love thy neighbor

26 Jul

As a little girl, I fondly remember my mom baking banana bread for the new families that would move into the neighborhood. To this day, I consider this a classy, warm, and pragmatic gesture.  When we moved to Vermont in 1998, this tradition continued; interacting with our neighbors was both common and crucial, especially because of the infamous ice storm that hit the northeast that winter – coordinating snowplow schedules, sharing batteries or candles when a trip to the store was impossible, letting us park our car in their driveway when we couldn’t make it up ours, etc.

Needless to say, my childhood would have been much less entertaining if it hadn’t been for that small cluster of houses at the end of a remote dirt road. We were an adventurous but sane assortment of kids who bonded over outdoor activities and who cherished our tight-knit families – The Grassy Lane Gang. I know our parents appreciated it too – carpools, after school play dates, medical support (the neighborhood dubbed my mom “Nurse Ratchet” for her interest and ability in healing any sort of ailment), and an unspoken accord regarding healthy snacks and limited TV time.

Grassy Lang Gang, crankin' apple cider at the house down the road

Grassy Lang Gang, crankin’ apple cider at the house down the road

Grassy Lane Gang

Grassy Lane Gang

members of the Grassy Lane Gang, circa 2013

members of the Grassy Lane Gang, circa 2013

I’ve lately been reflecting on how much neighbors mean to me. While I appreciate my alone time (of which I get quite a bit of here in Santo Domingo compared to in the campo), I’m recognizing how much I strongly value and enjoy human connection. This seems like a basic realization, but accepting a certain vulnerability that befriending the unknown requires has ultimately led me to experience tremendous humility, laughter, confusion, gratitude, frustration, and friendships.  Enjoying this sort of enlightenment in the company of people who share spaces makes the experience that much richer.

Happiness is only real when shared.

Here in Santo Domingo, I live in an apartment building comprised of about 20 or so separate apartments. Though I wish I could say I know all of my neighbors like I did in Pescadería (where it was common for me lend my clothespins or toilet plunger to one of them), I know the occupants of only 3 apartments here. But nonetheless, these bonds have been helpful and genuine, and reliable sources of human connection for which I am appreciative.

Today for example, I was headed out to do a few errands when I locked the door to my apartment then realized that I had left my phone inside. Frustration (read: slight panic) struck when I went to unlock the door and part of the lock fell off into my hand, leaving another part stuck in the door. Without hesitation I knocked on my neighbor’s apartment next door, Angela, who lent me a hammer, wrench, and knife to try and fiddle my way back inside. To no avail, she volunteered her youngest child to see if he could squeeze through the bars of the iron gate. We decided instead that it was better to go downstairs and look for Leo, another neighbor who, in addition to being the fiancé of a fellow PCV, happens to be quite the handyman. Less than 5 minutes later, Leo was at my doorway, equipped with safety glasses and sawing his way through the stubborn lock. Meanwhile, Angela had provided me with a chair to sit in, assuring me not to worry and that tomorrow she would call her friend who happened to be an ironworker. In a short period of time, Leo gave one last yank on the weakened metal and I was granted access into my apartment once again (no worries – got plenty of other methods to keep my apartment secure in the mean time!). As neighbors united in a time of need, we briefly celebrated then soon went our separate ways, almost indifferent to the naturalness of the exchange.

Pescadería, where my house wouldn't have been home without a hammock and around-the-clock watchmen. and by watchmen i mean tight-knit neighbors fond of rum, story telling, old bachata, their grandchildren, and power sitting.

Pescadería, where my house wouldn’t have been home without a hammock and around-the-clock watchmen. and by watchmen i mean tight-knit neighbors fond of rum, story telling, old bachata, their grandchildren, and power sitting.

I end this post with a tribute to my favorite neighbor of all time, Pepelo. He adopted me into his home with grace, in yet another unspoken accord between neighbors. From the moment I moved across the street from his house and built-in colmado, Pepelo cared for me as a daughter. He used the land behind my house to cultivate and provide us with the south’s infamous plantains, took care of my cat when I traveled, and never forgot to save me my share of the day’s meal. In light of it being Father’s Day here in the Dominican Republic (yet another reason why a neighbor rather than locksmith solved today’s dilemma), I encourage you to befriend your neighbors – friendly waves might one day make you family.

Pepelo and plantains

Pepelo and plantains

Reina, Pepelo's wife and undeniably reliable neighbor

Reina, Pepelo’s wife and undeniably reliable neighbor

So thankful for both of these stand-up guys; blessed that they've been able to meet, bond, and recognize each other's indispensable role in my well-being

Happy Father’s Day!  So thankful for both of these stand-up guys; blessed that they’ve been able to meet, bond, and recognize each other’s indispensable role in my well-being

the third fourth

6 Jul

This week marks the THIRD Independence Day that I’ve spent outside of the United States.  How did I celebrate the land of the free, home of the brave in the land of bachata, colmados, and doñas you might ask?  Why, at a German market of course!

Santo Domingo and the campo are two different worlds – it’s exciting to have so many options yet again at my fingertips (big box stores and supermarkets, international restaurants, cultural events, live music, mass Zumba classes in parks, etc.), but also nerve-wracking to think how much more ‘world’ awaits me once June 2016 comes around.  It’s almost more unsettling (but also gratifying) to recognize that us PCVs have a very unique perspective of the Dominican Republic; we in fact know much more about campo culture and hardships than many people who live here in the capital do.  My neighbor here was shocked that I had even stepped foot inside of a latrine, and yesterday, my guagua driver refused to admit that I had lived in Barahona for two years because “donde hay prieto, no hay progreso” (literally, “there is no progress where there are blacks”).  In the campo, most of my time was spent compartiring with neighbors outside of my house (oh how I miss my hammock!) or wandering the streets, peeking in colorfully friendly homes and not thinking twice about denying hugs, juice, or a plastic chair to, as us PCVs like to refer to it, join in on the ‘power sitting’.  Time moved slower, and little interaction or awareness of ‘the outside world’ was always a confusing blend of comforting isolation.  Santo Domingo can be isolating too in the sense that people keep much more to themselves than in the campo, but in reality there are plenty of opportunities to explore and share in an authentic Dominican style (read: loud).

Having spent a good chunk of June visiting volunteers in their sites (or attending a seafood festival, as shown in the pictures below), I turned down the option to spend the 4th on a world-renown beach and opted instead for Kati-time…mainly to do a month’s worth of laundry, but also to continue exploring my new world here in Santo Domingo, where I still got plenty of sun and had the opportunity to enjoy authentic German brews and brat.

