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manGo with God

16 Jun

And just like that, it was over. I was on my way home to Vermont; my 40 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer were complete.

Overcome with a confusing combination of exhaustion, relief, sadness, and disbelief and surrounded once again by swooning valleys, rolling hills, and luscious greenery, I gazed at the outstretched highway and struggled to process the reality.

How many mangoes might I have eaten throughout my service? Will I remember how to dance bachata like a campesina? Might La Cabrita eventually turn a profit? What kind of person will Omailin be when he grows up? How many of my Chicas Brillantes will avoid an adolescent pregnancy and instead graduate university to become young professionals? When will I be back to visit?

Memories from the last 3 years overwhelmed me – receiving our site placements, relearning how to be myself in a foreign country, inaugurating the court, hosting visitors, my Chicas Brillantes, the sounds of my neighborhood, how wounded I was when things weren’t working out with La Cabrita, watching Omailin grow up, all of the road trips I took with Alejandra and Michael, my two students winning Construye Tus Sueños, this last year in the capital, passing through the metal detector in airport security with my cat Mio in my arms and trying to be brave for him. I couldn’t help but smile, and prayed that these moments and the love I that have for the Dominican Republic would never escape me.

My last visit to Pescadería was comforting and bittersweet. Three years ago, the people there became my family, adopting me into their lives without blinking an eye. Since first arriving, babies have become toddlers, teenagers are now moms, and La Cabrita has slowly developed into a functioning enterprise. I had a teary conversation with Mari, one of my Chicas Brillantes and the first friend I’d made in site. She thanked me for helping her to realize that she didn’t want to grow up to be like her mother (an illiterate single mother of 5), but that she instead wanted to study, work, find a loving companion, and then consider having kids. I melted. Two busloads of us took a trip to one of my favorite places in country, Las Marias de Neiba, to celebrate all of the hard work we’d accomplished as a community. We splashed, laughed, and recounted each detail of the court-building process. Later that night, we jammed into a cozy, campo house to watch the NBA Finals.  I had a long conversation with Rosi, the president of La Cabrita, to discuss their setbacks, growth, and plans for the future. We plucked mangoes off the ground, the trees overburden with fruit from recent rains, and passed the days in front of Pepelo’s colmado as the nectar navigated around our grins.

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One of my favorite views in country – the entrance to Pescadería

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Southern plantains

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Visiting the mural my mom, aunt, and I painted at the local high school!

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Girls at Las Marías

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Mari and I

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Reni and I

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Carlos, Pepelo, and friends

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Taking Omailin for his first swim!

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NBA Finals

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Neighborhood happenings

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Reina and I collecting mangoes

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Omailin and his papayas

 

I did my best to savor these last moments – each view, smell, taste, conversation, and hug – as much as possible.  I departed from Pescadería in peace, and though I was unsure when I’d be back, I ensured myself that I would be.  Si Dios quiere…

 

 

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Southern coast, Los Patos beach

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Showing Carlos what the southern coast is all about!

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Los Patos

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Amanda (current PVC in Pescadería) and I on the way back to the capital after my last visit, stopping to get coconuts along the way!

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Another pit stop – mango festival in Baní

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Farewell party with one of my favorite ladies, Natalie – the Yin to my Yang

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Carlos’s brother and I out for one last time in the Colonial Zone

 

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Late-night eats at Barra Payan, a renown Dominican establishment that’s open 24/7 and known for its traditional sandwiches and delicious, fresh juices

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Couldn’t leave the island without one last trip to the colmado for empanadas and Presidente beer

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Julie and my last day at the office!  We first met on the plane 40 months ago, and were the last ones to leave from our group.

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Last dinner at my favorite restaurant – lion fish ceviche, grilled octopus, and a goat cheeseburger!

In terms of immediate future plans, I’m most looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and basking in the joys of Vermont summertime; to rejuvenating parts of me that were quieted during my service, especially while living within the sprawl of Santo Domingo. But nevertheless, another adventure is not far off, as I will join my mom in Africa for one month of travel around Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Namibia. She also finishes her Peace Corps service this month, and we are rewarding ourselves with a once-in-a-lifetime mother-daughter Close of Service endeavor.

“I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence.  I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love.  I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.” – Leo Tolstoy; a quote from one of my very first blog posts.

In conclusion, this has been an incredible experience, one that will take time to truly register and recognize its impact on my soul, beliefs, expectations, and future plans. These last three years have filled me with an indescribable amount of memories, gratitude, curiosity, and faith.  Time has flown and my heart is full.  People near and far have been both supportive and welcoming, encouraging me to seize the opportunities at hand to create friendships, affect change, and continue learning – I hope you’re able to do the same for yourselves. Thank you for being a part of this adventure.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

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Peace, love, thanks, and mangoes. 

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mujeres in the mountains

7 Jun

Even the vicious maye that sucked away at my bare legs and dotted my skin with swollen lumps and dainty drops of blood didn’t bother me. We were in the mountains tasting sweet air and basking in the pleasant greenery of Constanza.

The four Sector Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders and a fellow capitaleña/Returned Peace Corps Volunteer had decided to reward ourselves – to escape the sweltering city of Santo Domingo and enjoy each others’ company in a more intimate setting before moving on to our respective next life chapters. We set our sights on Constanza, a region known for its agriculture (strawberries!), refreshing climate, and opportunities for outdoor adventures.

