Saturday, December 31, 2011

11 Photos of 2011

11 photos to mark 2011, and the events that I feel best represent my year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica.
1) Forming a community bank in Cristo Rey. We finished the year with 50 members and we'll be inaugurating in January!

2) Dona Nathalia- my neighbor and closest friend. Many afternoons were spent embroidering, talking and sharing cups of tea.

3) Our network of 6 community banks comes together once a month to share challenges, solutions and celebrate birthdays! Maria Marta Padilla, Founder of FINCA- Costa Rica

4) Beto and the members of the Kid's Financial Education Program- learning the value of saving and planning.
 Posing with ice cream and my dog, Beto.

5) Making recycled pots and bowls with women from my English class. 

6) Celebrating the women's World Cup (& the visit of a dear friend)-  the San Cristobal Women's soccer team organized a day camp for girls. 

7) Organizing the First Annual Conference of Peace Corps Volunteers and Community Banks- a weekend of collaboration and planning for success for over 60 volunteers and community members from all over Costa Rica.

8) River rafting with the Central Valley Peace Corps Volunteers

9) In December I ran my first marathon in Panama City and placed 5th of International Women- with a $500 prize!!!

10) From working on computer skills, picking coffee, attending weddings and joking- much of the year was spent with my counterpart- Don Ananias. 
11) I dedicated a lot of my time to the microfinance organization- FINCA-Costa Rica: from planning FORO EC 2011 (an end of the year conference with all 115 community banks), to working on best practice manuals for the community banks, to organizing training's for my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and working with the Volunteer Committee to improve future training's and relations.

What to look forward to in 2012?
Inaugurating and legalizing the community bank in Cristo Rey, selecting new volunteers for the FINCA committee, finishing English and computer classes, working with Lies to become self-sufficient in selling her coffee bean jewelry to the US and other stores, providing a series of environmental workshops with the Kid's Financial Education program, running a 50 k in Arenal, climbing Mt. Chirripo and a trip to Nicaragua!

Happy New Year!!!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Estrellas del Norte

Thursday mornings are still spent moving about with the senior citizens.

Yesterday I accompanied them to San Isidro del Guarco (outside Cartago) for a gathering of over 200 senior citizens from the area. A few photos from the day:

Don Begnino
Excited to be here! (He's the only muchacho in the group!)

Las Estrellas del Norte

Doña Anna

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Keeping the Mission in Mind

FINCA’s Mission: Promote integral development in communities, through the formation and strengthening of Community Credit Enterprises.
Nathalia, the treasurer, selling the first stocks

Two weeks ago we elected the board, credit committee and fiscal and purchased the first stocks. We sold 48 stocks, at 5000 colones each. Our social capital is 240,000 colones or around $480.

Yesterday was step 8  ½; granting the first loan. Please note, that once again we have a ½ step.

One side of me pushes to finish each step in time, to reach the end “goal” faster. But then I step back- realizing I am losing sight of the mission; which is to promote integral development in communities. This means not just the economic growth that will come from the access to loans, but also the education and financial literacy. Spending the time to make sure all elements of the process stay clear is crucial in working towards FINCA’s mission.
CCE- Cristo Rey

So we spent all of Saturday afternoon going over the process for soliciting a loan, the analysis of a loan, and how to calculate the repayment schedule.

The CCE charges a monthly interest rate of 2% (although the annual rate of 24% interest can sound high, it is important to take into account all the benefits of having the bank local, not paying for transportation, paperwork etc. and also earning dividends on their stocks. Many microfinance institutions charge a much higher annual interest rate).

Nathalia, our treasurer, is taking out the first loan for her artisan business. She wants to buy a new machine that cuts wood, and will make her work easier and faster. The machine costs around 100,000 colones or $200. Because this is the first loan, she has agreed to a short term loan of 8-months, in order to keep the money circulating.

Initial balance
Ending Balance
Total Payment Due*
* To calculate the total payment due, we averaged the interest payments + the principal payment:                                                                          

It was essential that I took the time to really make sure they understood the whole loan process, as one of the most important aspects of microfinance is transparency. They need to understand what they are paying with each loan repayment and be able to complete the loan analysis, repayment schedule and forms with confidence.

