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