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4 PCVLs: Natalie (Youth), Julie (Education), Silpa (Health), and me (Business)

We booked a cozy-looking cabin nestled in the hills, tickled by the thought of having our own space to bake goodies and lounge around in socks by the fireplace. To our delight, the house was better than we had imagined – quaint and quirky with an idyllic view of Constanza’s lush valley.  It was not the typical setting one conjures when imaging the Dominican Republic, and we were thrilled.

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Our cozy casita!

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Fog lazily hugged the hills as we woke up each morning to snuggle into blankets and relish the tranquility, souls soothed by the cradle of a rocking chair. The crisp air kissed sweet moisture onto our skin and sent welcomed chills down our usually sweaty spines. The vast array of greenery was impressive and revitalizing.  We did yoga, read, played card games, gazed upon the valley, dined on incredible homemade meals, and drank copious amounts of warm beverages (coffee, hot chocolate, and room-temperature wine). We relied on our neighbor and his pick-up truck to find strawberries and take us adventuring high up into the mountains to visit a remote waterfall, a frigid crevice tucked far away from any school or clinic (though we passed several communities along the way); he presented us with fresh, local produce and brought firewood at night to keep us cozy. We reflected on how much we’ve enjoyed working with one another and tried to wrap our heads around the fact that we are just days away from becoming Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

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All sorts of greenery!

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just one of our tasty meals!  black bean breakfast enchiladas

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Hillside agriculture on the way to the waterfall

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Stacey (RPCV), Silpa, Natalie, and me

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Silpa and Julie

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Natalie and me

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mujeres de fuego

Tomorrow I will head to Pescadería to say my goodbyes. How is it that in some ways I feel as though I’m visiting my site for the first time? Anxiety, hope, and disbelief. But, then come the waves of sadness and pangs of grief. It’s a paradox that I will only be able to process with time. Certain crannies of my soul wish that I could have just hidden away in Constanza and have the mountains protect me from the tears and heartache that surely await me. Leaving will be  painfully more uncomfortable than arriving.

Ideally, this “goodbye” is more of a “see you later”, and that I am able to embody the strength with which I was rejuvenated this past weekend. After all, “Beyond mountains there are mountains.”

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toils and triumphs of “los tres cafeteros”

15 May

Immigration processes have been a mess here since the nationalization issues between the Dominican Republic and Haiti came to a head over a year ago. Though we are guaranteed residency as Peace Corps Volunteers, we have not been able to renew our green cards since the beginning of 2015 (they expire after 6 months). Despite not having my Dominican residence card, immigration issues occupied the least of my thoughts as I passed through security and arrived at my airport gate. I was on my way to the States for one more brief visit before touching back on the homeland for good as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

It was May 5th and I was headed back to Annapolis, Maryland for my grandpa’s memorial service at the Naval Academy. My shoulders were light since my workload had lightened up immensely just days before, so nothing else was on my mind except the excitement of reuniting with family and the opportunity to finally try Maryland crab.

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Reunited with two of my former Clemson Lacrosse teammates

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Grandpa’s memorial

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Most of the workload that I refer to is the National Conference of Construye Tus Sueños, one of the largest projects we undertake annually as the Community Economic Development sector. Over 45 Dominican Youth and 20 Peace Corps Volunteers and Dominican facilitators participated in the three-day event that took place the 27th-29th of April and focused on entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and professional development. 15 contestants presented their respective business plans to a panel of judges in the hopes of winning one of the three prizes of RD$50,000 to start their businesses. This was the fourth CTS conference that I have attended, but it was the first one that I coordinated.

The conference consisted of two guest speakers, four professional development workshops, two rounds of presentations critiqued by 12 judges, a panel of previous contestants, and a micro-finance fair involving five financial institutions. Given all of the moving parts, the conference concluded without any regrettable hiccups and the youth left informed and motivated. The youth responded positively to the presented advice and activities and the three winners were well-deserving individuals who now have a greater opportunity to generate economic activity within their communities.

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What’s a conference without ice-breakers!?

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“El Artístico” Jose Ignacio Reyes Morales, one of our guest speakers, is internationally known for his ironwork and efforts to inspire artistry and entrepreneurship in youth.

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Day 2 of the conference consisted of two rounds of presentations during which youth explained their business plans to panels of judges

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Michael, Alejandra, and I with some of the judges from Round 1

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Participants and judges at the end of Round 1

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Prepping the judges for Round 2, where 7 participants competed for 3 RD$50,000 prizes

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Round 2

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Jonathan (teal shirt on right), was one of my students who won the competition last year.  He and three other previous contestants came to share their experiences and advice with the participants of this year’s conference.

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Alejandra, Michael, and I with Jonathan, Raylin, Rosa, and Damaso.  All competed in previous CTS competitions, have since started their own businesses, and are exemplary young leaders within their communities.

Experiencing the event as it unfolded from the perspective of coordinator rather than participant was stressful but enlightening. The participants portrayed such bravery, fighting for their dreams while representing their communities’ desires to progress and prosper; the resilience, creativity, and readiness of the people that I am able to collaborate with on a daily basis has always fueled the best feelings and moments of my service here. I thank the Community Economic Development team in particular for their support and guidance – without Michael or Alejandra, I could not be celebrating the event’s success. Having recently secured a new strategic partnership with a local bank, Construye Tus Sueños continues to strengthen its influence on young entrepreneurs who are looking to improve the economic wellbeing of their families through the creation of micro-businesses in marginalized communities throughout the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t be happier to have experienced the ins, outs, and impact of this initiative.

