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A 30-year dream


Elia Barquero smiles from her plastic chair, while behind her a team of young “tico” volunteers help build what will be the first adequate home she has ever owned. At 68, even the recent stroke suffered by her husband, Mario Arce, doesn’t seem to dampen her happiness. Due to the stroke, Arce lost his ability to walk and, in large part, to communicate.

At Barquero’s side is one of her daughters, Jacqueline. She listens attentively to the story that her mother is telling about how she and Mario got started in Coto 47, a small village tucked into the old banana zone of Costa Rica. When the fruit companies left this zone 35 years ago, the then-young couple packed their things to seek a better life in Pérez Zeledón. Two mattresses and a wooden stool were their only possessions. The family rented an old, wood plank house for many years, until they grew tired of taking care of “what was not theirs” and decided to build their own home.

Without sufficient money or materials to do so, however, the first house was also made of wood – not a sustainable material for the wet, Costa Rican winters. Unable to hire builders, the couple raised the house with their own two hands. Barquero remembers how her children, then young, gathered rocks from empty lots and the sides of the street to build the drainage system. The dream of owning a sturdy, concrete house remained latent.

The memory of a young Mario, strong and resourceful, raising the walls of his family’s home, seems to make it all the more challenging for Barquero and her children to see him in a wheelchair. After years of working in a government entity, their father now earns a pension of less than US$500 a month, just barely sufficient to cover the family’s needs, much less Mario’s medical expenses.

Jacqueline is an accounting assistant, but had to leave her job so that she could care for her father. It was Jacqueline who made the first contact with Habitat for Humanity. “I have a friend who works for Habitat,” she said. “Her name is Karen. We always run errands together, and we talk about this and that. I’d been to her office a few times… but it never occurred to me to ask what they do there. One day, I was confiding in Karen about the difficult situation at home. It was then that she told me that she worked for Habitat for Humanity, and that maybe they could help.”

It has been a year and a half since that first conversation, and what has happened in that time has enriched Jacqueline’s family immensely.

“As the concrete walls went up, I said to myself that this was too much,” said Jacqueline, while her mother—a woman of few words—watches the tireless work of the volunteers with still-astonished eyes.

The young volunteers carry concrete blocks, sacks of cement, tools and permanent smiles from one end of the site to the other. “Like children on a carousel,” says Karol Montero of Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica. “It’s as if they understand that one day they will stop, and each moment should be enjoyed to its fullest.”

“At first I was embarrassed in front of the volunteers,” said Barquero. “But later I discovered that they are all very humble kids, and that they only want to help without receiving anything in return. Nevertheless, we still help them in whatever way we can. We also cook lunch for them, and the neighbors sometimes pitch in with bread, meat, rice and milk. So… we keep them well fed,” she concluded with a smile.

The presence of these young volunteers from different ends of the country, united through Habitat’s mission, has caused a stir in the community. It has resulted in new friendships and a tear-filled goodbye when the team is ready to leave for home. Several neighbors ask what they are doing, and why. Through these conversations, other families learn of Habitat for Humanity. They also learn about and identify with the needs of Barquero and her family, and there is a feeling of organization around resolving these problems.

When the volunteers departed, the family’s home was nearly finished. They could imagine Mario entering his new room, observing the difference with his sparkling eyes, and Elia living the dream that she has fought for almost 30 years.