Monday, August 27, 2012

Epic Moments Celebrating Life and Achievements

     Well, I clearly have not been consistent in updating my blog. A great deal has happened. This post will be long, so enjoy! I have currently completed two (2) years and four (4) months of Peace Corps service, and need to do a reflection piece

     What you read depicts key reasons for a big decision I've made, awesome community-based projects, new accomplishments with my primary work objective, the sad loss of my dog, Kailua, the unexpected, yet amazing press releases/articles published about my work, and the very end contains an insightful Eat, Pray, Love moment. I'll start with my unexpected decision to serve for a third (3) year in Peace Corps.

     All Peace Corps volunteers in Guatemala, were asked to attend an "All Volunteer Conference," in January 2012. The goal of the conference involved security concerns in the country, and options for volunteers. Everyone in the 2010 project groups, Youth in Development and Healthy Homes, were faced with tough decisions. Two (2) options were available. The first was close our service early in March instead of July, and the second, to extend for a full year. My sitemates, at the time, can testify under oath, how I was not at all considering the possibility of an extension. 

      Before the circumstances changed, my key reasons stemmed from the thought of how twenty-seven (27) months is a substantial amount of time to ensure my schools knew how to integrate the Life Skills curriculum, complete all projects, graduate school, and career steps I hoped to take when I returned. Yet, I did what I deemed as unimaginable. 

     I decided to not pack up and "hacer despedidas" (do goodbyes), but to stay for another thirteen (13) months. Yes, its actually thirteen (13) months. Volunteers who extend have to return to their home of record for special leave, for a duration of one (1) month.

     Suprisingly, when faced with the decision, my extension seemed inevitable. The pros of staying in Guatemala, outweighed the pros of returning home. 

     Suddenly, offers to develop new projects, and improve upon existing ones, were constantly rolling in, and eventually solidified my decision. International and national non-for profit organizations and close contacts from my hometown were expressing great interest in supporting my schools and girls group with Population Council! I realized the impact I could continue to have in my communities, and knew I should stay.

     The first reason occurred with the official approval of a Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant from USAID, for one (1) of my four (4) schools to construct a Life Skills Center, consisting of three (3) ecological classrooms. Each classroom will highlight a specific module, which include the following: Life Skills themes, Certification in Electricity, and Domestic/Employment Preparation. The center, in its totality, will serve at-risk and working youth in my village and surrounding areas.

     Five (5) of the classroom's walls will be made of thousands of 600 ml plastic bottles, stuffed with different forms of dry inorganic trash. The bottles are fastened to chicken wire, and then plastered with cement. Upon the project's completion, I hope to write a blog detailing the process in its entirety, for others to replicate!

A portion of the thousands of plastic bottles the students have collected, and stuffed with inorganic trash,  for the construction of the three (3) ecological classrooms, which will serve as an eco - friendly Life Skills Center.

The parents and family members of the students at the school in my village, at the construction site of the eco - friendly Life Skills Center. Ask photographer for authorization of use of photo.




     The second reason, attributing greatly to my decision, involved a generous donation, from one of my favorite high school teachers and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women - Greater Cleveland Chapter, for the developoment of individual tire gardens for the girls' group I work with, through a non-profit organization called Population Council. We began the project in February 2012, and finished in August 2012, with thirty (30) girls having a tire garden in their home, using seven (7) different vegetable seeds.

Here is one of my awesome girls with her broccoli plant. I was so glad to take the hike up to her home. She is so so so proud of her plant, as she should be! I was shocked to see how its practically as tall as she is!
Ask photographer for authorization of use of photo.


Another one of my girls did an awesome job with her radish seeds, and her tire is in great condition!
     I did home visits, with the group's youth leader, to check on each of the girls' individual tire gardens, and the progression of growth of their seeds. I was happily surprised at how fast some of their vegetable seeds grew, and pleased with the great work each girl accomplished! Their Moms were happy too!