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Michael and Alejandra with the Peace Corps Volunteers who are involved with CTS. 

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Los tres cafeteros” – the best team I’ve had the chance to work with.

Just three days after the conference finished, the CED team informed all of the new trainees where they would be living for the next two years – their site placements. To read about how I felt when I received mine, take a trip down memory lane by clicking here. Matching a Volunteer to a community is a tedious process that takes over 6 months of work. It was through this procedure that I have been able to travel this country, reconnect with my favorite aspects of this culture, solidify the working relationships I have with Michael and Alejandra, and analyze communities’ needs to develop problem-solving skills. Having a say in essentially two years of someone’s life is a powerful feeling; seeing the trainees become bright-eyed when we told them their assignment brought me both nostalgia and peace. All 16 trainees visited their sites and have now sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers, prepared as they can be to begin two years of service in their respective communities.

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Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders with the United States Ambassador of the Dominican Republic, James “Wally” Brewster, before the Swear-In Ceremony.

With the two most trying elements of my extension finally completed, I was set to board the plane and enjoy a long weekend with my family celebrating my own accomplishments as well as the life and legacy of my grandfather. To my dismay, the flight from Santo Domingo to Ft. Lauderdale was inevitably delayed for over four hours. It finally dawned on the employees at the counter to pass out meal vouchers to the impatient passengers who immediately perked up at the offering and seemed to forget about the inconvenience. No longer than 5 minutes after half of the passengers had scattered around the airport to look for free lunch did the attendants decide to stop handing out vouchers and instead announce that they were ready to board the plane. I sat dumbfounded as a group of people protested that they had not yet received their vouchers and that the plane couldn’t leave yet because there were still people eating. Anxious to board and hoping that I wouldn’t miss my connecting flight to Baltimore, I stood in line behind the people that were in fact ready to fly while contemplating the curiousness of cultural priorities I had just witnessed.

Once in Ft. Lauderdale, I realized that my connecting flight was also delayed. Feeling both relieved that I had made my flight and impatient to see my family, I sat down at a bar to enjoy a State-side IPA.   I began chatting to a young man that had decided to celebrate his birthday by flying himself to Colombia for the weekend. Another man joined us, who happened to be from Colombia. Despite how long my day had become at this point, our conversation was effortless and a good reminder to continue accepting (and therefore creating) serendipitous experiences. In the end, the Colombian gentleman footed the bill and I made it to Baltimore with a barriga llena, corazón contenta.

This anecdote, while trivial compared to so many other experiences I’ve had here, encapsulates how much the Dominican Republic has taught me about faith, expectations, and human connection. I couldn’t be closer to the team that I work with – Michael, Alejandra, and I refer to ourselves as the “tres cafeteros” (the three coffee-drinking musketeers) – and it’s intimidating to think that we only have one month left to collaborate on these efforts that we’re all so dedicated to.  Certain aspects of this culture and vein of work continue to surprise, amuse, delight, and touch me; I wish there were a way to bottle it all up – the warmth, faith, camaraderie, and spunk Dominicans have taught me – and drink down when stressful moments overwhelm the peaceful ones. Here’s to satiating these last few weeks with everything this country has to offer those willing to accept, appreciate, and embody it.

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Michael and I with the winners of the CTS conference and their PCV facilitators

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Sometimes this is the easiest way to process change…

baffled and blanketed

22 Apr

Well folks, it’s official. I’ve finally booked my plane ticket back to the United States. I knew this time would eventually draw near, but despite all of the epiphanies I’ve experienced while living in a foreign country, this might be the most difficult thing I’ve had to wrap my head around yet. Less than two months until I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

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Don’t worry – Mio/Neal got his plane ticket too!

I was struck with a similar wave of disbelief around this same time last year, when my original 27-month commitment as a Volunteer drew to a close and all of the people I had originally come into country with packed up their lives here to continue on elsewhere. The countdown clock essentially restarted once I decided to stick around for an additional 13 months. Needless to say, time has flown by and it is now my turn to do what my peers were brave enough to do last year.

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Group trip to Las Galeras, Samaná for Easter!  The last time I had been there was almost 3 years ago when we celebrated 4th of July with the group I entered the country with.

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Playa Rincón – my new favorite beach!

For the past several months we have been in the thick of “site development” – identifying, investigating, and visiting communities and groups around the country that have expressed interest in collaborating with Peace Corps. The process is tedious but stimulating. Not only do we explore all corners of the country, but we also meet motivated people who are doing what they can with the limited amount of resources they have to make their community a better place. Site development involves multiple meetings, orientations, security checks, rounds of paperwork, and the coordination of at least 9 different Peace Corps employees/Volunteer Leaders plus that of the respective community counterparts. The placement of a Community Economic Development Volunteer suggests that there is enough motivation and existing infrastructure (among other factors) within a community to build off of; the ultimate goal of the partnership is increase economic activity, improve business skills and practices among locals, and provide an intimate intercultural exchange between the Volunteer and members of the community.

