management has been fascinating and I would never have guessed that my job description would involve stealing girl’s shoes in the night (I was able to feel like Santa Claus, but more like the evil Santa’s that one might find in the mall). Sadly, not all behavior management is as fun as stealing shoes. Earlier in the day we had to take apart a girls room without her knowing in order to look for razor blades. I have never had to deal with cutting behavior before, but the psychological distress that some of these girls are experiencing always keeps me on alert and learning new things. How to deal with each girl individually is fascinating and I know that my experience here will help me deal with children in the future. Thanks to Jen, I had attended a talk on Dyscalculia and Dyslexia at Vanderbilt which unfortunately is yet another issue that arises with these girls. There is never a dull day and still so much to learn.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Finally reaching calm waters

The past week has gone very smoothly. The girls have begun to settle in to the schedule and routine and behavior problems are becoming less and less prevalent. The school schedule has been going well. Each day they have three school classes which last for 4 hours. On Friday, we studied science, social studies, and Spanish which was followed by activities in the afternoon that included exercise, brain games, and a science experiment. For the science experiment we created agar plates and took bacteria samples from around the house. We talked about diseases and why we need to wash our hands before meals. Sadly, I do not think that I used enough gelatin in the mixture as my agar plates are still a little runny, but we will check on Monday and hope for results. Last week the science experiment was the classic make a volcano science project, which was my first major flop because I did not have baking soda (only baking powder) which made it much less impressive. The rest of the classes are going well. It is strange for me to be teaching native speakers Spanish lessons, but even though I can’t understand what they are rattling off about (as they are super fast talking middle school girls) I still feel confident in my grammar and rules thanks to my high school Spanish teachers. My vocabulary on metaphor, imagery, and symbolism also has to improve quickly as I normally use poetry analysis as filler when I run out of Spanish stuff to talk about.

The girls are very stereotypical middle school girls. Best friends one moment followed by manipulating each other behind the other’s back, is pretty much an hourly occurrence. I am fascinated to watch the dynamics change between the girls and I am slowly beginning to be able to predict the behaviors and watch them unfold in front of us like a director watching a play. The behavior management situation occurs the same as well and it is such a rush when the whole situation plays out just as you would have hoped. Luckily all of the staff is on the same page and we all play off each other very well.

I am looking forward to another two weeks with the girls and the staff as my time in Costa Rica is starting to draw to a close.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

New Girls and New Approaches

Today began the first official day with our new batch of girls. The past week was focused on preparing and establishing the rules that will govern the house. After a transitioning weekend for the two new girls, we were finally able to get down to the daily routine and begin to implementing our behavior management ideas. Because many of our past failures could have been prevented with a solid behavior management plan, the creation of said plan became our major focus in preparation for more girls. After days of research, multiple reports and emails, and hours of staff discussion, we finally have a working document which should get us on the same page when dealing with the girls. At this point, if I read one more behavior management protocol or group home direct care plan, I may gouge my eyes out. 

It definitely helped having my parents come and visit for the weekend. They are still in Costa Rica, hopefully enjoying the beach, but while they were here they spent hours talking about group homes, behavior plans, and cognitive behavioral therapy. After I could not take any more, they took me up to Monteverde to get some R and R away from the stresses of the safe house. As much fun as it was to hike and zip line, I am pretty stoked to be back in the safe house ready to try out all the new tools that we have developed.  

The new girls are very different from our last set. They come from different backgrounds, with different personalities, and one of the biggest changes is the fact that they are about five years younger. I was interested to see how our new tools would work on them, especially on the 13 year old who decided very quickly that she did not want to participate in any group activity. Like a master puppeteer, it was amazing to see our new behavior management plan taking full control of the girl’s behavior. It was so fun to watch as even the most obstinate girl would move from noncompliance to full participation time and time again. A combination of giving choices and planned ignoring was enough empowerment, yet isolation allowing the staff full control of each situation at hand.  

The next big step is creating an education plan. I have taken over the role of teacher in the house and I am in charge of all lesson plans. We are starting with only focusing on Math, Spanish, and English as a remediation period is important to catch the girls back up to speed. Sadly one girl is very behind and extremely insecure which makes learning basic reading and writing skills very slow. It is an interesting change from teaching motivated boys upper level science to teaching timid girls how to read and write.

With a combination of fun girls, good friends, and a new game plan, the house has been peaceful and smooth. Each day is becoming easier and we all hope that as more girls arrive we can maintain the current dynamic within the house. This week is a very important week to set the tone for the rest of the house's future and hopefully a relaxed and productive week can help maintain the sanity of all the volunteers including myself.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


This weekend was quite interesting. The past several days have been focused on preparing for the next batch of girls to arrive. We still are waiting to find out when, but each day we prepare as if they are arriving tomorrow. Any government organization will be slow and Pani (CPS) is no different. Between working on daily activities for the girls to house wide behavior protocols, we all have been busy trying to be more prepared than we were for the first set of girls.

