Amanda Bolton and Nicole Vincent met in 2014 when they both were teachers at Blue Valley School. Almost instantly they realized that they shared the same enthusiastic passion for teaching and helping others. Since then, they have been friends and partners in Backpacks and Snacks, a community-oriented start up that has been functioning for the last 8 years at El Hueco in Jacó/Playa Hermosa, where they provide tutoring and healthy snacks for the kids of those at-risk communities. With luminous smiles they accept to get photographed together, while Amanda, a teacher in Elementary III in Tree of Life International School, tells us more about the project.
Can you tell me about the project Backpacks and Snacks?
Amanda: My colleague and best friend Nicole used to live next to the community (El Hueco, Jacó) where it all started. She started this project in 2007 (which was before I came to Costa Rica). She was living very close to this community which had very low resources, and very often the parents only had a second or third grade education. So she was seeing that kids would go to school, and they would drop out around fifth grade, and they would start working.
So, the idea was that “maybe” they needed extra help to stay at school. As a teacher, she shares: “I have time so I´m going to go into the community, helping the kids.”
She started with a very small group, then she and I started working together at Blue Valley School and we grew the program to include volunteers. When she and I joined forces, that is when it became Backpacks, so we built on what she had already fostered in the community and then we brought teachers and students to join us. We would go once a week, once every two weeks, and we would have a group of teachers and high school volunteers and we would go into the community and we would bring refreshments and snacks to put into their backpacks so they could take them home throughout the week.
We would bring activities like English board games, or Arts and Crafts, or we would teach them about nutrition, or ecological awareness, like picking up trash and composting.
With Covid, the community was not accepting visitors anymore in person, so we weren’t able to give them the tutoring support but then we switched to providing them with basic needs like toilet paper, milk and canned goods, and we shifted all of our resources to collecting donations and dropping them off with the families that we had worked with before.
So, because of Covid, it changed our dynamic, and right now we are creating a new way forward. Hopefully, we will be able to partner with Tree of Life. And Nicole as a parent in Country Day School hopes they will be able to contribute, too.
Seeing that we live in a community with so much, and then trying to help communities that don´t have as much, by partnering with them, that´s the idea.
And have you thought of a way of teaching virtually?
There´s been a couple of ideas that we have come to. The limitation that we have is that many of them don´t have Wifi, and where they live, there is no fiber optic service. They might have some data on their phones that they use occasionally, but to do Zoom calls, or have a Wapp video chat, it is really heavy on data.
Virtual tutoring is a possibility, but we would have to provide the physical infrastructure to be able to do that. We also considered trying to find community members, that we could potentially pay to be there to tutor; but those things are in the idea phase. We need capital, we need to collect some funds, in order for either of those ideas to happen.
What type of leadership do you think this organization is a model of?
As we have been redefining ourselves, we have had to really ask: What is our objective? A lot of non-profit organizations that really want to help, wind up doing more damage with this “white saviour” approach, as if to say, “we have all the answers,”and that is not what we want to do. We want to make sure that we can make resources available to them, so it´s really more about empowering and extending encouragement and kindness, as much as it is academic or financial support. It is really about making them understand that they matter, and that this community sees them as a part of the whole, that we see that they are in need and we are here to help them, but not to come in and fix what is wrong.
So, that´s been an important part of our conversations on how to move forward and one of the reasons why we are looking for tutors inside the community. Maybe if we can pay a tutorial rate, they would be available to support their children. And we would not be necessary as tutors, just funneling a bit more resources their way.
There are also grants that are available for students from public schools, but they aren’t aware or aren´t able to seek that information out by themselves, so that´s why I think it´s more a collaboration on how we can make it a better place.
After 8 years, which is a good period of time to have a diagnosis, how has this community responded? Have you seen any change in their dynamic? Have you seen students who have grown up and, because of this influence, become positive leaders?
Yes and no. Yes, because last year in 2020, we had our first graduate from high school, and she started the program when she was nine. So, we had our very first concrete success, she passed. She had to retake the Math test and we helped her study. We actually also helped her get her scientific calculator, that they couldn´t afford. She graduated and then she moved into the work force. She wants to continue studying so our hope is that we can either find some donor who is able to get her a scholarship or to just get her into the system that is already available in Costa Rica. So, she is working meanwhile and hoping to apply for that. That is our very first success story.
Could you tell me more about the story of this person?
Jennifer is 19 years old and the oldest of three siblings, and actually her youngest brother has leukemia. He was diagnosed when he was 8. He was cured but then he had a relapse again when he was twelve. When she was a senior in high school, her little brother was in the hospital in San Jose with her mom, being treated for cancer, so she was the caretaker of the house and her middle sister, and still passed the test. This woman is amazing. She has overcome all obstacles, and so she is our YES. There have been students like Jennifer who have been successful. But she is our shining star.
Another one who´s coming up is sixteen, and the last time we saw her, she had dropped out of school and was six months pregnant. So it works, but it isn´t enough. We need more.
Our hope is that we can continue to support this community we have already formed so many bonds with, but we also have realized that it´s far away (the other side of Jacó) which is inhibiting our ability to be consistent, so we also want to involve more communities here, like Santa Ana.
Do you think being involved with this Project has made you a leader?