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My boss, Michael, and I out on the road.  We never go too long without a cup of coffee.

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After work activities – watching Michael’s band play (he’s in the background on the far left)!

One of the main roles I’ve played in this process is visiting and prepping the host families. The group that the Volunteer is partnered with is in charge of identifying which family is both willing and able to host a Volunteer for at least his/her first four months at site (families do receive a monthly stipend for their service). Though challenging for those of us who are used to an American-sized personal bubble, staying with a host family is both the most authentic and effective way to become integrated into a community and develop language skills.

Some families have heard of Peace Corps or have met Volunteers before and seem to be somewhat familiar with American customs; most are anxious to receive feedback about how to welcome a foreigner into their home. Though my level of Spanish and knack for Dominicanisms typically make this orientation go smoothly (though I have been mistaken as the Volunteer that is coming to serve in the community), I try to chock each visit full with tips while reminding them that the person who is coming to live with them has been in the DR for less than three months – a fresh slate compared to my three years: “Not all Americans have blonde hair and blue eyes.” “Wanting privacy does not mean that they are mad at you, but rather that they’d like some time alone.” “If you eat rocks for breakfast, they will also try to eat rocks for breakfast – don’t make them anything special. They are just another member of your family.”

Though the orientation lasts only one night, it puts the families at ease and helps to clear up what could potentially be a serious misunderstanding. Not to mention, I get to enjoy the cooking and company of a loving doña – aspects that lack from my service here in Santo Domingo. I don’t think that I will ever forget Quisqueya, a future host mom in Montecristi, asking me upon arrival if had to go #1 or #2 to make sure that she had provided me with enough toilet paper and water to flush the toilet. Or snuggling in bed with Ana from Dajabón, who I’d met just hours before, while we watched a poorly dubbed version of Nanny McPhee and sipped sweet coffee on a quiet, campo night. All of the Dominican families that I stayed with during these visits were gracious hosts who reminded me what it is that I love so much about this culture – warmth, camaraderie, conversation, faith, and leisure.

Perhaps it has been these visits and the fond memories they’ve evoked that are making this transition so frightening. When experiencing an unfamiliar place or culture for the first time, the very quirks that make it “it” are often the most difficult to adjust to. Noise, food, past times, landscapes, structures, relationships, and histories – the threads of a culture’s fabric; a blanket that comforts an opportune soul. What some Volunteers spend their entire services adjusting to is now home to me; I am wrapped up in the craziness of this culture so comfortably snug, or as the Dominicans say, aplatana’a. Thinking about departing this island of doñas, guaguas, and guineos after accomplishing such integration and appreciation for it is almost painful.

In the meantime, I have quite a few other things to distract me from truly processing, accepting, and preparing for June 15th. Namely, coordinating the National Conference for Construye Tus Sueños, which takes place next week. Here’s a video of last year’s conference to remind you how much I love this initiative that is dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship in youth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAlPujF05fc

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“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

In loving memory

4 Apr

Grandpa’s love for the sea was like that of an athlete for his game – hungry, calculated, and respectful. While it makes some feel trapped, Grandpa submerged himself into anything related to the sea and embodied its best attributes. While the ocean’s toil served as a reminder of both his accomplishments and struggles, he was still calmed by its expanse, as if the waves provided supplementary comfort and warmth throughout the battles and separation from his family. I imagine that at times he was lonely, cold, tired, and even scared, but Grandpa was resilient, loyal, and stoic; his service at sea taught him to be so – he was a Vice Admiral after all.

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I remember playing soccer in elementary school. Grandpa came to watch my game from the sidelines. I don’t remember anything about the game except that I kept looking over to make sure he was watching. I was distracted, but I didn’t want anything more than for him to be proud of me.

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In the three years that I’ve lived in the Dominican Republic, I’ve never felt closer to my Grandpa – surrounded by ocean and driven to serve. He showed my family how to be generous while teaching us to hold ourselves and everyone around us to the highest of standards. It is Grandpa’s graceful confidence, energy for life, and courage to achieve what he believes in that fuels my desire to be the best I can be every day.

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RIP VADM Thomas Weschler, 1917-2016.

visit revelations

8 Mar

Happy International Women’s Day! Though I didn’t do anything in particular to celebrate this special day, these last few weeks suffice.

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Silpa, Julie, me, and Natalie – the Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders for health, education, business, and youth sectors.  Admirable co-workers and superb friends.

To put it briefly, I have a full heart and busy mind. Since returning from a much needed and appreciated month-long visit in the States, I have continued on with the “visit” trend. Work visits with potential groups aka partnering organizations in future site placements for the new group of CED volunteers that just arrived on March 2nd. Visits with host families to prepare them in receiving a new, foreign family member. A quick visit back to the States to celebrate the marriage of one of my best friends, my college roommate of three years. Playing host while three different people left their comfort zones to explore my world here in Santo Domingo and beyond. Reconnecting with two of my best friends from my swear-in group who have since moved on from Peace Corps and are leading successful lives as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.  Visiting the volunteer currently living in Pescadería and finally enjoying our community together in person.

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Alejandra and I out in the border province of Elias Piña for site development.

