For at-risk indigenous youth, EARTH graduate Karina Poveda (’13, Costa Rica) builds educational spaces to explore themes of environmental consciousness and values. For parents and farmers, she offers free workshops on knowledge sharing, women’s empowerment, food security, sustainable agricultural innovations, entrepreneurship and added-value processes. She accomplishes this through Sembrando Sonrisas (“Sowing Smiles” in Spanish), her community development project for kids and adults alike in rural Costa Rica.
The initiative grew from Karina’s graduation project, in which she focused on strengthening the Caribbean Costa Rican community of Tanagra, population 200.
“My EARTH graduation project partner Maribel (’13, Colombia) and I wanted to focus on social needs, but we didn’t know where. After visiting the community of Tanagra, we realized there were so many things we could help with: gardens, pest control, inputs. But we saw the problems ran much deeper. So, we decided to focus on social and organizational fortification, which turned out to be very enriching.”
In December 2017, Karina executed a training program for more than 100 indigenous women of the Ngäbe-Buglé tribe and a day camp for more than 200 kids living in Sixaola – the poor border zone between eastern Costa Rica and Panama.
“When I finished my graduation project, I thought to myself ‘Is this going to end here? Will I be like so many others who come, do something small, then leave?’ One Ngäbe-Buglé leader has become very jaded from the many outsiders arriving full of promises that they end up not achieving.”
With that in mind, Karina approached a group of people from inside and outside EARTH University to volunteer their time to continue skill building and serving the indigenous population.
“I began identifying the people eager to carry on the project with me, those wanting to contribute to the greater community.”
The workshops they planned covered various subjects, including empowerment, nutrition, domestic food production and entrepreneurship. While there, the group began a list of training session priorities for 2018.
Karina – now a staff member in the Community Development Office at EARTH University – was joined in her December service event by student Jireh Mwamukonda (’19, Malawi); Jorge Barahona and Melissa Arce, of the Student Life and Wellness Office; Alexa Glo, of the President’s Office; Valerie Rangel, of the commercial food processing lab; Kimberly Coto, of the Community Development Office; and graduate Ligia Araya (’13, Costa Rica).
“The first objective was helping the tribe with its self-image. Jorge Barahona, EARTH’s psychologist, developed a workshop on empowerment. After, we focused on their diet, which is nutritionally poor and centered on the plantain. We brought them a supply of nutritious and filling rice and beans. But what about after they consume that supply? We decided to offer them advice on how to invest the money they have to meet nutritional goals. Valerie Rangel, EARTH’s food-processing lab manager, gave a workshop on accessible ways to achieve a balanced diet. To facilitate this, we worked with them to plant more vegetables, such as lettuce. Finally, we addressed business development. A friend of mine, an administrator at the University of Costa Rica, worked with them to identify which of their abilities could be used to earn them income.”
Coupled with this, they planned a field day for the tribe’s kids. Different game stations were created, and the large group was divided into many smaller ones. The activities reflected on themes such as dignity, youth rights, respect for diversity and dismantling social stereotypes.
“Our recreational activities are imbued with social and environmental themes. Where this community lives, there is little arboreal diversity because they’re engulfed by banana plantations. For that reason, we made sure to teach them about many species of flora and fauna. We spoke with them about water, its importance and its relation to health. We worked on self-esteem and education. We also tackled the subject of rights, including labor rights, being that an important number of the community’s men are Ngöbes presently striking against banana companies in the area.”
“Kids in the Ngäbe-Buglé community aren’t accustomed to coordinated leisure activities. We wanted to give them a good time with productive takeaways – something much greater than a traditional toy delivery.”
The day of activities also featured the collaboration of EARTH graduate Elizabeth Zurdo (’15, Panama), a member of the Ngäbe-Buglé peoples who today works as a teacher of agriculture. She shared her story of overcoming obstacles.
“Working with Elizabeth Zurdo was spectacular. I noted the changes she’s undergone since the day I met her at the University. She isn’t that same timid girl, she’s an empowered woman. She shared her story and told of all she had to endure to have the chance to study. I told her that I wanted her to lead, and she did, fearlessly. She talked of having to walk three hours to get to grade school and being unable to attend high school. Nevertheless, many people supported her in becoming an agronomist. She discussed how even though she now has a daughter of her own, she is still capable of additional studies. I believe her story of triumph really affected the young girls of the community.”
As is true of any member of the EARTH community, Karina recognizes the value of an education and the potential of every person to grow and give back. She has been sponsoring one motherless child from the community for the past five years, collecting school supplies. Without scholarship support, affording basic educational utensils, such as notebooks and pencils, is practically impossible.
“When I asked the kids about who would be going to school next year, a father told me that, of his five, he could only afford to send two to study. Even though public education is tuition-free, students without scholarship access aren’t able to pay for many supplemental things. So, we started a school supply collection and contacted a foundation that helped us deliver the supplies to the kids who don’t receive economic assistance. Someone was always there to help me as a child, so I am compelled to help others.”
During the group’s visit to Sixaola, Karina worked with Iron Kids of the World Foundation to document the community’s long-endured potable water problem. The homemade wells used to collect rainwater are often contaminated with pathogens and with agrochemicals that have runoff or blown in from the large, conventional banana operations nearby.
“Even though we don’t have at our disposal medical tests of blood, feces or urine, a simple look gives us all the information about the health of the area’s inhabitants – parasites, skin scabs and discoloration, malnutrition, along with gastrointestinal and respiratory problems.”
It’s hoped that the issue’s documentation will bolster the Iron Kids Ngäbe tote bag campaign. Each sale of a tote bag – sporting stylish, artist-donated designs alluding to water – finances the purchase of a 10-year potable water filter.
“A filter costs 30,000 colones (approximately U.S. $55), and the objective is to get 800 for the main communities we know of that lack access to clean drinking water.”
In 2018, Sembrando Sonrisas will continue developing spaces for the empowerment and education of indigenous people of all ages, in addition to supporting access to clean water, healthcare and other vital services. Moreover, the initiative hopes to raise the visibility of Sixaola’s Ngäbe-Buglé, their struggles and their needs.
“This year, in addition to expanding our agricultural workshops, we want to begin tackling the issue of teen pregnancy. We hope to find more professionals with skills to offer and energy to dedicate.”
Through five years of collaboration, Karina has forged a strong bond with the community, playing an important role in the growth of its people and earning its trust.
Upon being asked if she’d received any noteworthy feedback from the tribe, Karina responded with the following:
“One time we had brought a group from EARTH and an elder of the community named Mr. Santos, told them: ‘Before Karina had come into our lives, we were like a leaf that had fallen to the ground. Her presence was like a gust of wind that picked us up and kept us moving forward.’ I swear to you I will never forget those words.”
If you’d like to learn more about Sembrando Sonrisas or how to lend support, please contact Karina at email@example.com. To buy a filter-funding tote bag, please visit Iron Kids.
“I believe one of the best ways to support the community is to go, learn about the issue and be willing to help. I could say to you, ‘Look, this village doesn’t have water,’ but it wouldn’t affect you until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”
The activity also included the help of Laily Moreno, of Finca Integral Didáctica Loroco; Gloriana Ximendaz, founder of Iron Kids of the World; Marbelly Vargas, of Universidad Nacional Estatal a Distancia; and Enrique de la O, Lutheran pastor. Photographs used with permission from Ana Laura Araya.