Since its foundation 21 years ago this month, by two 9-year-olds, Kids Saving the Rainforest has always tried to keep at least one nominal “Spokes-kid” around to continue the tradition of, well, kids saving the rainforest. However, with all the children of staff and volunteers growing up or moving away, such a role has just recently been passed to me, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. Am I the youngest? Not even close. The most childlike-at-heart? Not likely. The most immature? Not—Ok, well, possibly.
But when I am not filling the tiny shoes of all the Spokeskids before me, leading tours of the wildlife sanctuary, organizing sloth research, assisting with animal pickups (mostly because no one else on staff can drive our manual-transmission Wildlife Ambulance), or relocating wild snakes off the grounds, I find time to do my primary job, which is coordinating KSTR’s volunteer program.
I’m always interested in the reasons people choose to become volunteers, who consist of our largest workforce and one of our greatest sources of funding. Their stories impress and mystify me. Their backgrounds are as varied and diverse as the countries they call home.
Many, as I expected, tend to be young people looking for work experience. These are the twenty-somethings on a gap year, or in between college semesters. Maybe they have an environmental background, or are trying to champion a good conservation cause. Maybe they’ve traveled before, but some are away from home and out of the country for the first time. They may stay and work for a few weeks, but oftentimes extend and stick around, postponing flights back to “real life” to spend more time with the animals.
But some are older, with careers and families. Some are couples, using a rare opportunity to synch vacations and travel together and come here to spend that precious time off to help animals. More often than not these types have no environmental or science background at all—we’ve had lawyers, doctors, engineers. They come from London, New York, Sydney, even from Dubai. And yet here they are.
What brings people like these out here? What possesses someone to be so generous to spend a vacation working? To “Voluntour?” For most, again, the opportunity is a career move and work experience, but that’s not always the case. After all, how exactly does a lawyer from London personally benefit from using their holiday to feed sloths?
Some say curiosity. They wanted to try something completely different. Their lives were unfulfilled. They wanted to help. They wanted to challenge themselves, to get out of their comfort zone. They really, really like sloths. Actually, I get that one a lot.
So if you have the time, the resources, and the inclination, come check us out. Want first-hand animal work? No prior experience necessary. Need a break from that office job? Contact me. Do you get bored easily on a vacation and prefer to stay busy? We can use you. Do you like sloths? Like, really, really like sloths?
You are not alone.
The first person to drive me around Quepos, Costa Rica when I moved here two years ago was Chip Braman. A silver-haired, tan-skinned, distinguished gentleman who looks much younger than his 72 years, Chip moved to the Quepos and Manuel Antonio area on the central Pacific coast 18 years ago from Connecticut. After spending 30 years traveling the globe as the international marketing director for Avon, Chip was ready for a change. Costa Rica’s pristine natural environment, affordable cost of living, and friendly people made the country an easy choice.
“It doesn’t even matter if you don’t speak Spanish,” says Chip. “Look at anyone here in Costa Rica, smile, and say ‘pura vida’ with that thumbs up, and I guarantee, he’s going to say it right back at you. And you’ll realize: You know what, he’s right. It’s all pura vida here. It’s a good day, and it’s beautiful.”
Chip soon met an ambitious expat named Jennifer Rice, then 44, who was the founder of a hotel called the Mono Azul, (or “Blue Monkey”). Her husband had died a few years before, but she was helping her young daughter Janine, then 9, and her friend Aislín start a fledgling nonprofit organization. Chip fell in love with both Jennifer and the idea, and the rest is history.
Kids Saving the Rainforest is now a 20-year-old non-profit in Quepos that rescues and rehabilitates wildlife, runs a sanctuary and educational tours, plants trees, and puts up life-saving wildlife bridges over roads in Manuel Antonio. Chip and Jennifer have since sold the Mono Azul and have retired to life at the sanctuary. They now have much more time to devote to their ecological passion and are living their dream here in the rainforests of Costa Rica.
Both he and Jennifer are active members of the vibrant local expat community in Quepos, and over the years they’ve spent here, they have made firm friends with people from all over the world. Chip does his accounting overlooking the lovely swimming pool of the Blue Banyan Inn—a complex consisting of three luxury cottages he has built on his property outside of Quepos. Running a business, as well as helping out with the sanctuary, has had its challenges, but nothing they couldn’t handle. As Chip puts it: “Nothing ever happens like you expect it to. But at the end of the day, it all works out and you’re still in Costa Rica.”
Even if things get busy at times, it’s still retirement. Chip finds plenty of time for his favorite pastime: sketching the plants and animals that inspire him in the surrounding rainforest. He’s also surrounded by a motley crew of volunteers from all over the world: wildlife veterinarians, biologists, and other people dedicated to the cause—a true family he has brought together.
That laidback attitude of Chip’s rubs off too. Recently, I was standing in the bus station at Quepos—the local hub for cheap and mostly comfortable transport to the rest of Costa Rica. (Ten dollars will get you from Quepos to San José, the capital, in about four hours.) I had just missed a series of three buses to visit a beach I had never yet been to. I heard that saying of Chip’s in my head.
It’s true. When you make the adjustment, Costa Rica’s relaxed pace gets to be a benefit, not a frustration. I spotted a stand with soda and empanadas selling for less than a dollar. The public bus would take me to the beach in Manuel Antonio in less than 10 minutes for about 70 cents, as long as I had the patience to wait.
I headed for the empanada stand, and who did I run into buying a bus ticket to the capital city? Chip himself. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, and he repeated his saying onsite for effect. I grabbed an empanada and pineapple soda. Pretty soon, I was on my bus, the cool breeze blowing away the heat of the day. Chip was right, and the day was beautiful.
If you’re in the Quepos area and want to pay Chip a visit, he offers warm hospitality, a booming greeting, and a hearty handshake when the Kids Saving the Rainforest wildlife sanctuary offers educational tours (9 a.m., every day but Tuesday). He’ll have plenty of advice to give you on living the laidback lifestyle in Costa Rica.
Story taken from the International Living Magazine Oct. 2019 Vol. 40 No. 6 Pg. 8.
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The Kids Saving the Rainforest staff