Danielle (CED PCV), me, and Michael (Associate Peace Corps Director for CED)

Danielle (CED PCV), me, and Michael (Associate Peace Corps Director for CED) at the Festival Marisco Ripiao in Sanchez

Festival Marisco Ripiao, Sanchez

Festival Marisco Ripiao, Sanchez

They put us in charge of face painting...

They put us in charge of face painting…

Artisan booth - Faceless Dolls

Artisan booth – Faceless Dolls

Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil

Eco-Tourism Lodge

Eco-Tourism Lodge

cooking show !!

cooking show !!

Cooking show - ways to use local seafood

Cooking show – ways to use local seafood

Took a break from face painting to judge a food competition !

Took a break from face painting to judge a food competition !

In this new city and new role, rather than being partnered with a community group or organization, my new primary project is essentially supporting the volunteers of the Community Economic Development sector.  While it’s not as hands-on as my first two years of service, Sector Leader is still grass-roots in the sense that we help prepare the community to receive a volunteer before he/she even gets there, and then continue to give follow-up support/visits throughout the PCV’s service.  Though these visits allow me to gain context – understand who the volunteer is working with, current activities, site conditions, etc. – and to better connect with my peers, I STILL have to be proactive about not comparing my service to theirs.  I am striving to use this retrospect in facilitating the service of my fellow PCVs and not to deplore or regret aspects of my own.

Learning about vermiculture (fertilizer from earthworms) in San Jose de Ocoa

Learning about vermiculture (fertilizer from earthworms) in San Jose de Ocoa

PCV visit to Montecristi

PCV visit to Montecristi

"The Shoe" at El Morro Beach

“The Shoe” at El Morro Beach

View of El Morro from the Salt Mines

View of El Morro from the Salt Mines

Loading salt into the truck

Loading salt into the truck

Salt!  Extracted from salt water, filtered through mangroves, and passed through a series of pools until...

Salt! Extracted from salt water, filtered through mangroves, and passed through a series of pools until…

it's salt!

it’s salt!

One way I’m choosing to be proactive about this – learning from my peers and applying it to my own work – is by continuing to visit Pescaderia and interacting on the ground level.  As you might recall, two of my Construye Tus Sueños (Build Your Dreams) students each won $RD50,000 to start/strengthen their own businesses.  Chamila took advantage of the local week-long patronales party to sell clothes to interested party-goers and plans to save the profit to eventually build a locale; Jonathan is using this investment to widen his product line, encouraging customers to buy all of their agri-veterinary needs at his business rather than making the trip to Barahona.  To learn more about the Construye Tus Sueños initiative and the national conference where these two young entrepreneurs showed their stuff, watch the video below.

Lastly, I’d like to make a special shout out to someone who has helped me to create and seize opportunities – my MOM!  In under one week she’ll be headed to Washington D.C. to participate in her very own staging for Peace Corps service in Malawi!  To learn more about the adventure this incredible woman will experience, follow her blog here.  Suerte, amor! 

Alejandra and I on top of Montaña Redonda near Miches

Alejandra and I on top of Montaña Redonda near Miches

Mangoes on mountaintops

Mangoes on mountaintops

see we can sit in a distant haze and watch rain clouds pour thoughts of greatness to help our troubles sail real far away

see we can sit in a distant haze and watch rain clouds
pour thoughts of greatness to help our troubles sail real far away

confessions of a capitaleña

12 Jun

Exactly one month has passed since I packed away my hammock and bid hasta luego to my neighbors, backyard full of plantain trees, favorite colmado, goats, and other familiarities of the campo lifestyle to move to the capital city of Santo Domingo.  With a metropolitan area of around 3 million people (compared to 4,000 in Pescadería), one could imagine how much of a contrast this next year will be from my last two here in the Dominican Republic.

hugging this munchkin goodbye was no easy feat

Omailin — hugging this munchkin goodbye was no easy feat

Reina (Omailin's grandmom),  who started sharing her rice and beans, advice, washing machine, culture, and home with me from the moment i moved across the street from her family

Reina (Omailin’s grandmom), who started sharing her rice and beans, advice, washing machine, culture, and home with me from the moment i moved across the street from her family

Ultimately, the transition from campo life into office culture has opened my eyes to a number of things (leadership, diversity, and an endless thirst for learning being the hot topics).  I’ll get into more specifics about the context of these events later, but first, understand the source of some of these realizations below:

  1. The Power of Introverts: a TED Talk about the importance of accepting and celebrating introversion.
  2. Quiet Leadership: a book about how to be a more effective leader by helping people think.
  3. Empathy: a short cartoon about the difference between empathy and sympathy.
  4. The Danger of a Single Story: a MUST WATCH TED Talk about stereotypes, diversity, and perspective.
  5. Fast Company Magazine: old magazine, new information about ingenious companies and organizations.
  6. The Guardian: dynamic news source from the UK (introduced to me by my new friend Mike – owner of an authorized Apple repair store down the street from the office who served here in the DR with Peace Corps in the 70’s).
new apartment!

new apartment!

temporary house guest - yes I still have my cat, and NO he did not like Rufus.

temporary house guest – yes I still have my cat, and NO he did not like Rufus.

easy access to tasty ingredients = tasty new weschipes

easy access to tasty ingredients = tasty new weschipes

As the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the Community Economic Development (CED) sector, I am now based in the main office where I share a work space with the other Sector Volunteer Leaders (health, education, and youth).  I work closely with both the Program Specialist and Associate Peace Corps Director of the CED sector to provide support to volunteers, to monitor current projects and initiatives, and to develop future sites where business volunteers could continue collaborating with locals to make a positive impact on the economic environment of the Dominican Republic.  As PCVL, I am no longer working on-the-ground alongside members of my community (though I still go back to Pescadería whenever I get the chance), but rather with Peace Corps Volunteers themselves.  From this perspective, I am able to draw on my own experience as a volunteer and a new-found proximity to PC staff to facilitate information between PCVs and the office, be a sounding board, and help to ensure that aspects of volunteers’ service and office politics suit and are understood by all parties involved.

An effective way to do this new role (but really, pretty much any role) is to ‘keep a pulse’ on things.  We learn this as volunteers by going out and getting our hands dirty – living and working alongside community members to achieve goals together.  This sort of gumption creates confianza, is an authentic commitment, and provides perspective.  Does researching a city via your computer count as visiting it?  Knowing it?  No.  It’s a single story.  Until you’ve met the locals, eaten traditional dishes, explored some back roads or alleyways, and most importantly, gotten lost, I’d be hard-pressed to check that city off of my bucket list.  Same applies to successful, sustainable development work.

