Archive | August, 2014

leaders, dreamers, and painters

10 Aug

Believe it or not, funerals aside, I’ve also been participating in other productive, Peace Corps-related events.

A couple of weeks ago two of my chicas and I attended Camp GLOW – the national Chicas Brillantes conference. Held about 30 minutes outside of the capital, about 80 girls represented all corners of the country. Similar to the regional conference, we discussed the importance of family planning, goal setting, healthy eating habits, constructive decision making skills, and then how to multiply such information once back in our respective communities. There was also a panel of seven professional women who offered priceless advice, sharing their stories with the girls who they once bore resemblance to.

learning about the menstruation cycle

learning about the menstruation cycle

group dinámica

group dinámica

Yissel, one of my beautiful chicas :)

Yissel, one of my beautiful chicas 🙂

condom party!

condom party!

"Different Ways to Say NO" drama

Two PCVs acting in a drama – “Different Ways to Say NO”

3 members of the professional panel - teacher, architect, and orthodontist

3 members of the professional panel – teacher, architect, and orthodontist

professional panel

professional panel

bonfire = S'MORES

bonfire = S’MORES

goal-setting workshop

goal-setting workshop

goal-setting workshop

goal-setting workshop

we got a visit one night from this lovely creature - 6-inch long centipede

we got a visit one night from this lovely creature – over 6-inch long centipede

team-building activity

team-building activity

Back in Pescadería we are doing our best to share what we’ve learned at GLOW. Three of my oldest girls have now attended a conference where they’ve been able to develop their public speaking skills, enhance their knowledge of various topics, and network with other multiplicadoras. Combining this maturity with the spreading of knowledge is key to the sustainability of this sort of work. When school starts in a few weeks (really, whenever the students decide to start attending school) is when we hope to offer various charlas and/or initiate another group of Chicas that is not spearheaded by me but rather by those that have already graduated from the course. 

conference graduation with my two girls - Yissel and Odalina

conference graduation with PCV conference coordinators, Comité, and my two girls – Yissel and Odalina

Comité - Dominican girls that have graduated the Chicas course and now serve as liaisons, facilitators, mentors, and inspiration for younger girls

Comité – Dominican girls that have long since graduated the course and now serve as liaisons, facilitators, mentors, multipliers, and inspiration for younger Chicas

Neighbors - Shelly and Rebecca both live about 5 minutes from Pescadería :)

Neighbors – Shelly and Becca both live about 5 minutes from Pescadería 🙂

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Other youth volunteers and I – Lisa, Natalie, and Maria

Amanda (CED) and Susan (Education) both swore-in as volunteers in May 2013 with me.

Amanda (CED) and Susan (Education) both swore-in as volunteers in May 2013 with me.

Odalina, myself, and Yissel

Odalina, myself, and Yissel

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Camp GLOW, July 2014

Camp GLOW, July 2014

Another ongoing project has been my business class, Construye Tus Sueños (Build Your Dreams). Funded by Mondelez (formerly Kraft Foods), the idea is to encourage youth entrepreneurship and community development through small-business start-ups. In a former post I explained that “CTS is a CED initiative that motivates entrepreneurship and teaches business skills to youth.  Kraft Foods, producer of Green & Black Chocolate, took particular interest in Construye because their product is made entirely from 100% organic cacao that is grown right here in the Dominican Republic.  They realized that it was important to invest in the communities their cacao was grown in by making them more viable places for youth to stay and work.  As opposed to leaving to find work in the city, Construye motivates youth to open a small business in their own hometowns.  Given all of this, CTS is the only Peace Corps initiative worldwide that is funded by a private or public business – Kraft has offered to fund Construye for at least the next three years.”

A key part to CTS is not just the business course but also the creation of a business plan. Participants that actually dream to start a business are encouraged to write a formal plan that describes principle parts of their business in detail – goals, characteristics and benefits of the product/service, target market, marketing strategies, finances, budget, etc. The incentive to complete such a laborious paper is not just to practice writing skills, but also to provide the students with a tool they could offer to microfinance groups or banks; it is an elaborated account that summarizes what they learned in the course and makes their dream seem a bit more tangible. Lastly, all students that submit a plan have the chance to compete to win their proposed budget – the top 15 graded plans have the opportunity to present their business ideas to a panel of professional judges. The three that show the most potential and leave the judges with the best impression win the amount of money detailed in their proposed budget.