Thus, we will finish step 8 next week, with payment of commission (3% to pay for administrative costs of the loan) and filling out receipts.

I’ll end with my golden moment: Cali, the president, asked if he could take home the loan repayment schedule we had written on large construction paper, "to study".

CCE-Cristo Rey voting on new members
It is so inspiring, so motivating that the members all have so much interest, and desire in the Community Credit Enterprise’s success. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Right now I am forming a Community Credit Enterprise in Cristo Rey, but also I work with a well-established CCE in San Cristobal Norte (my community).

San Cristobal Norte’s CCE (named SACRIN) is successful. Founded in 1996 with a social capital of 100,000 colones (around $200), they now have a social capital of 26,000,000 colones (around $52,000) and a credit portfolio of 115,000,000 colones (around $230,000). The capital is formed by means of members of the bank buying stocks in the CCE.  This is impressive, especially considering that the majority of the 83 members have not finished primary school and work principally in agriculture.

As I go through the formation process with the group in Cristo Rey, I ask myself, what is the recipe of motivation? Why has SACRIN succeeded while many other CCE’s are still struggling year after year?

Autonomy. Purpose. Mastery.

“Autonomy-  The urge to direct our own lives
Purpose- The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
Mastery-  The desire to get better at something that matters” (-Daniel Pink, TEDtalk)

In Daniel Pink’s 2009 TEDtalk, he outlines the science behind motivation, arguing that for complex “thinking” tasks rewards are not the answer, but rather the intrinsic motivation to do something interesting is .

SACRIN is motivated, and not by money. The board of directors takes time away from their families, their work, their leisure time for the betterment of the CCE. They have been handed full control of the workings of the CCE, FINCA-Costa Rica was there 15 years ago to help in the formation, and they have a once a month meeting with 5 other CCE’s in the community, but the CCE is all theirs. They have complete responsibility of its success or failure.
2 members of the Cristo Rey group, taking responsibility and putting up the 22 steps 

SACRIN takes a great focus on the improvement on the community (members and non-members of the CCE). They offer various business courses, space for meetings, a library and a savings program for all youth in the community. The CCE is a part of something greater; it is not just access to loans, but a vehicle for change in the community.

And lastly, mastery- they have progressed greatly since the day of 20 members, and a suitcase for an office. Don Ananias, the president, directs the meetings with great skill, after years of experience and the continued desire to get better. He brings Costa Rican’s “Commercial Code” along with the CCE’s own regulations to every meeting, and can often be seen referencing them to help guide his decisions.

Right now, with Cristo Rey, I am focusing on autonomy. Giving them control of the formation of the CCE, allowing them to direct the meetings and take full responsibility. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Art of Listening

Or perhaps, more accurately, the art of asking questions.

Saturday we completed Step 7.5- the General Assembly, with the Cristo Rey group (where I am facilitating the 22 step process of forming a Community Credit Enterprise). Maria Marta Padilla, founder of FINCA-Costa Rica, came to clarify doubts/questions of the group, and check in on my work as a facilitator.  

Two new members making their arrows (these are taped onto the 22 step process, to mark where we are)

Last Tuesday I was in FINCA- Costa Rica’s offices, discussing the regulations Cristo Rey had written and the parts they hadn’t yet defined, the cost of affiliation and the activities they can solicit loans for. Cristo Rey decided to wait for Maria Marta's advice to define these sections. Maria Marta advised me that the group knows best, they have the answers- you just have to ask the correct questions.

Cristo Rey is quick to ask for FINCA-Costa Rica’s recommendations, but it is crucial that all their decisions ultimately come from within the group, because really the business is theirs, FINCA-Costa Rica merely acts as a guide in the formation. Once the 22-steps process is over, the group will be running all aspects of the business themselves, and need to believe in and understand their regulations if they are going to comply with them.

Returning to Saturday’s session: we ended up discussing the regulations in depth, trying to write concrete rules for the business to follow. Due to new members in attendence, we didn't end up getting to the "main course" (more on that later), but there were some good nuggets from the afternoon...

