Daniel Ellman '06
Class of 1966 Dickey Intern, Winter 2005

            Success is a powerful concept.  The drive to succeed largely influences our important decisions while its achievement serves as the chief architect of self-image.   Yet, success, although sought by all people everywhere, is not a universal concept but rather one defined by a multitude of factors.   Success is individualistic, dependent on a single person’s personality and upbringing.  Each person considers his own economic, familial and moral stances when outlining goals for the future.    Success is also determined by larger socio-economic circumstances.  The rich, with greater access to financial, educational and social resources, may develop significantly different life prospects than the destitute.  Thus, while the idea of achievement is largely individualistic and therefore innumerable, it is possible to use class to create more general, finite notions of success which represent the expectations of a certain social sector of the population.  Even further, to compare the differing concepts of success along international lines it is essential to consider the demands and values of distinct cultures.  When working with others, the degree of ultimate group success is measured by the consideration of the differing visions and potentials of every constituent.  Group achievement therefore depends on each individual’s willingness to revise his personal definition of success.  This is the challenged I faced when I arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica to begin my Dickey-sponsored cross cultural service project.  By the end of my two-month stay, my definition of success had been revolutionized.

            I walked off the plane at San Jose International Airport armed with a vision.  I, Daniel Ellman, a white, middle-class, Ivy League student, was going to use my off term to change the lives of poor, Costa Rican children.  With the encouragement and financial assistance of the Dickey Center, I had been given the opportunity to make a difference, to lift the less fortunate out of the depths of hopeless poverty into the realm of possibility and prosperity.  I thought that if I could instill in these people the values of education, hard work and compassion for others that my family, teachers and friends had always emphasized to me, I would inspire the downtrodden to overcome life’s obstacles and fulfill their potential.   These people, if given the proper circumstances had the ability to become doctor’s, lawyer’s, businessmen and senators, the dream of so many of my fellow Americans.  Each homeless Costa Rican child could one day become the patriarch or matriarch of a healthy family and enjoy the love and support which exude from such domestic conditions.  This was my goal and, as I thought, theirs too. 

            The first test of my notion of success was my interaction with Abram.  The director of my volunteer organization had envisioned the formation of a relationship between Abram and me which would help to right the misguided orphan.  Immediately, though, the goal was to help Abram pass the sixth grade.  While I gladly accepted this project, I knew that in order for this young 15 year old to respect and listen to me he first had to trust me.  Therefore, I devoted myself to becoming his friend and for a whole week I spent almost all of my time with him.  I tried to do the things that I thought an average Costa Rican would want to do. I tried to talk to him, invited him to play soccer, hung out on the street with him and his friends and treated him to meals at local pubs.   After several days, I began to encourage Abram to study with me.  I asked him to sit down with me each day and allow me to teach him the three subjects he needed to graduate from sixth grade.  I thought that if I could spark his interest in a subject, not only would I help him pass but maybe even introduce him to something which he could use to nail down a career path.  I had big plans for Abram.

            Abram, however, was not in agreement with the schedule I had outlined for him.  From the moment I met him, Abram seemed resentful of my presence.  He shrugged off many of my invitations to spend time together and the few times he did consent he always acted coldly and bitterly towards me.  I attempted to offer interesting conversations, asking him about Costa Rican life, sports, and school and sharing my similar experiences in America.  Whenever asked a question, Abram responded tersely if at all.  At first, I thought his disinterest was because I had treated him condescendingly or presented myself as his superior.  To remedy this I explained to him that I respected him very much for having survived the many smacks life had given him and that I wanted to help create a situation which would be easier for him and help him to succeed.  It was in this notion of ultimate success that I was disillusioned.   Abram had no interest in academics and consequently rejected my tutoring efforts.  Abram was too young and too scarred from living on the streets to consider a lifelong career path.  In my definition of Abram’s success, I had not considered his urgent needs and desires and thus we never formed the working relationship I had anticipated. In the fourth week that I was in Costa Rica, Abram was arrested for armed robbery.  After slipping free of police cuffs, Abram became a fugitive on the streets of San Jose and I never saw him again.  Thus, my first project in Costa Rica ended in absolute failure.

