Like many people, when I think of a children’s home, the term “orphanage” comes to mind. Those old Hollywood movies have created a mental picture for me of a sad, dismal, sterile institution, where stern discipline reigns. My recent visit to Hogar de Vida para la Ninez in Atenas, changed that mental picture 180 degrees.
In 1995, Divine intervention sent Tim and Dena Stromstad, along with their twin boys, from their mission work in Guatemala to a new calling in Atenas, Costa Rica. Their new calling? To start a children's home to care for those little ones in need and were without a voice. Their mission? To love, protect and provide a substitute family for children at risk whose family units no longer existed or were no longer able or suitable to care for them. Drawing on their previous experience and work in Haiti and Guatemala, the Associacion Hogar de Vida para la Ninez in Atenas, Costa Rica was born.
At the young age of 19, Tim Stromstad had a devastating motorcycle accident that would change the course of his life, and help mould him into the man he is today. Tim says “As a 19 year old, I lived for myself. When I had my accident, I was laying there on the pavement and I had a near death experience. God came to me and said “Are you going to listen to me now?” I listened to God and that is why I am here today.” In 1988 Tim and Dena were invited to go to Haiti on a mission where they started a children’s home. Then in 1990 their calling took them to Guatemala. While in Guatemala there was one experience that made an impact on Tim and Dena and would put the wheels in motion for starting the Hogar de Vida in Atenas. On the streets of Guatemala they saw a mother with a very sick child. The mother had been to the clinic looking for treatment but there were no medicines available. She had no money for food. The child was malnourished. Tim and Dena began supporting that mother with only $10 per month, and after six months, the child was fine. That is when Tim realized “Wow, $10 per month, anybody can give us $10 a month to save a life.” From that brief encounter on the streets of Guatemala, fast forward more than 20 years and literally thousands of lives have been touched by this loving, compassionate couple.
Helen Smith along with her late husband Dennis have served on the board of directors at Hogar de Vida and been there from the very beginning. They have seen the Hogar develop into what it has become today. Helen says “When Tim and Dena purchased the finca, the first home was the original farm house, an old, wooden, 2 story home with chickens up stairs and pigs in the swimming pool.” She continues by saying “In 1998 the first of 3 homes was built, housing 13 children. When they outgrew that home, a second was built to accommodate 12 more children. Eventually in 2003 the last home was built giving the Hogar a capacity to support 35 children.”
Since its humble beginnings, the Hogar has developed into what Tim says is “A little piece of heaven for children who have been broken, who come from broken lives.”
These children have been abandoned or touched by physical abuse, sexual abuse and poverty. The campus, which is close to 8 acres in size, is a child’s dream with a large playground set among mango trees, a covered sandbox and two swimming pools. There are a total of 5 homes on campus, 3 of which belong to 35 deserving children who call the Hogar home. The directors, Tim and Dena, live on site with their 3 children, all of which are adopted (twin boys from Guatemala and a Costa Rican daughter). In addition there are dedicated staff members who live on site, helping to make the Hogar run efficiently and successfully. The campus also boasts 4 cabins that are used to house mission workers that come to volunteer at the Hogar. There is also an administration and maintenance building, rounding out the campus.
I wanted to know about the Hogar and it’s mission? Helen lovingly answers “We are a transitory home for children who are at risk socially and who are from difficult situations. We are NOT an orphanage and do not handle adoptions, because in Costa Rica, that is a government function. Our target population is children from newborn to 7/8 years of age.” Continuing Helen says, “Our mission is to love, protect and provide a substitute family for these children. We are a Christian mission, and our work is based on a Biblical foundation, with Christian values and principles. We raise the children with those principles creating a sense of self worth, value and purpose.” The Costa Rican government is very protective of its children. PANI (Patronato Nacional De La Infancia), www.pani.go.cr, is the governing body which oversees and sets strict rules and regulations for homes such as Hogar de Vida.