Writing these plans was not easy, particularly because the Dominican education system promotes very little critical thinking skills, originality, or creative writing practice. To develop such a detailed description of a concept that they had never thought to put into writing, in addition to not having the experience of ever doing so, took hours of patience, reiteration, and prompting.  As volunteers, we must learn how to facilitate the course and writing process without putting words in their mouth or writing the plan for them, as that would only prohibit skill development and put other students at a disadvantage.  Under my limited guidance, all of my two students submitted plans, one for a nail salon and another for knitted crafts.

All of us business volunteers met up to plan the national conference, where finalists will present to judges and participants will learn about networking, microfinance, and professionalism. We read 37 submitted plans, sent in from communities where volunteers are serving from around the country. The ideas were creative and well elaborated, describing potential businesses ranging from surf shops to salons. As it turns out, the two plans my students submitted were chosen within the top 15! Until the conference in September, we will be working on revising each plan and practicing their presentations for the judges.

Brigada Verde, another recent project - co-ed course about the environment andsustainable use of natural resources...also a good excuse to hang out on the porch

Brigada Verde, another recent project – co-ed course about the environment andsustainable use of natural resources…also a good excuse to hang out on the porch

 

Last but not least – our court is fully painted! The fact that I’ve had very little to do with the termination of this project speaks volumes. Though I was there in the beginning to spark the idea and facilitate funds, their follow-through demonstrates the community’s unwavering involvement and dedication to the cause. Plans are in the works to host a tournament in December between the various neighborhoods in Pescadería. 

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the guys – measuring, painting, and finishing the court all by themselves 🙂

"Los Cañeros" - literally, the Pescadería Sugar Cane-ers

“Los Cañeros” – literally, the Pescadería Sugar Cane-ers

 

Something I’m really looking forward to is the Deportes para la Vida (Sports for Life) conference at the end of August.  Two of my go-to basketball guys and I applied to participate in the 4-day long event where we will be trained as facilitators and learn how to impart the course within our own community.  DPV is a Peace Corps Dominican Republic adaptation and fruition of collaboration between Grass Roots Soccer and University of Vermont students; it is an interactive course that uses sports to teach youth about healthy decision making skills and HIV/AIDS prevention.  Learn more about DPV here.  

Now that we have such an appropriate space to facilitate DPV, I’m hoping that the three of us will be able to use the court to enhance the community’s benefits from the finalized project, encourage healthy lifestyles, and enlighten local youth through a medium that they are already most certainly invested in.  

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somber social hour

10 Aug

It’s now August, meaning that I’ve been living out on my own for almost exactly one year. People are now more than accustomed and comfortable to approach me in my home, which also doubles as a meeting room for my various courses, internet center, arts and crafts hub, experimental kitchen, and lounge for local youth in search of English practice, hammock time, advice and/or casual conversation. Having created such a pleasurable environment also has its downsides however. In the Dominican Republic, it being August also means that there’s unbearable heat, avocados, and that it’s the front end of peak hurricane season. If it’s not raining (which is still rare for the south, despite the heavy rain and thunderstorms we got during Tropical Storm Bertha), it’s too hot to go outside without feeling like you’re melting. Yesterday it was 91 degrees at 10am. If I can stay inside my cozy home, making friendship bracelets and popcorn with my chicas, why would I go outside?

august avos

august avos

The answer lately? Funerals. In the past couple of months there have been over 14 funerals, compared to the mere two I attended last year; old age, long-term illnesses, and/or weakened immune system after having chinkungunya were the most common causes of death. Albeit sad, they are actually a great way to socialize, to become even more familiar with Dominican culture, and to help me realize how everyone in my town is related. Funerals are an inherent part of any society – everyone lives, everyone dies – but considering that family, religion, and solidarity are three major values of Dominican culture, funerals here are a pretty big occasion. Additionally, Pescadería has an impressively successful and inclusive association that offers RD$25,000 to the family, provides the deceased with a coffin, and loans chairs for all of the attending guests to sit in. Colloquially known as the “Association of the Dead”, it has been around for more than 20 years and collects at least RD$25 from each member, depending on age, position in the household, and how many children he/she has.  Having this local association puts less of a burden on the family to be able to entertain so many anticipated guests.  