“Success is a ladder you cannot climb with your hands in your pockets”

So, in terms of the PCVL position, one of the best ways to continue collaborating with PCVs and supporting the Peace Corps community and mission is to do just that – taking my hands away from the dust-free keyboard, leaving the comfort of AC, and going out to visit current volunteers at their sites.  My goal within the next year is to visit each of the 30+ PCVs in the CED sector at least once (by the end of June I’ll have visited about half, si dios quiere).  These visits allow me to understand the intricacies of each volunteer’s site (project partners, living situations, projects and activities, etc.) and having this contextualized perspective enhances my ability to provide empathetic support.  Recognizing and appreciating the diversity of both the volunteer community and Dominican countryside has been an enlightening adventure within itself.

The Program Specialist, Alejandra, and I visiting a volunteer in Samana

The Program Specialist, Alejandra, and I visiting a volunteer in Samana

Juan and I - Juan supports an association that grows and processes oregano.

Juan and I – Juan supports an association that grows and processes oregano.

Snapped a picture of this fruit vendor right as he was opening up shop where he sells "frutón" - frozen chuncks of fruit served in a delicious blend of their juices.

Snapped a picture of this fruit vendor in Nagua right as he was opening up shop where he sells “frutón” – frozen chuncks of fruit served in a delicious blend of their juices.

We've got lots of business volunteers working with CACAO

We’ve got lots of business volunteers working with CACAO

Countryside

Countryside

The backyard of one of our CED volunteers.

The backyard of one of our CED volunteers.

Campo lunch on a volunteer visit

Lunch in the campo while visiting a volunteer

Pineapple!

Pineapple!

Visiting Rita, one of our newest CED volunteers.

Visiting Rita, one of our newest CED volunteers.

To better educate ourselves on how we can be proactive and cohesive throughout our service, volunteers representing all PC sectors came together this week for a workshop on diversity.  Motivated to highlight the issue within the Peace Corps community (especially considering the legal and political environment of where we’re serving – read more on the issue here), we spent two days telling stories, recognizing privileges, learning what it means to be an ally, and recognizing the true diversity that exists in the world, even among a group of 30 Americans.  This workshop, like the other sources I mentioned above, has empowered me with an experience and information I will continue to reference throughout both my Peace Corps service and life afterwards.  So here’s to continuing to get my hands dirty – the more stories the better.

PCDR's Diversity Committee

PCDR’s Diversity Committee

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

practice makes progress

6 May

The month of April simply disappeared before my green, gringa eyes. On the 12th of May I’ll be moving to the capital city of Santo Domingo, where I’ll be serving and working in the main office as the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader of the Community Economic Development Sector. I’ve already put a deposit down on a well-lit, spacious apartment that is conveniently situated across the street from a delicious juice/sandwich shop. Located less than a 20-minute walk away from both the Peace Corps office and the Colonial Zone, I will be hoping to host a slew of visitors this coming year 🙂

To help prepare for this leadership role, I involved myself in the majority of training sessions for the new business group that arrived in March. Though the new CED trainees finished Community Based Training on the 29th of April (and are on their way to their new sites as I write!), I left the pueblo of Peralvillo and my wonderful host family once again to return to site and help my Construye Tus Sueños students prepare for the national conference/competition that would start the same day.

As always, the Construye Tus Sueños National Conference is held in Santo Domingo, a central location for participants of the nation-wide initiative. The event consists of various charlas on topics related to professional development (networking, elevator speech, presentation skills, and savings), reputable guest speakers, a micro-finance fair, and of course, the competition itself. It’s a powerful experience – watching youth (often whom have never left their communities) meet and interact with others who share dreams to take initiative and make a difference.

El Artístico - José Ignacio Morales from La Romana, D.R.; internationally-known artisit and fabulous source of inspiration

El Artístico – José Ignacio Morales from La Romana, D.R.; internationally-known artisit and fabulous source of inspiration

Judges of the final round with Turner (current PCVL) and Michael (the Associate Peace Corps Director of the CED sector)

Judges of the final round with Turner (current PCVL) and Michael (the Associate Peace Corps Director of the CED sector)

15 written business plans were chosen to compete – to present their business plans to a panel of judges, where they are expected to prove their knowledge of the written plan while also demonstrating entrepreneurship, professionalism, and poise in person. After the first presentations are finished, six are then chosen to move on to the final round where they present their plan to yet another panel of judges. Based on the scores of their final presentation, three participants are deemed winners – recipients of a sum of prize money based on the budget detailed in their plans (the amount of money needed to start/strengthen their business, typically around $RD50,000).

Jonathan, Chamila, Bella, and I at the National Conference

Jonathan, Chamila, Bella, and I at the National Conference

To help us prepare for the competition, we recruited a top-notch consultant – my dad! 🙂 Though Tom was here for only a few days, we packed in a visit to the goat project, a trip down the southern coast, a meeting with my Chicas Brillantes, a neighborhood block party, several Presidente beers and bowls of dad’s chili, and a celebratory dinner for my Construye Tus Sueños students for having finished the course and made it into the competition.  At first, my students were apprehensive to even turn a plan, doubtful that theirs could warrant a place within the Top 15.  However, we discussed that there wouldn’t even be a chance of them winning if they didn’t do themselves some justice and start writing out their ideas.

Dad with my students - Mónica (co-facilitator), Bella, Chamila, and Jonathan

Dad with my students – Mónica (co-facilitator), Bella, Chamila, and Jonathan

Mónica, Chamila, and Jonathan

Mónica, Chamila, and Jonathan

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Fatherly Sandwesch – Pepelo, me, and Dad

Zip-lining!

Zip-lining!

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Day off at Casa Bonita 🙂

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Dad and I

All in all, Dad’s visit or the national conference/competition couldn’t have treated us any better.  I brought three students with me to Santo Domingo, two of which were competing in the Top 15 (an existing agri-veterinary shop and a clothing line/store).  Ultimately, Jonathan and Chamila’s knowledge of their business plans and passion for what they each hope to achieve was evident. Their thorough, confident, and professional presentations secured them in a place within the Top 6.  More impressively, they each then placed in the Top 3, and will each receive nearly RD$50,000 towards their entrepreneurial endeavors. Needless to say, I’m so proud of what my students have accomplished, as they have now been recognized on a nation-wide level for their spirit, courage, and talent.  Furthermore, I’m grateful that I’ll be here in the Dominican Republic for another year to accompany these two young entrepreneurs while managing their new funds and growing businesses to thus continue pa’lante.  