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Pineapples and cabins at the eco-lodge in Rio Limpio, Elias Piña

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Traffic jam in Rio Limpio

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Stacey, former PCV, showing me the ropes of Elias Piña

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Beans in Elias Piña

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Greenhouses in Elias Piña

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Bee hives in Dajabón

 

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Peanut operation in Dajabón

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Work perks!  Marmalade, honey, peanuts, and peanut butter gifted to me by groups interested in collaborating with a business volunteer.

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Lovely house I spotted while in Barahona on site development

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La Ciénaga, Barahona

Though all of these visits have had a different vibe and purpose, I have nevertheless enjoyed each and every one of them. These intercambios have not only helped me to reconnect with old friends, but have brought to light certain aspects of my service here on the island that I might otherwise not have recognized.  Gracias a todos for all of our shared conversations and experience.

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Julie, Courtney, and I at Julie and Chris’s wedding #itsementabe

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Reni, my sister from Pescadería, finally came to visit me in the capital!

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Amanda, the current PCV in my old site, and I.

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Reunited with two of my favorites, Samantha and Kaley, who both served with me here in the Dominican Republic.

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Kayaking on Laguna Limón out in the east of the country with a fellow Clemson Tiger in the background!

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Montaña Redonda in Miches

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Playa Limón, part of the Kayak Tour

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Playa Esmerelda, Miches

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Chris, Carlos, and I at the end of our adventure in Miches

 

The culmination of these visits has led to me celebrating THREE WHOLE YEARS of life here in the Dominican Republic. Plenty of ups and downs, plenty to look forward to, so much to be thankful for.

I end this post with some food for thought, revelations from recent visits, goals for the future, and a just a couple more photos documenting this lovely life I’m so lucky to live.

  • Everyday Leadership
  • Preguntar es aprender. On a recent guagua ride, a young man sitting in between two boisterous tigueres and a friendly doña was noticeably anxious. He had missed his bus stop due to the fact that he didn’t quite know how to arrive to where he was going. The two tigueres were unimpressed, scoffing at his lack of street smarts.       As he dismounted the guagua however, frantic to retrace his steps and reach his destination, the doña empathetically encouraged him to simply ask next time, that nobody knows everything.
  • But even if you aren’t learning anything, confidence can help you play it off like it knows what you’re talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S0FDjFBj8o
  • Spoil your taste buds with healthy juice combos! Recent favorites include anything with kale (can’t even taste it, just makes the juice green and more nutritious). Pictured below: mango, kale, cucumber, basil, and honey.

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  • The Art of Getting Things Done. Everyone has their own way of feeling productive, but now that it’s such a busy time of year, a few practices are helping me to survive – smart to-do lists, stepping away from my desk (during lunch and at least every hour), and leaving myself a solid 45 minutes to prepare myself in the morning.

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  • Have a vision, do a bubble map. Though I at first procrastinated this “assignment” from my dad during my time in the States, I now appreciate why he encouraged me to do it. Be it past times, career paths, or fields of study, what are you interested in?       What draws you? What are you good at? What do you have experience in? How are these topics related? Does it have anything to do with what you’re involved in at the moment? How might this image change over time? Having a vision not only helps you focus, but more easily allows you to focus your thoughts when communicating your goals to others.
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My personal bubble map.  Most of my interests – empowerment, food, small business, policy, and education – are rooted in service, an overarching passion of mine.

  • Journal.
  • Travel ≠ Vacation. Vacation ≠ Travel. “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
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Reunited with two of my favorite troublemakers.

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Omailin, Jenna (Go Tigers!), and I in Pescadería

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Amanda organized a trash clean-up at the court.  Very successful event, thanks to Jenna for being such a good sport.  Notice that our court now has lights installed!?

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Omailin and I

 

Peace, love, and mango season!

 

calmed by community

3 Jan

Written 12/28/15

I find airports bewildering and entertaining. Both weary- and bright-eyed travelers represent a spectrum of individuals coming from or heading to an adventure of some sort. Overwhelmed, curious, rude, oblivious, excited, seasoned, and determined. Airports are strangely neutralizing; they are international arenas through which such an array of passengers navigate systematically, and where one has the choice to interact with, observe, or neglect his/her immediate surroundings. Today, in the wondrous community of the Miami International Airport, I am one of these travelers. Stimulated yet calmed, I am sitting at the same gate where I had been intensely people watching just over a month ago while awaiting my flight to Boston. It had been two years since I was last home in Vermont, and now, as I wait to board my flight back to Santo Domingo, I have some time to reflect on the whirlwind vacation I just experienced.

Between November 23rd and December 28th, I traveled over 10,000 miles, visited three major US cities, spent two holidays in my hometown, attended my grandpa’s 98th birthday party, gave six 50-minute Peace Corps presentations, watched my sister graduate from Auburn University, reunited with my favorite Peace Corps Volunteer (check out mom’s blog here), got two massages, ate all the food I’ve been longing for, spent quality Auntie Kati time with my five sobrinitos, took the 5:20am Dartmouth Coach to the Logan Airport too many times, and reconnected with a healthy number of family members and friends. I owe the majority of these ‘accomplishments’ to my parents, particularly to my dad. Generous with his time, feedback, humor, and goodwill, Tom has become an active, integral part of the local Woodstock community; he not only made my homecoming possible, but also humbly heartwarming.

