Ozanam Scholars Embrace Faith and Service in Costa Rica Mission

Ozanam Scholars pose for a photo with locals on Costa Rica Mission Trip
June 6, 2024

For 27 first-year students at St. John’s University, a 10-day community service immersion in Costa Rica was an ideal way to live out their commitment to the Ozanam Scholars program.

Led by Domenico Angerosa, Associate Director, Ozanam Scholars, the St. John’s contingent visited areas in and around the capital city of San José, where they volunteered in child care and elderly care centers managed by the nonprofit Fundación Génesis. The group also connected with members of the Vincentian community in Costa Rica, learning about its 13 Houses Campaign to help eradicate homelessness.

The students left for Costa Rica on May 12 and returned on May 22.

“Service and volunteering in the community are essential parts of who we are as Vincentians,” Mr. Angerosa said. “It’s a cultural immersion, but it is also a foundational learning experience about what it is to be present within the community and working with vulnerable populations.”

Established in 2007, the Ozanam Scholars program combines service, academic research, and global citizenship in the spirit of Vincentian lay scholar Frédéric Ozanam, who sought to address poverty in France by inspiring students to serve the poor directly. Students accepted into the St. John’s program receive scholarship assistance and work with faculty and mentors to solve pressing social problems. Service immersions are a defining element of the program: past cohorts have worked in in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Vietnam.

The Costa Rica trip emerged through Mr. Angerosa’s experience living and working there. The country boasts a stable government and the third-largest economy in Central America, but unemployment is high and economic prosperity does not extend to all citizens.

The St. John’s contingent worked directly with Costa Rica’s underprivileged and overlooked through Fundación Génesis, or Genesis Foundation, which helps to ensure equal distribution of food, health care, and educational resources in Costa Rica, particularly among children and seniors.

The Costa Rica experience was transformational for students new to the service priorities of the Vincentian community. Ozanam Scholars typically make service trips during their first and third years at the University.

“When we first met with the Vincentians, we were able to connect with them and also connect with the community that they're serving,” Elvira Garcia ’20Ed, Associate Director for Leadership and Community Development, Campus Ministry, said. “For a number of the students, they had their eyes opened to the idea that the Vincentian community is not only found at St. John’s  or in New York, but is global.”

According to Mr. Angerosa, a school day in Costa Rica is only about half as long as one in the United States. Several St. John’s students helped local children ages six months to 12 years by providing structured activities before and after school. Others tended to senior citizens with physical or emotional challenges who were living in community homes because their families could no longer afford to look after them.

In both cases, students embraced the opportunity to live out the Vincentian mission of St. John’s.

“I would never have thought that simply hugging a young child would make an impact on his or her life, or that sitting down and listening to a senior’s life story would do the same,” said first-year student Loreal Cruz of the Bronx, NY, who is studying International Management at The Peter J. Tobin College of Business. “These small acts were what the community needed on an emotional and spiritual level. I saw faith in action that nourished my spirituality.”

The 13 Houses Campaign follows in the tradition of St. Vincent de Paul, who in 1643 built 13 small houses in France to care for abandoned children. This campaign, begun in 2017, aims to build homes in the 156 countries where the Congregation of the Mission operates to help house some of the 1.2 billion homeless people worldwide.    

In Costa Rica, St. John’s Ozanam Scholars embraced that challenge and others.

“As an Ozanam Scholar, we are encouraged to dig deeper to find ways to assist better the communities we serve,” Loreal said. “Yes, do the service, but also ask the important questions and allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Change is not made within the realm of comfort, but rather on the outskirts of it.”