Jonathan and I when he won

Jonathan and I when he won

Jonathan (agri-veterinary shop), Chamila (clothing line/store), and Raylin (surf/eco-tourism business) ----- all from the southern region of Barahona!

Jonathan (agri-veterinary shop), Chamila (clothing line/store), and Raylin (surf/eco-tourism business) —– all from the southern region of Barahona!

the winners with their facilitators (who happen to both be from Vermont!)

the winners with their facilitators (who happen to both be from Vermont!)

Chamila getting interviewed

Chamila getting interviewed

Michael, Jim, Raylin, Chamila, Jonathan, myself, and Turner

Michael, Jim, Raylin, Chamila, Jonathan, myself, and Turner

the whole gang!

the whole gang!

Despite the joy that this milestone accomplishment has brought me, I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy. While at this very same conference, I had to say goodbye to some of the most influential, creative, and talented people I’ve ever met – my government-issued friends – now that our 27-month commitment as Peace Corps Volunteers is coming to an end. Though some still have yet to leave, a good part of 517-13-01 has now left the Dominican Republic to continue traveling, pursue careers in graduate school, teaching, government, or non-profit work, or simply savor Mom’s home cooking and enjoyable summer weather (it’s been in the 90s here, and we haven’t even gotten to the hottest months yet…). I wish all of my favorite Returned Peace Corps Volunteers the best of luck and send big doña abrazos your way.

Turner (current PCVL of CED sector), Andrew Lobo, Samantha Kinney, Andy Lamb, Amanda Cunningham, John Lewis, and Jim Fitch -- CED volunteers who, except Jim, are headed back to the States.

Turner (current PCVL of CED sector), Andrew Lobo, Samantha Kinney, Andy Lamb, Amanda Cunningham, John Lewis, and Jim Fitch — CED volunteers who, except Jim, are headed back to the States.

CED PCVs from 517-13-01

CED PCVs from 517-13-01

To try and distract myself from this seemingly bittersweet time in my service, my Chicas Brillantes and I effectively planned their graduation from the course for this past Monday. 13 girls ages 11 to 18 graduated from the course in the company of my project partner Mónica, two multipliers from my previous go-around with Chicas, and around 20 other invited guests (community leaders and/or family members of the graduates). The girls planned two dramas to demonstrate the importance and effects of a healthy upbringing (education, no violence, open communication, self-esteem etc.), and Mónica and I discussed methods of effective communication. This group of young women has displayed an immense amount of interest and maturity for the various themes mentioned throughout the course (anatomy, self-esteem, beauty, education, etc.), and it is their gumption and marked growth that helps affirm my decision to stay.

Drama put on by some of the Chicas Brillantes

Drama put on by some of the Chicas Brillantes

A Chica muy Brillante singing a song

A Chica muy Brillante singing a song

Graduates!

Graduates!

DSCN8267

DSCN8268

Mónica and I

Mónica and I

These two events, especially our sweep at Construye Tus Sueños, are tangible highlights of my service that are visible to the communities of Pescadería and Peace Corps, and are a positive affirmation that progress has indeed been made within these two years of sweat, tries, and tears.  They were not reached without difficulties or frustration, and they were certainly not accomplished alone; they are a metaphorical high five for persevering and collaborating, and a solid source of motivation to continue on this path of development work, project planning, and teaching.

I am looking forward to my transition into another chapter in the Dominican Republic: capital life – a change of pace, scenery, and experiences. Not to mention more reliable electricity and water services 🙂 However, considering the success and interest in most of the projects we’ve developed as a community, I do plan to continue working in Pescadería as well.  More specifically, La Cabrita must start making payments on their RD$8,000,000 loan in January, and it’s important that they have a sturdy business plan in place to ensure effective operations, a sustainable income, and timely payments. Additionally, now that two groups of Chicas Brillantes have graduated, I want to follow through with the girls capable of multiplying the course, ensuring that other girls in the community to have access to such information and experiences. This being said, I’m holding a meeting on Saturday to explore the possibility of soliciting another Peace Corps Volunteer from the youth sector who could continue promoting and developing healthy life skills and styles alongside the people of Pescadería.  This community has taught me too much about myself, development, and solidarity to leave them without some options.  Many thanks to all of you, near and far, who have accompanied me on this journey up until this point – here’s 13 more months of learning, sharing, and being.

if you want to be happy, then be.

if you want to be happy, then be.

Just when the caterpillar thought life her was over, she began to fly.

HCD, CBT, and CTS

12 Apr

As I mentioned in my last post, passing the two-year milestone has been both salty and sweet. Good friendships – formed while navigating a foreign culture and work environment on unforgettable bus rides – will now have to be stretched over international waters. All but two other members of my swear-in group are continuing their studies, travels, and adventures elsewhere.

John, Andy, Samantha, and I

John, Andy, Samantha, and I

Andy and I - such good friends that we happened to wear the same outfit.  #tigueres

Andy and I – such good friends that we happened to wear the same outfit. #tigueres

But this transition has been mostly sweet, especially because of Semana Santa! The official religion of the Dominican Republic is in fact Catholicism, but most religious holidays are celebrated outside of the church – wherever there happens to be music, food, and family. Though consumerism is not as prominent as say during Navidad, people buy plenty of new clothes and big plastic pools to celebrate Easter. If you’re not swimming in a pool in the middle of the street with a bunch of your neighbors, you’re not having a very Good Friday. No one here ‘gives up’ anything for Lent, but rather binges on a traditional dish called habichuelas con dulce. Beans (usually kidney but sometimes black or lima) are cooked with coconut water until soft. They are blended in a licuadora (though I like it how my doña leaves some whole), and then put back on the stove with cinnamon, chunks of sweet potato, a touch of salt, and sugar. After having boiled for un ratico, Carnation milk and raisons are added. For a final touch, habichuelas con dulce are served with a few wafer-life cookies on top. Though I find this concoction rather delicious, I can’t decide if HCD are a clever use of a typically savory food staple or maybe just that my food standards have dropped over these last 24 months…and to refresh your memory on how I spent Semana Santa last year, click here.

Good Friday

Good Friday

Chicas chillin'

Chicas chillin’

HCD

HCD

I will be moving from Pescadería to the capital sometime in May to start working in the Peace Corps office. As the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the Community Economic Development sector, I will serve as a liaison between the office and my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Some of my responsibilities include assisting the Associate Peace Corps Director of the CED sector in site development for future volunteers, providing technical support to my peers, and helping in the coordination of several In-Service Trainings and conferences. Though I will be working in the office, there will still be a fair amount of travel, especially because I plan to provide continued support to my people, groups, and projects in Pescadería.

the birthday party my Chicas Brillantes planned for me - how could I leave them?!

the birthday party my Chicas Brillantes planned for me – how could I leave them?!

