I know this is a revolting topic- the mere thought of child sex slaves makes me furious and tearful all at once but ignoring it won’t make it go away. I recently spoke with a an acquaintance of mine, Matt Villemain, who volunteered over his summer break from teaching high school to help out at Salvando Corazones, the first safe house for child survivors of sexual exploitation in Costa Rica. I was moved by his volunteer story and I thought others should hear it too because as sad as it is that there are such sex crimes occurring, it is also beautiful that people dedicate their time, energy, and money to doing something to address the problem. Here is the story of his volunteer experience at Salvando Corazones Safe House For Child Survivors of the sex industry in his own words.
A Volunteer’s Experiences Helping At A Safe House for Child Sex Slaves:
“There are some experiences in life that will stay with you forever; moments that change who you are as a person or influence your life path. I was able to have one of these experiences this past summer, which not only allowed me to grow as an individual, but also changed my view of the world around me.
This past summer, I volunteered with Salvando Corazones, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is dedicated to fight against trafficking of children into the sex industry in Costa Rica. The organization opened the first safe home for child survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and has been working closely with both the Costa Rican and the United States government to slow down the problem of child sexual exploitation that is, sadly, so prevalent in Costa Rica.
Life changing summers abroad are not always the easiest, as my summer in Costa Rica was anything but the relaxing vacation. The beaches, siestas, and fruity drinks that one would expect from “I was in Costa Rica for the summer” were never part of my reality. I would sleep 5-6 hours a night, work 7 days a week, and be mentally and emotionally “on” the entire day long. My lifestyle was not sustainable, yet I felt so passionate towards the cause that each day made me push harder. After finally slowing down and breathing can I begin to realize how important my summer experience was to my life.
I arrived the day that the safe house opened, and from day one there was a lot of work that needed to be done. Creating the education plan both for the house as well as individual girls was my first order of business. The girls were not able to go to normal school due to their backgrounds and safety concerns so an entire homeschooling program needed to be created. With my background as a science teacher, I made sure to sneak some science experiments into the daily lesson planning. Creating a volcano (which was a slight dud as supplies were limited and baking soda vs baking powder are very different when it comes to erupting a volcano), plating bacteria, and other science activities were mixed in with the reading, writing, and arithmetic which were so important for the girl’s futures.
The mixture of different ages and grade levels created challenges as they were very different from my college prep high school Biology classes that I have become accustomed to in the states. Along with education of the girls, I also worked to create a child abuse prevention curriculum for the public school systems (titled: Soy el dueno de mi cuerpo, I am the owner of my body). In Costa Rica 1 in 3 children are abused at home, and the abuse towards children ties directly into the sexual exploitation later on in life. Working on the prevention side in the community as well as working with victims allows us to attack the problem from several different angles.
Apart from education, there were a lot of other things that needed to be done in order to start a foster home for girls. The behavior management plan, daily operations, and long term planning all provide additional challenges that made the experience a 24 hour commitment. Luckily, the group of volunteers at my project was incredible. It was invigorating to be working so closely with such a passionate group of people. We were an amazing team and provided remarkable care for the girls. There were several volunteers from Europe who were called “tia” or house moms. There were also two Costa Rican staff members, one a trained psychologist and the other another “tia” who were both there during the day. The group dynamic was special and together, we provided the structure, love, and education that the girls desperately needed. The 24 hour high stress environment created a challenge for everyone to maintain their sanity, but the sense of purpose and family within the house allowed each of us to keep our heads above water.
It is impossible to summarize the whole situation, and don’t know how to explain it to some one who was not in the house. The memories that I have created will stay with me the rest of my life. Working with the girls was amazing. Each girl was so sweet, yet at the same time so incredibly strong, especially after learning about their backgrounds and histories. I have never worked harder emotionally and physically in my life. By the end of my 8 weeks I was completely drained, yet at the same time I have never felt more excited and alive. The emotional high to know that you are such an important part of the organization where you are truly making a difference (if not in Costa Rica as a country, then definitely in the lives of the girls in the house) can drive you to accomplish tasks that would not have been possible before.
I have always enjoyed working with children, but after my summer experience my drive and passion have grown exponentially. It is easy to turn a blind eye to a problem until you have experienced the victims first hand. At this point, it is hard to stand by as so many children need help. I strongly recommend that everyone find an issue that they can become passionate about and create their own life changing moment. For me, my time in Costa Rica was transformative, and I hope that others can have a similar experience in their own lives as well.”
I am thankful to Matt Villemain for sharing his story with others and wo hope to have spread awareness about this problem. For more information on how you can help or more about his summer volunteer experiences, please visit salvandocorazones.org or salvandocorazonessummer.blogspot.com/