January 17, 2012


Giving Back › Travel ›

Malnutrition is the #1 cause of childhood mortality, killing one child every 6 seconds.

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¡Pura Vida! My Journey to Help Children in Costa Rica

Alongside my commitment to and involvement in KUTOA, I have been investing more of my time into volunteering and humanitarian efforts. Since Costa Rica has been on my bucket list since high school, I opted to combine these two motivations, and set out to volunteer outside the capital city of San José through IVHQ and Máximo Nivel, a volunteering & education center based in the area.

When I arrived to Costa Rica, I learned that it is among the highest-rated countries in the world by the Human Development Index. My initiation reaction: if this is very high human development, I cannot imagine what very low development looks like. Though people were not living in dire circumstances by any means, it was clear that life in many parts Costa Rica was radically different than in the states.

I was assigned not to an orphanage, per sé, but to a daycare center called Rayito de Luz ("Little Ray of Light") in the very poor Río Azul neighborhood, just 10km from the capital of San Jose. The neighborhood is located between the town of Desamparados ("Homeless") and Antiguo Relleno ("The Old Landfill"). Rayito, I came to learn, was a free daycare center for the children of Río Azul, specifically serving the children of single, working-class mothers. This, I eventually discovered, meant that many of the kids had been exposed to some level of domestic violence.

As the story was told to me, Rayito was conceived when Leti, now a grandmother figure in her 60's, began taking in the neighborhood's many children. Her husband, frustrated with the ever-growing number of snotty hellions running around his house, gave Leti an ultimatum: get rid of the kids or go it alone. She chose to go it alone.

Today, Rayito de Luz gets a very small government subsidy, which barely covers the costs of feeding the children. The center sustains itself on community donations, foreign volunteers like myself, and the hard work of Leti, her daughter Francini, and her daughter-in-law Ingrid.

When I arrived at Rayito for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the amount of warmth, love, and joy the children immediately shared with me. By the time I'd walked 5 feet into the play area, children had begun to hang off my limbs and teach me their favorite acrobatic maneuvers, most of which involved me swinging them recklessly around the main room. Though the center was small, crowded, and severely understaffed, I was so happy to be there and provide these children with the love and attention they so deeply craved. Because December is the beginning of Summer vacation for Tico children (Tico: the affectionate nickname for Costa Ricans, which is much more popular than the proper nomenclature, costaricenses), I was troubled to see that most of the children spent between 8 and 10 hours at Rayito. Nonetheless, I was told, my job was primarily to "love the kids, play with them, be silly, and keep them happy while they're mothers work." I took that mission very seriously.

Another troubling thing I learned is that for many of the children, their government-subsidized lunch was the largest and perhaps the only complete meal they received every day. Though rice and beans (prepared as gallo pinto and served at every meal) were very common and easily obtained, a more complete and nutritious diet was often costly. Despite the fact that plantains, papaya, pineapple, citrus, carrots, and even watermelon are plentiful in Costa Rica, many of these kids weren't being served it.

Naturally, I thought of the mission I embraced when I became involved with KUTOA, and set about to bring these kids a healthy (and delicious) treat that they could enjoy. While roviding bars directly to kids somewhat mixes up the mission of KUTOA (normally, we provide nutrient packs to children in need, subsidized by the selling price of each health bar), I knew that the team at KUTOA would be all for it. I also thought it was pretty cool that for the stash of bars these kids would munch on, a bunch of children elsewhere in the world would be fed, too. "Niños ayudando a niños," I told Francini (Kids helping kids). At snack time, I gave Ingrid a heap of bars, which she then cut up into choking-hazard-free pieces for the children to enjoy. Fun fact: kids in Costa Rica have much better immunities due to the lack of obsessive sanction kids here endure, and when I raised concerns about peanut allergies to Leti, she looked at me in disbelief and said "¿Alergias? ¡¿A la comída?¡" She couldn't believe that there were people allergic to food. We had a good laugh about it.

An interesting thing happened when the kids got hold of the wrappers themselves. Anjolie, a leader in her group of friends, placed the wrapper over her mouth to hide her 7-year-old partly-toothed smile. Eventually, each of the children wanted a photo with their mouths being covered. While I was initially frustrated that the children didn't want to display their adorable smiles for the camera, I realized that this presented a really deep symbolism.

You see, these children, by comparison to the hundreds of thousands who are literally struggling to survive, are fairly fortunate; and yet, despite this fact, they have virtually no voice. Just imagine the unrelenting state of helplessness for those children in Ghana, India, and the 60+ countries that our partners at the World Food Program are charged with helping. These children truly have no way to disseminate their stories of lost parents, chronic hunger, or abject poverty. But we do. By traveling the world, be it as compassionate individuals (as I did) or as organized relief efforts (such as our packet distribution missions), we at KUTOA can be one more channel for these voices to be heard. Though our extensive marketing efforts and increasing brand awareness, we can bring this reality to the table, where it can be alleviated by an army of compassionate customers like you. These children have powerful stories, and it has become far too easy, even with a 24-hour-news cycle, for us to drown out those stories.

I saw a great deal of very powerful things in Costa Rica, but one has truly stuck with me. On the hour-long bus ride to Río Azul, I passed a great deal of beautiful graffiti. On one wall, just as we crossed over into the "bad" side of town where Rayito is located, I saw a scrawled logo for CNN and an arrow pointing up the street. I can't be sure, but I believe that this artist was communicating the same thing I am, in far fewer words; these are the kinds of stories our society should be telling.

Thank you for reading, sharing, and caring.

Jonathan Levi
Board Member, KUTOA Company
Jonathan Levi
Jonathan Levi


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