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at home.

at home.

To help prepare for this new role, I’ve been helping with the Community-Based Training for the new group of Community Economic Development trainees that arrived in March. I’m living with the same host family that I lived with in Peralvillo two years ago during my own CBT – a sincere and straightforward reminder of how generous, cohesive, and tranquilo most Dominicans are. I work alongside the Technical Trainer, a host country national who offers culturally aware feedback and advice to the trainees during CBT. Community Based Training lasts for five weeks, and allows trainees to deepen their cultural understanding of the DR by living with host families while also practicing newly acquired information related to business development by working directly with youth/community groups; it is designed to give trainees the basic information and tools necessary for 2 years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the CED sector.

Habichuelas con dulce with my host family in Peralvillo

Habichuelas con dulce with my host family in Peralvillo

my host sister, Mayelin, and I

my host sister, Mayelin, and I

My participation in the training sessions is beneficial for two reasons. First, my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is supplemental but crucial information for the trainees to be exposed to – while the Technical Trainer offers a cultural perspective, I help relate the material to a volunteer’s experience. Whatever information or practice I feel might have lacked in my own training, I emphasize it in theirs to help make sure they are as prepared as they can be for service (which for them will start on May 13th). Furthermore, I’ve now gotten to know the people who I will be supporting for the next 12 months, which will allow me to tailor future advice or technical support to their personalities, learning styles, and experience. Overall, CBT has been productive and positive – the group is a set of talented individuals who all seem eager to apply their skills and knowledge to help make a difference – and I look forward to continue working with both the people of the CED sector and their community counterparts towards increased economic opportunities within the Dominican Republic.

CBT: tour with the trainees at Hermanos Guillen to see and understand how a local business operates

CBT: tour with the trainees at Hermanos Guillen to see and understand how a local business operates

Pottery at Hermanos Guillen

Pottery at Hermanos Guillen

Trainees sculpting clay at Hermanos Guillen

Trainees sculpting clay at Hermanos Guillen

In this same vein, the National Conference for Construye Tus Sueños is at the end of the month. CTS is an entrepreneurial course designed to help youth develop the skills and knowledge needed to start their own businesses. Once they’ve completed the course, students are encouraged to create written plans regarding their business ideas. These plans not only allow the students to apply the course material to a practical concept, but also give the students a tool to present to financial institutions and/or guide the execution of his/her business.   At the national competition, students present their plans and compete to win the money needed to start/expand their businesses (usually capped at RD$50,000). I’ve been facilitating Construye Tus Sueños with the help of my project partner, Mónica, to two young people from Pescadería. Both of our students wrote plans for their own businesses – Chamila hopes to start a clothing store where she can sell both commercial and original clothing designs; Jonathan has already started his own veterinary practice but since CTS has realized the potential of his business and therefore aims to expand his target market and product variety as well as strengthen his marketing campaign and accounting practices.

Chamila wearing one of her original designs

Chamila wearing one of her original designs

Jonathan and his veterinary business

Jonathan and his veterinary business

Of all of the written plans that were turned in to compete in the National Conference, both Chamila’s and Jonathan’s plans were accepted into the Top 15 who will compete for prize money! While not at Community Based Training, Mónica and I will consult with both of them to create an oral presentation that effectively communicates their business concept and also demonstrates their passions and entrepreneurial spirits.

CED PCVs

CED PCVs

CED PCVs

CED PCVs

Wishing all of my fellow PCVs from 517-13-01 the best of luck.  con los pies en la tierra, y los ojos en la luna //// eres dueño/a de todo lo que puedes imaginar.  

Close of Service?

12 Mar

My two-year mark has come and gone as quickly as mosquitoes flock to a gringo at dusk. Last week we had our Close of Service (COS) conference in the capital, where 517-13-01 (the name of our group who swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers together) celebrated and reflected on the experience we’ve had here on this island.

517-13-01

517-13-01

To say the least, COS was bittersweet. Like almost any other unit that trains, lives, and endures hardship together, 517-13-01 has become a tight-knit group. Although we live far apart in distance, a phone call with a fellow volunteer always seems to elicit sympathy, resolve frustration, and inspire endurance, creativity, and the motivation to continue with what we as a group set out to do. Our COS conference provided us with both closure and opportunities. We listened to the experience and advice of three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who continue to work in the development world, and learned how to translate two years of service into convincing bullets points on a resume. Our Country Director explained how Peace Corps Volunteers can take advantage of non-competitive eligibility status, useful for those of us who wish to continue our careers working for the federal government. I shed tears during several visualization activities, stumped at the thought of how on earth I can say goodbye to two incredible networks I’ve created here in the Dominican Republic – my cohorts and my community. My family.

517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

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517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

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After two years, I’ve become aplatana’a. Essentially, native, as the Dominicans say. Though I still don’t understand or agree with certain parts of the culture, the uncertainty or uncomfortableness with other aspects has long since disappeared. No longer having to deal with uncertainty avoidance (a concept I was taught in Intercultural Communication classes and now can apply to real life experience), it’s easier and more comfortable to work and interact in a foreign environment. Loud noises during conversations, cramped guagua rides, non-formal education techniques, machismo tígueres, lethargic concepts of time, and superstitious doña myths have become normal, expected parts in the equation of sustainable development here in the Dominican Republic. Though they still present a challenge, setting out to work in this environment no longer seems as daunting because I’ve got two years of experience under my belt.  Or better yet, bathing suit?  Apron?  Fingernails?

Having just co-coordinated a sub-regional conference for about 30 Chicas Brillantes, I am as busy as ever. Plans for the annual Construye Tus Sueños business competition are due at the end of the month, and I’m working with two young entrepreneurs to complete their plans – one who aims to start a clothing store and another who hopes to improve his already existing operations as a veterinarian. To top it all off, my mom and aunt came to visit! We painted a mural in the local high school with students of the junior class, and crafted artistic expressions of individual beauty with my Chicas Brillantes, who continue to impress and inspire me every day.

Workshop with the junior class - choosing values to put on our Tree of Values mural.

Workshop with the junior class – choosing values to put on our Tree of Values mural.

Learning about values and deciding which ones to put on our mural.

Learning about values and deciding which ones to put on our mural.

Choosing values to put on our mural

Choosing values to put on our mural

Visit from my auntie and mommy!

