Life in a Squatters Settlement

Poverty creates a toxic atmosphere in neighborhoods, extinguishing hope. Costa Rican squatter’s settlements or precarios represent breeding grounds for drug use and criminal activity as one child after another is forced to drop out of school. Without a hope for a positive future, temptation toward easy money becomes almost impossible to resist. Young people begin to trade their tomorrows to make today a little more bearable.

Costa Rica has over 300 of these precarios in which 40,000 families live, almost all of them existing below the poverty line. The majority of those living in precarios are immigrant families from Nicaragua inhabiting small shacks made of corrugated tin. Many of these families arrived in Costa Rica with the dream of escaping Nicaragua’s post-revolution poverty and building a new life within Costa Rica’s relative affluence.

After arriving as immigrants to a new land and culture, most precario residents are separated from extended family support and oftentimes separated from traditional social services due to not having proper documentation. They find themselves trapped in a situation often worse than what they left behind and with little hope of finding a way out.

The subsequent poverty and hopelessness usually leads parents to alcoholism and drug abuse which leaves the children vulnerable to school desertion and then to the allure of easy money and high risk behaviors that come with a life in drugs. In order to make a meaningful impact in Costa Rica’s burgeoning drug trafficking problem, it is vital to help the young people growing up within these neighborhoods develop into healthy, drug-free adults.

Learning to Reach the Unreachable

Boy With a Ball began walking into the Triangulo de la Solidaridad (El Triangulo) in 2005 to learn how to provide help to young people and families in the very unique setting of a 3,000 person precario. At that time, the average level of education within El Triangulo was only through the third grade with most students dropping out of school midway through elementary school and with an average household income being only $200 per month.

As a result, most families could not pay the $100 for school supplies per child every February and their children were forced to drop-out of school. With little potential to earn a significant wage due to illiteracy and lack of education, gangs dedicated to selling drugs and to assaulting passersby’s flourished. While social services would not come into reach precario residents, the gangs would. As a result, their influence and business began to dominate the lives of those residing in El Triangulo.

Over the following two years, BWAB developed a force of over 60 team members and volunteers from local universities, churches, international schools and corporations who began doing walkthroughs of the precario several times each week. These walkthroughs were used to meet each family in the precario and to get to know them while allowing them to teach BWAB staff and volunteers how people in the precario lived and what challenges they face.

As these relationships were developed, many individuals and families began to look for more significant help and were invited into mentoring relationships in which they were provided with relational support, guidance and equipping toward navigating life in Costa Rica including parenting classes, occupational training, life skills classes, English classes, marriage classes, free dental clinics and guidance in how to access social services.

Additionally developmental support groups including a men’s group, women’s group, young men’s group, young women’s group, children’s group and community leadership group were formed in order to draw members of the community into supportive relationships one with another.

Through the arduous process of working to build programming and activities that would lead to the best possible short-term, mid-term and long-term outcomes, BWAB’s Transformative Community Building program was born.

By 2010, these general community service programs have been augmented by an educational program that includes providing school supplies to over 200 students, offering three tutoring centers per week to help students with their coursework in partnership with local international school students and churches. Additionally, local and multi-national corporations began to offer in-kind donations, a steady flow of volunteers and money including initiatives like a scholarship program for students graduating from high school and heading to the university. A handful of these corporations even combined with a graduate design building program from Auburn University to build a two story community center in El Triangulo to house much of the programming.

2011 proved momentous as the U.S. State Department gave a $150,000 grant to both Boy With a Ball Global and Boy With a Ball Costa Rica to amplify their impact on the El Triangulo squatter’s settlement, to begin replicating the program in a second larger squatter’s settlement, Los Cuadros, and to codify the model in a written manual that would allow expanding to additional slums in the following years.

Fast Forwarding to Today

Currently Boy With a Ball’s Costa Rican team is working with the Costa Rican government to help the remaining families within the El Triangulo community make it out of the squatters settlement and into regular middle class neighborhoods. Wonderfully, as the leaders within El Triangulo now are scattered across Costa Rica in their new neighborhoods, they are asking for help from Boy With a Ball as they work to strengthen their new neighborhoods. The organization continues to scale the Transformative Community Building program within Los Cuadros while looking to identify the next community to serve.