Risking death to volunteer


As Lisa Bernardi climbed over barbed wire to escape a drainage ditch during a flash flood in Uvita, Costa Rica, the 18-year-old desperately wanted to avoid becoming a statistic.

The Alexandria resident and Bishop Ireton graduate took a year off before starting college to volunteer in the Central American nation with United Planet, an international nonprofit. Arriving in August, she worked in a kindergarten program for the children of a small farming village not far from the Pacific Ocean.

During her short stay, another American in her contingent left the program unexpectedly and died in Costa Rica not long after. Fighting for her life after being swept into a drainage ditch by a torrent of rainwater October 28, Bernardi could only think about becoming the second U.S. citizen connected to the program to die.

This isnt going to happen, she said. Theres not going to be two dead Americans, just one.

Heading to a local hostel where she was staying during a trip to nearby Uvita, Bernardis cab driver dropped her off after floodwater rose too high. She attempted to make her way to the hospital on foot when a current of water knocked her off balance.

My face hit the side of the drainage pipe and I had to grab on and pull myself out, but I had to climb over barbed wire to get out, she said. I completely cut up my feet, but I didnt even notice it at the time. I vaguely remember my feet hurting.

Bernardie didnt know the extent of the damage until much later. A nearby family spotted her struggling and took her in for the night. 

Exhausted, she chose sleep over making another attempt at the hostel.

When I was getting into bed, I looked down and noticed blood all over the floor. I didnt even notice how bad it was at that point, Bernardie said. I woke up around 2:30 a.m. and my feet were throbbing and I was extremely cold. I walked the rest of the way to the hostel.

Her feet lacerated by the barbed wire, Bernardie spent the next few days recovering unable to walk while waiting for the road to San Jose to reopen. Waiting back in Alexandria, her parents received only bits and pieces of information about the near miss until Bernardie was able to get to an Internet caf with the help of some students, said her mother, Brenda.

What really upset me was the uncertainty, Brenda said. I knew she was at a hostel and I knew she was hoping to get to San Jose, but the bridge was down and theyd had a lot of problems with people dying in mudslides. Because she didnt have her phone she had no way to get hold of me that was the only time I got really upset.

Her father, John, said the couple prepared to fly down if necessary. After Lisa reassured them the wounds werent life threatening and her American doctors confirmed her Tetanus shots were current they waited to see if their daughter would come home or finish volunteering in Costa Rica. 

She opted to catch the first available flight back to Washington, D.C., to her mothers relief. 

Still, Lisa left Costa Rica with mixed feelings. United Planet wont allow her to resume her volunteer work, though she will fly back to see the children she met graduate from kindergarten later this month. 

Despite the brush with death, John and Brenda support their daughters volunteer work. She came back more independent and adventurous, they said.

The little girl that waddled down the corridor at the airport was a different girl, Brenda said. Its hard to believe it was only three months. I think its a wonderful thing to do I think it took a look a lot of will to just to survive. To fight nature like that, as a little girl I always thought she was timid. Im proud of her for just making good decisions.



  1. My name is Steve Priest. The other American in Lisa’s group who died was my son Stephen Chad Priest. I am currently working on making these Organizations that our young adults join to volunteer disclose the true dangers they will be facing are disclosed. I spoke with the founder of United Planet as well as their attorney & neither could direct me to any disclosure of any danger on their website. Here are a few articles that might surprise you.Drugs are becoming a bigger issue in Costa Rica. When it comes to drug
    trafficking in Central America, Costa Rica is no longer just a supply
    transit center. Costa Rica’s president Laura Chinchilla has confirmed
    it. Traffickers have moved their operations to the country. Now drugs
    are being produced, processed and consumed in Costa Rica.

    A decade ago, Central America seized less cocaine than either the
    Caribbean or Mexico, but in 2008 it intercepted three times more than
    the other two combined. The ever changing drug business has sought new
    premises. According to American officials, somewhere between 250 and
    350 tons of cocaine, which is almost as much as the whole amount
    heading for the United States, now pass through Guatemala each year.

    Costa Rica: 85% Homicides in 2010 Went Unpunished

    The chances of going to jail for murder in Costa Rica are slim, very
    slim, as 85% of the homicides last year went unpunished, that is of
    the 506 murders, there were only 76 convictions.

    According to the Poder Judicial (Judiciary) of the 145.284 overall
    complaints filed in 2010 only 3.856 convictions were registered. In
    terms of rape, there were 1….613 allegations but only 157 sentences,
    leaving in impunity more than 90% of the cases.

    On the issue of auto theft, 42.434 cases were reported but only 801
    people convicted, while in cases involving drugs of the 64.217 charges
    there were only 217 convictions.

    According to Juan Diego Castro, criminal lawyer and former ministro de
    Seguridad Publica, the impunity last year is the highest in more than
    a decade. And, according to Castro, it is not going to get better if
    the situation is not taken seriously by the government.

    I know if these facts had been disclosed Chad would have never made this trip to Costa Rica and would be alive today. ” RISKING DEATH TO VOLUNTEER” Could not have picked a better title.

  2. My name is Steve Priest.
    I am looking for help in writing a book that would help all of our country’s International Volunteers from Non Profit Organizations that have NO disclosure to their Very Young Volunteers of the Dangerous locations they are being located in. If you would have any interest or could refer me to someone it would save many lives.
    This is a true story.
    My son tragically died on September 15, 2010 in San Jose, Costa Rica. Recently a new specific tab was created on The United States National Travel Website travel.state.gov for International Volunteering. (Travel.State.Gov: Best Practices for Volunteering Abroad ) It has taken me 5.5 years to accomplish this mission with many roadblocks. Chad’s story includes corruption, murder, fraud lies and slander. I have traveled to San Jose Costa Rica 5 times and also spoke to an assembled crowd at the US Embassy in Costa Rica at their request. As a result of my presentation the specific tab for Costa Rica on travel.state.gov was re written with some of Chad’s case in mind as I have been told. The US government involved include all of the following, A formal complaint to the Massachusetts office of Attorney General. A meeting with Reb Brownell ( Legislative Director and Council ) in Senator Majority leader’s office Mitch McConnell in Washington, A Complaint to the Federal trade commission facilitated through Senator McConnell’s office, Congressman John Jarmuth of Kentucky who helped with “Best Practices for Volunteering Abroad” , Secretary of State John Kerry’s office, US Embassy Leader Steve Castonguay who is currently the Embassy Leader of Bangkok and finally the President of Costa Rica.
    All of my information is documented & I am looking for help in writing a book that would be extremely compelling and save many lives. If you have any interest or could refer me to a qualified Author you can reach me on my cell or email.
    Steve Priest 502-297-1020 / stevep751@gmail.com
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