The time of a funeral depends on what time of day a person dies. If he/she dies at dawn, the funeral begins that morning and lasts until taken to the cemetery for burial around 6pm; dying in the evening means guests are in for the long haul – arriving that night to amanecer (literally, “to dawn” or wake up) with the family for the burial the next morning. Funerals work on predictable but still very loose schedules; due to the ‘flexible’ timeliness of Dominican culture, the time of a burial can change from when originally anticipated due to delays in a family member’s arrival, need for an autopsy, or the sun being too strong (yes, this has happened).

When a Dominican dies, it is expected that at least one family member from each household of the community pays his/her respects by attending the funeral. The deceased is usually featured in the living room of the family’s house, enclosed in a coffin with a glass pane to be able see the face; though I at first found it disrespectful, it is not uncommon for people to take pictures of the body. Immediate family members and intimate friends surround the walls of the room, and it is assumed that you greet and/or hug each person. This part for me is always awkward and somber but also selfishly enlightening because sometimes I didn’t know it was so-and-so’s brother or aunt that died until I get into that room and realize the connection. Despite whether or not I knew the deceased, I most likely have gotten to know one of his/her family members. Therefore, attending the funeral of either a friend or a stranger is a way to show the family that I am here to offer condolences and to accompany them during a difficult time.

Outside of the house is where it gets real Dominican. Depending on who died and his/her impact in the community, there can be up to hundreds of guests. Get a whole bunch of Dominicans together and what do you get? Gossip, brindis, professional storytellers, swarms of kids, people watching, bedazzled (black and/or white) clothes, and dominoes. Dominoes at a funeral? Yup, and don’t be surprised if the table is surrounded by a group of men drinking rum or beer either. The juxtaposition of the concept is almost unsettling – while groups of people tell boisterous stories or complain that the coffee they’ve been served arrived too late or is too sweet, the family of the deceased is doing their best to entertain guests while mourning a loved one. Personal views aside however, the spirit of a Dominican funeral is, like most occasions here, not intended to be morose or lackluster but rather social and commemorative.  

Once the deceased has been prayed over and is taken to the cemetery on the outskirts of town, the masses disperse, leaving trash and puffy-eyed relatives in its wake (pun intended?).  At first I was quite uncomfortable by the idea of funerals but interestingly enough, I’ve now seen more dead people in the past 6 months than any other time of my life combined.  I don’t even think that I could write such a detailed description of American funerals because 1) I’m lucky to still have most of my immediate family alive and 2) I found them depressing and intimidating. Now that I’ve been to so many here, the majority of those of people who I didn’t even know, I’m gauging the significance of attending events to simply show support and interest. Families are appreciative when they see that I’ve come to pay my respects, and in exchange I’ve enjoyed practicing small talk, comparing cross-cultural traditions, and understanding the intricate interconnectedness of the families here.

A friend recently mentioned to me that the less he kept trying to help his community, the more he actually felt like he was starting to help. Attending funerals by no means pertains to my service or duties as a Community Economic Advisor in Pescadería. However, despite the extreme awkwardness I feel at times, this sort of integration affects how people view me within the community. Rather than seeing me as simply a Peace Corps Volunteer that gives various classes or that built a basketball court, I’m regarded as one of their very own (people don’t even me offer their own chair to sit down in now, which I resentfully appreciate). Instead of an American volunteer, I am a friend, neighbor, hair braider, mango fiend, and lefty. Bridging this gap has allowed me better understand local needs, Dominican culture, and interpersonal skills. Going beyond one’s comfort zone can be difficult, but I’m finding that more often than not there are wildly memorable and surprisingly beneficial outcomes – you’ve sometimes just got to brave concepts as foreboding and daunting as death to experience and appreciate them.  

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.