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Hope grows with a unique partnership: representatives from a Minnesota school district are working with a project in Costa Rica to help build educational opportunities for children there, but they are also building an international friendship.

Father Carlos Chiu Fuentes and Carol McFarlane live worlds apart. Father Fuentes calls an urban center in the coastal plains of Central America home, while McFarlane is from a suburban area in the wooded north of the United States. Yet, in an impoverished section of San Jose, Costa Rica, the two found common ground last spring in an extraordinary project aimed at improving the lives of Costa Rican children.

McFarlane and other representatives from Minnesota's Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District and the 916 Foundation board of directors packed their work clothes and traveled down to the CEDES-Don Bosco project directed by Father Fuentes in the Alajuelita neighborhood of San Jose. Members from the White Bear Lake and Ham Lake/Blaine Rotary Clubs joined them. Once there, the group landscaped an area surrounding a recently built youth development center. It was the first work trip for 916 Foundation members, who have been working with Don Bosco projects in Costa Rica for the past four years.

The Costa Rican Project

Don Bosco is the identifying name for all of the education-based facilities operated by the Salesian Congregation, a religious order founded by Saint Juan Bosco in 1859. The objective of the congregation is to provide "formal and informal education of young people." There are Don Bosco projects throughout the world. They have served in Costa Rica since 1907.

Because Don Bosco projects often work with society's least privileged children, Salesian leaders recognize that one of their biggest challenges is getting children to their facilities. To solve this problem, especially in new service areas, Salesians build recreational facilities, like playgrounds, soccer fields or basketball courts, before building any classrooms. Children come to play, and, eventually, they stay to learn. The congregation currently operates the Don Bosco Technical High School in San Jose, along with three other educational facilities in Costa Rica.

The CEDES-Don Bosco project is a relatively new undertaking for the congregation. Construction, which started on the education complex in 1998, is slated for completion by the end of 2003. The 23-building complex, built on an old coffee plantation, will include the youth development center, a family development center, a modular training center, a technical vocational high school, student residences for up to 200 youth, a Salesian residence, various sports facilities and a church and chapel. In an area of San Jose where 20 percent of the population lives in poverty and where half of all teenagers do not attend school, the project will someday serve more than 5,000 preschool through high school students per year.

The Team from Minnesota

The White Bear Lake Rotary Club was the first of the three service organizations to become involved with the CEDES-Don Bosco project. Member Mario Perez, a Costa Rica native, was familiar with the Don Bosco organization. When he moved to Minnesota, Perez convinced his new Rotary Club to adopt Don Bosco as one of its international service partners. The club agreed, and in the spring of 1996, Perez supervised the first delivery of donated computer and audiovisual equipment to the Don Bosco Technical High School. Since then, the White Bear Lake Rotary has not only continued its yearly giving, it has also enlisted help from two other clubs. The Ham Lake/Blaine Rotary Club will join White Bear Lake Rotary in future Don Bosco endeavors. The Saint Paul Midway Rotary recently solicited and donated medical supplies to the project.

The White Bear Lake Rotary was also indirectly responsible for the Northeast Metro 916 school district and the 916 Foundation becoming involved with CEDES-Don Bosco. The 916 Foundation's mission is to create and enhance educational partnerships for students in the Northeast Metro 916 school district. The school district serves children enrolled in career and technical education, special education and other educational specialties in suburban Saint Paul. Northeast Metro 916 Superintendent Don Lifto learned about Don Bosco as a member of the White Bear Lake Rotary. He believed that both his school district and the Don Bosco Technical School would benefit from an educational partnership. Under his direction, the 916 Foundation established funding for a faculty and student exchange program.

Faculty members from the Don Bosco Technical High School and from the Northeast Metro 916 Career and Technical Center have exchanged places for the past three years. According to Metro 916 Career and Technical Center Director Mike Smoczyk, the exchange has given teachers from both institutions a chance to learn how each other's programs operate, what type of curriculum and methods are being used, and the types of equipment available to the students.

"One reason for the exchange is to get ideas for different ways of teaching technology," says Smoczyk. "Don Bosco may be doing something that would make sense to incorporate at Northeast Metro."

Smoczyk cites the Don Bosco program Scientific Expotec as an example. As part of a yearlong project, high school seniors research a major challenge facing a Costa Rican industry. Using their science, math and other educational skills, the students then design the equipment or methodology needed to solve the challenge. Smoczyk says that some derivative of this program may soon become part of the Northeast Metro curriculum.

"The Don Bosco partnership is an important part of our mission," says Lifto. "It has created fantastic opportunities for our students and staff involved in our career and technical programs and provided a tremendous avenue for world community service."

Seeing the Results

After supporting the Don Bosco projects for several years, 916 representatives and the local Rotarians wanted to see the fruits of their collaboration first-hand. A joint fact-finding/work trip was planned to the CEDES project this year. In May, a delegation made up of members from both groups traveled to Costa Rica for 10 days to tour the new site and landscape the grounds near the youth development facility.

Members of the delegation were impressed with what they saw at the project. "They are doing much more than I would have thought," reports Jim Hunt, a White Bear Lake Rotary member. "It's a very impressive complex."

McFarlane agrees and says, "It is amazing to see what is being done, especially with the students at the technical school."

After touring the facilities and meeting the students, the delegation spent several days landscaping the area surrounding the youth development center. Along with planting palm trees and flowers, the group constructed a "sand river" under the direction of a Costa Rican architect. Many of the plants and shrubs used in the landscaping were donated by Costa Rican businesses through Costa Rican Rotary Clubs.

"We like the landscaping project," says McFarlane, "because it gave us a way to make a permanent contribution to the CEDES project."

All of the Minnesota organizations plan to stay involved with the CEDES project in the future. The 916 Foundation will hold a yearly raffle, using the proceeds to furnish classrooms and vocational technical laboratories at the project. It also will continue its funding of the student and faculty exchange programs. The White Bear Lake and Blaine/Ham Lake Rotary Clubs, along with their counterparts in Costa Rica, hope to raise about $30,000 to furnish the youth development center with desks, chairs, toys and playground equipment.

This is good news for the CEDES project according to Father Fuentes. In his recent note to the delegation, he wrote, "We feel very grateful to the [people] from Minnesota for their friendship, their brotherhood and the valuable support we receive from them in order to help poor children ... in Alajuelita where our project is situated. I'm sure this visit will make much stronger our friendship with our friends in Minnesota in benefit of so many people in need."

Barbara Alliegro Ducharme is the communications coordinator for the Northeast Metro 916 school district in Minnesota.
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Author:Ducharme, Barbara Alliegro
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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