Pura Vida is Truly for Everyone: El Centro Morpho

Pura vida. It's a phrase you hear everywhere in Costa Rica. It's a greeting between friends. It's a response to "How are you?" It's an expression of gratitude. It's a way of life. It's only two words, yet it means so much. It's pura vida.

I've only been in Costa Rica for a little over a month now, and at times, it still feels like if I blink for a moment, I'll wake up, pencil in hand, a textbook on the floor, and another exam the next morning. It all still feels so surreal—I really am in another country for nine months. Before I left, so many questions floated in my head, unanswered like missing pieces of a puzzle I couldn’t quite piece together. How would I survive? How would I make new friends? Would the locals understand me? Would the people be nice? Would I be safe? 

Touching down at the San Jose airport–my head filled with a mix of anxiousness, excitement, and anticipation–I stepped out into foreign territory ready to brave the storm ahead. Indeed, it was quite literally storming outside upon arrival, but contrary to my many worries that cracked and thundered, I was shocked by the degree of kindness and familiarity I found myself greeted with. These people whom I had never met before already treated me like a friend, and at that moment, many of the fears that clouded my thoughts gave way to a sunny excitement about what lay ahead. Of course, I was still intimidated, but I could now walk through Pérez Zeledón with a bit more confidence in my step.

Centro Morpho written largely in the organization's sign in blue letters on a stone background, backed by a blue sky and clouds above

Having studied extensively about Costa Rica before my trip, one thing I was really intrigued by was what pura vida was exactly. If directly translated, it means "pure life" or "simple life," but what does that even mean? For me, I think I got my first taste of what pura vida was when I first met my host family, but it wasn't until I started my community placement that I truly understood what it meant to live out the saying. Each program participant is assigned a community placement that best suits them, and unbeknownst to me, I could not have been assigned to a more perfect placement: El Centro Morpho.

Centro Morpho, or just Morpho, is a center for independent life run for and by individuals with disabilities. To fully understand Morpho, we need to start from the beginning. Created in 2011 by Luis Hernan Cambronero and Wendy Barrantes, the current president of the organization, Morpho initially started as a five-year project from 2012 to 2017 under the aid of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). With their assistance, Morpho developed itself under the following vision:

"Ser el movimiento a nivel regional en el país que integre a las personas con discapacidad para que estas logren una inclusión social real lo cual les permita llevar una vida independiente, plena y satisfactoria."
"To be the movement at a regional level in the country that integrates people with disabilities so that they achieve real social inclusion, allowing them to lead an independent, full, and satisfactory life."

To achieve this vision, Barrantes realized that they needed to create a legal framework to support independent living and promote a law to offer support for the "public support for the dispatch of personal assistants." As described in a newsletter from JICA, prior to 2016, anyone with a cognitive or psychosocial disability in Costa Rica was considered to be "legally incompetent" and was "prohibited from acquiring property." However, thanks to the efforts of Morpho, the Law Promoting the Personal Autonomy of Persons with Disabilities was passed. It was the first in Latin America to "formalize a service that dispatches personal assistants to persons with disabilities."

Room full of parts for various assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, at Centro Morpho

Presently, as an organization, Morpho aims to be a support tool for people regardless of the degree or type of disability they have, helping promote human rights, providing legal assistance, offering emotional support systems and independent living support to those in need, and recruiting members to the cause. Currently, with a team of 27 independent-living assistants working around the clock, specialized aid is provided in-home from the crack of dawn to the last rays of the sun to individuals with disabilities. But more than just a center for independent life, at its core, Morpho is a family.

In the morning, you can hear the voices of friends and coworkers alike happily chattering away amidst the light bustle of work. Sometimes, you may see people pop their heads in and stick around to hang out the rest of the day. In the afternoon, you may smell the rich aroma of food wafting through the air, signaling the signs of a really good lunch to come. Other times, the notes of freshly roasted coffee will linger in the air as its made for cafecito, a mid-day coffee break. At any time during the day, however, if anyone ever needs help with anything, there's always someone willing to lend a hand. It doesn’t matter what they were doing, they’ll just help no questions asked. 

Four coworkers, three in wheelchairs, talking, working, and laughing together at a table at Centro Morpho

Rather than a formal affair, it really feels like you're just spending time with some friends and also happen to be doing work. Rather than a traditional office space, it's genuinely the idea of that "simple life" of pura vida. However, at the root of it all lies an unceasing desire to restore normalcy to life. It’s so easy to forget that many of the people working in Morpho are in wheelchairs or have other disabilities because of how tight-knit everyone is. Disabilities aren't spurned here; instead, they are celebrated as a part of oneself. Despite the seemingly relaxed work environment of the office, so much is still going on. Wheelchairs are being repaired, assistant shifts are being scheduled, workshops are being prepared, and more is happening right beneath the surface. Through it all, everyone carries themselves with a bright yet laid-back energy of pura vida so unique to Costa Rica. 

And, that's what makes Morpho truly work. If it didn't have that well-balanced blend of pura vida and a more serious office environment, Morpho wouldn't be as helpful to the people it serves. Rather than a stiff and rigid organization offering assistance to people with disabilities, Morpho is an organization that expresses the warmth of human kindness and caring that people need. As the sun makes ice melt, it’s the warmth of this kindness that dissolves the frigid isolation someone can receive from society, giving way to the "real social inclusion" that Morpho champions.

When I first came to Morpho with those same early fears and worries, I was embraced with a smile and open arms. At that moment, they didn’t know who I was, but I had already become a part of their family. After only a week or two, I already felt at home. Although Morpho is able to do so much for the people in the community, the organization is often unknown to those who need it due to a lack of public exposure, which is where my role comes in. In the coming months, I will be promoting and producing a media campaign with videos to advertise the services Morpho undertakes on a daily basis and the different workshops/support systems they offer. Making videos, especially about such an amazing cause, is something I am really passionate about and is why I think Morpho is such a perfect fit for me.

I was recently invited to a birthday party by my coworker, yet another example of how I've been made to feel welcome and included, and I was told something by the host that I think captures the spirit of the Ticos (Costa Ricans) perfectly. It was something along the lines of: 

"Wherever you are in the world, if you ever come to Costa Rica and need a place to stay, just send me a message. My home will always be open to you."

Although I hadn't yet been able to address all the worries and concerns I had at the start of my journey, I realized that along the way I had unknowingly grown more comfortable with the idea of Costa Rica thanks to the community, the family I had somehow found. I may have been a foreigner in another country, but at that moment, reflecting on the past month, I felt a little bit like a Tico myself. I may not know what the future has in store for me; however, I know I can handle it because I’ll keep things simple and enjoy my time here. I'll just live pura vida

Yao Xiao