Lesson 1: If your question is met with crickets: focus the question down. That may seem obvious, but I listened to Maria Marta ask the same question FIVE times, getting more and more specific each time. Example: we were defining the types of activities that would be approved for loans, and the group was having a difficult time defining them. She started by asking “What activities would you solicit loans for?” Enter crickets. She kept getting more specific, “What types of productive activities would you solicit loans for?” Followed by, “What types of agricultural projects would you ask for loans for?” And the answers flowed out- “Planting Christmas trees, blackberries, orchids”. Bingo.

They needed to hear the question framed in a manner that they understood.
Sra. Maria Marta Padilla, asking the right questions
So the right questions had been asked, and the regulations finished- it was time to buy the first stocks!  Fortunately, three new members arrived, but, unfortunately they weren’t informed that today was the day to pay affiliation(3,000 colones or $6) /buy stocks (5,000 colones/stock or $10) and thus arrived without money. Without buying stocks, you cannot vote (one stock=one vote), which is why we had to postpone the two main tasks-buying stocks and electing the board of directors- for the next week.

Brining me to Lesson 2: Patience. It’s better to do something correctly, rather than to rush things. And what is one more week in the grand scheme of forming a business? So, everyone is coming next week with their wallets full, and (hopefully!) their homework completed of imagining who will make a good president, treasurer, secretary, fiscal, and member of the Credit Committee. 
English class Graduation potluck at my house last week. Next up: Intermediate Part II

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Power of Collaboration

I believe in the power of people coming together.
ECC- Cristo Rey, Charla Informativa (step 2)

Yesterday I was re-listening to Simon Sinek's TEDtalk, "How great leaders inspire action" on a run. Sinek's model for inspirational leaders is simple, and all begins with the question, "WHY?"

Why do we do what we do? Why do we wake up every morning? Why do we choose the path that we choose?

I thought about it as I ran up and down the hills of San Cristobal, why did I choose to be here? Why am I serving in the Peace Corps?

My why hit me as I thought about my most recent project, forming an Empresa de Credito Comunal in a neighboring community, Cristo Rey.

We had our first session on Saturday, step number 3 of the 22 step process (the microfinance model comes from FINCA-Costa Rica). For the motivation of the session the group was re-enacting the three little pigs, the moral of the story being strength but more specifically, strength in numbers. The three little pigs were able to build the strongest house when they all came together, in order to keep the wolf or lobo out (or at least out of the house, as he did end up in their bellies after jumping in their boiling soup on the fire).
ECC Cristo Rey- Charla Informativa

I believe that each community member in the room is going to achieve more when they come together. Alone the majority of them do not have the collateral to take out a loan at BancoNacional, or they really only need a small amount, or they can't afford to travel the 35 km to get to the bank, or they can't fill out the forms. But together they can slowly build their capital, and have the opportunity of financing, through something they created together.

I believe in the power of collaboration, and using connections to create good in the world. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

One Year: Beto and more...

*An October 2010 visit from Marjorie Anctil, Director of Peace Corps World Wise Schools Program lead to the creation of this slideshow, "New Opportunities for Women" highlighting my work with women in San Cristobal Norte, Costa Rica. (Spanish and English versions available!)
Home to 5 birds, 1 dog and me!

At first it is hard to believe that I have been in site for over a year, but as I look around my “cabin” (black-lab mix dog next to me, book case filled with books and the walls holding paintings and pictures on clothespins), I believe it.

Beto! My amazing dog

My old Tarbaca host family, in my new yard 

In April, I successfully organized an Encuentro Nacional, or National Conference for 30 Empresas de Credito Comunal. The bulk of the follow-up to this event will come in June when myself along with four other Peace Corps Volunteers,(representing five different areas of the country), and a representative from both FINCA and Peace Corps offices, will have the first PCV-FINCA Committee meeting . The general goals for the committee right now are:  building on the network established at the April conference; providing support to Peace Corps Volunteers working with Empresas de Credito Comunal, information sharing through FINCAs monthly newsletters and Peace Corps online sharing community, (including creating a tri-annual bulletin of “Best Practices” in the fundamental areas of Empresas de Credito), providing follow up on the action plans from the conference and supporting FINCA in future trainings. With the first meeting we will clearly outline the action plan for the year, and prioritize the goals.
FODA analysis at the Encuentro Nacional

I am excited to get to know my fellow volunteers better in the committee, and learn about what issues they are tackling with the Empresas de Credito Comunal, and how we can improve the network and support. Furthermore, I am looking forward to learning more about FINCA and how the organization’s resources can be best allocated to support the 112 Empresas de Credito in the country.