Visit from my auntie and mommy!

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Tree of Values

Tree of Values

Additionally, I’d like to share that I’ve secured the help from a new project partner. Project partners, or key community contacts, are members from the local community that work in conjunction with volunteers to meet both local needs and Peace Corps’ goals.  Essential to both community integration and the longevity of projects, they are the true volunteers. They are the people who, once the volunteer leaves, ensure the sustainability of a project, and continue to multiply education and opportunities throughout the community. Monica is a young woman from my community, who not only teaches Construye Tus Sueños and Chicas Brillantes with me, but has also become one of my closest friends on the island. A natural-born educator, Monica presents what we’ve planned together with grace and conviction. She imparts the same tools and knowledge that I could as a volunteer, but because she is native to the island, our audience receives it more instinctively. Seeing her impart tools and knowledge that I’ve introduced to her, and the positive effect she’s having on our students, has been one of the most rewarding parts of my service.

Michelle and I - Co-coordinators of the Sub-Regional Chicas Brillantes conference

Michelle and I – Co-coordinators of the Sub-Regional Chicas Brillantes conference

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Professional Panel of women from our Regional .  Rosiris (President of La Cabrita) and Mónica (my new project partner) both participated and represented Pescadería with fuerza!

Professional Panel of women from our Regional . Rosiris (President of La Cabrita) and Mónica (my new project partner) both participated and represented Pescadería with fuerza!

Chicas y Mujeres Brillantes

Chicas y Mujeres Brillantes

Professional Panel

Professional Panel: Yessenia (Educator for World Water Relief), Rosiris (President, La Cabrita), Mónica (Math Teacher, studied abroad in Cuba), Yasmiris (Presidente of Women’s Association and local Tilapia Business), Indhira (Doctor) —- all from the region of Barahona and huge inspirations for our Chicas Brillantes

Mónica and our girls from Pescadería celebrating International Women's day at the conference

Mónica and our girls from Pescadería celebrating International Women’s day at the conference

Rosiris, Mónica, and I - two inspirational women from my community who have contributed to the motivation I have to continue working here in the Dominican Republic.

Rosiris, Mónica, and I – two inspirational women from my community who have contributed to my decision to continue working here in the Dominican Republic.

So for now, I’m staying. Yup!! I’ve signed up to stay another whole year on this island. Starting mid- to late-May, I will be living in the capital and working as the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the Community Economic Development sector. I will describe more of my plans and responsibilities as PCVL in a later post, but I figured I owed an announcement now that I’ve been officially cleared to stay on board ☺ 

Into Thin Air

19 Jan

Here’s a very belated felicidades! Hope you’ve started the New Year off on the right foot, so to speak ☺

My nephew, Sam, and I in Colorado

My nephew, Sam, and I in Colorado

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My niece, Carter, and I

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Jackson, Carter, and I

For being such a small country, the Dominican Republic is quite vast in its landscape and climate. It features both the highest and lowest geographical points of the entire Caribbean and boasts a variety of wildlife endemic to the island. Larimar, a distinct blue-green stone used to embellish jewelry, is only mined here in the region of Barahona simply because it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

New Years Eve in Pescadería

New Years Eve in Pescadería

New Years Eve in Pescadería

New Years Eve in Pescadería

New Years Eve in Pescadería

New Years Eve in Pescadería

Needless to say I’ve been putting together a bucket list since even before I arrived to my site here in the southern part of the country, knowing that so much exists beyond the cane fields and plantains.  Towards the top of my list was Pico Duarte. At 10,164 feet/3,098 meters it is the 79th highest mountain in the world. No Everest, but certainly something I’d have to work for.

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Two other Peace Corps friends and I joined a group of about 15 Dominicans in the city of Santiago, where they unexpectedly weighed us upon arrival and jotted down our body fat stats. Though I was at first embarrassed to be exposing my post-Christmas-cookie weight to complete strangers, I was soon reminded of and comforted by the easygoingness and camaraderie of Dominicans, and so I decided to do away with my vergüenza and instead focus on the journey that lay ahead of us. After more than 3 hours of waiting (another ‘comfort’ I was reminded of), we eventually headed off towards the mountain. We had each paid RD$6000 (~US$135) for all transport, food, park entrance fee, tent use, and mules to carry our gear to the campsites.

Ivette, Samantha, Stephanie, and I at the Base Camp trail head in La Ciénaga.

Ivette, Samantha, Stephanie, and I at the Base Camp trail head in La Ciénaga.

Enough salami to feed a Dominican army...

Enough salami to feed a Dominican army…

MUD.

MUD.

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Beginning of the Yaque del Sur - the river that eventually runs by community in Barahona.

Beginning of the Yaque del Sur – the river that eventually runs by my community in Barahona.

Rest stop on the way to La Compartición

Rest stop on the way to La Compartición

Throughout the 4 days of hiking we stayed at 3 different campsites (1 night at base camp in La Ciénaga, 2 nights at La Compartición 5km from the summit, and 1 night in the Valle de Tetero). Though we typically split off into respective groups for each day of hiking, we all came together in the evenings to enjoy the heat of the campfire and to fill our bellies with víveres, salami, and hot chocolate before facing the far-from-balmy January nights. Though I grew up in Vermont, living in one of the hottest parts of the country for nearly two years certainly did not prepare me for camping in 40-degree weather.

Campsite at La Compartición, where we stayed for 2 nights

Campsite at La Compartición, where we stayed for 2 nights

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almost there!

almost there!

At the summit with Duarte, one of the founding fathers of the D.R.

At the summit with Duarte, one of the founding fathers of the D.R.

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Despite the cold and the fact that I think I might eventually lose my two big toenails, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the new year. Challenging but satisfying, it was quite reminiscent of my Peace Corps service as a whole. Many parts were uncomfortable, where I longed to not only reach the summit but to also finally get back to base camp. Standing at the top was gratifying – cloudless and powerful – but it couldn’t have been done without the other members of my team who had put so much effort into the logistics, fruition, and congenial character of the trip.

Headed back down from the summit, on the way to Valle de Tetero

Headed back down from the summit, on the way to Valle de Tetero

Valle de Tetero

Valle de Tetero

Valle de Tetero

Valle de Tetero

our group!

our group!

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The culmination of Pico Duarte, a New Year, less than 4 months of service left, and a 2-day reading binge of Into Thin Air has left me quite reflective and motivated.

“If you’re bumming out, you’re not gonna get to the top, so as long as we’re up here we might as well make a point of grooving.”

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,” Hall observed. “The trick is to get back down alive.”