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Turkey Trotting

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Vice Admiral Thomas Weschler and his granddaughters 🙂

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Chicago with my college roommate, where we watched Clemson make it to the Orange Bowl!  

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Tree decorating in Chicago

 

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One of my favorite activities?  Catching up with a fellow Tiger.  

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snuggle seshes in Denver

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So happy I was able to catch this guy’s holiday concert!

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Tree decorating in Denver

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Reunited with my favorite Peace Corps Volunteer

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Carrie graduated from Auburn!

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War Damn!

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Weschler sisters and the Mister

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Long weekend with mom = awesome bike tour in Atlanta

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Grandpa turns 98!

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*Merry Christmas*

This sense of community – bumping into classmates at the gas station, alumni hockey games, celebrating the holidays out on the dance floor of the only bar in town, sharing my Peace Corps experience with the local schools, exchanging motivational cheers with both tourists and Vermonters alike during the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, an unspoken yet shared appreciation for good beer and local food – is what I missed most about Vermont, and is also one of my favorite parts about the Dominican Republic. It seems almost paradoxical that one has to leave a place to be able recognize what makes it so special in the first place.

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hungry -> Worthy -> blessed

During my trip home, I came to several realizations. The three that reoccurred the most were: 1) I am excited for these next 6 months of work in the Dominican Republic. 2) I am excited to start preparing for what might come when it’s time to leave the island on June 15th. 3) How will I bridge 1 and 2 to close this chapter that has shaped some of my most intimate beliefs and experiences to date?

These next six months have a lot in store to keep me busy in the mean time – site development, volunteer visits, arrival of a new CED group, training sessions, hosting Stateside visitors, planning the national conference of Construye Tus Sueños, and soaking up all the time I can get with mi familia dominicana. My mind races with to-do lists. I consider the thought that I’ve lost the ability to speak Spanish. But as the passengers begin to arrive for our flight to Santo Domingo, the familiar vibrancy (read: loud colors and voices) assures me that I will finish out this service how any traveler can choose to embark on an adventure – curious, stimulated, and determined.

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Since writing this post, I’ve realized that I still do know how to speak Spanish. I celebrated this New Years in my home away from home, surrounded by mosquitoes and blaring bachata music, and watching my Tigers make it to the National Championship.

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Reni and I on New Years Day

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my home, my heart. omailin.

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Hungry hippos, happy campers

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Watching the game in my Dominican family’s house.  ESPN in Spanish!  

Love knows no boundaries.

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“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”

moonlit reflections

29 Oct

There is an eerie vibe to a dim-lit capital city.  There are sounds of motos, distant sirens, and vigilant dogs, but the neighborhood is dark and indiscernible.  Random dull light bulbs powered by generators (read: rigged car batteries) cast exaggerated and misshapen shadows that command both the corners and stretches of streets. There is a rare chill in the air, and my skin tingles with goose bumps rather than beads of sweat. My ears feel large, compensating for my eyes and alert in the stillness. As I write, the moon is by far the brightest and most loyal source of light around. She glows impressively, taunting those of us without luz by illuminating the edges of even the farthest rainclouds that sit plump and squat out on the horizon of the Caribbean. We haven’t had running water or electricity for more than 24 hours.

One whole day really is no time at all, and though this happens frequently, I almost scoff at myself for appearing so dramatic. There are plenty of communities in the DR and beyond that have yet to see an electrical wire installed. Campesinos go MONTHS without seeing a single droplet of water reach their pipes. But often, those people have buckets. And neighbors. Even better, neighbors with buckets. I could buy a bucket and deliberately start storing water like I did nearly every day in the campo, but I haven’t. I attribute this avoidance mostly to laziness (and the fact that I left all of my buckets with my neighbors when I moved to the capital), but the human components of my being regrettably do not want to admit that I indeed should adhere to this ritual once again.

I live in the capital city of a middle-income country. Over 3 million people live in the metropolitan area of Santo Domingo. Amid the vibrant smiles and picturesque landscapes found across the Dominican Republic, there are innumerable pockets of poverty. However, to those who choose to turn a blind eye or are not willing to wander far, they are nonexistent and irrelevant.

By no means am I living in poverty, but some people around me certainly are.  Illiteracy, teen pregnancy, unemployment, poor waste management, corruption – all issues that are as real as they are rampant.  My feelings of annoyance, bafflement, and compliance in reference to my water situation clash with an ever-present privilege that I guiltily experience but have learned to leverage as an American white woman. Whether it is in capital cities or on the outskirts of the most spectacular beaches, lacking amenities are frustrating but the truly impoverished loom right next door, desperate and taciturn.  I do try to not over look this reality – the persistent existence of poverty and the fact that many just turn a blind eye to it.  So tonight in the chilly darkness, my dogmatism regarding frequent water shortages when others around me face truly dire circumstances is exaggerated but disappointing all the same.

The 193 Member States of the United Nations have agreed upon 17 Sustainable Development Goals to follow-up with the 8 Millennium Goals from 2000 in the spirit of addressing persisting issues with poverty worldwide.  I encourage you to read more about them here.  Though it is an ambitious agenda, will it be enough? What are the measures we are actually taking to make our neighbors happier, our cities healthier, and future generations safer? How do we make these concerns urgent, obvious, tangible for those that sleep soundly, apathetic and oblivious to their shared responsibility in these matters?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Then, in an auspicious glimmer of either sympathy or inspiration, the neighborhood erupts in cheers as the luz has arrived once again, melting the city’s shadows down to bits of darkness that seem small next to the true richness of this bright world.

