Building The Learning Center

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November 19, 2012

Dear Friends,
At long last construction has finally begun on the San Lorenzo English Learning Center. This moment has been a long time coming and it has not arrived without pain, tear, frustration, and sweat. I thought the grant writing process was going to kill me, but that was only the beginning! Doing grant revisions and waiting to be approved, then waiting to sign off the money, and finally obtaining the building permits and blueprints were all much worse!

I thought the project was going to die a couple of times – and to be honest, I’m still not going to hold my breath until I see the last door hinged onto the frame. The first moment of angst was when I practically had to stalk my town development board president to get her to agree on a date to go with me and my counterpart to sign off the money. The second moment was when I was blind-sided by a $320 bill for the worker’s insurance and a $260 bill to pick up the approved blueprints and building permit. These bills were not in our budget and I was furious that something like this had been left to the last minute. Our town mayor had actually promised to donate these items, so when I received the call to cough up an extra $580 I literally burst out in tears. Luckily, two donors who will remain anonymous came to my aid and breathed life into the project again.

The third moment when I wondered if the project would continue was when the price of a welder was conveniently left out of our budget as well. I claim innocence in this slip because I’ve never constructed a building before. I relied on some people to help me create a budget and unfortunately I was misguided. Names aren’t necessary, but I have felt abandoned with my feet above the fire a lot of times during this project.

The most recent moment of almost throwing in the towel occurred at my town meeting on Thursday evening when I was supposed to attend in order to take out my $5,000. Well, I arrived and presented receipts for materials purchased. My main constructor was at the meeting, which I thought would help my cause – but he actually worsened it. My town development board president told me she could not write me a check to reimburse me for materials that were already purchased. She demanded I buy the rest of my materials, although all my previous money had been spent, and then provide her with new receipts. In my chain of thinking it’s not possible to buy things without money so I felt the wind knocked out of my lungs. Then, to make matters worse, my constructor all the sudden began ranting that he wasn’t being paid enough to help build and threatened to quit. He said it wasn’t my fault, but he just couldn’t give his time away for free. To add insult to injury, my town development board members started laughing and saying, “It’s so funny we almost wrote a check to reimburse her for materials that had already been purchased!” and “It’s just that she [me] doesn’t understand.” At this point I was near tears, my counterpart was not picking up his phone, so I spat back in Spanish, “I understand exactly what you’re saying and what’s going on.” Probably not my best moment of politically correct integration, but I was at my wit’s end.

The stress continued to the next day when my constructor and town development board president decided that they wanted to spend my money at a different “and cheaper” hardware store. This would have been fine, because I’m all for saving money, except that my counterpart and I had made a former agreement with another hardware store to buy all our materials there since they had done the legwork to get our blueprints signed. My counterpart called that afternoon and things seemed to finally be smoothed out; he would tell our previous hardware store that we had changed and therefore take the fall and we would be clear to buy at the cheaper, new hardware store.

On Friday I went to the hardware store with my constructor (who decided not to quit) on Friday to pick out materials and it was fun to choose my floor tile and toilet styles. Home decor has never really been my thing, but I felt empowered getting to choose how my Center would look. Like I said tomorrow the materials should arrive but I’m always waiting for the other foot to fall. My town development board president was in charge of going to the hardware store to write them a check for the materials, but I wouldn’t put it past her to have forgotten or to have just not chosen to go.

It sounds like  I’m hating on my community, which I want everyone to know is not my intention. I love my community but the small town politics are killer. I dare say these are prime examples why small Costa Rican communities can’t progress – because no one can talk to each other! At one point I had my counterpart, constructor, and town development board president all yelling to me about each other. Dealing with all these egos and personalities makes me feel like I’m back in high school — it’s insane! Everyone expects someone else to complete “x task” or be responsible for “x thing” but I’m usually the one who ends up stressing about it.

It’s fair to say that this project has been a labor of love and I’m so emotionally drained. I will not be building anymore English Learning Centers for a while, but even if the project dies here – I’m proud of what I accomplished. Everyone tells me, “Oh, it’s in the bag now!” or “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine now!” but seeing the absolute snarled mess that is the small town politics of my community – I honestly won’t believe anyone until the last tile is placed. My PCV friend Bryson stated it best, “I know you’re not just being humble when you say you’re still worried and there’s a lot left to accomplish and a lot that could still go wrong.” I’m not be humble because I know I’ve done a ton – but I’m aware that at any moment the last straw that breaks the camel’s back could fall. It’s a lot of time spent worrying and trying to predict and therefore sidestep problems.

Today we’re scheduled to buy the second half of materials to complete the inside of the center and I’m hopeful that everything will be done by the end of the first week of December. Here’s pictures from the first couple days of construction

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