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Couple advocates volunteer vacations at Costa Rican resort

Mark Nelson first built a hotel, then a private school; now he and his wife encourage their resort guests to volunteer with students
by: contributed photo Mark Nelson, shown distributing Christmas toys in Tambor, Costa Rica, got involved in the education system there after building the Tambor Tropical hotel. The son of a school teacher, he’s a strong believer in preschool education.

Mark Nelson says he's never thought of himself as a 'real craftsman.' But he always liked to build things, including a tree house when he was a 13-year-old growing up in the Milwaukie area.

'It's a more conceptual thing - I'm kind of a fumbler with my hands,' says the 1965 Milwaukie High School graduate, now a lobbyist who has his business in Salem.

Still, 'for whatever reason, I've always wanted to build something in another country,' Nelson, 64, says.

So he did. In the late 1980s, Nelson bought about 8 acres of beach property in the Costa Rican town of Tambor, on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. In 1993-94 - about the time he reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Pamela Jones - Nelson built Tambor Tropical, a resort of 12 beachfront suites. A staff runs the resort so Nelson can continue to live and work in Salem while visiting Costa Rica 10 or 11 times a year.

Then Nelson turned his attention to another of his passions: education. He and Jones, who married nearly eight years ago, built Tambor Bay School, a private, nonprofit institution founded by Nelson and a group of Tambor parents. Now in its second year, the bilingual school has about 34 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

Nelson and Jones encourage guests at their resort to volunteer at the school, which is a 10-minute drive from the resort.

'We encourage them to spend at least one morning at the school,' says Jones, also 64, who owns an executive search company in Vancouver, Wash., and travels to Costa Rica a couple of times a year.

'Guests can do a cooking demonstration, a geography lesson, talk about their job,' Jones says. 'If they're retired, they can talk about all the different jobs they've had. They can do a simple science experiment for the children.'

Resort guests also can donate paper, pencils, scissors and other supplies for the school. Some sponsor a student through scholarships to attend the school. Monthly tuition costs $100 to $150, Nelson says.

'It's hugely successful; people love it,' he says of the resort's volunteer efforts at Tambor Bay School.

Nelson himself has volunteered at the school. 'I just read; it's the only thing I'm good at,' he jokes.

Building a school wasn't among his original plans in Costa Rica. 'It was a result of being there and watching what was happening and feeling it's got to be better than this,' he says, noting that education in Costa Rica is not compulsory beyond sixth grade and many children drop out after that.

Nelson also has a deep lifelong interest in education. His mother was a teacher, as was Jones' mother, and one of his clients as a lobbyist is Head Start, the federal pre-kindergarten program for low-income families.

'I am such a believer in pre-K,' Nelson says. He recalls that Norma Paulus, Oregon's superintendent of public instruction in the 1990s, once remarked that, given a choice between pre-kindergarten or your senior year of high school, she'd choose pre-K. 'I am of the same persuasion,' Nelson says.

He wants Tambor Bay School to expand. 'We've got to get more kids there,' he says. 'As it grows, we'd like to add classes and grade levels seven, eight and nine.'

Nelson and Jones also own mango, teak and guava farms in Costa Rica. 'I've got a great manager,' Nelson says. 'He's just super. He manages both the resorts and the farms.'

Nelson thinks he will always maintain his Oregon connection, 'but I can see at some point moving down there a couple of months a year.'