However, now that the conference is over I have chosen to dedicate more of my time to supporting the Empresa de Credito, SACRIN, in my community. There are two new projects I am taking on- the first is computer classes for the board of directors- focusing on using Microsoft Excel for SACRIN and their own businesses and Microsoft Word.

Possible September purchase: Converse!
The second is strengthening their youth savings program, INED. Every Wednesday Emilce, from SACRINs Credit Committee, and I are at the local school, collecting the students weekly savings and returning their receipts from past weeks. Three weeks ago I put together a brief PowerPoint presentation,  focusing on the importance of saving and talking through examples of what they could buy in September/August if they started saving today (Converse shoes! A cell phone!).

The week after the presentation, 8 (out of 35 who weren’t already members) students opened up new accounts, and we doubled the savings from existing members.   The success continued into this week, where 2 more students joined. Next week, together with SACRIN we are drafting a plan for INED, including a short savings course, trips to visit successful entrepreneurs in the community (and members of SACRIN), talks from past members of INED, and community days (i.e. trash pick-up, environmental hikes, visiting the local hot springs).

Sixth graders (from the World Wide Schools Program- letter exchange with class in Palo Alto, California)

I love getting to know the students, hearing their dreams of purchasing new notebooks for school, a dress for their First Communion, or Converse shoes. I cannot believe the number of elementary school kids already with cell phones, and the number of text messages I have received since starting to work on Wednesdays...

If you get the chance to watch the slideshow from the link above you will see a lot of my projects have a focus on the women in the community- All of which are still going on- Exercise classes, women’s soccer team, yoga/dance/whatever with the senior citizens, small business coaching, promoting the library and English.
San Cristobal Norte Women's Soccer Team
A fellow volunteer came to stay a couple weeks ago and re-inspired me to make English classes interesting- we are no longer allowed to speak Spanish (myself included) and this is lending towards a growing party fund. Each student is being required to make weekly presentations on English books from our library (combining projects!) or news articles from the internet.  We are planning trips to local tourist sites to speak with other foreigners, a pizza making night at my house, listening to English music, movies and more. Their excitement to learn is inspiring, and as we sit around the table I enjoy hearing their ideas, dreams, and opinions.

Lastly, three weeks ago I participated in a 25 km bike race in Turrialba with one of my English class students. Alvaro and his wife picked me up at 5:30 am for the 9:00 am race. As we drove the two hours to Turrialba, the sky turned darker and darker. When we arrived it was pouring rain and the entire route was marked with mud, however it was the best morning adventure ever! I carried and pushed my bike through sugar cane fields, and slipped down mountains, ending the race covered in mud, no rather SOAKED in mud.

River Crossing (I couldn't risk bringing my camera...)
Next week is Mid Service Training, where I will get the chance to enjoy time with fellow volunteers, learn from their successful projects and share a bit of my own successes. Here’s to a great second year in the Peace Corps!

Eric and me in Manuel Antonio, celebrating one year

Monday, April 11, 2011

Encuentro Nacional

Sunday 6 am marked the end of the first "Encuentro Nacional de Empresas de Crédito Comunal y Voluntarios de Cuerpo de Paz" in San Cristobal Norte (my site). 
Don Ananias, me, Steve Dorsey, Maria Marta Padilla, Gabriela (JA)

After about four months of planning (a poor excuse for the long gap in blog posts) the 65 person conference  finally took place. Volunteers travelled from all over Costa Rica with one member of their Empresa de Crédito Comunal (the microloan organization formed using the FINCA-Costa Rica model) to San Cristobal Norte, in order to learn from SACRIN (the Empresa de Credito in my town, and my Peace Corps counterpart), meet other Empresas de Crédito, share ideas and discuss problems and solutions.

