Charlie BerghammerMaking a Difference

Bethany Van Kampen

By Charlie Berghammer

This month’s Making a Difference profile tales us south again to the Matapalo zone of our Aguirre county. It is always a privledge to be able to share with others the stories of how certain expats make the important decision to be active participants in our community as oppossed to those who only complain about the cultural differences that separate us.

For those who are new to the column, here below are the principles of this ideal to citizen action.

1. Inspire Change.

2. Build Community.

3. Facilitate Action.

4. Strengthen Engagement.

This month’s profile is dedicated to a young women whose story is similiar to many thousands of volunteers involved in the International Peace Corps program. Here below she shares her story of dedicated service to the community of Portalon, 20 minutes south of Quepos.

My name is Bethany Van Kampen and I´m a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Portalón Zone de Aguirre. I´ve been at my site for almost 2 years and am about to finish my service. I am dreading leaving my community. I feel extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work in this area. I love my work and the people who I work with, and I love that I´m able to get away to incredible beaches just a bike ride away. I am working to make a difference in a community and happen to be doing it in paradise – who could ask for more?

My Peace Corps program is Rural Community Development and our framework/objectives are: Residents of small rural Costa Rican communities will experience improved quality of life through improved organizational development and increased engagement in educational opportunities.


Local Development Associations and community groups will improve skills and practices in organizational management to plan, organize, lead, and obtain and coordinate resources to meet community development priorities. The specific objectives of this goal are: Planning, Organizing, Leadership, Coordinating and Managing Financial Resources, and Fundraising and Proposal Writing


Rural community members will expand activities and improve resources to increase access to, and quality of, educational opportunities. The specific objectives of this goal are: Strengthening English Skills, Organizing Extra-Curricular Activities, Improving Educational Resources for Schools, Expanding Vocational Education & Preparing for the World of Work

I have worked in all of these areas, yet my favorite projects are those working with girl and women empowerment. Below you can find a short outline of some of my favorite projects and tips on how to start similar projects in your area. If you are interested in collaborating on any of these projects with my replacement volunteer, who will be arriving on May 20, please let me know! You can email me at [email protected].

Guias y Scouts (Boys and Girl Scouts). I began this project in September of 2008. It is currently our most active community group and my most sustainable project. I would recommend this program to anyone. You just need to call the regional director (Pedro Ramos for Puntarenas, please call me for this contact info 8869-4712). They will come to give an informational video on Boys and Girl Scouts in CR and motivate the community members. You then must create a 6 parent committee to be the junta. Once this group is formed, you can become an official troop and begin. Pedro will come to your community every few weeks to assist in the planning phases. He will help to create your children´s groups (see table below) and to train your children´s group leaders (must be 18 or older). We currently have 70 children participating in this program. They meet each week for activities (e.g., sports, art and crafts based) with their respective group leader. They participate in camping trips every month or so and have also volunteered frequently for sea turtle conservation groups. We just received a small grant to buy tents and camping equipment so that more children are able to participate. Please contact me for more information!

Group  Name           Ages                 Number of Children in Portalón

Manada                     6 ½ -10 ½           27

Tropa                        10 ½ -14 ½         33

Tsuri                          14 ½ -17 ½         10

Total 70

Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls) This is a popular Peace Corps program that teaches girl empowerment. I have taught this program (12-14 weeks) to 2 groups of 5th and 6th grade girls. The program is best for girls of this age, but can be tweaked of course to match any age group. The themes are: communication, team work, self-esteem, nutrition and health, drug prevention, gender roles, sexuality and dating, my values, my goals, making decisions and my future. Each class includes an activity (arts and crafts, games etc), discussion, and then written work exploring the theme in the student´s. I will be happy to provide the girls´ notebooks (which you can print for under a 1.000 at a libraría!) and teacher´s guide to anyone interested. You can also organize a group of girls and teach this program informally. The kids will go crazy for any sports, games, or arts activities. I recommend organizing the group though the school and using permission slips.

Voces Valerosas (Brave Voices) This is another Peace Corps program that was created by the committee which I participate on, WIDAGAD (Women in Development/Gender in Development). This program teaches creative expressions such as poetry, photography, collage, opinion, biography, photojournalism, interviews and drawing while incorporating one of the following themes in each session: Economic Justice, Human Rights, Female Leadership, HIV/AIDS, Domestic Violence, Sexual Health, Peace and Justice, Self-Esteem and Body Image. The girls´ notebook and facilitator´s guide is available to anyone interested in teaching this program. Voces Valerosas is more appropriate for teenagers. I would recommend contacting the high school about putting together a group of girls to participate in the program. Many girls here are not free to express themselves. I have found that the frustrations of living in a machista society are often silenced and suppressed, yet are very real and strong. You may be surprised and amazed by the works the girls will create in the program.

