La Carpio | San Jose, Costa Rica

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La Carpio is a 9 mile square piece of land wedged between landfills and sewage runoffs located on the outskirts of Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose. Nearly 20 years ago Nicaraguan refugees trying to escape a civil war, corrupt government and extreme poverty began a settlement there out of scraps of corrugated tin and whatever else they could find. The shanty town grew rapidly as the Nicaraguan immigrants found more opportunities for work and took advantage of the Costa Rican treaty which grants all people living in the country free health care and education. Currently there are over 34,000 people living in La Carpio and despite better opportunities, poverty and crime are rampant.

In 1997 the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, led by the resilient Gail Nystrom, infiltrated the community setting up schools, clinics, daycares, planting gardens, painting murals, sponsoring soccer players, building better sidewalks, donating food, clothing and many, many other programs. One of the most important features Nystrom’s work is trying to make La Carpio a model to reverse the poverty cycle.

Nystrom first came to Costa Rica in 1978 with the Peace Corps and never left. Although she spearheads projects throughout Costa Rica it is La Carpio where her heart resides. Between her phone which rings incessantly, to her mind which can bounce between multiple conversations in a single breath, her energy seems limitless. As she drives around in her beat-up old van locals call out her nickname “Giselle” (which is easier for them to pronounce than Gail) like a well-loved local hero. She laughs and jokes with “the boys” the local gangs, who eye my camera menacingly, and is a sign of hope to the mother with three hungry babies and no food in their house. From dawn till dusk Nystrom is on the move visiting with the children and teachers at the daycares, fielding emails from donors, working with numerous volunteers and simply being present in a community otherwise ignored.

Nystrom has faith in the durability of her projects, saying they are “sustainable in spirit, sustainable in infrastructure, sustainable in the services they give to people,” and that the women and men of La Carpio she has helped develop the program will keep things going. She works tirelessly to instill a sense of pride and self-worth in the community because she believes in order for La Carpio to thrive and succeed the people in the community need to care. Her methods are working. Despite lingering drug and gang violence things have improved vastly. Many people have concrete walled homes, are getting proper educations and are able to leave the barrio, and simply seeing the brightly colored buildings and smiles on the children’s faces reflect an overall better spirit throughout the community.

If you would like to donate to the efforts being made in La Carpio: