Saturday, July 14, 2012

Excited and Scared

Lately I have been feeling a mixture of boredom and anxiousness. I have been moderately busy as I complete little (but necessary) duties, such as organizing meetings for site development and filing the receipts that collectively complete my large consortium grant. We’ve got just one last big meeting in a nearby community to ensure that a new volunteer will be placed in San Juan, and I am a couple of hours short of having an entire year’s worth of grant accounts organized. I’ve nearly finished several obligations that were meant to be tackled this summer, and I am looking ahead to three upcoming medical missions where I will serve as a translator between doctor and patient. Considering that I have been decently productive in my community and my upcoming weeks will be super busy, I wonder if my boredom is coming from external sources. I think I am bored and anxious from my increasing projections of what life might look like once I end my service. I am ready to have a normal social life again and I [think I] want to return to a normal, 8-5 job. I only have two and a half months left here - a thought which is both terrifying and exhilarating. As excited as I may feel about getting a busier job or becoming social again, I also thank God every day for this opportunity to work in the Dominican Republic. I can’t yet pinpoint the ways in which I have changed, but I have undoubtedly become a better person during these two years, and I feel grateful for having been afforded this opportunity to work and grow in a different country. Despite my frustrations here regarding different work ethic, men, noise, etc, I admittedly love the adventure of living in a foreign country. Every day feels new and unexpected, and I feel sad about giving that up. I often wonder what role the Dominican Republic will play in my life once I return to the States. Perhaps I will feel drawn to return one day, but it’s possible that what is left of this experience is the ability to speak Spanish, a new career path and a bigger (more sensitive) heart.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

To New Adventures

As is typical in the Peace Corps, time continues to fly by. I returned from my Arizona visit about one month ago, and I quickly finished my school project with one last graduation and a special trip for the Escojo leaders. After many discussions and hours of brainstorming, Sarah and I finally decided to take our 9 leaders on a trip to Santo Domingo and La Romana. Within 36 hours we visited a hospital in Santo Domingo, a clinic for teenagers in La Romana, toured La Romana, AND swam in a nearby beach! This trip was a quick one but a lot of fun, and a well deserved treat for our youth who volunteered to teach Escojo in their local schools.
Now that the school year is over and our Escojo school program has ended I am left with very few responsibilities. I am trying to occupy my spare time by studying for the GRE and looking for jobs post-Peace Corps. This probably sounds surprising, as I recently told my blog readers that I would be moving to Portland for graduate school in August. Yet my life plans dramatically changed during my visit to Arizona. For several reasons I decided that it’s best to delay grad school - and those scary loans!! - for a year or two and take some time to figure out exactly which job is meant for me! When I was in Arizona I realized that it will take a while to re-establish my life in the USA, and I don’t want to rush anything before I am ready for the next big step. Plus, I miss my family!!! Spending some time in Arizona couldn’t sound any better right now, so that’s what I am going to do. So - back to Peace Corps. Luckily, I have occupied myself quite easily in the last week or so. I participated in the Lownbrau half-marathon in Santo Domingo on Sunday, and despite the hot weather I had a blast and was pleased with my race! Just as last year went, I loved running in a Dominican road race, thus combining my old and new lives. The atmosphere was awesome and surprisingly the pain didn’t settle in until about kilometer 18. I am wondering if that means A) I didn’t push myself hard enough or B) I ran the long race as I should have. Caitlin, give me your opinion! Two days after the race (yesterday) I visited Sarah to help with her bridge construction project. This was a little ambitious given my body could barely move up/down hills but I had a great time and learned a lot about how to build a bridge! I also learned about an entirely new aspect of Peace Corps service and the difficulties that arise in physical projects. I scrubbed the ribarb, scooped up gravel, helped to create cement, and found a lot of rocks to fill in a big empty hole. I was totally out of my element the entire day but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot in the process! Tomorrow I will return to help make more cement and fill the bridge mold.
I know I will miss the constant change and infinite learning opportunities that Peace Corps offers on a daily basis. Where else could I run a half marathon and then build a bridge? My official Close of Service date has been approved for October 1st, so in three months I will be leaving Hispaniola in search of new adventures. I am both scared and excited to see what awaits me.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Small Request

