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Hope and Smiles (and Swag) in Costa Rica

I’m fortunate to be relatively well-traveled. By my count, I’ve visited 11 different countries, some of them several times. The journeys have been interesting and enlightening, certainly, but rarely would I have called them life-changing.

Finally, I can say that one of my trips has irrevocably altered my perceptions. I now have a new standard in travel, one based not on ease and amenity, but instead on substance and purpose. I didn’t visit world-renowned museums, or eat at five-star restaurants. What I experienced was decidedly more meaningful: the opportunity to visit people in need and offer solidarity with them.

In the middle of November, I left the ASI Editorial team behind and traveled to Costa Rica with Unbound, a Kansas-based organization that pairs American sponsors with needy children and elderly in 20 countries. I wanted to see the work that Unbound does in some of the world’s poorest communities, but most importantly, I couldn’t wait to meet Luis, my sponsored friend. With a monthly commitment of just $30 from a sponsor, the children and elderly in Unbound’s program receive benefits such as food, clothing, shoes, tuition, medicine and birthday presents.

While the monetary benefit makes a significant difference in their daily lives, they also enjoy higher self-esteem, the confidence to pursue dreams, stronger communities and a consistent reassurance that they’re far from alone.

As we drove through the winding, hilly streets of an urban area, led by local staff members in their blue and white embroidered Unbound polos and fueled by amazing Costa Rican coffee served in Unbound branded mugs, one aspect of the scene around us was impossible to miss: the iron bars, barbed wire and concertina coils on the fronts of every business and home, even their private car ports. It’s become necessary to have all three to at least mitigate the risk of being a crime victim. But towering behind the heavy bars and imposing sharp wire were some of the lushest, greenest hills I’ve ever seen, set against a crystal blue sky. It’s no wonder that Costa Rica is becoming world-renowned for its eco tourism; the unparalleled ecological diversity makes it a haven for wildlife enthusiasts.

But we had a different destination in mind. Each time we arrived at the communities in which Unbound works, from concrete jungles to rural backwoods, it seemed practically the entire town came to meet us. I was struck by the poverty, but even more so by the bright smiles. From the slow-walking abuelas to the skipping niños and niñas, they were all grinning from ear to ear. The majority of them also wore Unbound’s 2015 T-shirt, a safety yellow cotton/polyester piece with black screenprinting on the front and back.

Language barriers and economic divisions simply faded away—we were all just people, walking together in solidarity, love and peace. They were overjoyed that we had come to visit, and we were delighted to be there for them. Everyone wanted to hug us, hold our hands, serve us generous meals and entertain us with cultural performances.

Those who greeted us, who deal on a daily basis with a toxic mix of domestic abuse, abandonment, lack of economic opportunity, drug addiction, violence, prostitution and human trafficking, were by far some of the most gracious, hospitable, polite and happy people I’ve ever met.

One of my favorite parts of the trip, aside from the capstone event of finally meeting Luis, was visiting with one of Unbound’s Círculos de esperanza, or Circles of Hope. Each of these groups of mothers with sponsored children creates crafts or home products (I received a bottle of homemade air freshener as a gift) that they then sell for a profit. The members all have distinct roles in the group, and a responsibility to the others in order to achieve collective goals. I also appreciated their cohesive matching polos embroidered with the Unbound logo, their group logo and their first names.

This environment of accountability, dedication and follow-through has changed these beautiful women’s lives (there’s a reason the group I visited calls themselves Metamorfosis). While they once felt helpless, discouraged and uncertain in their community rife with poverty and crime, they are now empowered and hopeful, beacons of light amongst the squalor. They walked with confidence, looked us in the eye with dignity and told us about their responsibilities in the group with poise and smiles. Most importantly, they told us, they now feel they are true role models for their children.

So when people ask me if I went ziplining in Costa Rica, I tell them about a different kind of thrill: witnessing the power of sponsorship through Unbound and the tenacity of the human spirit.

For more information on Unbound’s work and becoming a sponsor, visit www.unbound.org. Follow them on Twitter: @UnboundOrg