Initial Thoughts on the Costa Rican Orphanage — By Jennifer Shipp
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Initial Thoughts on the Costa Rican Orphanage — By Jennifer Shipp

Costa Rican orphanage in La Fortuna
This photo looks different than the outside of the orphanage, but the location is kept secret to keep the who live there children safe. The web site URL for the orphanage is

I have been putting off writing about the orphanage, but I know I need to do it before my initial impressions wear off from the weekend. It was the first orphanage I’ve ever seen abroad and I’m hesitant to romanticize it. There are some things that we encounter that produce an immediate and striking emotional response. Usually, when I write about these things, my initial impressions are somewhat different than the thoughts that come about after a longer term of meditation on them. I’ve tried, with this blog, to include both my initial, emotional reactions as well as my other thoughts that evolve over time. But with the orphanage visit, I know that I could easily build my character as heroic or dramatic when in fact, the whole situation felt very normal. More normal, in fact, than visiting foster homes when I worked as a home supervisor in Colorado.

It’s interesting to me that I tend to put off writing about the most important things I observe on our travels. I don’t want to spoil them by writing up a premature commentary about something that involves emotions or opinions or just a superficial blow-by-blow of what happened. Time gives me a different perspective that isn’t less real, but rather more intellectualized. I’m going ahead and writing about the orphanage because I think that my initial thoughts and feelings about the place are valid, but I have to put a disclaimer on my views: they are not fully developed.

The particular orphanage we visited in La Fortuna was very cozy. It was not in any way “Annie-esque”. The walls were painted blues and purples and there were brightly colored curtains and lights inside. It was run by four women (The Aunts) who cared for the 17 children living there. There were two infants, both about 9 months of age, and children up to age 11. The woman we spoke with who showed us around at the orphanage, “Guadalupe,” said that the oldest child, Fatima, would be leaving very soon. I didn’t understand why, but I don’t think she had been adopted. I think she was probably going to become a servant in somebody’s house.

Guadalupe asked us if we had thought about adopting and I told her “yes” (which is true). I didn’t know the adoption laws or regulations governing how the United States works with Costa Rica, but one resource said that one parent had to live in Costa Rica for a year to adopt there. Later I found out that parents can either live in the country for a year or they can make two trips. In 2010, I think only one family adopted from Costa Rica. This is really too bad because the children, especially at the orphanage in La Fortuna, were well cared for and would probably adapt and be able to attach to new parents in the states (though the children speak very little or no English).

Fatima stuck out to me because she was a little abrasive at first. She kept telling the other girls that Lydian (who is 12) had a mother and a father. She asked John his age. And frankly, she seemed upset. The first time we went to the orphanage, she sat for a while with the younger kids, telling them that we were a family and then abruptly, she got up and left. Guadalupe had pointed out which children were currently available for adoption, which made me feel bad. I didn’t want them to think that we would be able to come in and swoop them up and adopt them. I knew it wouldn’t be that simple but they didn’t know that. And as soon as she said it, they all became interested in us.

I was tackled by a group of girls. John was holding one of the babies and Lydian ended up holding a little boy who talked at length about his toy car. I sat on the floor with the little girls. One of them slapped another one because she put her arm around my neck. They started digging through my purse and became especially fascinated with the hand sanitizer that I have hanging from a little plastic carrier on the outside of my purse. One of the little girls, Ashley, was 7 years old and she sat very quietly and patiently with me even after the other little girls left for lunch.

We left while the children ate their lunch but then returned later in the afternoon. On our second trip, the boys clustered around John and he took them on “airplane rides” and played truck with them. They loved him, obviously starving for some time with a father figure. Fatima chatted with me on our second visit. She seemed less angry. She took Lydian back to see her bedroom and they were able to converse in broken Spanish. I held another one of the babies and counted her toes. It was bathtime and little girls would disappear into the bathroom and emerge with wet heads and pajamas. They took their seats on couches and chairs to watch TV before bedtime at 6:00. These children had been loved.

We only saw this Costa Rican orphanage for one day and I can’t comment on what goes on behind-the-scenes or whether the children have underlying emotional issues or anything like that, but having worked in the foster care system as both a social worker and a foster parent, I can say that they didn’t seem less well-adjusted than most foster kids in the United States. The Aunts (Tias) lived and worked at the orphanage. There was one aunt per bedroom. One of the aunts came up to the baby as I was holding her and said, “Tia…Tia”, trying to get her to say the word like parents work with their babies to say “Mama” or “Dada”. I was completely blown away by the environment and how pleasant it was. For people who want to adopt a healthy older child or perhaps an infant (I’m not sure how young you can adopt Costa Rican children), this is the kind of environment to look for (at least from my superficial inspection). The children have regular caregivers to attach to and the children are of all different ages much like in a family.

We intend to go to an orphanage in Atenas, Costa Rica as well, but I won’t know if our visit(s) will happen until we get there. If all orphanages are like the one we saw in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, then I’d definitely recommend that parents do what they can to just make the move for a year. It’s worth it to adopt a child who can attach (as this is the most serious problem that parents encounter when adopting children…”attachment”). And these children were healthy. They didn’t have bugs or diseases. They were clean and cared for. It was much different than what I expected.

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01 Comment

  1. Anon

    It is completely incorrect that the child was leaving the orphanage to become a servant in someone’s home. Costa Rica has stronger child welfare laws than the US (research the Declaration of Children’s Rights and research the Hague Adoption Convention and the reason Costa Rica had stopped adoptions to the US–because the US hadn’t signed the Hague). One of three things was happening to that child–1. She was being adopted. 2. She was being reunited with birth relatives 3. (Most likely) She was moving to a different orphanage, as it is common that pre-adolescents and adolescents be moved to special orphanages. It is incredibly irresposible and ignorant to state that she was going to become a servant, and that shows a real disrespect to the Tias and a lack of understanding of the Costa Rican culture and reality.

    April 20, 2013 Reply


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