Learning What It Takes To Build a School in Costa Rica

“We would like give back to the community when we are in Costa Rica on our incentive trip”, my organic bakery client told me. They knew I would be excited. Corporate social responsibility and the whole concept of giving back has been a passion of mine since an earlier client gave me an opportunity to create a whole day of community projects on the island of Maui. This was back when there were no “off the shelf” options. It was a life-changing experience for me, and made me realize how important it was to contribute to communities in need.

“Great idea!” I enthused, “Any thoughts on what you might want to do?” It turned out that they hadn’t any, but as the contracted coordinator of their international incentive program, they were sure I would come up with something that fit perfectly. They were looking for a substantial legacy project – one that would have lasting impact on a local community.

“It was a life-changing experience for me, and made me realize how important it was to contribute to communities in need.”

With the assistance of Tam Travel, I was introduced to Elsa Bonilla, the Community Relations Manager of Peninsula Payagayo in Costa Rica. This 2,224-acre real estate development project, home to the exclusive Four Seasons Resort, is a model in long-term sustainable tourism, and operated under the supervision of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute.

Peninsula Papagayo’s community program included nineteen communities and twenty-one educational centers. The project relied on 4 fundamental pillars to achieve its results: Education, both formal and informal, Leadership, and Cultural strengthening. “Growing Together”, the Community Development Office program, promoted social responsibility in the business environment through public-private alliances.

My client had decided that her company’s give-back event would be to help a school. Squeezed into her small office, Elsa showed us a list of the schools that were looking for assistance. We were told that, while the government pays for initial school construction, the cost of the maintenance is borne by the school itself. Some of the poorer communities didn’t have sufficient funds to cover the cost of the work that was required to keep the buildings in good condition.


Our anticipated incentive group size was around fifty; we chose a school that was one of the most impoverished, with just 31 students. We visited the school — two rooms, kitchen, a soccer field and toilet facilities — and, sure enough, it needed extensive maintenance. Elsa had told us the school had initially requested a paint job, but it was very clear that a first priority was some basic structural work. After looking at the amount of work needed, it was decided that it would make more sense to build a new school room. Our first step was to get a materials list from Elsa and then develop a marketing plan which the client used to encourage broad support and raise funds, both internally and externally, through its distributor network.

There were many questions rattling around in my mind – insurance, permits, potential liability, and logistics were just some of them — but my client loved the idea and wanted to pursue this option. We forged ahead with what I thought was a very ambitious project.

The next question was how were we to build this school room? Again through Elsa, we learned about the organization ARFMC (A Roof for my Country / Un Techo para mi País), an NGO headquartered in Santiago, Chile. This organization facilitates the building of transitional homes by volunteers in order to provide the neediest families with small, functional houses to improve their living standards. Our situation was a little different, but ARFMC reviewed the project and agreed to come to Costa Rica and assist with the school building. We came up with a budget and a schedule of needed materials and labor. Everyone was very excited – we had a plan and a goal – we were all set.


The first bump in the road came just one day after when I received an email from Elsa that offered both good and bad news! The bad news was that the school had just  heard from the government that a new school building had been approved and work was to begin immediately. They therefore had no need of our donation. The good news was that a smaller, nearby school was desperately in need of a school room so we had an immediate replacement project with less logistical problems for materials delivery. A slight adjustment, and our road ahead looked once again smooth. El Robles, the new school, had 30 students, slightly smaller than the first school, but also in a very poor mountain community of 110 inhabitants.

“…despite the considerable setbacks, we had
achieved what we had set out to do…”

Two months before the program became operational we hit another bump in the road, this time from the client side. Numbers were not where they needed to be and so the decision had been made to cancel the incentive trip. This came as quite a shock on many fronts – in addition to the potential hotel and local services cancellation penalties and impact on my company income, where did that leave us with the school? We were far along by this point, having made deposits and contracted with ARFMC. The client made the decision to carry on with the school project, even though they would not be there to participate. It meant that we needed additional labor to replace the incentive trip attendees and this we were able to do through ARFMC and local labor. The date for the project was moved back, which allowed the building to take place during school holidays, resulting in less disruption for the children and the staff.


As you can see from the photos, the school was built – despite the considerable setbacks, we had achieved what we had set out to do. The hotel was kind enough to transfer the deposit to a future program, and our local services worked with us to minimize costs. The project was a wonderful and satisfying experience, despite not being able to personally participate, and definitely something I would love to repeat.

Geraldine Gatehouse


Geraldine Gatehouse is Immediate Past President of SITE SoCal. She is an independent planner, with a passion for corporate social responsibility, and part of the IMEX America team since 2010.