In April 2017, eight students accompanied Dr. Greg Burch, a professor at Multnomah University, to Costa Rica for a unique 12-day course. Students met with child welfare practitioners from a variety of local organizations, including Casa Viva and Roblealto Child Care Association, who represent best practice models along the continuum of care for children. Each day combined lectures, visits to organizations, and cultural activities. Dr. Burch describes the class as an “opportunity to connect theory to practice.” This year marked the third cohort of students from the undergraduate Global Studies program and the graduate MA in Global Development and Justice (MAGDJ) program to embark on the biannual trip to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica was chosen in part because of Dr. Burch’s extensive experience both living and working in the country. He called Costa Rica home for many years while teaching at Escuela de Estudios Pastorales (ESEPA) Bible College and Seminary before becoming a professor at Multnomah University. He also believes that Costa Rica is a gateway for students to better understand children and youth throughout Latin America.
Many of this year’s students were deeply impacted by their experiences with Casa Viva and Roblealto. Casa Viva works with local churches to recruit and train foster families. Roblealto’s small campus outside San Jose is home to 10 sets of local foster parents in individual houses with children in need of a temporary family. Both organizations strive to reintegrate children into their birth families when it is in the best interests of the children. When that is not possible, Casa Viva and Roblealto provide trained local foster families to care for the children.
MAGDJ student Amy Brownell was encouraged as she watched both organizations successfully implement best practices in this local context. Having previously worked with an organization in Haiti, Amy was already aware of the necessity of family-based care for orphaned and vulnerable children. This class, however, broadened her knowledge of the continuum of family care models and encouraged her to consider how these models could be translated to a Haitian context. She recalls the class’s tour of Roblealto, where many of the children ran up to the organization’s director to give her hugs and chat. The children were cautious, however, about the newcomers from Multnomah, which is a sign of healthy attachment and development. Amy returned from Costa Rica reenergized to share the importance of family care models and is looking forward to implementing family reunification practices in her future ministry work.
The class also introduced students to a variety of faith-based organizations while grounding them in the sociopolitical context of Costa Rica. A meeting at the Institute for Central American Development Students assisted with the latter. Students met with representatives from World Vision Latin America, La Montana Christian Camp, and Patronato Nacional de la Infancia (PANI), the equivalent of Child Protection Services in Costa Rica, to learn how these government and nongovernment organizations work with children, youth, and families in Costa Rica. The students also learned about the theological climate of Costa Rica by hearing from Evangelical theologian Don Juan Stam, an associate of ESEPA Bible College and Seminary.
Dr. Burch’s favorite part of the course is witnessing the students’ transformation. Sometimes, it is a particular moment that speaks to a student. Often, however, it is the amalgam of everything in this course that leads students to a deeper understanding of family-based care. While textbooks and theories are important, taking learning outside the classroom requires that students use all their senses. Sharing local dishes, hearing directly from those working with vulnerable children, and seeing firsthand the importance of family-based care distinctly connects theory to practice. When one takes the posture of learning from others, it signifies a respect for their work, experience, and knowledge. By respecting the work of these organizations and the local families who are caring for the vulnerable children in their midst, they are empowering these best practices to continue both for the children and families in Costa Rica today and for many generations to come.