(los) weschler perspective

10 Oct

As one door closes, another opens. Windows of opportunity continue to present themselves, and the ceiling limiting my options and interests to pursue after Peace Corps grows taller, further away. My blog posts seem infrequent, not because I’m uninspired, but because it’s difficult to transmit all of what I’ve been learning since moving to the capital. My day-to-day life, while its schedule is more ‘traditional’ than it was the campo, experiences a vast array of tasks, locations, and conversations. This third year in Peace Corps has been as invigorating and tumultuous as the last two, but how I’ve developed professionally is incomparable.  This has after all been my first ‘office job’ ever.

Pics from a recent stateside visitor

Pics from a recent stateside visitor

Las Terrenas, Samaná

Las Terrenas, Samaná

It has been six months since most of my friends from my March 2013 cohort left, meaning that yet another group is now wrapping up their service to move on to other travel, work, and study plans. A new batch of trainees arrived to country in August, one of whom is staying with the very same host family I lived with during the six unforgettable weeks we spent in Peralvillo, Monteplata for Community Based Training. Additionally, one of these same trainees will eventually come to serve for two years as a follow-up youth volunteer in Pescadería, my home and ‘office’ for the majority of my time here. The new business volunteers, who I helped guide through their Community-Based Training in April, are now settled into their site assignments, some beginning to move out of their host families’ houses to live independently. I recall this part of my service fondly. It is when I regained a bit of independence, delved deeper into cultural integration alongside my beloved neighbors, and began to take on work projects that would ultimately define themselves as the most challenging yet rewarding parts of my service.

Latest visit to Pescadería with my girls Reni and Juana

Latest visit to Pescadería with my girls Reni and Juana

Omailin and fellow-biker, Angely

Omailin and fellow-biker, Angely

Nothing beats star-gazing in the campo...neighbors watching the eclipse/Super Moon.

Nothing beats star-gazing in the campo…neighbors watching the eclipse/Super Moon.

So, why has this third year so far been the icing on the cake to an already incredible experience? In one word: perspective. Peace Corps service tests all aspects of one’s life. Culture, identity, skills, beliefs, and boundaries. Not to mention patience and willpower. A fellow volunteer mentioned that, as volunteers, there is a thin line between our personal and professional lives; it is our job to make it thicker. The perspective this third year extension has brought to my own service has helped to fill in the gaps where I often didn’t see a line existing – moments where relationships defined productivity; times where only retrospect could offer clearer resolution. Spending time with other volunteers at their sites, investigating sites for future volunteers, talking to locals in nearly every province of the country, staying in touch and visiting people back in Pescadería – it has all helped to wrap my head around the 24 months I spent among the goats and plantain trees.  A big ‘hats off’ to those still out in the field.

YES I still work with these fools.

YES I still work with these fools.

Latest edition at La Cabrita - a reservoir so they can save water and use to irrigate the plantains they are planting to eventually generate income

Latest addition to La Cabrita – a reservoir so they can save water and use to irrigate the plantains they are planting to eventually generate income

By working in more direct contact with the people that function “behind the scenes” of a Peace Corps volunteer’s service, my campo blinders have been removed. I’m seeing the bigger picture, and realizing how we’re often just cogs within a large, bureaucratic machine. Good things take time – both inside and outside of the office. There are no parts of my two years that I regret, but I’ve gained a certain perspective that could’ve helped me navigate my service a bit easier. PCV or not however, I think it’d be hard to find someone who has never had that feeling of nostalgia plus “what if” on their conscience.

Another trip, another roadside stand - this one features mangoes, coconuts, eggs, and avocados.

Another trip, another roadside stand – this one features mangoes, honey, coconuts, eggs, and avocados.

Fellow PCV and my boss, Michael, enjoying a breakfast with a view in Moca

Fellow PCV Matty J and my boss, Michael, enjoying a breakfast with a view in Moca

Avocados and sunsets

Avocados and sunsets

This bathing spot made a long, steep hike well worth it!

This bathing spot made a long, steep hike well worth it!

PCVs outside of Matty J's house

PCVs outside of Matty J’s house

Cacao nursery near Cotui

Cacao nursery near Cotui, visiting another PCV

Hiking with fellow PCV near San Francisco de Marcoris

Hiking with fellow PCV near San Francisco de Marcoris

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Peace Corps will never be the job where you can arrive home from work and forget about your day at the office. Until the move from campo to capitaleña, my home WAS my office. My house in Pescadería was where I learned to prepare lunch the Dominican way and where I taught my chicas sexual health; home was where I watched Omailin learn to walk, where we stored the supplies used to build our basketball court, and where I mentored young entrepreneurs on feasible business plans. Work colleagues are also neighbors, church leaders, and school principals – a complex but wholesome quilt of personal and professional networks that blankets a volunteer’s understanding of the additional threads that hold the culture and community together.