“…I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of use were probably seeking, above else, something like a state of grace.”

“Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality.”

“This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die.”

While I don’t think Everest and serving as Peace Corps Volunteer are the same by any means, there are similarities that could be drawn between the two, given that both endeavors entail challenges and risks, require endurance, drive, and consideration, and have the potential of producing immense satisfaction and fulfillment.  As a volunteer, we strive to find the balance of achieving goals and meeting needs; meanwhile, we stretch the cultural fabric that is known to us, looking to embrace other traditions while sharing our own.  Many difficult moments can produce one single moment of peace – a ‘high’ if you will – where things seem like they might just be working out.  Yet, the real challenge is not to reach the summit – a potentially short-lived project-, but rather sustaining an accomplishment on it’s way back down, after one’s service on the mountain has ended.

we did it!

we did it!

Wishing you a very happy 2015 – here’s to reaching new heights, testing your limits, and forging bonds with people who enjoy those two things as much as you.

Samantha, Ivette, and I at the summit :)

Samantha, Ivette, and I at the summit 🙂

balancing business

4 Dec

One of the many perks of being as a Peace Corps Volunteer on a tropical island is that there are other PCVs serving on it with you.  They’ll invite you to partake in cool things like volleyball tournaments and kayak tours.

Visiting a neighboring volunteer's site during a volleyball exchange/tournament

Visiting a neighboring volunteer’s site during a volleyball exchange/tournament

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More than 4 different communities attended the activity where young teenage girls learned about healthy relationships, team building, and fundraising among other topics

8 girls participated from Pescadería :)

8 girls participated from Pescadería 🙂

Kayak Limón is located close to the city of Miches in El Seibo, a province in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. While the east boasts sought-after beaches and all-inclusive hotels fit for Hollywood’s A-list, it is also home to hundreds of sugarcane-cutting communities of stateless citizens, a surplus of passion fruit, and off-the-beaten-path eco-tourism projects.

The view on the drive to Los Guineos

The view on the drive to Los Guineos – that’s the peninsula of Samaná in the distance

Host family

Host family

view from the host home

view from the host home

Kayak Limón operates out of Los Guineos (The Bananas), taking visitors out in kayaks to explore Laguna Limón and to understand the various ecosystems that compose it. To enhance the tourist’s exposure to Dominican culture by steering away from the all-inclusive experience, Kayak Limón plans to host visitors while they pass through the area for the tour. We met with two women to discuss hospitality and food preparation so that when overnight guests do begin to arrive, various homes are equipped to share Dominican culture with foreigners in an authentic, sanitary, and profitable manner.

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Laguna Limón

Laguna Limón

Kayak tour at Laguna Limón

Kayak tour at Laguna Limón with Emily and Sam 🙂

Mangroves and bird nests

Mangroves and bird nests

Playa Limón

Playa Limón – another destination on the Kayak Limón tour

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Our trusty tour guide Danny and fellow PCV Samuel

 

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Sam, Emily, and I

Sam, Emily, and I

Fishermen fishing in the estuary between the beach and lagoon

Fishermen fishing in the estuary between the beach and lagoon

Reassured of the genuineness and generosity of Dominicans, I headed back to my own site, motivated to continue capacitating others in ways I knew how to. While many jóvenes are aspiring to ser profesionales (be professionals), there is typically little support from either the school or household in terms of the skills or preparation required to get them there. Keeping in mind my duty as a Business volunteer, I developed a workshop that focused on professional development for young adults that could strengthen their self-esteem, enhance their financial management, and increase their opportunities look for and/or obtain jobs. The workshop lasted for four Sundays and was implemented in the following format:

  1. What do we count on as of now?
    1. SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats)
    2. Resumé Building: what is a Curriculum Vitae, what is it used for, and how do we create one
  2. Professionalism with Invited Speaker
    1. What is professionalism? *** Here, many people consider a ‘professional’ to be someone who has a university diploma, so we stressed that one’s professionalism is a) based on both internal and external attributes and b) is a combination of your abilities, knowledge, and expertise i.e. that a person might have a degree but might not be a legitimate professional ***
    2. How to prepare for an Interview
    3. Role Plays of various Professionalism scenarios
  3. Goals and Savings
    1. What is a goal? What are the criteria to establish one? (realistic, specific, important, measurable, action)
    2. What is savings? Why is saving important? What are the benefits of saving in a bank as opposed to your own home?
    3. How can we use savings to achieve our goals?
  4. Networking (was supposed to have another speaker come but he cancelled last minute)
    1. What is networking?
    2. Elevator Speeches
    3. How your Professionalism affects Networking

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Skits on how or how not to be professional

Skits on how or how not to be professional

This course took a significant amount of planning, but it turned out to be one of the most successful projects I’ve coordinated while in site, especially because it supports my goals and role as a Community Economic Development volunteer. 46 jóvenes ages 15 to 30 graduated from the course. Having sought support from a local bank, three graduates were also offered the opportunity to start a savings account with the minimum deposit already provided for them. I’m hoping to develop the curriculum into a formal lesson plan or manual so that other volunteers can use it to meet the needs of a population with such potential but not enough resources.

professional graduates :)

professional graduates 🙂

While working with the youth in Pescadería has provided me with some of the most surprising and rewarding moments of my service, there are many factors that make it one of the more difficult parts as well. I’ve stressed how worthwhile it has been to integrate myself into this community. I go out dancing, make spaghetti with my girlfriends, offer Internet and homework help, and have even learned to make comebacks at the guys when they hit on me. I’m integrated, and life is good. When I’m in a position of authority however, like in this workshop we just finished, the gears change and both parties still seem to be unfamiliar with each other’s expectations. In the end, it really comes down to culture and not age, but the youth are typically the ones that like to find out how far they can stretch the boundaries.

In the professionalism workshop, I explained at the beginning that the participants would be expected to attend the course, participate, and complete all homework assignments, and those that do so would graduate. When the course finished, multiple people were disgruntled when I told them that they wouldn’t be receiving a diploma. The fact was that while she found a way to turn in all of the assignments, she only showed up for only one Sunday. Another student, who happens to be one of my best guy friends here, attended and participated in all four workshops, but didn’t turn in any homework.