The Hogar de Vida provides its children with everything they need, with the most important being love and a tight family unit. All the basics are covered too, like housing, food, clothing and education. In addition there are 3 psychologists, 2 teachers and nurse on staff. There is a pre-school on site but the children of school age go to the local school and are walked to and from school by a caregiver known as a “tia’” (aunty). Each child has the option of going to a local church on Sunday with their “Tia”. By law, health care is provided for by the CAJA. Special needs such as psychological help and language development are provided, giving these children the tools they need for a bright future.
Cultural and recreational activities are also part of life at Hogar de Vida. There are 5 national holidays in which the children must participate in celebrating. Of course there are many fun times with birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, off campus trips to the beach, national parks, volcano’s, and INBio Park (www.inbio.ac.cr), which is a fun and educational natural experience. Special “socialization” trips are also important so visits to places like the local fire department and grocery store are common. Like most children, the little ones at the Hogar de Vida have their own toys to play with, books to read, and television for entertainment.
It is obvious that providing a sense of normalcy to the lives of these children that have been so abruptly disrupted is the top priority at Hogar de Vida. Privacy and safety are top priorities. Many times vacationers coming to Costa Rica want to make the Hogar de Vida a stop on their tour, and if prearranged, is possible. However, Tim, Dena and Helen respectfully remind us that they do not allow “drop in’s” because the Hogar is a “home”, not a tour.
The reality of maintaining a non-profit like Hogar de Vida has its challenges. Apart from strict rules and regulations imposed by the government, there are the responsibilities of efficiently running a family household of 50 (35 children, plus staff). Imagine the cost of rearing 1 child, now multiply that by 35. Then there is the upkeep and maintenance of the campus, as well as much needed projects. I asked Helen, how the Hogar covered its expenses? She says “We receive about 35% of our budget from the Costa Rican government.” And the remaining 65% I ask? Helen humbly replies “The rest we raise on our knees.”.
The Hogar attracts mission groups from church organizations throughout the United States. These groups will arrange a mission at the Hogar, donate a project, paying for supplies and volunteering their labor. In addition, the groups will stay at the Hogar, renting the 4 cabins on campus, creating much needed cash flow. At present, the Hogar is hosting a large group of 18 from an organization in Texas called CAN DO. This mission is working on painting the inside of the homes and roofs, pressure washing walkways, concrete work, and building a roof to cover the clotheslines. Tim says “Here at the Hogar, we are all about building relationships. It’s more than just financial support that they provide. The group members bring books and toys for the children. They spend time reading and playing, really getting to know the children. For this reason, we have many repeat visits from groups and individuals.”
One of the much-appreciated supporters and contributors to Hogar de Vida, is the Atenas Charity Chili Cook Off (www.atenaschilicookoff.com), which was founded by Tom and Kay Costello, owners of Kay’s Gringo Postres in Atenas. In its six years, the Chili Cook Off has almost doubled in size every year, raising thousands of dollars to help keep the Hogar running. The Hogar also receives private donations from groups and individuals as well a sponsorship program for the children.
I asked Helen if there was anything in particular or special products that Hogar was always in need of? I could see Helen’s discomfort as she responds “Of course, we can always use money, but with rice, beans, milk and baby formula (Nan1 and Nan2) we can survive. Also, cleaning products, toiletries, new and good used clothing for children ages 0-8, and shoes.” Helen laughs and says the children are rough on shoes because they love to use them as “brakes” for their tricycles! Helen finishes by saying “Think of your home, as a mother, what you need for your children. We need the same things.”
As our conversation continues, it hits me that this is a never ending project. I am amazed and in awe of how effortlessly and efficiently the Hogar runs, as if on auto pilot. However, there are a few immediate needs and projects that would bring relief to the Hogar. Some of those include:
- Converting the electric stoves to gas. Electricity can be quite costly in Costa Rica and gas is much more economical.
- Installing solar panels to help relieve some of the electrical costs as well as becoming more “green”.
- Space is tight in the professional building and 2 additional rooms are needed.
- Build a security wall around a portion of the property. This project has been broken down into 4 phases, and phase 1 has been donated and is now complete.
