Teacher Helps Meet Needs of Costa Ricans

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TALAMANCA, Costa Rica -- The Central American country of Costa Rica may be famous for its coffee, beaches and rain forests, but few visitors see another side of the country -- the remote forests where indigenous tribes live in poverty and isolation.

Most Costa Ricans know little about these native peoples, either. They have desperate needs, but also a new reason to hope.

Talamanca is the jungle home to Bri-Bri, Cabecar and other Costa Rican tribes.

Much of the region is so isolated that medical emergencies can only be handled by helicopter.

But the isolation of Talamanca's tribal people is coming to an end. Dangerous old bridges are giving way to new ones, paths are becoming roads, and more children are gaining access to education and medical care.

Many groups and individuals have come to Talamanca to help the people meet their tremendous needs. A group from the Christian Missionary Alliance Church in San Jose are bringing gifts to the children. But perhaps no helper is more remarkable than a 2nd grade teacher from San Jose.

The jungle is a world away from Jessica Ugalde's classroom, but she wants her students to know the needs of the indigenous people of Costa Rica. Her own exposure to their needs began during a church-sponsored visit to Talamanca. Now she comes nearly every month.

She discovered another church distributing gifts and immediately began to connect the pastor with other projects in the region.

But Ugalde wants to go beyond simply bringing gifts. She wants to do something about Talamanca's worst social problems.

"There's infant mortality and suicide," Ugalde said. "So we've been working with these problems, especially, searching for the causes and trying to bring solutions."

Dr. Efraín Retana has seen the problems up close. A government doctor, he has provided medical care in many of Talamanca's villages for the past four years.

"With the alcoholism we have the influence of drug addiction," Retana said. "Here they traditionally grow marihuana in difficult access areas, Alto Telire. But they grow it more than anything for subsistence, because of the lack of food, lack of resources, because it's a hard area. Then they barter. Many people from outside exchange drugs for food."

Ugalde has created a non-profit foundation to take on projects like a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Her help has already made a difference.

"They've given a lot of support, with seminars, with social help, with activities that benefit the community, helping the elderly, children, and those people who are at high risk in the indigenous community," Retana said. "They've done a lot a work, a lot of social work. But we still need a lot more help!"

Ugalde made one more stop on the trip to deliver used clothing for families living near a remote mountain church.

Pastor Gerardo Garro is building a feeding center to help malnourished children. As the building neared completion Ugalde talked about bringing more donated building materials. Pastor Garro also dreams of a rehabilitation center for troubled teens and adults.

"To have a place where they can be sheltered, and they can receive support, and where we can also help them to overcome those different vices or drugs, because this has harmed many homes," Garro said. "There's a lot of division in the homes because of alcoholism and different types of drugs here in the area of Talamanca."

In spite of their contribution to the community, Garro and his family face serious opposition for their faith and simply because they are outsiders.

"Because he's not indigenous, so in the Cabecar area, in spite of the fact that the Cabecar people are hard workers and very enterprising, their problem is the racism they have against white people," Ugalde said.

The Garros traded city life for the jungle mission a year and a half ago. And even though Ugalde must return to her classroom in San Jose, they know she will keep coming back to help them and other Christian workers meet the needs of the indigenous people.

"And the need, really, that they would know that God loves them," Ugalde said. "That we're together in this situation, and that their needs are the Lord's needs. And if the Lord put us here to work for them, we're going to work, that is, we're trying to do it the best we can. They're really like family to me."

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CBN News
Stan Jeter

Stan Jeter

CBN News Senior Producer

CBN News Senior Producer Stan Jeter specializes in Christian news and Latin American coverage.  He has lived and worked for many years in South and Central America, most recently developing the Spanish Christian news program, Mundo Cristiano.  Follow Stan on Twitter @StanJeterNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/StanJeterCBN.