Latest work trip: headed down south to the Barahona region to visit some of the winners of the Construye Tus Sueños competition. This is Raylin's San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours business

Latest work trip: headed down south to the Barahona region to visit some of the winners of the Construye Tus Sueños competition. This is Raylin’s San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours business

Michael, Raylin's mom, and Raylin's facilitator Jim (fellow PCV and Vermonter!) at his business

Michael, Raylin’s mom, and Raylin’s facilitator Jim (fellow PCV and Vermonter!) at his business

Lunch view.

Lunch view.

Lunch! Jim, Michael, and I

Conch for lunch! Jim, Michael, and I at Raylin’s business – food side of the business ran and cooked by his mom!

What better way to start the day than to watch the sun rise over an endless, ocean seascape

What better way to start the day than to watch the sun rise over an endless, ocean seascape?

Ready to start the mountain tour - note the Clemson Lacrosse shirt and view of San Rafael :)

Ready to start the Raylin’s mountain tour – note the Clemson Lacrosse shirt and view of San Rafael 🙂

CENTIPEDE

CENTIPEDE

views from the tour

views from the tour

Raylin - winner of Construye Tus Sueños and owner of San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours

Raylin – winner of Construye Tus Sueños and owner of San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours

San Rafael

San Rafael

Michael and I stopping for breakfast on our way to a community meeting.

Michael and I stopping for breakfast on our way to a community meeting.

Visiting a potential site for a future volunteer - an association that makes fruit marmalades !

Visiting a potential site for a future volunteer – an association that makes fruit marmalades !

Ladies in action - preparing orange jam

Ladies in action – preparing orange jam

Another stop to check out the 'gem' of the southern region - larimar

Another stop to check out the ‘gem’ of the southern region – larimar

Larimar - mined ONLY in Barahona

Larimar – mined ONLY in Barahona

I appreciate the opportunity to continue collaborating with Pescadería while not living there. This past weekend I watched one of my chicas graduate from high school – the 3rd graduation I’ve been a part of here. Though still soft-spoken and naive, she’s blossomed into a young leader, capable of commanding a classroom of adolescents while educating them on their anatomy and self-esteem. I also visited with Jonathan, one of my Construye Tus Sueños students, who has seen more than a 150% sales increase since taking the course and winning RD$50,000 to enhance his agro-veterinary business in May. Lastly, my friends who I became close to during the basketball court chronicles, informed me that they had not only bought new jerseys, but that they also had a new team name: The Pescadería Weschlers. Young people that I’ve had the pleasure to work with are becoming catalysts for change, and theirs are the stories that make me feel like I’m still fighting the good fight.

Colorful, festive high school graduation

Colorful, festive high school graduation

Graduation parade

Graduation parade

Odalina (graduate), Grissel, and I at the high school graduation. These two girls were my super-star multipliers for Chicas Brillantes.

Odalina (graduate), Grissel, and I at the high school graduation. These two girls were my super-star multipliers for Chicas Brillantes.

Photo of the Pescadería Weschlers. They captioned the photo:

Photo of the Pescadería Weschlers. They captioned the photo: “this has been done with great motivation for our friend, who helped us achieve what we’ve been waiting for. today with a truly united team, we dedicate it all to you kate weschler. we love and will always remember you.”

oceans separate land, not souls

29 Aug

This week I visited La Isabela on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, one of the first European settlements of the New World.  Much to my surprise, there were hardly any signs indicating the route to such a monumental location.  Then again, I wasn’t surprised much at all, as this country has its own way of doing things…

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“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

On his first voyage, he landed in the Bahamas and ultimately established La Navidad as the first European settlement in what is present-day Haiti.  On his second voyage, after discovering that La Navidad had been destroyed by Taínos (natives to the island who were [probably] rightly disgruntled with Spanish treatments), Columbus traveled a bit east and founded La Isabela.  After several years of your typical conquest blunders – hunger, disease, quarrels with the natives, etc. – Columbus abandoned La Isabela and ultimately named Santo Domingo as the official Spanish settlement in 1496.

Museum at La Isabela

Museum at La Isabela

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“On this land of the Americas, the Admiral Christopher Columbus founded La Isabela in the year 1943.”

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Admiral Christopher Columbus's house!

Ruins of Admiral Christopher Columbus’s house!  (thatched roof not included) 

I couldn’t help but feel small while standing on such historic ground, unable to process all of the events and people that our world has seen since 1493 (nevertheless before that!).  As I walked along the hot, salty clay and posed with ruins of Admiral Christopher Columbus’s house, one special man naturally came to mind – my grandpa!

Coincidentally or not, Vice Admiral Thomas R. Weschler is being honored this very weekend in his hometown of Erie, PA for his service in the US Navy AND his continuous efforts in providing exciting education opportunities for people interested in both studying and accepting the magnitude of the sea. Furthermore, the wing of the Military Gallery at the local Historical Society will be named in his honor. At 97 years young, my grandpa is sharp, curious, and humble; a stoic individual who, in applying a specific passion to all areas of his life, embodies a wise truthfulness that inspires others to find and develop their own.

VADM Weschler

VADM Weschler

VADM Weschler

VADM Weschler

Like the concept of history, I will never be able to fathom or understand all of my grandpa’s stories at sea. However, I am certain that he deserves every bit of recognition he’s receiving this weekend and more. Not only has he been an exemplary grandpa, but also a beacon of nobility, intellect, and just plain goodness. Wishing I could be there to celebrate, but “oceans separate land, not souls.”