I’ve been really busy lately, as my upcoming trip to Arizona means I need to leave all my schools projects behind in my project partner’s hands! We had our first Escojo graduation in one of the six classrooms which have been participating in the Escojo school program and it went as well as it could have! Someone in the community died the morning before class, which meant that school shut down early, so we had to graduate 46 kids in 15 minutes. Needless to say that was the quickest graduation I’ve ever seen, but the students seemed to like it! As for the other 5 classes, we discussed family planning last week and showed students how to put on a condom. This is, in my opinion, the most necessary charla for youth in the Dominican Republic, so it felt very rewarding to watch so many kids learning how to prevent themselves from teen pregnancy and STIs! Satisfaction comes in strange ways in the Peace Corps. Being a youth (and basically converted health) volunteer means that my projects are very intangible. I am not going to leave this island having built any physical object. The result of serving through education means that the communities I have worked with are not necessarily the most impoverished of the Dominican Republic. I know that might be hard to conceptualize for those reading this blog from the States, but there are many communities here that do not even provide the most basic necessities to their residents. One of these communities belongs to Sarah, one of my closest friends on this island. Sarah lives in a community of about 30 homes, half an hour’s motorcycle ride from San Juan de la Maguana (my new home!). She has already built outhouses for those who were formerly forced to use their backyard as a bathroom. Her latest projects involve stove building and bridge construction, which brings me to a very big favor to ask all of my readers! Access to Sarah’s community depends on the weather. If it’s raining, it is actually impossible to get to her community of Las Yayas because a river quickly floods, isolating the town from any outside contact. Imagine how dangerous that could be in the case of any medical emergency. Just as devastating, when rain comes school is closed. The teachers, who commute to work, have no way of attending school. I have never asked for money to complete a project, but I would like to spread the word about supporting Sarah’s goal of building a bridge in Las Yayas. If you have ever felt like you would like to contribute to my service, this is the way to do it. Having lived in three different communities, I have come to realize that my work as a volunteer is never limited to one single community. I am here to serve the people of this country, and that includes helping to provide basic access to Las Yayas. If you are interested in helping Sarah and Las Yayas (and me!!), please check out this website. Only 600 more dollars are needed… For all you Arizonans reading this blog… see you soon!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Life after Hispaniola

For a long time I wondered how I’d ever combine all of my interests into one job. During college I loved studying sociology but wasn’t sure how to manifest sociological theory into an actual career. My experience working in Boston with youth made me realize that I wanted to work with disadvantaged populations but not necessarily within the school system, as the problems students brought to school were clearly derived from their families and communities. I cared passionately about environmental issues and food politics but did not want to pursue a graduate degree in either of the two specific fields. I have been fortunate to learn about the dynamics of community development during my time in the Dominican Republic and the many factors that contribute to a healthy community. From economic opportunities to health care to caring for the environment, each community is unique and creates its own culture. After living in unfamiliar communities I understand the influence they have over their members. Even more, single communities must confront issues related to education, health, employment, and the environment. An integral part of any community is the individual’s health. Imagine walking to shop for groceries, buying local instead of imported produce, running in a nearby park instead of driving to exercise. There are so many elements of a healthy community. And, of course, being “healthy” implies much more than the physical aspect. These are things that I strangely think of upon entering typical American suburbs. So, it should not come as a surprise that I have decided to study urban planning and public health once I return to the USA. I’ll be moving to Portland, Oregon in September to study at Portland State and I’m sooo excited!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Semana Santa

Semana Santa, or Easter Week, is known for no work and all play in the Dominican Republic. So, to celebrate the holiday in true Dominican fashion I did just that. I went on a few exciting adventures that will surely be remembered long after I leave this island. One such adventure was the Armed Forces national track meet which I attended with my friend, Jenna, and a track friend from San Juan. We got to see some races and tons of field events, and I just loved taking part in an athletic game in the DR that means so much to me. Running transcends age, race, gender and culture. It doesn’t matter where you are from: if a runner finds a fellow runner they will undoubtedly get along. This meet made me feel like I was back in the US, or that I fit in with my Dominican peers. Either and both.

I also got to visit a new beach and introduce the Dominican Republic to Caitlin! Caitlin is one of my very best friends. We met on our first day in college, and since then I have lived with both her and her fiancé. Caitlin came to Puerto Plata and bought us 3 nights at a beautiful all-inclusive. One of our best memories comes from Cayo Arena, or Paradise Island. We went here one day and snorkeled, and it was GORGEOUS!

I’m in the middle stages of my work with the Escojo program in San Juan. Last week I distributed the pre-test to all the participants, who will take the same test in June in order to determine what they learned. We know Escojo is an effective program at the community level, if effectiveness can be measured in terms of commitment to the group, but at the school level it’s a mystery. In some of the classes there are over 50 students. That might be too many youth to have in one room. It’s certainly too many to participate in many of the interactive activities that characterize Escojo. It’s exciting to become involved in a pilot program, and I hope that my work can help make Escojo Mi Vida more effective at the national level.

Time is certainly passing quickly. I'll be moving back to the USA in exactly 4 months!! More on that next time.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pleasant Surprises

After about three weeks in my new site my schedule is beginning to form some type of consistency. To my surprise, San Juan provides nearly everything I could ever ask for. It has nice grocery stores, beautiful parks, and many organized programs - including a track team! I have never experienced such a “livable” city since I moved to this foreign country and I must admit that I’m thankful to be here for my last stretch of time. While I felt anxious about time and often left my site in Bani, I find no desire to leave San Juan. I am happy right where I am!

