San Jose, Costa Rica
Thomson Reuters Foundation

After a trio of boys in the working-class neighbourhood of La Carpio told Alicia Aviles they wanted to play musical instruments instead of football, she set her sights on creating a symphony orchestra for one of the poorest districts in Costa Rica's capital.

Starting with a few plastic recorders and a guitar in a run-down building, La Carpio's musicians now perform in the nation's biggest theatres, and Aviles' idea has mushroomed into a vibrant arts and education scheme that has helped transform the area.

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Musical director Andrei Montero stands in the street in La Carpio, San Jose, with musicians from SIFAIS in this 2016 image. PICTURE: Courtesy of SIFAIS via Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"How your skin prickles when you hear the kids from your own community who have a violin in their hands instead of a pistol," said Ms Aviles, one of thousands of Nicaraguan migrants who have settled in La Carpio.

"When I hear them play, I think I'm in heaven," said the former school teacher, who worked as a cook when she moved to Costa Rica with her five children.

"How your skin prickles when you hear the kids from your own community who have a violin in their hands instead of a pistol."

Alicia Aviles, resident of La Carpio.

Bordered by polluted rivers and a huge rubbish dump, the packed district, with one of Central America's biggest migrant communities, has long been associated with crime and its people marginalised, said Maris Stella Fernandez, co-founder of SIFAIS (Integrated System of Art Education for Social Inclusion).

On a Saturday afternoon, the sounds of Elgar and indie rock poured from the "Cave of Light" wooden building rising above corrugated-iron roofs, where SIFAIS provides more than 100 free workshops each week - from music lessons to judo and English.

Girls twirled in ballet classes, while women learned about medicinal plants in the high-fenced garden, and engineers arrived with a cake to mark the installation of solar panels that will generate half of the non-profit foundation's power.

Practising his cello as the sun streamed through the wooden slats cladding the building, Brayan Blandon Ordonez said he was a bundle of nerves before a recent symphonic rock concert in front of a packed audience at the National Theatre.

Dedicating 90 minutes to cello practice each day as he finishes his high-school diploma, the 19-year-old wants to find a way to combine music with a career as a mechanical engineer.

SIFAIS has enabled local people to take music classes, an opportunity few had before, he said, as children ran up the ramps connecting floors.

"It's opened a lot of courses which give people the chance to learn something new," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It opens doors for people."

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Brayan Blandon Ordonez practises the cello at the SIFAIS project in the La Carpio area of San Jose, Costa Rica, on 5th May. PICTURE: Sophie Hares/Thomson Reuters Foundation

For musical director Andrei Montero, who took some of La Carpio's musicians on tour to Nicaragua last year, the chance for them to play alongside international soloists and conductors in top venues is invaluable.

A SIFAIS festival in July will pull in musicians and conductors from around Costa Rica, the United States, Europe and Mexico, with some bringing donated instruments for the La Carpio students who have also been invited to play in France.

"Part of my challenge is to continue educating the community that they have the same qualities as anyone with money, and they can achieve whatever they set out to do."

- Andrei Montero, musical director.

While music instils discipline and commitment, confidence remains a challenge for some young people from the area, said Mr Montero. Some of those who managed to get into university to study music have struggled to pay the fees, he added.

There is a lot of talent in La Carpio, but that is not appreciated by the media or people in other parts of the city, contributing to a significant drop-out rate, said Mr Montero, who runs the organisation's orchestra and chamber group.

"Part of my challenge is to continue educating the community that they have the same qualities as anyone with money, and they can achieve whatever they set out to do," he said.

Driving through La Carpio's narrow streets lined with concrete-block houses and shops, Ms Fernandez, a communications specialist from San Jose, said she had been shocked by the dismal conditions for some families when the music classes started seven years ago.

"It was really's incredible what just a few recorders started to develop," she said, adding that La Carpio's dangerous reputation initially made many volunteers nervous.

Now streets have been paved, many houses have sprouted a second floor, and better policing has helped cut violent crime, said her colleague Ms Aviles, although dealers still peddle drugs, water supplies are erratic and affordable housing hard to find.

Some mothers who dropped out of education are returning to finish high school, and attitudes to work and family are changing, Ms Aviles added, with fewer people now giving their children fizzy drinks for breakfast.

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San Jose's La Carpio barrio is seen from SIFAIS' Cave of Light building in the Costa Rican capital. PICTURE: Sophie Hares/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Volunteer Wendy Valverde, playing games with four children in the SIFAIS library, said the community had suffered from stigma and a reputation for crime.

"But in reality, the children and their families are looking to succeed," she said.

The project will soon receive high-tech gear worth $US100,000 to teach computer programming and robotics, largely funded by donations from shoppers at a chain of local home-ware stores.

Besides broadening horizons for La Carpio's children, some local women trained at SIFAIS now run a business making and selling handbags and purses from recycled fabrics, each with a tag giving their producers' story.

Marisol Quezada, who found a job as a maid when she first arrived in Costa Rica but now runs sewing courses and helps make the accessories, said about half the people in the workshop were migrants from Nicaragua like herself.

"There are people who are older who can't get work elsewhere who can find something here," said Ms Quezada in the noisy workshop amid sewing machines draped with fabric.

Creating chances for vulnerable communities rather than giving cash handouts reaps longer-term rewards, said Ms Aviles, who wants more funding for scholarships, as well as for other poor neighbourhoods to start similar projects.

"Many gringos (foreigners) come to the community, thinking that giving money solves the problem of poverty," she added. "Don't give us money - give people opportunities." 

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SIFAIS co-founder Alicia Aviles (right) with women who work at the Entre Costuras workshop, which makes bags and purses from recycled materials in San Jose, Costa Rica. PICTURE: Sophie Hares/Thomson Reuters Foundation