     The third great reason, why I am glad to be serving as a third year volunteer, involves my being appointed as a Youth Sports Ambassador for  the International Alliance for Youth Sports (IAYS), which is now one  (1) of Peace Corps's partnership organizations! I invited the international President, Fred Engh, to speak with Youth in Development volunteers during our In-Service training too!

     On May 29th, 2012, principals and physical education teachers, from thirteen (13) rural Guatemalan schools, happily arrived in the Ministry of Education to pick up boxes and garbage bags of donated sports equipment. I received eleven (11) boxes in all of sports equiment, athletic clothing, tennis shoes, and cleats from six (6) selfless and thoughtful donators. 

     The donators include the amazing efforts of a seventh grader, Allison Silitsky, who worked hard to not only host donation drives for the equipment, but to also raise the funds necessary to mail the boxes to Guatemala. 

     Long Island Athletic Supply, The Sammy Wilkinson Memorial Foundation, Pine Crest School, the Wellington Soccer Club, and undoubtedly, the International Alliance for Youth Sports, are the altruistic donators who I thank profoundly and wholeheartedly!

      I am most appreciative for their consideration and thoughtfulness toward the thirteen (13) indigenous Mayan middle schools. The number of boxes received were such a great and unexpected surprise, and all the teachers and principals were elated!


The eleven (11) boxes of sports equipment, athletic gear, cleats and tennis shoes, donated by:

Allison Silitsky
(The) International Alliance for Youth Sports (IAYS)
Long Island Athletic Supply
Pine Crest School
The Sammy Wilkinson Memorial Foundation
Wellington Soccer Club


Pictured is one of the managers for the rural Guatemalan middle schools in the state where I live and work.
 

Pictured is my official host country counterpart, the Technical Administrative Coordinator for the NUFED school sector,  for the Ministry of Education, in the state where I live and work.


     The fourth reason are Eco-Trashcans! Wow, the development and ecological awareness of eco-trashcans projects, has been a huge success in not only my community, but within the Peace Corps volunteer community, and progressively throughout Guatemala.

     I was very honored to serve as one (1) of the workshop leaders for the All Volunteer Conference on July 30th 2012 to introduce the construction process of how to create an eco-trashcan to interested volunteers. Below is the eco-trashcan Peace Corps volunteers created during my workshop. They did a great job!

Interested Peace Corps volunteers attended my Eco-Trashcan workshop and created one (1) for Peace Corps Headquarters in Guatemala.

     After the workshop, I sent out a survey evaluation to volunteers to receive feedback on the workshop's usefulness. I received ratings of excellent and very good, and was pleased with the overall comments! 

     I then asked if any Peace Corps volunteers would be interested in replicating the workshop, for middle school students attending a school near Peace Corps headquarters, and was then able to work with Alex. Alex added a great timeline activity on the decomposition of organic and inorganic trash,  and did a great job of replicating the workshop and construction process.


These are the students who did an excellent efficient job of creating an eco-trashcan, with the help of PCV Alex and myself.
 
Here I am pictured with a local ironworker and our 9th eco-trashcan. He creates all of the structures I need, including the eco-trashcan for my workshop during the All Volunteer Conference, and for the replication at the school near Peace Corps Headquarters.

     The fifth reason, Kailua, a name meaning two (2) seas in the Hawaiian language, and the middle name given to me by my mother. Kailua was born on December 11, 2011, in Quiche, Guatemala. The most adorable chihuahua I have ever seen. Her coat was of brown and black stripes, resembling a tiger. She had satellite ears, the cutest little black nose, and light brown eyes. Kailua was so special to me; being my first pet. When I bought her on April 29th, 2012, she was four (4) months old, and nipped at my nose the first time I tried to touch her. 



I bought her home and purchased a little red house, food and toys. Her favorite toy, Mr. Lion, was a stuffed animal I bought on a whim. I honestly doubted she'd like him, but she LOVED him.



     I took Kailua everywhere, to my schools, the park, jogging, to the Peace Corps office, on vacations. It was rare to not see her with me. On August 23rd, five (5) months into my third year, she passed away after being hit by a car.  