It is in these situations where I’m both reassured and puzzled by the mission of Peace Corps:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans
Neighborhood birthday party

Neighborhood birthday party

Neighborhood birthday party

Neighborhood birthday party

Essentially two thirds of our work is for us – to make friends and share culture – and it’s a frustratingly real concept that many people don’t like to admit. The other third is the meat – capacity building –, which for me anyway seems to emulate the best and worst parts of service. The issue that I’ve been trying to explain above is essentially the act of balancing these three goals – doing my job in a place where I’m still coping with differences in culture and expectations, and where others will always be questioning and/or learning about mine.  As a foreign facilitator, it is not acceptable that a student, having known the expectations of the course, graduates without having completed the homework or with insufficient attendance. But here, in his/her own culture, it may acceptable, and unfortunately it often is. On another occasion, I saw teachers sit around the school while their students held a nearly violent strike because they didn’t like what was being served for lunch. Am I wrong to get frustrated at the fact that they are held to another standard based on differing cultural values or expectations? Is it fair to them that I hold them to what my culture has taught me is wrong and right?  How can one manage the task of forming both friendships and productive working relationships where there exists such differences?

The professionalism workshop example is fairly black and white, but it still lends itself to the difficulty of finding a productive or satisfying balance between cultural expectations, integration, and effective development – and doing so without creating too much of a fuss.  I’d also like to point out that while it is sometimes discouraging to clash cultures with even your closest of friends, I understand that is all part of the experience.  I still go out dancing, we still make spaghetti, I share my Internet, and make comebacks at the tígueres; I also share my own culture and experience to open opportunities and expand knowledge for those that have shared their culture with me here.  Whether it is touring lagoons with a mangrove connoisseur or explaining to youth that Facebook is typically not considered a professional way to network, I’ll continue to seek for such balance; it’s complexity is intriguing, and it’s mastery is the key to unlocking change and understanding.

preppin' to tear down this 4-year-old 'meeting room' at La Cabrita to build another one!

preppin’ to tear down this 4-year-old ‘meeting room’ at La Cabrita to build another one!

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“There is no decision that we can make that doesn’t come with some sort of balance or sacrifice.”

home grown results

16 Oct

I’ll have to admit that when I was awakened yesterday morning at 7:15 am I was a bit bothered. The sun had just risen, meaning that the tin roof hadn’t quite yet turned my house into an oven. The whir of the fan was comfortable in both the breeze it provided and its ability to drown out the around-the-clock roosters. Despite my slumber caused by a full day of traveling, I had mustered to fix clean cotton sheets onto my queen-sized mattress the night before, and they were still crisp on my skin. I was cozy and protected under my mosquito net, which my kitty has begun to use as his own personal hammock; he seemed to be just as perturbed as I was by the unanticipated alarm.

It was two of my oldest Chicas graduates, Oda and Grissel, calling my name through the window as if not to wake me but with enough angst to get my attention. “Qué?”, I managed, hoping I could answer their proposition from my bed. “Háganos el favor,” – a common Dominican phrase literally meaning ‘do the favor’, and used when someone has to ask or tell you something and they make YOU go to them rather than the other way around. I debated telling them to come back later, but I knew that they were on their way to school so I figured it was important. I shooed Mio from atop of the mosquito net and untucked it, stepping barefoot onto the needing-a-sweeping cement floor and accepting an early start to the day. I opened the window and gave them a sleepy smirk, not even pretending that they hadn’t woken me up. “We need the charla paper you have of the woman’s parts. We are going to teach Gris’s class about female anatomy today.” And just like that, my slumber and annoyance vanished and I felt on top of the world; I was home.

“Where we love is home,
Home that the feet may leave,
but not our hearts.”

I just spent five days surprising and visiting friends back at Clemson University. Clemson was home for four years – a quintessential college experience that provided me with a sturdy academic career and a friend group I wouldn’t change for the world. Now that we’re each living a new chapter, it was refreshing to come back and catch up.

Carrie and I

Carrie and I

Tiger family

Tiger family

My college roommates and I :)

My college roommates and I 🙂

My mom even surprised me!

My mom even surprised me!

“Travel does not exist without home….If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.”

After recognizing a pattern among a few of my friends, I reflected on my time here in the Dominican Republic. Am I happy? Do I take care of myself? Am I loved? Do I love?  Am I giving this my all? How am I helping? What am I learning? What’s not working? What should/can I change? Will I be happy to do what I’m doing tomorrow?

Most recent birthday party I attended...

Most recent birthday party I attended…

...with these cats.

…with these cats.

All in all, life here is pretty dang fulfilling.  So fulfilling in fact that I seem to be abandoning this blog 🙂  Every day is different and unexpected, which is both challenging and liberating. There’s a typical routine, but more often than not I diverge from it, and it’s satisfying to have the freedom to be able to do just that. My projects, in terms of audiences and themes, have been all over the place, and have recently been based around my knack for sexual education (local high school) and slight knowledge of marketing (goat group). I am witnessing and experiencing progress, not just in terms of ‘work’ but also in my level of integration within the community. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m not just a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore, but also a colleague, running buddy, daughter, girl-with-the-WiFi, and trusty dance partner.

Sexual Education workshop at the local high school

Sexual Education workshop at the local high school

High school parents at Sex. Ed. workshop

High school parents at Sex. Ed. workshop

process of straining milk before pasteurization

process of straining milk before pasteurization

cheese!

cheese!

yogurt

yogurt

The secretary of La Cabrita and I at an artisan market in the capital

The secretary of La Cabrita and I at an artisan market in the capital

What makes Peace Corps challenging, particularly for outcome-based folk, is that here results come slowly, and typically not in the form that one might expect. They are rarely grandiose in numbers, but rather moments that shimmer amidst frustrating dark ones; results are witnessing a slight but positive change in behavior and recognizing a signal of potentially sustainable progress…The family across the street not allowing the photographer at Reni’s graduation to take the family portrait until I was in it. A student in my environment course commenting that her backpack is now always full of trash because there are no trashcans at school and she feels bad throwing it on the ground. Oda and Grissel stepping up to share what they’ve learned about the human body with their class, striving to protect their own peers from an unwanted pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections.

Brigada Verde (Green Brigade) students at International Beach Clean-Up Day

Brigada Verde (Green Brigade) students at International Beach Clean-Up Day

The beach of Barahona, where there seems to be more trash than sand.

The beach of Barahona, where there seems to be more trash than sand.

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Reni and I at her graduation

Reni and I at her graduation

high school graduation

high school graduation

my family.

my family.

These kinds of results are heart-warming and significant, but they are also the ones that are most difficult to communicate or validate with others. Their attainment is as sweet as it is complex, and can be accomplished regardless of a Peace Corps’ service. They don’t occur within a given environment actually, but rather where the individual that accomplishes such results is in his/her element; where there is a feeling of both ease and motivation; when feet hit the floor once a challenge is accepted; where she is at home.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

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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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