The pair of teachers that joined us for the week were incredibly helpful. They brought great ideas and helped act as fresh set of eyes facilitating conversation between the director and volunteers. Along with their knowledge, they also brought several computers for the safe house which we will use a lot in the upcoming weeks working with Math, Language, and Typing programs. I was able to feel like I was on vacation at times as I accompanied them to several local waterfalls and hot springs allowing myself to feel like a tourist (although way cooler as we went to all the local spots hidden from the Lonely Planet guidebooks). Before they left, we finished the weekend with a trip to Jaco.

Jaco may be a party beach town, but we did not go there for surfing, drinking, and sex. We went on an exploratory mission to learn more about the prostitution that is occurring all over Costa Rica. Jaco is famous for its prostitutes, and we went there to learn more about the sex industry and the children that are involved.

Our first stop was to the OIJ which is the Costa Rica FBI. We wanted to introduce ourselves and establish a connection between our organization and the law enforcement community. When child prostitutes are found, they are treated as victims. Sadly, there are not many options for these girls. Our safe house is a place where they can get the help they need to survive after such as difficult childhood. Hopefully OIJ can use our facilities when they come across underage girls. The OIJ were very informative. We learned about how prostitution works, the hot spots in the city, and why it was so difficult to make arrests. It is hard for create a case against the pimps who traffic young children. When the Costa Rican investigation teams ask questions, local massage parlors turn into legitimate businesses, and everyone somehow seems to have a license and be of age. Sadly, 80% of the Johns are American, and traffickers seem to clam up when Costa Ricans are asking questions. We decided that as foreigners, I and the other male teacher would try to learn more about the prostitution business and the trafficking of young girls.     

We went to four of the six main prostitution bars. It was appalling to watch as the bars were filled with men all looking for the same thing, sex. From older pot bellied men to young bachelor parties it was strange to know that everyone in the bar had the same idea and motive. The first bar that we went to had around 25 to 30 men and no women as everyone was just waiting for the prostitutes to arrive. Talking to different groups of guys and overhearing conversations made me ashamed of being a male (remember not all guys are bad). The women were objects and were to be used without any thought. It was difficult hearing how the other guys would talk about the girls. During the night, we talked to several prostitutes, first learning about how the business worked and then trying to find more information about them and their lives. Prices ranged from 140-80 dollars an hour and girls were very direct in their solicitation. The youngest that we talked to was 22 and the oldest was 26, and we did not find any underage girls inside of the bars (outside and in massage parlors is a different story). At one of the bars, a prostitute even showed me picture of her children (the first of which she had at the age of 16). Most girls came in to Jaco for the weekend, but several had been around the world including the United States (possibly due to trafficking). It was interesting to talk to these women but by the end of the night I was quite tired of pretending to be a scum bag and had all the information that I needed. Luckily the other volunteer and I were able to finish the night at a “normal” bar, dancing and trying to forget about the strange other world that was all around us.

Prostitution is Costa Rica is everywhere and it was interesting to experience first hand. It is important to understand what is happening and why we must protect the children that get caught out in this practice.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Another long day

Tuesday was a rough day. We currently do not have any girls in the house. Our second girl left Tuesday night after a long day followed by a violent episode. Neither Monday nor Tuesday was very peaceful and tension was building. It is difficult to be trapped in a house with a bunch of Gringo, unable to leave, and struggling to adapt to rules and schedules. The straw that broke the camels back was the fact that she could not have a cookie. For snack, we were having some fruit, but she wanted a cookie. There has been a small war against sugar inside the house. Healthy diets are really critical for these girls and for girls who have struggled with drugs; sugar can often act as a substitute for their addiction. At this point, she decided she would not follow any rules. She was being a normal angry teenager, and decided to rip up several photos at the dinner table. After a she created photo confetti, she began yelling that she wanted her phone to call her mom or sister. Sadly, we are not allowed to give her the phone (Pani rule, due to the fact that her family abandoned her, she was not allowed to contact them while in a foster home). We ignored her as she repeatedly shouted for her phone. 

Because we were ignoring her, she decided the best way to get everyone's attention was by smashing a glass on the ground. She picked one of the volunteer’s nice coffee cups which we were all sad to see destroyed on the ground. At this point after another glass, she went to try to open the safe for her phone. Things escalated quickly as the director of the program stepped in. They began to tussle and there was some brief biting, hair pulling, and some super weak girl punches (which surprised me from such as tough girl). It is important that we all work on conflict resolution as this situation did not exactly go as we would have wanted.

During the event, the police were called. They did not come for over four hours and needed a reminder. They said that domestic disputes were not high on their priority list. We had actually calmed the situation and had a discussion as a group around the table, but our resident after another major mood swing said that she wanted to leave.

The police were useless. Even after an assault and battery case, they can not do anything with out a mandate from a judge. The officers explained to us that even if she was in the process of stabbing everyone in the house and the police arrive they could not arrest her until we had talked to a judge. The only thing that they could do would be to take her and Maria to make a statement and then send her back to sleep at the house for the rest of the night. The fact that she was a minor also meant that the police could not do anything. The police were there for several hours mainly because they did not know what to do with her.

