QCOSTARICA – Dona Rosa lost everything in her life and surrendered her will to the hands of others. Luck changed one day when she was rescued from a bunker in Plaza Víquez, where she was still living and without being addicted to any drugs.
She had nothing, but she now has everything: mostly self-love. This 80-year-old woman was taken to the Chepe se Baña camp that was established in May 2020 to protect elderly street dwellers from the coronavirus.
She arrived infected but managed to recover.
During her stay in that shelter, and as part of her recreational activities, Dona Rosa made beautiful drawings that today are printed on t-shirts, garments that are displayed in a huge store window in Multiplaza Escazú.
Since December in Multiplaza Escazú, in addition to finding the upper scale clothing stores of Michael Kors, Carolina Herrera, Hugo Boss, and the jewelers such as Tous and Tiffany & Co, there is a new and great place that is imposing and generates curiosity.
Basic-cut white t-shirts printed with hand-made paintings peek through its big storefront windows. The name of this “shop” appears in large white letters at the highest point of the entrance: Chepe se Baña.
Chepe se Baña? (Chepe takes a bath). Yes. If it sounds familiar, it is, because for four years there has been a foundation with this name that has the mission of rescuing people who live on the streets.
News related to them has come out in countless media, but now Chepe se Baña is much closer, specifically in a solidarity shop, where you do not have to buy, but donate.
Mauricio Villalobos, an audiovisual producer, and for four the last four years a rescuer of people in vulnerable conditions, is the founder and director of Chepe se Baña.
He says that in the group they had always wanted to have a space similar to the one that Multiplaza gave them for free (for the moment until April, but it could be extended).
Street people and coronavirus: A second chance amid the pandemic
In December of last year, in mid-pandemic, Multiplaza contacted Mauricio to pitch him the project. It was an ideal time to start the store, because with it he could support the shelter he created in May to support seniors who, like Dona Rosa, were in a situation of risk and hopelessness.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have rescued 73 seniors from the streets. They have been painting. Art teachers help them. That is why we had some designs and we dreamed of putting them on t-shirts to generate some kind of support for the camp. Then Multiplaza presented us with this initiative and it fit us like a glove,” explains Mauricio.
T-shirts with Doña Rosa’s design and the drawings of many seniors rescued from the streets can be obtained at the Chepe se Baña store.
People who give a cash donation, whatever the amount, are given one of the pieces as a thank you.
“Many come to ask if we sell the t-shirts. We explain the dynamics to them and they take them as a souvenir. This is a space of solidarity for the thousands who visit the mall every day,” says Mauricio Villalobos.
The store is also a place for people who do not know where to go and want to help to make their donations. According to Mauricio, people can donate underwear, socks, personal care implements, among others, as long as they are new. At the store, people can also sign up to offer their time by enrolling in the different Chepe se Baña programs.
Mauricio says that the store has generated curiosity and that many people have come to support it. Something that has surprised him is the help of different companies that, for example, have donated shoes to make them available to supportive customers, who by giving cash can take the product with them. It is the same dynamic as with t-shirts.
“We invite companies to bring donations. One day they came to us with 90 pairs of new shoes that are now in the store,” says Villalobos, who assures that his social welfare projects do not have any support from the Government.
Mauricio explains that people purchase items in the mall to donate
“They buy what they want at the mall to donate. Many of the items are distributed at night when we bring street people (their) dinners. We do so every day except Sundays,” he says.
The store is not only a space to help others in need; It is also a place for thousands of Costa Ricans to learn about the sad reality of street people through photos and videos: it is a huge showcase with a magnet for solidarity.
One of the reasons they don’t accept second-hand clothes is because they don’t have a place to store them on the premises. That is why, he says, they ask that they donate new items that are very necessary for people who live in the streets, such as underwear and personal hygiene products.
In addition, he mentions that thanks to the visibility they have achieved from the store, a person donated two containers that will serve as warehouses to store the donations.
“There are times when the second-hand clothes that they donate are clothes that have to be washed and with the covid issue this is complicated,” he insists. Doctors, psychologists, and professionals from different areas have also approached to offer their help.
“It’s an incredible space,” says Villalobos.
“People pass by, look and wonder. They have seen Chepe Baña (name) in rescues, in mobile toilets, in mobile barbershops, in the Dormibus (sleeper bus), but now they see it in a store. We want to turn the store into a solidarity experience. That people come in and see images, that speaks more,” adds Mauricio, who does not hide his gratitude.
The store will also benefit other alternative projects of Chepe se Baña.
“We recently started a Dormibus for women in street conditions. We have documented a little more than 1,000 women who spend the night on the streets. Some are sex workers who spend the night in the Red Zone (in San José); that work brings violence, (drug) consumption, abuse, and this Dormibus breaks that cycle of violence, it becomes a hotel for them. The aid we receive (in the store) such as bedding, toiletries and sanitary napkins can support this project,” he adds.
Mauricio acknowledges that these last four years with Chepe se Baña have not been easy and even though sometimes “everything is a pain in the ass,” he has learned to work with nothing and to validate the human rights of these people. He knows that he can’t back down.
“These communities are invisible. It is important that the Government, society and private companies can have contact and know these realities. They are there not because they want to, many times the circumstances led them there. I try to lead and for the volunteers to be inspired,” he says.
Mauricio knows what it is like to run into numbers in the red all the time, when he tries to solve all of Chepe se Baña’s programs. He says they “scrape the pot” and so he takes advantage of every opportunity.
He says that at the beginning he opened the store with 50 t-shirts.
“We have done the best we can. We didn’t even have furniture, a friend lent it to me. Now we see that people publish that this is the most beautiful t-shirt, they wear it with pride. The reaction has been impressive. People cry. We have cried with them.
“Before December he was resigned that he was going to close the camp. I had 18 seniors and was looking to see where to take them because we had no budget. We started in December with the store. Each donation receives a printed receipt,” says Mauricio.
In these months the initiative has raised about ¢6 million colones (almost US$10 thousand dollars).
Doña Rosa is no longer in the camp, they managed to transfer her to a long-term home where she will spend what time remains of ther life. Her drawing will continue to be reflected on the shirts. Through these garments, they will help other people who need a hand like the one that gave her warmth at the right time.
How you can help
There are three ways to help:
- Signing up on the spot to volunteer for the program.
- Donating money in cash or through SINPE Móvil 8709-4208.
- Donating brand new items.
“In the midst of many stores, we are a simple, powerful, different concept. People love the store. Nothing is for sale. The price is set by people. Sometimes people don’t understand that code. They show solidarity when they meet the people rescued from the street. They know the history of the t-shirt and its design,” says Mauricio Villalobos, 50, who embarked on this mission to make visible the reality of those who are homeless.
Translated and adapted from La Nacion: Chepe se baña en Multiplaza: así es la tienda que gana sin vender