            However, two good things resulted from my defective interaction with Abram.  Firstly, I learned that I needed to replace my lofty goals for my Costa Rican project with more tangible, attainable visions which considered the immediate situations of those who I sought to help.  Secondly, through Abram and Gail Nystrom, the director of the volunteer foundation, I met Jose Angel.  A twenty year old Costa Rican, Jose Angel had fled his home 8 years earlier after he witnessed his father and ten of his friends brutally rape his mother.  After living on the streets where drugs, prostitution, police violence and gang wars plagued the homeless, Jose Angel had been adopted by Gail.  Despite the efforts of many volunteers, Jose Angel had struggled to find work and frequently relapsed into waves of anger and drug use.  When I first met Jose Angel, the hate in his dark black eyes revealed the pain he had suffered throughout his life.  I wanted to help Jose Angel but having learned from Abram, I was cautious and even hesitant to intrude for fear of even further alienating the already isolated young man. 

Yet something about Jose Angel was different from Abram. He never treated me with contempt and even seemed to welcome my friendship.  Gradually, as we began to spend more and more time together, we started to trust each other.   Jose Angel opened up to me revealing the horrible details of his past life and his hopes for the new life that Gail had given him.  Thus, I slowly began to realize that Jose Angel wanted to change, to escape the horrible life he had been living.  As I got to know and understand Jose Angel, I developed a deeper appreciation for his struggle and thus was able to consider practical ways to help him.  After Jose revealed to me that he loved to paint, I encouraged him to draw copiously, brought him to art critics to improve on his skills and worked with him to determine his favorite and most promising styles.   I also learned that Jose Angel enjoyed learning English and consequently we had daily English lessons.  During these sessions, Jose Angel became a different person. When he would pronounce a word correctly, his eyes would gleam, replacing hate with pride.  This enthusiasm eventually expanded out of our learning sessions and Jose Angel began to become more passionate about other aspects of life.  After finding a job in construction, Jose Angel prided himself on his ability to pay the bills for his own house as well as his capacity for manual labor.  Thus, in part because of my help, Jose Angel discovered a confidence which he used to challenge the social and financial predicaments that had burdened him for so many years. 

In my attempt to aid Jose Angel, I had succeeded because I had allowed our relationship to develop naturally and in doing so allowed Jose Angel’s dreams to surface.  What Jose Angel needed was a feeling of self-worth.  Working construction, Jose Angel was able to earn money to feed himself while simultaneously contributing to the completion of a new structure which gave him great pride and a feeling of accomplishment.  Jose Angel’s financial emergency did not allow him to fantasize about ways to make a living ten years down the road.  He needed self- sufficiency and independence immediately.  Construction was his ticket and I encouraged him to work hard appreciate his own ability.  Yet, I also never allowed him to abandon his true passion, art.  The English lessons, I told him, would help him when he began to sell his painting to tourists.  Seeing the tangible and realistic result of his English education, Jose Angel studied hard.  Thus, when working with Jose Angel, I abandoned my American-bred tendency to romanticize about the future and instead attempted to channel Jose Angel’s interests and skills to relieve Jose Angel’s immediate predicament.  When I left, Jose Angel was still in the seventh grade, still struggled to read and on occasion still using drugs.  Yet, this was not important.  Jose Angel, with my help, had begun the process of becoming a man who felt responsible for and confident in his decisions.  This jumpstart was more valuable than any lessons that could possibly be derived from a textbook.     

My relationship with Jose Angel, furthermore, was not one-sided. In as much as I helped him, Jose Angel helped me.  Jose Angel, despite his horrific past, was one of the kindest and most loyal people I have ever met.  Although constantly on the verge of financial calamity, Jose Angel valued our friendship as the most valuable thing he owned.  For him, living one day in poverty with a friend was worth more than a thousand days in opulence without one and this attitude greatly deepened my appreciation for the power of companionship.  Through this relationship, we also expressed in each other a confidence which redefined both of our self- images.   Jose Angel backed down at nothing and in doing so taught me the meaning of a will to overcome.  Furthermore, Jose Angel’s horrific past reduced all of my little complaints in life to naught.  Yet, when I told him once that I had very little respect for what I had accomplished in life as I considered solely the natural product of my social and financial fortune, he silenced me with the insistence that life was difficult for everyone and anyone who survived was a warrior.   It amazed me that after having been trampled upon for his entire life, Jose Angel retained a faith in the integrity of the human spirit.  Thus, while I had been the one who arrived in Costa Rica championing the importance of hard work and moral values, it was Jose Angel who instilled in me the true significance of these ideas.   Although I had never envisioned such result, our relationship was dually successful in that improved the lives of both people involved. 