My favorite moment was how they handled the conflict resolution. When they learned that it had all started over a cookie, the male cop knew exactly what to do. Out of his pocket, he pulled out a cookie and allowed here to eat it on the couch (Perfect, Thanks, Problem Solved). They told us in the future if we had a violent episode we should use (and have the right to use) handcuffs. When she is acting out we can use a tranquilizer and then handcuff her to the bed. (Interesting fact: in Spanish, Handcuffs = esposas, also Wife = esposa)

The whole system is wack. What ended up happening is that they could hold her for 6 hours and then they would have to send her back here. After two hours of phone calls they found that they could take her instead to a different albergue (foster home) tomorrow morning in a different town. They ended up taking her to the police station for 6 hours then transferred her to a different home in the morning. 

Anyway, now the house is super quiet. We have lost all of our girls. There are two that will be arriving soon, but we don’t know when. Right now we are working hard to develop a better protocol for behavior management and creating new ideas to help the house run smoothly.

Current ideas include:
Emotion Chart- girls put name over how they are feeling in the morning
Star Chart- earn stars for good behavior and meeting goals
Mailboxes- to send positive messages to girls and a mailbox to send complaints to the house
A chore chart- vary up the chores and who does what during group cleaning
Personal schedules in the front of their personal journals

We need to do a better job preparing for the next batch of girls. It is definitely a learning process. Sadly in most albergue, 70% of the girls will return to the street, so we can’t get discouraged, we can only try to better prepare and be a more cohesive group working to help these girls.

We will see how things go.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Home schooling program

Figuring out a school program of the girls is becoming more difficult. There is a home school program that is developed for Costa Rica. It is meant to be a self taught course and if you work thorough the course books you should be able to pass the exams. In order to graduate from you need to pass each of the classes that are designated for that year. For the 8th grade, they are required to take six classes: Spanish, English, Science, Math, Civil Duties, and Social Studies. Every three months there is a new testing date and you can sign up to take as many tests on that day as you can handle (I believe that the max is 3 which means that you can complete 8th grade in 6th months).

We do not have a teacher on staff. Right now our paid psychologist is in charge of the education in the morning and then any therapies or other paperwork that she must do in the afternoon. I will stop by to help explain any of the trickier Math and Science topics if they need help. This system worked well for maybe one week. With only one or two girls, (Especially with one who is extremely motivated; she wants to be a police officer when she is 18 and then study to become a doctor when she is older) and two people helping (one of whom is a trained Math and Science teacher) this system can be possible, but it is very hard to be self motivated for these girls. I am worried about what will happen when there are 15-18 different girls, all at different skill levels, and being challenged with different learning disabilities. It seems like it would be difficult to improve without a teacher helping to guide and providing assessments to keep kids accountable.

Luckily, there are two teachers here for the week, who have worked with struggling Latin American children in the past. They are a Math teacher and an ESL teacher, who are here to volunteer for a week. I am looking forward to working with them to come up with ideas of how a home school program could work in the safe house. So far we have begun to create new lessons plans for each week of the home school curriculum that include, objectives, guiding questions, activities, projects which we hope will help the girls as they work through the home school program. I still believe that letting the girls that can go to school, go to a small local school would be the best for their education as well as social and mental health.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

New Friends

After two long weeks, Maria, the director of the house, decided to take our one resident into town and give the volunteers a day off. After contemplating a road trip to a volcano and hot springs, we decided to instead walk down the street to a hotel/pool/bar for the afternoon. For about six hours we hung out, swam at the pool, and enjoyed a drink as we relaxed and socialized as a group.

I have been really lucky meeting such a great group of individuals here at the house. The mix of cultures is very eclectic. I am definitely the odd man out so far as the exotic upbringing. Between Italy/Netherlands, Netherlands, Virginia/Germany/Netherlands, and Hawaii/California/Venezuela/Spain, my straight up North Carolina does not seem to be super exciting, but they still allow me to be part of the group anyway. I have really enjoyed getting to know each of them and finally a day without safe house duties really allowed us to get to know each other better. If we all survive the summer, then I will have to plan some more international travel to go visit people.

New things are always occurring at the safe house. We now have a music player which is exciting. Sadly, our resident picked out Rihana, Alejandro Sanz, and Wisin &Yandel, as the first three cds of the house. We will see how long these last until we all discover what the music lyrics are actually saying. Other new things include the new security camera system, DVD player, as well as, new study room tables allowing us leave the kitchen table for study time. Also, new and exciting, is the fact that two teachers from the states will be volunteering for a week. They are ESL teachers and are bringing new laptops and assessment tools for the girls. They will be good to talk to as I am curriculum planning and will also help with some of the daily school sessions as well. 

With only one resident, things are running very smoothly, and I have had time to work on various projects. Yesterday morning, I sent off letters to the Ministry of Education and the TIP coalition. Hopefully, we can sit down with the Ministry of Education soon to talk about a universal curriculum for the school system. For the high school curriculum, I am hoping to go volunteer in a local high school to get some more insight on how their classrooms work and what type of classes would be accepted in the schools. The TIP report is also very interesting and we are hoping to work closely with the US embassy to achieve some of their recommendations. The section on Costa Rica is page 139.