What makes me happy here is precisely what lacked during my time in Bani: a sense of community. In my old site I often felt lonely: I was isolated from other volunteers and it was difficult to find friends beyond the youth in my groups. Now, I am in constant contact with my fellow volunteers, especially Sarah since we are working together. Sarah stays at my apartment, we made dinner together, I help her in her projects - and I somehow feel more motivated to work when she is around. It’s great to feel part of a “team” in my project. Even more shocking is that I have found Dominican friends from my new track team! Monday through Saturday I meet my new running buddies as we often explore small campos outside of the city. The views are amazing, as most of our runs consist of running though rice, bean, corn, or sweet potato fields with mountains in the background.

My current project status is that we have 3 Escojo groups which have been formed during school hours, and 4 pending groups. My main role has been meeting with the school directors, organizing the course agenda with the youth, helping the leaders give their presentations, and providing the materials needed to run smoothly. On Sunday I will spend the day teaching the Escojo leaders about new activities, classroom management, and organizing the schedule so that the course finishes by the end of the school year. It’s amazing all the roles you can perform as a Peace Corps volunteer!

This morning I went to visit a small campo about 30 minutes away from San Juan, where an Escojo group would like to also begin the course in their local school. As I entered the school premises to meet with the director, I was shocked. There was a lot going on - kids running around, teachers talking with each other - but nothing seemed related to learning or the classroom. The Dominican Republic supposedly has the worst education system in Latin America, and I think this is the worst run school I have yet to see. That says a lot.

The presidential elections are coming up, May 20, and nearly everyone is convinced that the candidate they support will win the race and change this country. Unfortunately, both candidates have more or less already been in office in the last decade and it’s difficult to imagine anything changing at all. I think the elections are just another form of gambling - like chicken fighting or the lottery. Then again, maybe it’s like that in the USA too and I’ve just forgotten!

On a more positive cultural note, I got to experience Carnaval last weekend! This special day is meant to celebrate the Dominican Independence Day. The accompanying Carnaval celebration, which consists of lots of drinking and a big parade with wild costumes, takes place in each pueblo around Febuary 27th. Last week marked the big celebration in San Juan, and I was hugely impressed by the costumes! I saw anything from mermaids to men with horse bodies to kids who faked dead.

As I like to say, there are always surprises in this country - especially working as a Peace Corps volunteer. My latest surprise is that I have to choose between two events next Friday. I can either build a school with my mom’s cousin’s organization, Bridges to Community, or I can watch the national track meet where the navy, air force, and military teams all compete against each other. I think I’m going to help build a school, as entertaining as the track meet would be. Not long after the activity with Bridges to Community, I will be traveling up to Puerto Plata to pick up Caitlin from the airport! I can’t wait to hang out with such a great friend, give her a taste of this country, and hear about her upcoming wedding in Winston-Salem!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Peace Corps: Part 3

February was a tumultuous month to say the least. As you already know, I suddenly had to leave Las Tablas in the middle of the month because of a security incident. Just as my projects were gaining momentum I had to let everything go and move to the capital while I searched for a new site.

Luckily, when I told my friend Sarah what had happened, she quickly came up with a solution. She suggested that I move to San Juan de la Maguana to help her with a big project she is about to begin. Sarah has been working with the Escojo Mi Vida program for over a year and is now hoping to integrate the course into the public school curriculum. I have also been working with Escojo projects since I first arrived in Bani and had a similar idea of introducing the curriculum into the Bani schools. Since working in Bani is no longer an option for me, I jumped at Sarah’s suggestion and asked my boss if I could move to San Juan. She eventually agreed and here I am! I've been in my new (and last) site for about one week.

So, now I have two and a half months to introduce Escojo Mi Vida into five schools in the San Juan area. The goal is that eventually the charlas will be incorporated into the school curriculum. This project is risky but I’m excited about the potential it has to reach such a high number of youth.

As my secondary projects I hope to work at Plan International and a health clinic whenever I have the time. Plan is an international NGO that focuses on empowering youth as a means to end poverty. They have a program which is basically identical to Escojo, but they also have other projects that I hope to get involved with. The clinic, called La Clinica Cristiana, offers cheap health care for the poor in San Juan’s surrounding campos. The clinic also organizes medical missions where American doctors spend a week performing free operations. I hope to serve as a translator for these missions since I loved the med mission I did back in November.

Apart from work, I think I will like living in San Juan. It seems like a nice city because of its abundance of parks and, most importantly, it has a track! Even better, there are two Mexican restaurants in the city. I’m not expecting the food to be authentic, but I’m still excited about the possibility of buying non-Dominican cuisine.

My time in the Dominican Republic is going FAST and there is a lot going on between now and October. I’ve got three weddings (Ottie, Molly, and Chelsea), a bachelorette party (Caitlin), two weeks’ visit to the USA (yay!), and a final decision on what happens when I leave this island. I just got my first acceptance letter for graduate school in urban planning (Michigan!!!) which means that the idea of life after Peace Corps has suddenly become a reality. I feel both excited and sad, as the last 1.5 years have been filled with so many happy, sad, and life-changing moments.