Dr.’s Rebecca Kolbenson and Shane Van Biezen have returned from a volunteer brigade in Costa Rica, accompanied by two Golden locals and Rotarians Isabelle Simard and Michele LaPointe.
First, the four volunteers travelled to La Carpio in San Jose to offer optometry and dental services to people residing in a common Nicaraguan refugee centre of the city. Each year, optometrist Kolbenson and dentist Van Biezen make the trek south to offer their services to those in need. Typically, they end up in remote areas, treating people who don’t have access to basic health care necessities, but this time, they saw throngs of people displaced by their home country in a city centre.
“It was a totally different experience from being out in the middle of nowhere,” Kolbenson said.
The experience was unique to what they had seen in the past. They heard horrific stories of people who had protested against the Nicaraguan president and had their homes raided. These people were forced to flee to Costa Rica for their own safety and the safety of their families. One woman, Kolbenson told the story of, left her home so quickly with her children that she didn’t grab her glasses as she ran. With very poor eyesight, she was forced to make the journey nearly blind, and lived in Costa Rica for months before Kolbenson came along with a new pair of spectacles for her.
Each day for a week, volunteers quickly set up optometry and dental offices and operating tables at community centres and schools. They had to work quickly in the daylight to treat as many people as possible. One morning, a man waited first in line for dental work. His infected tooth had swollen his face, and Van Biezen had to work without anesthetic to remove the severely damaged tooth.
“The very first day, it was a big eye opener for people who maybe haven’t done these brigades before,” Van Biezen said, after telling the story about the man with the infected teeth. “We were able to get him out of pain.”
The Nicaraguans living in San Jose are often without healthcare because it costs so much to get their papers. Kolbenson said that many of the people were dressed just the same as regular citizens. They had lived lives with careers, homes, and families, before being displaced to the nearby country. Many of them lived in fear, and did not want their pictures taken for fear of being reprimanded by the Nicaraguan government.
But, they all said they would return to Nicaragua to continue to protest and fight for their country’s quality of life.
“A lot of people were super afraid,” Kolbenson said, adding that one woman checked on the centre to make sure the volunteers weren’t informants. “Usually in these communities, the poverty is blatant. But, they were just like you and me, in nice clothes. They just had to leave.”
Every person who visited the dental centre left each day with a toothbrush and toothpaste, which is something the crew has provided to people in the past. Most of the people the dentists were treating had good knowledge of how to care for their teeth. The volunteers could tell that people really cared about their smiles, Van Biezen said.
Everywhere the volunteers went, they were greeted with smiles and nice cooked lunches. They were invited to a theatre production about a woman who tried to flee Nicaragua with 15 of her children, starting with the youngest and returning for all of them until they had reached safety. Only 11 of them made it out safely, but the woman inspired others and helped them find shelter when they left to Costa Rica. Her face is painted in murals on the sides of buildings along with the symbolic tree of life as a sign of hope for everyone facing turmoil.
“It was about hearing their story and how things around the world can impact so many,” Van Biezen said about their experience. “They were very nice people. Very welcoming.”