- Automatic gate opener for extra security.
- Beef up security measures in general throughout the campus, with things like security cameras.
Now, with many of the technical details out of the way, I wanted to get to the heart of the Hogar, the children. I asked Tim and Helen if they could share a few success stories they have experienced over the years and immediately, they looked at each other, their eyes lit up and the flood gates were opened. One story after another can flowing out with such emotion, that eyes began to water.
One story in particular stood out, that of a little girl we will call Susie. Susie was raised by her mother until she was 2.5 years of age, at which point she was removed from her home by the Costa Rican government (PANI) and placed at Hogar de Vida. You see, little Susie was being sexually abused by her mothers boyfriend. Tim says “Susie did not smile for 3 months. My heart was broken.” Susie’s father was alerted of the situation, and he came to the Hogar for 7 months to visit little Susie. Tim continues “This man was married, and had a family. Susie was the result of an extra marital affair, but her father took responsibility and stepped up and wanted his daughter.” Government officials from PANI visited the father’s home and imposed strict requirements that he had to fulfill if he wanted custody of this daughter. Susie’s father complied with all the government’s requirements, including adding on an additional bedroom to his home for little Susie. He also had to prove that he could provide Susie with a quality standard of life. The icing on the cake was that Susie’s father and wife welcomed little Susie into the family with open arms. Tim says, “Now that is true love.”
Another heart warming story is that of Guiselle and Carlos, a loving couple who have
been friends and volunteers at the Hogar for many years. The couple would help out in any way they could, like taking the children and staff to the beach. Guiselle and Carlos have known for 15 years they could not have children but had prayed for God to bless them with a child. The couple applied to PANI to adopt a child. In February of 2012, a little boy angel was born and came to live at the Hogar. As fate would have it, in June of 2012, PANI gave a child to Guiselle and Carlos. There was a twist to the story and little did they know, but the child they were going to be taking home was the little angel born in February that had been living at the Hogar, where they had served with all their hearts for years. They are now living their dreams as a family and Helen says “They look like they really belong to each other!.
So what does the future hold for the Hogar de Vida? Tim responds “That’s in God’s hands.” Helen adds that “We are continually working to improve the care for the children, employ more people to that end, give more one on one attention, and more individual interaction. We are working on a literacy program and have started a library. Once per week during our morning devotional time, we put the books in a wagon, every child/adult combo gets a book, and then they read that book.” A feather in the hat of Costa Rica is that PANI has recently received the prestigious ISO 9001 accreditation. The Hogar de Vida is one of 10 children’s homes in all of Costa Rica that qualifies and will receive the ISO 9001 accreditation which attests to the excellent standard of care offered by the Hogar.
Reflecting on my three hour visit to the Hogar de Vida, I can only say I am deeply touched, humbled and grateful for compassionate and caring people such as Tim, Dena, Helen and the staff at the Hogar de Vida. They along with hundreds of volunteers have created a real home and family for these deserving children who otherwise would be neglected. There was one thing in particular that touched my heart and sums up the wants and needs of these brave children. Helen says, “At night when the children say their bedtime prayers, the one thing that they always ask for is a mommy and daddy.” Personally, I feel that the love of our parents is a basic human need. Oftentimes we take that love for granted. Hopefully seeing these children and hearing their stories will remind us that the gift of family is the most valuable possession we have. Cherish it.
I encourage anyone who has the ability to help the Hogar, be it financial, with your time, or by donating food and clothing, to please consider Hogar de Vida in Atenas. You will be contributing to the development of their future. Our future!
For more information on how you can help please contact Tim, Dena or Helen at:
Costa Rica Realtors Chamber
Tours in Costa Rica
Pure Life Development of Atenas is a full service tour company. We feature full vacation packages and day trips for the family. Our tour director Nelson Conejo is very experienced and provides a personal service and attention to detail second to none in Costa Rica. Please write Nelson or give him a call to arrange your next Costa Rican vacation at (506)2446-0447 or
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