Service volunteers rise above incident

Tara Powers

The 10 students who went on a spring break mission service experience to Costa Rica may have been there to help children who had nowhere to go after school, but they ended up being affected by the very violence they were trying to counteract, as students were robbed at gunpoint.

The volunteers were sent primarily to work with children in schools, most of whom do not go for full days because of overcrowding. After-school centers are designed to prevent these children from roaming the sometimes dangerous streets. Villanova also has a relationship with the Center for Human Development, which is connected with the politicians and educators who serve these students.

“What we like about these mission trips is that our students get to ask the question, ‘Why?'” said Beth Hassel, executive director of Campus Ministry. “Why are people this poor? Why are so many children without parents? What does that mean for them – how is their major in college connected to that?”

Freshman Kelsey Yasak and sophomore Lilly Campbell explained how they were warned that their valuables could be eyed by gangs and thieves in the area. They were instructed not to carry these around.

According to Campus Ministry, the volunteers were playing with some of the children on March 4 when they were approached by two young Costa Ricans who wanted their cameras. The two had a gun, and the ‘Nova volunteers were held up for their cameras at gunpoint. There was one shot fired into the air as they left.

“We heard some noise and commotion, and then somebody yelled, ‘Get inside!’ ” Yasak said.

Because of Villanova’s connections in Costa Rica, the two were found and apprehended within 15 minutes of the theft, although the cameras were not recovered.

The volunteers were brought safely inside the school, and psychologists that work with the Center for Human Development were brought in for group counseling sessions.

The group also contacted Nancy Ata, who coordinates the service break trips, and she worked to assemble a team of Villanova administrators to figure out the best course of action. A decision was made to offer the students the opportunity to return to Villanova as soon as a flight was available, which would have been March 6.

“We have strategic exit emergency plans,” Hassel said of Villanova’s plans in case of an incident like this one. “The basic process is to call back here and for us to move into action. Safety is the primary thing – we would drop any commitment to service, and as soon as we could get them to the airport, we would fly the whole trip home.”

The group, however, decided not to leave, but they were all required to call their parents and inform them about the situation. Ata called each parent that evening to follow up.

The volunteers’ schedule was changed to incorporate more educational lectures, and March 7 was dedicated to tourism out of the area where the assault occurred.

The group has been offered community counseling now that they have returned to Villanova as well.

Costa Rica has been a democratic nation for over 50 years and is considered one of the safest nations in South America. Still, drug and gang violence have plagued the region.

A similar incident occurred several years ago in Peru, when several locals tried to obtain students’ possessions.

“We do not go to places that aren’t well-researched,” Hassel said. “Our mission calls us to serve the poor and marginalized, and this particular group was challenged to live this mission in a very real way.”

Campus Ministry is still assessing whether future service trips will return to Costa Rica.

“I would hope that this incident would be taken in context,” Hassel said. “As hard as that incident is, that in fact our students still experienced Costa Rica – the beauty and the challenges of it.”

Yasak and Campbell agreed.

“The reality is that while this incident seems to be what everybody wants to talk about, it wasn’t what defined the trip for me, and I certainly don’t think it defined the trip for the others I was with,” Campbell said. “I know that I have no regrets about the trip, and I really hope that when people look at it they can recognize how much we learned and grew rather than seeing it as merely a dangerous encounter.”

When asked if they would consider going on another Campus Ministry trip, both Yasak and Campbell agreed that they would in a heartbeat.

“We talked a lot as a group about how to communicate our story to others without scaring them or, worst of all, discouraging them from going on a mission trip,” Campbell said.

“I think that the incident actually strengthened our group,” Yasak said. “The bottom line is that we could have been mugged anywhere – even here at Villanova.”

Ultimately, Hassel emphasized the maturity and strength the student volunteers displayed in the face of an incident that could have divided them instead of bringing them as close as it did.

“I’d love them not to be afraid, or if they are afraid to face that fear and to know that they made a tremendous difference in the lives of the Costa Ricans and they made Villanova really proud,” Hassel said.