When I was not spending time with Abram or Jose Angel, I worked at a local orphanage.   Upon arrival on my first day, I was struck by the disorganization of the place.  Fourteen caretakers, almost none with any official training, were assigned to care for eighty-four orphaned, abandoned or abused children ranging from ages 2-17.  At least eight of these children were mentally disabled and required personal supervision at all times while several others had severe illnesses, including HIV, also required constant monitoring.  The rest of the children were still plagued by emotional difficulties resulting from past sexual and physical abuse.  Overwhelmed with responsibility, the caretakers were forced to prioritize.  This was the explanation I received when I found Joseline, an 11 year old autistic child, tied to a chair.  Enraged by the inhumanity, I stormed off to the administrator and demanded that Joseline be transferred to another facility where she could receive proper care and attention.  The director, although in agreement that Joseline could not be physically bound, silenced my petitions for Joseline’s removal with the simple words, “This is the best there is.”  At first, I refused to accept this excuse.  Yet after meeting with several physiologists and other child service personnel, I was forced to acknowledge the reality of the situation.  In Costa Rica, few if any organizations offered full time care of disabled children while schools for the mentally challenged were limited in both size and number.  Thus, Joseline had no choice but to stay in the orphanage where she was neglected and mistreated. 

After seeing the gravity of Joseline’s situation, I decided to devote my time at the orphanage specifically to helping her.  However, having never worked with disabled children and being essentially ignorant of the causes or effects of such diseases, I was completely unprepared for such a task.  Initially, I hoped I could play games with Joseline, read with her, and even help her to participate in activities with the other children.  My hopes were dashed when I realized that Joseline had a very severe case of autism which prevented her from speaking intelligibly or understanding anything more than brief commands.  Further, Joseline had a nervous tendency to hit herself and rip out her own hair.  In order to prevent self-mutilation, the caretakers bound her arms in a straight position using metal braces.  With such mental and physical limitations, it was impossible to pursue to course I had anticipated.  In fact, it seemed there was only one thing I could do with her.  Everyday I would arrive at the orphanage and take Joseline outside. When outside we would wander aimlessly, as I ostensibly did little more than follow her around and stop her from bothering other children or caretakers.  After a week of doing this, I began to feel very frustrated.  I had come to Costa Rica to make a difference, to change someone’s life.  Joseline not only was incapable of normal learning and progress but also could not even remember who I was from one day to the next.  I felt that I was being used solely to keep Joseline from bothering anyone else.  I wanted to do something more so I could look back a child I worked with and say, “Wow, look at him now.”  After this week of monotony, I seriously considered asking the director to transfer me to another child.

Then, it happened.  On that Friday morning, I walked into Joseline’s orphanage house expecting to see the same stare of anonymity which I always received from the young girl.  Yet, on that day, the second that Joseline saw me walk in the door she squealed and ran towards me.  Grabbing my hand, she dragged me to the door and started pounding until her house’s nanny came and released the lock.  The door swung open and she bolted outside pulling me behind her.   Upon reaching the outdoors, the sun showered her light brown hair with a golden shine and the warm breeze hit her face.  So ecstatic to finally be outside, she spontaneously broke out into an awkward, little dance.  This is when it hit me.  I was helping her; I was making her happy.  I had never realized it, but our walks were the highlight of Joseline’s days.  They were a release, a freedom from the incarceration of her house and the teasing of the other orphans.  Outside, Joseline walked where she wanted, when she wanted.  It was peace and quite from the chaos and suffering of orphanage life.  Although she was never able to express these thoughts to me in words, after that day in the orphanage I understood what she thought.  Joseline, because of her illness, was forced to live each day without conscious memory of the one before or any hope for the one after.  Thus, in a tragic way, Joseline was able to do something that many able bodied people could not.  She lived in the moment, free of worry and shame, seeking only that which made her happy.  It was only after Joseline showed me that she needed me that I felt I was doing good.  No longer did I consider myself a babysitter burdened with a duty that no one else sought to deal with.  No, I was the person who brought Joseline her happiness.   Thus, Joseline, like Abram and Jose Angel, demanded that I revise my definition of success to include the immediate needs of those I sought to help.  When with Joseline, every day was a separate entity, unrelated and independent of any before or after.  It then did not matter that Joseline did not show significant progress either socially or academically because of my work.  All that mattered was that each day Joseline smiled because I was there. In two months, I think Joseline may have looked me directly in the eyes only once. But I know that when her eyes met mine they spoke the words she could not: Thank you.