This year, the WIDGAD committee created a Voces Valerosas girls art magazine and leadership conference which was held on March 11 in San Jose. Over 30 young women from Peace Corps sites throughout Costa Rica were able to participate.

Las Mujeres Unidas de Portalón (The United Women of Portalón)- You will often find that many rural active communities have or have had a women´s group. To me, this is one of the most important community groups. I began the first women´s group in Portalón in June of 2009 and after only one year, I am happy to report that we are now launching a hydroponic farming small business with 10 women from the group. The idea behind a women´s group is to offer opportunities and orchestrate projects specifically geared to the female population. A women´s group can more easily solicit courses for the community through INA (National Learning Institute), MAG (Ministry of Agriculture), CNP (National Production Advisory), INAMU (National Women’s Institute) and other government groups. These courses offer certificates upon completion and greatly improve community members´ chances of obtaining a job. A women´s group can also receive great support from government groups to start-up a small business.

To form a group, call a community meeting with the women to explore interest and possible projects and ideas (courses, small business ideas, day care center, etc.). If the interest is clear, begin having regular meetings (monthly). A course is a great way to get momentum going when starting a group. INAMU offers a wonderful 5 month course called Fortalicimiento Personal y Colectivo (Personal and Collective Strengthening) which is offered free for rural communities. I recommend this course to begin with, as it is formal, longer and will motivate the group. Just call INAMU in Puntarenas or the Women´s Office in Quepos to solicit the course. We have received courses from INA (we received cooking, but they offer almost any trade course and also more academic courses such as computation), INAMU, MAG and CNP- you may have to call for weeks on end but free courses and certification are well worth it. After a few courses, perhaps explore small business ideas, ideally in the area in which you´ve received the training. If you are interested in farming projects, I highly recommend working with MAG Parrita and CNP Parrita. They first taught our group the basic of hydroponia and are now with us every step of the way as we create our small business. They have helped us to build the green house (they are the technical experts!), buy the materials, and run market studies. They also helped us to become a legal association with cedula jurídica.


* Our small business is financed using the money we raised from a dance and domingo deportivo which we organized. Although there are lots of grant opportunities out there which are favorable to women´s groups, I recommend also doing grass roots fundraising as a group as it will make your project more sustainable.

* El Ministerio de Trabajo (Ministry of Work) offers salary opportunities for small businesses. The application is lengthy and the salaries are only for 3 months of the year, but it´s still a wonderful opportunity

* Machismo and women empowerment is a very sensitive issue in Costa Rica. I would recommend working in very small steps rather than crusading this cause. I waited until I had established my relationship with the community before beginning this work.

* I recommend creating a name for the group and also getting T-shirts. Our shirts cost about $10 each and have really helped to unite our group.

Once our small business is on its feet, we will be working to establish a day care center in Portalón so that women with children are more easily able to work outside of the home. Please let me know if you are interested in collaborating on this with us!

English Classes (with Centro Cultural) – 23 students completed this year-long program with me and have graduated the Gateways level of Centro Cultural. English classes are undeniably important in development work. I have lots of resources for teaching informal classes if you´re interested. I would recommend holding a community meeting to explore interest and establish a list of students. Remember that most schools offer English programs, so you may want to focus on the adolescent/adult populations.

Aerobics/Yoga- I taught both during my first year of service to the women and children at my site. This is a great way to integrate and to get to know community members. Both are very popular and easy programs to start up – just put flyers up and get the word out. This is a FUN project and also promotes healthy living practices. If wanting to teach this with children, I recommend working through the school.

Sex Education- This was one of my favorite Peace Corps projects. Dr. Andrea from the EBAIS and I taught a basic curriculum of birth control practices and sexually transmitted diseases to the 9th and 10th graders at Matapalo High School. In our area there is little to no access to sexual education. The EBAIS offers incredible FREE access to birth control (pills, the depo shot, condoms) yet because of the embarrassment and lack of education, very few youth are actually taking advantage of it. This is a VERY sensitive topic and so if you´re interested in teaching, again I would recommend working within the school or the EBAIS.

Tip- Make an anonymous question box (decorate a shoe box!) and give each student a piece of paper so that they can write their questions privately! Answer the questions at the end of the charla!

We are very fortunate that a married couple will be serving both Portalón and Matapalo. If you would like to join any of these projects, please don´t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]. The new Peace Corps volunteers can be tracked down in the elementary schools beginning this June! Please welcome them to our communities!

Thanks to Bethany for her service and example to our local community in Portalon of citizen action. This was the ideal of John F. Kennedy, that through the International Peace Corps program we could collectively “Make a Difference” in developing countries as just described by Bethany. As expats living in Costa Rica, without being members of formal organizations, we can also take the initiatives necessary to effect change which enhances our multi cultural experience together. All that is required is good will to do something that we recognize is within our resources and are able to do as opposed to depending on the government.