The story of Casa Viva is a story of children, family, and the local church. As the founders, we can see that it stretches from our childhood summers visiting grandparents in Nebraska to our present work in Costa Rica caring for children through local families and the local church. We are well aware that our parents created homes that were safe and delightful. Our memory of family when we were children is deep and rich. Our motivation to get involved with the issues facing children and families around the world is embedded in the collective past of our strong family heritage. Everyone has a story that weaves with their work. Our love of family brought about a desire for children everywhere to know and experience the love of a family as well. Together with the local church in San Jose, we initiated the work of Casa Viva over a decade ago. We were seeking a local solution that engaged families and the church. Today we have 28 churches participating and have cared for 452 children in families.
Yet it’s critical not to skip ahead in the Casa Viva story because the earlier chapters are quite interesting. Prior to launching Casa Viva, we worked together with amazing friends and partners on a children’s home project. During those years we were also blessed with three amazing sons. The truth is eventually all talk of care based in family becomes quite personal.
For us it was slowly coming to understand that what we wanted to offer to the world’s children was what we would want for our own boys. When we left the United States to begin work with a children’s home, we brought our limited knowledge and experience to the messy and complicated problem of children separated from their first families. Our basic plan was to build and organize a family experience for children. Together with many others, a beautiful place was created that is still caring for scores of children who need love and safety on a daily basis. During our years in that setting, a variety of issues found their way into the dialogue—our continual inability to meet the statistical needs, the ongoing presence of biological parents and extended family, and our concerns about the impact of multiple work teams—and there were deeper rumblings as well. I’ll never forget entering the small bedroom of one of our house parents to help with her new baby. The room was tiny, but filled with life—the essence of who they were as a little family was held tightly in that room. Every morning they closed the door on that space, walked down an expansive hallway and into their “work” as house parents. I remember so clearly the realization that what children truly need was nestled in that room, and the little ones in our care did not have access to it. Our children’s home was a public place, and children need the intimacy of the private threshold. Somehow solutions that would honor continuity of life, where local parents could embrace a child in need by welcoming the child into the privacy of their own home and neighborhood—those became solutions worthy of exploration.
So eventually our journey led to Costa Rica, where we were invited to delve into a prototype project—one that would explore various paradigm shifts and the possibility of engaging local families and churches in the care of children. For over 10 years we’ve been partnering with the local government, pursuing national financial sustainability, and actively engaging local communities on behalf of children in need.
From my perspective as a woman living internationally for over 20 years, the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of care based in local families are two sides of the same coin. To illustrate that, I think of a day that I spent in the mountains at a Casa Viva Christmas event. It was a beautiful day, the sun was bright, the fields were green, and there were people everywhere—over 450 families, children, church coordinators, government officials, and volunteers had gathered to celebrate together.
It was also a wild day and I was out roaming. I was walking on the perimeter and watching the festivities, when out of nowhere, I noticed a lady making a beeline straight toward me. She greeted me and then asked me a peculiar question: Are you lost? I was a bit taken aback, but then instantly realized that my age and my skin and hair color made her think that I couldn’t possibly be in the right place and she wanted to help me. I paused to answer, and she quickly asked a second question: Have you heard of Casa Viva?
At this point—being one of the directors of Casa Viva—I decided to go with the flow because rare is the day that you have a chance to hear about your work from someone who has no idea who you are. As I listened to her describe Casa Viva, I realized that I was being given an incredible gift.
So the reward is when a local initiative and movement takes root, when it digs in and stabilizes and local churches and families begin to assume responsibility for the children in their midst. And at the very same time, that process is the greatest challenge—going to a Christmas event and having the majority of the people think that you are lost. It is often a lonely and isolating work to encourage from the sidelines and not have direct access to children and babies and families.
The world of caring for children is experiencing tumultuous change as we all seek to bring children closer to family, as together we develop a deeper and wider continuum of care. Casa Viva believes that we need to call forth the spiritual discipline of biblical hospitality—mystery enters when we welcome the stranger in the name of Christ. The threshold is a sacred place, and children sense that when they cross over—it’s why they keep asking for a family of their own despite all our common efforts to provide family-like environments. Children know the difference between public and private spaces, and we do too.
Casa Viva founders, Jill and her husband Philip Aspegren, started their journey of working with children separated from their families in 1994 when they moved to the Dominican Republic. For six years, they co-directed a children’s home and served as field directors overseeing various children’s projects, schools, and day programs. In 2005, they transitioned to Costa Rica and started Casa Viva with the goal of creating a new prototype model of care based in local families and churches. Celebrating ten years of work, Casa Viva Costa Rica now has 35 participating churches with 120 families that have welcomed over 422 children into their homes. The Aspegren family has lived and worked in Latin America for almost two decades.