A Peace Corps Volunteer Returns to Costa Rica 40 Years Later: Part One

Jim LaBate
4 min readMar 29, 2018
Image from Wikimedia

As I write the first part of this essay, I am preparing for a two-week trip to Costa Rica. My wife, Barbara, and I are headed south because she has a work-related activity down there and because I want to visit again the place where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

During my senior year of college in 1972–73, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I knew that I wanted to teach high-school English, but I also knew that I didn’t want to go immediately from a college classroom as a student to a high-school classroom as a teacher. I felt I needed something else, an entirely different experience, to bring with me to that high-school classroom.

At the time, the War in Vietnam was beginning to wind down, and I considered serving in the military, like my father and my uncles before me, but I didn’t really want to go in that direction. Instead, I wanted to serve my country in a different way: as one of JFK’s children, as the Volunteers were sometimes called.

Image from Pixabay

The Volunteers acquired that name because when John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960, he suggested this program, and he called on the young people of America “to promote world peace and friendship.” I was only nine years old at the time, a scrawny fourth-grader, but I actually got caught up in the excitement. I wore a “JFK” pin to school, and I stuck a “Kennedy-Johnson” bumper sticker to my three-ring binder. Later, the words of his inaugural address permeated my consciousness: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Thus, 12 years later, during the Christmas break between the fall and spring semesters, I filled out the basic application. In addition, I collected eight references from teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends, and I wrote an essay that said, essentially, “I will go wherever you send me and do whatever you need.” I was determined to go too. I didn’t want to look back at my life years later and say, “Yeah, I thought about the Peace Corps but never followed through.” I wanted to go; I needed to go.

1973 Siena College Yearbook

Since I was an English major in college, I thought the Peace Corps officials might ask me to teach language skills, but they focused on my athletic background instead and asked me to work as a “sports promoter.” Basically, that meant I would teach sports other than soccer — sports such as baseball, basketball, and volleyball. Apparently, the government of this soccer-crazy country wanted to diversify the athletic options for their young people. So when I received my acceptance letter, I excitedly said, “Yes,” and, then, I checked a world atlas to determine exactly where I was headed.

During the two months I had to prepare for departure, I was pretty nervous, I have to admit. I had never been on a plane, I had never taken a Spanish class, and I had never been that far from family and friends. I remember doing lots of running and push-ups, so I would be strong and healthy, and I remember telling myself, “Don’t buy anything unless you can take it with you.” As I recall, I packed for this two-year adventure the night before I left, and I carried with me, one suitcase, one big duffel bag, and one small gym bag.

After three months of intensive language and cultural training in the capital city of San Jose, I was assigned to work in Golfito, a small, banana port on the Pacific side, just above the border with Panama. There, I lived with a family for two years, and I shared my passion for exercise and athletic competition with children in four small grade schools. I also helped to coach the high-school basketball teams (both male and female), and I tried to develop recreational activities for interested adults. I had hoped to work with local officials to develop more athletic facilities, but those hopes never materialized.

Image from Wikimedia

For my upcoming, brief journey, I will pack only one suitcase, but I will carry with me a similar nervousness and a similar excitement. I am worried again about my Spanish, and I’m concerned because I’m nowhere near as strong or as healthy as I was back then. However, I am excited to visit both San Jose and Golfito again, and I look forward to seeing the changes that have occurred and to reconnecting with old friends and familiar faces. When I return, I will write again.

Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.