“Volunteers are not paid – not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.”

– Sherry Anderson

Having lived in two different ‘first world’ countries, and visiting many more in my life, I have always been surprised by the amount of places where drinking tap water is deemed unsafe.  This water is seemingly good enough to brush your teeth with, wash your dishes, and have a shower, but it’s apparently no good to drink without filtration and bottling. 

As such, when I first started visiting Costa Rica, I also didn’t drink the water from the tap.  Almost everyone who lived here told me it was fine but I couldn’t believe it was possible that I could drink the water here, but not from the tap in my apartment in Toronto.  Wasn’t Costa Rica supposed to be below Canada on the scale of access to the best of the necessities for life?

What I have learned over the years is that things are not always as they seem.  Some like to point out that there is much that is imperfect in Costa Rica’s systems; but when I look at things like access to clean, free or inexpensive water, and my abilities to grow abundant amounts of delicious foods as a direct result, things here are looking pretty good to me.

For those of us who choose to view our lives as the accumulation of stuff made out of synthetic materials or heavy metals, we are showing our fear of the next life and our desire to be made immortal through our piles of ‘stuff.’  Let’s call this the Donald Trump Syndrome

But there is another faction of people who prefer to live in simplicity, and with plenty of joy in their lives.  We would rather enjoy taking in a naturally luscious setting with good friends and family, eating the foods that we’ve grown and/or prepared ourselves with love.  We love to be near the water and our hearts stop every time we see a multicolored sunset.  We love being away from the convenience of the city because we’d rather be somewhere that the stars come out on clear nights, and we can hear wildlife instead of the sounds of machinery and electrical grids.

Costa Ricans, and the expats who find themselves here, are not only attempting to make better individual choices (which is how many expat journeys to Costa Rica in fact begin), they choose to make better community choices as well.

Because our Costa Ballena communities are so small (with year-round populations numbering in the single thousands), we are willingly reliant on each other for basic provisions like fruits, vegetables, breads, basic services and more.  In addition to these daily networks, we are continually creating new community organizations to help us govern our other needs, like road maintenance, special needs charities, animal shelters, security, and so much more, all of which operate on volunteer initiative and funding.  People here not only donate their money but also their time in higher percentage per capita than most places in the world.

What’s important to note is how inter-connected many of these organizations are, sharing information about their actions in community notices, connecting volunteers and information quickly and reliably.

And just because there is so much community action in this area, we will focus in this article on the village of Ojochal, a well-mixed expat and local population with a genuine heart.  Below are listed some organizations of volunteers that help make everyday life a bit more bearable for the lot of us, with links to each organization for you to get connected, too.

Animal welfare

Domestic Animal Welfare Group (DAWG) are a non-profit, all-volunteer organization of individuals concerned with the welfare of domestic animals in the Costa Ballena region of Costa Rica.  Founded in 2007, this organization initially focused on free spay and neuter clinics and now do over 300 operations per year. They have expanded their efforts to include rescue and have placed over 1000 animals in good homes and education for the local community.

El RefUgio Costa Ballena is a “home” for homeless cats and dogs.  The organizers have set up a group of committees of volunteers looking to be leaders, to make a difference in their area of interest, be it direct animal care, education, spay/neuter and vaccine programs, public relations, adoption/foster programs, fundraising, grant procurement, and more.

Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary is a facility that receives animals that the government of Costa Rica confiscates from any type of illegal situation. That is usually the illegal pet trade or illegal domestication by people. We also receive abandoned or orphaned baby and adult animals that have been injured but survive. The sanctuary rescues, rehabilitates and releases their patients back to their natural habitat and they provide refuge for those animals that cannot be returned to their natural habitat because of disability, injury or severe over-domestication. We also work to educate and enlighten the people of the world about the amazing animals of Costa Rica!

Reserva Playa Tortuga is a non-profit biological research and education center formed in 2009 by community members (“citizen scientists”) and Costa Rican scientists.  Their aim is to contribute to the fields of biological research and science based conservation management as well as fomenting a culture of environmental conservation in the areas influenced by the National Wetlands of the Terraba-Sierpe basin.  The organization performs these tasks through regular events like river and beach clean ups, turtle release sessions, volunteer and board programs, and more.