At the last school I worked at, I brought this program on campus and became the contact person for everybody in the community and it was a big school, so suddenly I wasn´t just the first grade teacher, I was in charge of receiving all the donations, and coordinating with other teachers and their students who needed credits for community service. Because of our collaboration, I became the contact and leader for that. But then also, when I left Blue Valley and brought this program with me, it was like: “now I´m the only leader” (emphasizes “only”).
Whereas I was a leader, and we were collaborating with some wonderful resources, we lost them and then Covid happened too, and so it was as if the rug was pulled out from under us. I think that part of what it means to be a leader is to know how to guide your team and how to find other leaders to step in, and as Covid has been keeping us from going there, other people have become leaders themselves. So, it’s a bit contagious.
And what have you learned from this experience of being a leader?
The most important thing to me about being a leader is the relationship we have with the people. You might move from one place to another, from one job to another, but if you have good relationships with all those people, you can still guide them and collaborate. So, in those two examples, it is all about the relationships that we made with their families, the girls, but also the neighbors, their siblings. That context of community and personal relationships seems to be the most important thing in life.
And was this you first experience being a leader or have you had experience before?
I think I´ve always been some sort of a leader. When I was a little kid, they always called me “bossy”. And “bossy” is a word that we often get told as girls when we are trying to be a leader. I think I was always trying to be a leader since I was a kid, and so I always found opportunities to do so. I was a teacher for a Sunday school class because I liked that feeling of being in charge and leading the group. I had some experiences before, but I think that Backpacks and Snacks might have been the longest term, because it´s my personal project. It´s not related to a job or a specific timeline, it´s something I can keep doing as long as I have “my Nicole,” my partner, and as long as we have people who are interested, and schools that want to support it, it will be forever.
Another opportunity that I had to lead, was owning a company and it´s just not the same motivation and spark and it doesn´t keep me coming back, like this kind of leadership does, where you have to be in touch with individuals and it is not about making money, it is about helping make changes in people´s lives. That, to me, is priceless.
And what did you learn specifically about being a leader in Costa Rica? Are there any differences from doing it in your native country?
Absolutely, yes. Both Nicole and I are from the United States originally but we have lived here for a long time. She´s been here for 15 years while I´ve been here for 10 years. So, being a leader in another country requires a lot of patience and a lot of networking. Sometimes the people I´m most collaborative with are also foreigners, so there´s still this community, even though it is not “tico”. It´s very international and that´s been the hardest part, I think, of being in another culture, that maybe sometimes they don´t understand my motivation or my urgency. In the United States, we are very direct, very: “hello, this is what I need, thanks.” And here sometimes they find that to be demanding or off-putting somehow. Even more, you have to be focused on the relationships.
If you had to say something to the young people who want to be leaders, what would you say to them?
There´s this word going around a lot — “Influencers” — like in social media, and I think that sometimes younger people think that in order to be a leader, you have to be an influencer, and you have to have this “image” and people have to want to look like you or to be like you. I have never been an influencer in that definition. And a leader doesn´t have to be one. A leader can be quiet from within as long as they have that relationship with their peers. I see sometimes these students in my class who think that they are not leaders, and they are, because other students look up to them and want to do what they are doing. So, it starts with you. You are a leader if you lead by your actions and other people will start to see that and want to be like you. That´s when it starts, when you are playing soccer and you are always fair with other people, they will start to come to you and say: “ok, you are always fair, help me out.” “Was it out or was it in? Was it a foul or was it not a foul?” And you are a leader among your peers in that way.
There are also other opportunities to be a leader. For example, in my class I have class jobs, and you get to apply and ask for whatever job you want. Maybe it´s taking care of the plants and that doesn´t seem like much to you, but if you do it consistently every time and people see you doing that, you are the expert now. Only because you were consistent. Just keep going and showing up. Also, if you have teachers who give you opportunities to lead and say: “Who would like to draw this on the wall,” or “Who has a question now?” Those are opportunities for you to lead.
In Costa Rica, your reputation as a leader will precede you. So, it´s important how you behave at home, then at school, and then in the bigger picture.
Tell us what you are envisioning for this new chapter of your program and how can people help?
We have a couple areas that we want to focus on. One is in-person classes. We all know (yes, online is an option) but the better experience is face-to-face. We want to find some new communities here in Escazú, Santa Ana, Guachipelín, La Carpio, anywhere that we can easily access, and offer in-person tutorials as well as snacks, vegetables, fruits, a meal´s worth of ingredients. We envision once a week having tutors who go to a school or a “ranchito,” some neutral place in the community where kids can come. We have devices, internet, even one idea was that we can get a school bus, have it ready with laptops in it, and just drive it into the communities. For the snack component, we need to find local vendors who sell vegetables who would be willing to work with us to put them into the hands of these children. Not necessarily at no cost, we would be able to pay for fruit and vegetables and then the kids would stop by after school, get their snack and fruits and vegetables fresh, instead of just rice and beans. We need vendors, we need educators, tutors, and we need sponsors, who can provide the financial backing, and we are looking for some technological presence, to do transactions, to receive the donations, to show what we are doing and where the donations are going, and hopefully to pay some of our volunteers´ costs as well.
As we finish the interview, Amanda and Nicole stay a moment longer in their own bubble. They have their backpacks with them, full of dreams of helping others. They plan, they talk, they laugh. They lead, they inspire others to follow their path. They want more people to join their dream bubble. They know that they are not the only ones who want a change, so despite the obstacles, they persevere. Always with shining smiles.
Interview by Alicia Nieva
Photographs by Leandro Natale