QCOSTARICA — Tarcoles Bridge in Costa Rica is famous for the crocodiles that sunbathe on the sandbars beneath it. But in November 2011, the bridge became the pathway to a very different life for Penny Williams.
That’s where, during a mission trip, the former Valley Center (California) resident came face to face with the country’s ugly problem of child prostitution. Since that day she has devoted her life to improving outcomes for at-risk children in the Latin American country. Williams is the founder of Seeds of Hope, an Escondido-based nonprofit that operates six after-school clubhouses for youth ages 8 to 17 in some of Costa Rica’s poorest communities.
Today there are 120 girls and 40 boys enrolled in the clubhouse programs where the children learn self respect, English and other job skills that can help them forge a new life. But progress on solving this endemic problem has been slow, admits Dana Nuesca, executive director for Seeds of Hope in Escondido.
“It’s a multigenerational problem. Mom and grandma may have been prostituted and they don’t see anything wrong with selling their daughters,” Nuesca said. “It’s a very poor country and women don’t have a lot of value in the culture except sex, so it’s not seen as a horrible thing. We don’t condemn the mothers for the choices they made but we are offering a solution.”
Costa Rica has long been on the U.S. State Department’s radar as a magnet for sex tourism. Prostitution is legal and labor laws prohibit children under 18 from working in legitimate businesses, so desperately poor families support themselves through the sex trade. Williams, 58, said she was aware of the prostitution problem when she flew to Costa Rica in 2011 with some church friends, but she never expected to confront it so directly.
“I was with two 20-year-old girls on a scouting trip and we had just prayed together out loud that God would show us clearly our next mission,” she said. “We had previously remodeled a school and pediatric hospital ward and we thought we were going to build a skateboard park.”
But 45 minutes later, they met two Colorado men in their 60s on the Tarcoles bridge. One of the men openly shared how they’d come to Costa Rica for sex and some of the prostitutes they’d purchased were underage. Williams was convinced that the mission they’d prayed for was right in front of them.
“I just let this guy talk. I was not mad at him for what he was saying because it was amazing to me that God was using this man to show me the path,” she said.
After returning home, Williams started Seeds of Hope with Nuesca, a volunteer who runs the organization from her Escondido home. In 2013, Williams and her husband, Chris, a contractor, sold their home in Valley Center and moved to Costa Rica, where they opened a shelter to house former teen prostitutes. But within six months, they realized the shelter concept was too expensive, too small to address the problem and not attuned to Costa Rican culture.
“We realized these girls wanted to be home with their moms no matter how dysfunctional the relationship might be, so we closed the shelter and opened the first clubhouse instead,” Nuesca said.
The clubhouses operate from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with field trips on Sundays. The children who apply to participate are not asked if they’ve been exploited — many of them have not but live in at-risk environments — and most don’t share their personal stories until they’ve established a relationship of trust with the clubhouse staffs.
Nuesca said the clubhouses’ faith-inspired curriculum teaches the youth to recognize their self-worth, respect each other and follow their dreams. They’re taught English to find jobs in area hotels when they turn 18 and there are plans to introduce other career programs, like organic farming.
The children also make bracelets and other jewelry, which are sold on the Seeds of Hope website (seedsofhopehome.com) to raise money for clubhouse programs. Because of labor laws, the children can’t be paid but their families are reimbursed instead for groceries and utilities. All Americans who work at the clubhouses are volunteers, mostly on 10-week mission trips, and all adult Costa Rican clubhouse workers earn a salary. Seeds of Hope’s budget last year was $157,000, which came from private donations, grants and jewelry sales. This year’s budget will be higher, Nuesca said, because the organization is spending $25,000 to buy property for a clubhouse.
“We’ve had a big problem in the past because as soon as some of our landlords see gringos are involved, our rent for the clubhouses goes from $200 to $2,000. By buying our own land we can avoid being ripped off,” Nuesca said.
Nuesca said a big challenge is convincing donors that living and working in Costa Rica isn’t a pleasure cruise, despite the country’s exotic beauty. The climate is hot and humid, infrastructure is near-nonexistent in the remote villages, change is slow and the volunteer burnout rate is high.
“They go down there expecting they’ll save the world… that they’ll be rescuing girls and breaking down doors. But we’re not in the business of rescue. We are word of mouth. People find out about us and kids bring their friends,” Nuesca said.
Williams now sits on committees at the federal level in Costa Rica to address the sex trade issue. New laws are being passed to prosecute sex traffickers, but prosecutions so far have been few. She and Nuesca said changing hearts and minds has been a slow and challenging process.
“Organizations ask us our measurement tool for success. For us it’s the people. It would be wonderful if we saw a transformation and they stuck with it, but life happens. Adversity hits and they resort back to their lifestyle,” Nuesca said.
Williams said meeting these children — one child prostitute was just 5 years old — and seeing their difficult family situations has made her more open-minded when they backslide into prostitution.
“I still see their hearts and continue to love on them. It isn’t hard to do when you look at it that way,” she said. “I pray for them and wait with open arms for them to return. Love always wins.”
Reposted from the The San Diego Union-Tribune