Community organization and security

The Tourism Chamber of Commerce for the Costa Ballena (CACOBA) is an organisation founded in 2011 by business owners in the tourist sector, including hotels, restaurants and tour-operators.  Their goal is the development of tourism in the area and to help protect and conserve its natural resources and the eco-systems therein.   The Chamber also strives to serve and help its members by organizing events like an annual job fair, security meetings through Cap On Crime, and offering advice to members who want to take advantage of their connections and expertise.

Community Security Committee of Ojochal de Osa (CSCO) is intended to provide security information and liaise between the local community and the police and justice department.  The CSCO work in conjunction with these public safety services to provide up-to-date information about security threats in the region, as well as solutions that focus on joint community efforts and programs like ‘Eyes On the Street.

Asociacion Desarollo Ojochal (ADI) and the Ojochal Roads Committee go to municipality assemblies to lobby the government for things like new bridges, improving roads, maintaining public beach access, etc.

Ventanas Beach Committee was set-up to ensure the safety and security of one of the favorite beaches in the region.  They maintain the access to the beach, parking, security and condition of the beach by organizing monthly beach clean-up efforts.

Blue Flag Committee of Ojochal along with Escuela Tortuga organizes our community recycling efforts along with the municipality to provide reliable recycling services, as well as providing information detailing these services and how they are best utilized.

Ojoche Project along with with Escuela Tortuga work to raise awareness and funds for the protection of native trees in the area.

ASADA de Ojochal is a for-profit nationally-run water service that works with the Blue Flag Committee of Ojochal to organize a prevention effort for mosquito-born illness by reducing mosquito habitats.  They hold regular collections of old electronics, washing machines, tires, paint cans, etc. to be recycled so that we reduce mosquito incubators in our area.

Guardavidas de Costa Ballena are our community-organized lifeguards that provide weekend patrol of our most popular beaches during the low season, and every day protection services during the high season.  This includes first aid, beach clean-up, security patrol and rescue, along with community education programs and near-monthly fundraisers to maintain their efforts.

Human welfare

Ojochal Community Food Bank’s motto is: “don’t let your neighbors go hungry tonight.”  They provide food and other related items and services to individuals and families in our community who find themselves in need of basic necessities. They aim to help people remain self-sufficient and to maintain a sense of individual worth and dignity.  The volunteers of the Ojochal Community Food Bank distribute food and other basic necessities to qualified families in need of assistance and do regular collections of items for donation.

Ojochal Community Library welcomes donations of books and lengths of wood for making bookshelves for the good of sharing information and ideas with the community.  There are books in English, Spanish, French and German available for anyone to borrow at no charge, with all donations going to the maintenance of the building and the rest going to Escuela Tortuga, the local school.

Weekly produce markets in Ojochal, Uvita and Tinamastes show the thriving agriculture and permaculture efforts of our communities.  Although many of the retailers are for-profit, there are many initiatives that have been started through these networks of producers that are strictly for the benefit of the communities, including regular seed exchanges and Community Days, the latter of which is an annual weekend of education about the many different community initiatives and how to live in more sustainable ways.

Individuals who care

Ojochal Community Facebook Group and others like it feature daily correspondence between new residents/visitors and established community members, who share their vast resources of information that they won through hard-earned experience.  These are individuals making a difference by donating their time to answer questions and offer advice to people who are in the position that they once were.

These groups are used for sharing valuable information about where to access different goods and services, community maintenance information, events, fundraisers and general discussion.  All who participate in these forums make this an incredible community to live in, full of genuine care and consideration.

Costa Rica is a country that is proud of its rich heritage in green activism, whilst accepting that it is still developing.  And in places like the village of Ojochal in the Costa Ballena, new lifestyles are being developed as well with a genuine, caring-culture being promoted at the forefront of our communities.

Community leaders who support the policies that keep our air and water clean, our roads maintained, and our bellies fed will likely remain popular for a long time to come.  We are fortunate that the types of people who keep finding themselves in our region of Costa Rica are the type who want to make an individual difference and to make a lasting impact in the world, without needing to resort to buying a bunch of stuff. 

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