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Of Drugs and Dancing: Social Change in Quepos

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Costa Rica
Juan Carlos Urena

Nobody dreams of growing up and being a prostitute or a drug addict-- it is not something anyone aspires to. And people caught up in this lifestyle would for the most part like to put it all behind them if they could only find a way.
Timothy Panek, founder of David's Table.

Well, just 4 hours by bus from Costa Rica's capital city in the coastal town of Quepos is La Mesa de David, or David's Table. Shawn, Kevin and I took a bus ride to spend the weekend in Quepos and visited this program that aims to create a safe haven for people who have problems with drug addiction and prostitution.

A man names Timothy Panek began the program. Timothy and his wife Linda moved here a few years ago with their three children after leaving their successful real estate and construction business. They've joined forces with another family: Jorge, his wife Sara and their seven children. Jorge and Sara spend their time on the streets, inviting women, men, and jovenes - young adults - to come to David's Table. The building in which they do most of their work is right on the beach, with a deck for sleeping and a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a second floor. The policy is simple: no work means no food. Timothy has arranged for workers to help out with city maintenance: for instance, planting flower beds and re-constructing older buildings, in exchange for 3 meals a day and a place to sleep.

Let me tell you the tragic but now-hopeful story of 14-year-old Yariela who is part of the David's Table program. She's from the north coast of Costa Rica and came to Quepos after running away from her alcoholic father. On the way here, she met two foreign tourists who gave her a ride, then beat her and sexually abused her. She started prostituting and using drugs to take away some of the pain and desperation she was feeling. She met Sara near the beach, and heard about David's Table (see the story at the left on this page for more info on Sara and "David's Table"). David's Table has at this point "graduated" about 20 individuals, people who have been able to overcome their addictions and return back to their work or their families.

Yariela decided she wasn't ready for the program, but in a twist of fate, she was jailed a week ago as part of a nationwide drug sweep that started earlier this month. Even though the police in Quepos are pretty laid-back, they know where to find all the drug dealers - they stay at the foot of a miniature mountain, a big hill near the center of the city, which is where Yariela was arrested. So, last week, Sara and her husband, Jorge, came to the station and asked them to release Yariela, partly because she's still a juvenile and also because they knew her.

Yariela hasn't touched any drugs for 5 days now. It hasn't been easy, but, as she says, "it's better now. My friends are still waiting by the beach, but I tell them to change their life." She yells across the boulevard to one of her former companions: "Cambia! Cambia!" (Change! Change!) To find out how you can help abused street children in the country we just visited, Guatemala, check out today's Making a Difference.

The Paneks also have a family farm about an hour and a half away, with a huge vegetable garden, horses and a waterfall right on the property. Sometimes they take some of the David's Table people there to work as planters and harvesters. They also let people use the cave right behind the waterfall as a retreat spot: individuals can stay for a weekend or longer, to be surrounded by nature and away from any confusion.

Loading up the truck in preparation for the day's work
Today the workers loaded up the truck with shovels and big plastic bags for a day of clearing trash from the city streets. The sun shone brightly. If you check out Costa Rica on a map, you'll realize that we're close to the equator and it's hot and humid all the time. One of the workers was kind of out of it, meaning he kept babbling and throwing his shovel around the truck. But he was lucid enough to understand that after a hard day's work, there would be an opportunity to relax and share a meal with the others.

Issac, Yariela, Jorge, their neighbor and a helper enjoy a siesta!
Linda Panek, Timothy's wife, knows a lot about Israeli dancing. Sometimes she brings her children, Jorge and Sara's children, and some of the men in the program, to the foot of the mountain, where they demonstrate Israeli dancing and coincidentally drive out dealers because of the attention they attract from locals and tourists. Catherine, one of Linda's friends, told me, "they fill up the place with good energy, and it's almost like the bad energy gets pushed out." The families who created David's Table work hard to bring good energy to Costa Ricans who have fallen on rough times.

I wish them well in all they do, and look forward to meeting more heros like the Paneks and Yariela (see the story at the side on this page).

To find out how you can help abused street children in the country we just visited, Guatemala, check out today's Making a Difference.




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