Walking the Walk: Rainbow Pfaff

"My name is Rainbow Pfaff, and I have stumbled into a place where the dust and the fresh wood smoke swoop over the houses like a throng of swallows. Here is a small circle of life pressed flat between the perfect icing-blue sky and rolling green coffee fields that blend in patterned patches right to the horizon. I have pressed myself against this place too, my sandals learning the chinks in the yellow dirt that leads the world in and out; the sandy road that lets this pueblito breathe. My tongue is learning to roll new language over it, juggling the consonants like pebbles clinking between my teeth. I am working into this dirt and among these hills, pushing down a thin, smooth root, and turning my face to the Costa Rican sun. I, at 25, being of sound mind and body, have become a part of a smaller circle of life: a volunteer English teacher in a mountain town of 300 residents, one school, one church, two corner stores, and a soccer field."

Growing up Quaker, attending Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting with her mother and sister when young, then later Reston (Va.) Meeting, Rainbow Pfaff has been blessed and challenged. Unsure, at a time in her life where there are more decisions to be made than solutions to be found, yet led to be living and teaching in rural Costa Rica, Rainbow has nestled herself into a unique corner of the world to live her faith.

Rainbow says her first involvement in the Religious Society of Friends was through Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends. Attending dozens of weekend conferences, she found a spiritual home, friendships, and a way of life that fueled her. Later she began attending Friends General Conference’s annual Gathering, working there as a high school counselor. After graduating from Warren Wilson College in 2000, with a major in Human Studies and a concentration in Women’s Studies, she looked into teaching at Monteverde, a Quaker school located in Costa Rica. Interested in both the country and the experience of teaching, but lacking teaching credentials or Spanish language experience, she was not qualified for the position. Instead, she found a job at the Feminist Health Center of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and began a journey that she hoped would lead her to where it was she was supposed to be. How does one take one’s college experience, insights, and dreams, and turn them all into the rest of one’s life?

Rainbow writes of these times: "From the end of college on, Costa Rica began to knit pieces around me; like a puzzle it began to take shape. It seemed every new person I spoke to had something to say about Costa Rica. By the time the New England winter had gotten into gear, I had made up my mind that Central America was looking nicer and nicer. All of the times when my mind showed interest in Central American travel began to add up, like weights in a balance. I found WorldTeach in a book called Alternatives to the Peace Corps, and I dog-eared the page."

WorldTeach was founded in 1986 by a group of Harvard graduates and students in response to the need for educational assistance in developing countries. Addressing a growing interest among people in the U.S. and elsewhere to serve, teach, and learn as volunteers overseas, WorldTeach has placed thousands of volunteer educators in communities throughout Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe http://www.worldteach.org.

Packing up her life and relocating to Costa Rica was not always a dream of hers, but Rainbow feels that going to Costa Rica has been one of the clearest moments of leading that she has ever experienced. She has long been aware of global eco-politics and has been especially critical of sweatshop labor, maquiladoras, and North American over-consumerism, but living in La Violeta, Costa Rica, has been less part of a long-term cause she has fought for, and more an important testimony—a real life lesson that needed to be learned in order to have "all the rest of it make sense."

There are two pieces to the story that leads to Rainbow arriving in the village of La Violeta. First, a few decades ago, the international market for coffee started to become more lucrative and people of La Violeta, like other communities throughout Central America, became interested in producing it as a cash crop. Before this time the land around the village was used only to produce food and, in good years, perhaps an excess to trade or sell. After the introduction of coffee, the family farms were slowly traded for coffee fields, which came with the prospect of receiving money to use for a family’s own needs: buying school uniforms, improving the houses, modernizing parts of their lives. Today, looking out around the town, all that one can see are coffee fields.

For a while, coffee prices were high and the people did relatively well, but in recent years coffee prices have fallen so much that the people of La Violeta do not make any profit. The money they receive is exactly equivalent to the expenses of fertilizers, bags, gasoline, tools, etc.

