Bill & Martha Dowd
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Bill & Martha Dowd

OAT Travelers and our Goodwill "Ambassadors" to Costa Rica

Long attracted to the lifestyle and culture of South and Central America, Martha and Bill Dowd visited Peru, Chile, and Ecuador on OAT adventures, in addition to a trip to the Balkans. When the now 5-time travelers journeyed to Costa Rica with OAT in 2006, however, they had no idea how profoundly it would change their lives.

During the course of their trip, they were traveling down a rural back road when their Trip Leader pointed out a 90-acre lot with a three-bedroom house for sale. Martha turned to Bill and remarked, "We could sell everything and move down here and have money to live on." The trip continued, and the couple returned to their Arizona home. But Martha's comment lingered in Bill's mind. A year later, he asked her if she had been serious. "Yeah," she said.

It took a year and a half for them to sell their home and belongings and get a new home built in the Costa Rican village of San Francisco de Penas Blancas. They finally realized their dream and moved in in 2009.

Entering the Heart of the Community: The School

The couple immediately set about immersing themselves in the local community—and the best place to get started was the local school. "Being connected with the school made the transition easier," Bill observes. "The schools here, especially in the rural areas, take all the help they can get."

While the Dowds have no children of their own, Bill smiles that they actually have "195 children," referring to the students at the San Francisco School. And that feeling of warmth and connection embraces the entire village. "In every town down here, there's a church, a school, a grocery store, and a soccer field," Bill says. "And most of the people are related—aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins. To us, they're like a second family."

Wolfgang Brunner, our Regional General Manager in Costa Rica, understands the connection that the Dowds feel with the San Francisco community—because he feels it, too. "I love this village, and I love the San Francisco School," says Wolfgang. "So you can only imagine how much I love that these travelers feel the same way."

Though not teachers by trade (Bill was in real estate, Martha was a food handler at a restaurant), they started out by helping to teach English. Today, Martha helps out with the first-grade class, while Bill takes on the kindergartners. Bill notes that the Costa Rican government considers children that age too young to learn and does not recognize kindergarten. Regardless, Bill so far has helped 13 of the 19 students in his class learn to write their names.

The Importance of Learning English

Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate in Central America (95%), with education mandatory through the sixth grade. Yet, many students have to leave school at that point in order to work the farm or find a job to help support the family, according to Bill.

In order to give the students at the San Francisco School a better chance for the future, the principal is committed to ensuring that every student speaks English by the time he or she graduates. "If you're going to get ahead and get a decent job here, you have to learn English. Otherwise, you're limited to a career as a farmer or a construction worker," Bill says. "We give the kids the chance to get exposed to American English."

It's something he impresses on OAT travelers when they visit the school on their own Costa Rican adventures. During the visit, each traveler is paired with a child who provides a tour of the school and the microfarm project that is being developed as part of Grand Circle Foundation's Invest in a Village initiative. "I remind them, 'You're the only opportunity they have to speak English,'" Bill says.

Volunteers Welcome

In addition to teaching, the couple helps out with maintenance work. As Bill puts it, "If something needs fixing, we'll take care of it if we can." He reiterates that all help is welcome, and no special skills are required. Many of the foreign volunteers are from Great Britain, and they often stay for as long as three weeks at a time.

Bill encourages OAT travelers to make the same commitment. He adds that volunteers to the school are welcome for any length of time—even if only for a week. And a place will always be found for them to "sack out."

"Tell people to get down here," he urges. "Don't worry about specific skills. Whatever you're able to do will be used."

Featured in our October E-Newsletter: read the full issue here.