My experiences with Abram, Joseline and Jose Angel were all very different.  Looking back, I cannot, in the whole scheme of things say I made a huge difference.  Despite my internship, poverty still plagues Costa Rica especially in urban San Jose and the scandal-ridden Costa Rican government remains unresponsive to the needs of their underprivileged constituency.  Even with Abram, I was unable to make significant change and Abram, assuming he is still alive, probably remembers me as just one of the many volunteers who did not understand and couldn’t help.  If you were to ask Joseline, “Who is Danny Ellman?” she would have absolutely no idea who I was or even what you were asking.  But I know that everyday I saw her I made her happy and that, even if only subconsciously, will remain with her for the rest of her life.   With Jose Angel, the difference was clear.  Two people from backgrounds that could not be any more contrasting became great friends and helped each other grow and achieve things that alone would not have been possible.  I have attached an email sent to me by Jose Angel after I returned to America, probably the first email he has ever and maybe will ever send in his life.  The typing, spelling and grammar are horrendous, but the message is incredible.  For me, that email alone confirms my success in Costa Rica.  

 

From: "jose angel reyes" <laramerzy@hotmail.com>

To: Daniel.j.Ellman@Dartmouth.EDU

Subject:  MY BROM

Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2005 15:33:56 -0600

 Hola  como estas espero que bien hermano ëstado muy  triste por tu pardida ; almismotiempo  dengo un gran amigo que eres tu; espero que este  felis  hay  momentos en vida que los puenos  amigos seceparan por un tiempo no importan las distancias lugares del mundo que estemos somos;  Una misma persona porque los recuerdos los cuartamos el nuestros corzones y alma.   No estoy solo ni usted tenemos grandes opordunidades y amigos por conocer  espero que estes  alegre yo pienso que estas triste porque no estamos cerga y vonbernos aver; alveses yo mesiento  asi porque no estamos jundos para aser nuestras trabesuras y loqueras . Dani  no epodito escribirte porlo hocupado que estoy el estos dias tradare de escribir lomas que pueda, si tu quieres escribirme tedoy mi mail es (laramerzy@hotmail.com) yo tambien estoy preocupado es tando tiempo que temos de  no vernos este perano espero que good luck

Subject Title- My Brother

Hi, how are you? I hope you are well my good brother.  I am really because of your departure but at the same time I have a great friend in you.  I hope that you are happy.  There are moments in life when friends separate for a time. But the long distances don’t matter because we are all in the same world.  We are the same person because our memories touch both our hearts and our spirits.  I am not alone and neither are you.  We have great opportunities and close friends.  I hope you are happy; I think you are sad because we are not close and we can’t see each other.  Sometimes, I feel the same way because we are not together in order to do pranks and crazy things.  Danny I cant write to you as often as I’d like because I am so busy these days but I will write as much as I can.  If you want you, write to me at laramerzy@hotmail.com).  I am also worried because it has been so no since we saw each other this summer. I hope that – good luck. 


Daniel Ellman is an '06 History major with a minor in Spanish Literature. Outside the classroom, Dan is the Founder and Captain of the Dartmouth Men's Club Tennis Team, the Vice President of Membership at the Dartmouth Hillel and was the co-leader of Hillel's 2005 Project Preservation. Since arriving at Dartmouth, Dan has become increasingly interested in Spanish and Hispanic culture. This passion has led him to study in Barcelona and then to Costa Rica where he worked in an orphanage and with young children from the streets of San Jose. An internship at the Nassau County Legal Aid Society convinced Dan to apply to law school, although he is considering taking several years off in the hope of working for Teach for America. After height limitations forced Dan to reconsider his dream to become a professional basketball player, he began to live vicariously through New York athletic teams and is positive that this year the Giants finally have the ingredients to put together a championship football team.