The second piece of the story is that several years ago, the government of Costa Rica made English mandatory for all public primary and secondary schools throughout the country. The reasoning was related to the increased tourist and international markets in the Costa Rican economy. While teaching English as a foreign language to the children of Costa Rica is well-intentioned, says Rainbow, there are many practical problems. Schools that enroll less than 200 students, as most non-urban schools do, are not eligible for a Ministry of Education-paid English teacher. Therefore it is left to nonprofit organizations like WorldTeach, and dedicated volunteers like Rainbow, to provide the villages of coffee growers with their English teachers.

In her classroom, Rainbow has 31 students, in first through sixth grades. Each day she teaches six 40-minute classes including learning new vocabulary, playing matching games, reading stories, taking tests, coloring flash cards, and singing songs. Her classroom is a converted storage closet with eight desks and a chalkboard. Many WorldTeach volunteers, including Rainbow, have additional responsibilities. Hers include painting school murals, fundraising for the construction of an English classroom, introducing a recycling program, helping her students grow an organic garden, and teaching adult English classes.

Rainbow writes: "Certainly, four years ago at Warren Wilson College I could not have pictured myself where I am now. It is one of those hairpin turns that the road sometimes takes, leaving skid marks behind. I know that my task in La Violeta is not to conduct an economic analysis or solve the problems caused in part by huge overarching global systems, but the reality is that the people in my village—now my friends, my family—do not have any options besides coffee. Today, coffee is all that they know, and all that really is expected of them. Only a very small percentage of people in my town have continued past the mandatory graduation from sixth grade and gone to high school (although the younger generation is a little more encouraged today). If the kids I teach every day manage to graduate from high school the job opportunities are tangible and encouraging. On a small level, getting kids interested and invested in school is one step towards giving them a chance for a better job, and in turn a little relief for an agriculturally based village such as La Violeta."

Though her contract was for a single year, Rainbow has signed up for a second. Making the commitment was a difficult decision, as the expenses that were covered for her first year, such as airfare and insurance, will not be covered for the second year. The stipend she receives barely equals her monthly expenses for things like toiletries, postage, local travel costs, and small school expenses. Because volunteers are 100 percent responsible for the classroom costs, Rainbow says her lesson planning has become quite creative. Tax-deductible donations to WorldTeach are welcome; these will go into an account for her, covering school supplies and her international health insurance. For more information about donating, contact Harriet Wong of WorldTeach, at (617) 495-5527.

When asked if she felt a leading to do this work, Rainbow responded: "I can only speak from my experiences. In the midst of my decision, it didn’t seem like an epiphany at all, more like an incredible, uncomfortable, confusing month or so—applications, interviews, and glancing every now and then at the friends around me wondering what my world would look like if they were not in it. There are times in life when we are spinning so deeply inside of our own selves, rocking and sick from the centrifugal force, that all we have to do is let ourselves go, relax into that humming center, and the leading takes us where we are meant to be. I guess out of all that craziness, I did the thing that was probably the hardest to do: just let go. When I opened my eyes, I was in San Jose with my giant green duffle bag and my cowgirl hat.

"There are things that I have stored in my memory that I could not relate to almost anyone—personal, humorous, confusing, and chaotic experiences that are woven in with the dirt roads and coffee fields of La Violeta. It amazes me now that I could have missed out on all of it if I had not let go and followed as the way opened. There would be 31 children whose faces I never would have known, a bevy of mothers I couldn’t have seen, a batch of tamales cooked on wood fire stoves that I never would have tasted, a whole part of the world—a part of my life, that I never would have experienced. I am grateful now, 20/20 in hindsight, for the turmoil that I waded through, and for that uncomfortable place from which grew forth the first green shoots of a leading that has become the life that I know."

As she enters the next year of this experience, Rainbow concludes that having an active faith is unquestionably important to her and her life choices. Speaking truth to power is the way that she acts upon her faith, to try the best she can to help the people of the world with her own two hands. For now, this means waking up every morning, breathing deep, drinking her coffee, and then settling into an elementary school routine—teaching the English names for vegetables, colors, places in the town, and parts of the body. For her, this is the epitome of simplicity and speaking truth to power. For her, this is walking the walk.

Breeze E. Luetke-Stahlman

Breeze E. Luetke-Stahlman, a member of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City, Mo., attends 57th Street Meeting in Chicago, Ill., where she is a graduate student in Public Policy at University of Chicago.