Welcome Speech
Now that it is officially over, I admit that there are things that could be improved- more time for sharing among Empresas, better structured sessions, and other little details that could have prevented, i.e. last minute searches for plates, tape and vegetarian options. However, as I begin to read through the evaluations, I smile each time a participant has written exactly one of the objectives of the Encuentro as something they gained from the weekend.

The majority of the participants arrived on Thursday evening, and unfortunately, in true San Cristobal fashion, it was cold and rainy, and we didn’t all fit inside SACRINs offices. As quick as possible we sent them off with host families (who were for the most part socios, or members of SACRIN- another opportunity for information sharing etc.)

Participants Friday morning
Friday morning started early with last minute phone calls from the founder of FINCA, Maria Marta Padilla, organizing the salon and making sure all materials were on hand. I was very fortunate to have tons of help and support from a special someone- otherwise I don’t know how I would have organized the sixty five chairs and tables in our oddly shaped salon communal (or main meeting room for the town). 

At 8:15 am the event kicked off with welcome speeches from Steve Dorsey- Director of Peace Corps Costa Rica, Maria Marta Padilla, a woman from Junior Achievment (another program that Peace Corps volunteers work with), Don Ananias Cordero (President of Sacrin and my counterpart) and myself.

The Encuentro Nacional was scheduled with many different sessions, lead manily by Luis Roberto Jimenez- director of FINCA Costa Rica, Maria Marta Padilla and volunteers. Energy level was kept high (or at least attempted to be kept high) with cafecitos, lunch and dinner, provided by three wonderful women of the commuity (this event also brings an income for community members-another benefit!)

The Friday lunch was held up on a community members soccer field (he used to play for a local team, and is now the president of our development association). It was a long lunch, and volunteers and counterparts played soccer while Andres (a member of SACRIN, who started his entertainment company with a loan from SACRIN) sang. The FINCA San Jose office made the trip up to San Cristobal Norte for lunch, along with visitors from Honduras and Guatamala, from other microfinance organizations. Also five women from a womens group in a neighboring community came- I am working with them now to gain community interest in forming an Empresa de Crédito Comunal in their community (my next project now that the Encuentro is over).
Friday lunch on the soccer field

The afternoon sessions were long (something that could be improved for the future) but Friday evening we held a bonfire in the street and roasted marshmellows. Don Ananias was very doubtful at first as he bit into the roasted marshmellow, but was quickly convinced.

Saturday started at 8 am as well, with a great session of discussion among Empresas de Crédito. Each Empresa de Crédito completed a FODA (or SWOT- Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats analysis) the night before, and were sharing their FODAs in groups. I think this session could have been extended to discuss in different groups, but it was great to hear the Empresas sharing which areas they were being successful in and in which areas they needed to improve. 

I admit I wish I could have been more involved in the sessions, but often found myself running around making sure coffee was ready, food was on its way, the next session was prepared etc.

FODA or SWOT analysis of the Empresas de Credito
In the afternoon the groups split into two and those that were interested in forming an Emrpesa de Crédito went to gain a general overview of the 22 step process while others stayed to hear about the regional networks or sectors of Empresas. In the afternoon an accounting session was also scheduled, it was incredibly valuable for Empresas and volunteers alike, but could have been better planned for a morning session.

The conference ended with future plans for the Empresas and volunteers, evaluations, a certificate ceremony and a slide show. After which a group of volunteers came back to my new house (haven’t even made a blog post about the house!- but it is wonderful and a great size for visitors!!!)

I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, having the volunteers in my site, and making sure everything ran smoothly. Tomorrow starts the tough part of organizing the financial aspect of the event (FINCA got a grant from CRUSA in order to make this possible, participants just had to pay for their own transportation to and from San Jose).

The final step in the Encuentro is making this network sustainable, and inspiring Empresas de Crédito and volunteers to continue in the process of strengthening their organizations. A committee of Volunteers will be formed in about two weeks, to continue the open communication and support between FINCA, Peace Corps and Empresas de Crédito.

FODA analysis
My goal is to continue having events where Empresas de Crédito get the option to share successes and challenges and to continue strengthening the alliance between Peace Corps, FINCA and Empresas de Crédito.