     I will always cherish the memories and times we spent together. She was my furry baby who loved me unconditionally and was loyal and lovable. May her adventurous, lively, and fun spirit forever rest in peace. 



     The sixth reason is the progression of my primary work objective, which now involves teachers using the participatory learning styles and themes of the Life Skills Curriculum in their respective courses.

     I came into the Youth in Development Project as a First Generation Volunteer, which translates to me teaching the Life Skills curriculum to students, while teachers observed.

    During my third year, I began encouraging teachers to switch roles, and for them to begin teaching the curriculum in their respective classes, while I observed and evaluated their performance. To date, ALL of my teachers are doing an excellent job of implementing the themes in their respective courses.

    Seventh reason, all of the great and positive publicity, in the form of official press releases and/or articles written about my work as a volunteer up to this point in my service. Click on the titles to view the articles.

     The U.S. Peace Corps Agency's website features four (4) articles about what I have accomplished as a volunteer thus far: 

Description: One (1) major article highlighting the tire garden project with the thirty  (30)  girls I work with through the program of "Abriendo Oportunidades," under the non-for-profit organization of Population Council.

Description: Two (2) articles in the Peace Corps newsletter, distributed worldwide, featuring excerpts about how I worked to improve village access to food and environmental sustainability through the recycling of tires.                                                          

Description: One (1) article recognizing myself and alma mater, Howard University, located in Washington, D.C., as the top Historically Black University producing Peace Corps Volunteers.
                                                                                                                                          Description: One article by my alma mater, Howard University, describing my primary work objective of teaching a Life Skills curriculum, the tire garden project done with my girls group, and my future career goals.                                                                             
Description: One (1) article by the International Alliance for Youth Sports (IAYS) regarding my efforts to correlate sports with the learning and application of Life Skills themes.
  •  Title and Date of Press Release: IAYS Teams with Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala to Change Young Lives Through Sports (2011).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Patience + Perseverance = Hope          
     When I entered Guatemala in April 2010, I was admittedly anxious and a bit nervous on what being a Peace Corps volunteer would actually entail once in country. Two (2)  years and four (4) months later, I realize its hard and impossible to give an exact definition. The experience has been life-changing in numerous ways, and the growth I've experienced can occur during an entire lifetime for some. 

    Many individuals commonly discover themselves in highschool or college,  but Peace Corps is where I had my first soul searching and experience with what can only be described as  "Rollercoaster Days."  Everything has occurred during my service: lots of moments of reflection, happiness, success, confusion, doubt, loneliness, friendships, but most importantly hope. I learned how it feels to have my patience tested beyond limits I knew existed, endured the most strenuous forms of perseverance, and how to adapt to practically any situation. 

     This experience is unparralled to anything I have ever done, and to have decided to stay for a third year is still something I cannot believe! I am glad to still be in it, despite the hardships and unexpected occurrences. My goal until my close of service date, April 2013, is to continue inspiring, motivating, and showing the principals, teachers, students, and the joys of my service, the girls group I work with, what they can accomplish with a little patience, perserverance and determination.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Career Day in Rural Guatemalan Villages

           Career days are commonly held throughout the United States, to introduce students to career options. I recall career days as mysterious and exciting. We never knew who was coming, what they would speak about, or if they would bring anything. My first career day began with drawing a face of the profession I wanted to be on a white paper plate. My face was a smiling woman, who wore a blue hat with the red bold letters of RTA; representing a bus driver for the Regional Transit Authority. I know it’s silly, but in first grade, I thought bus drivers traveled the world! Whenever I saw the #15 bus climbing a huge hill, I always wondered where it went. In middle school, I was glad to be chosen as one of the few students selected to escort participants to classrooms. I learned a great deal about their professions, skills needed, and why they enjoyed their work.

Currently in Guatemala, I have a life skills curriculum to teach in my schools, and this curriculum has a variety of themes. This year I decided to designate each theme to a specific month. One of the themes involves career development. When the month of June arrived, I spoke to the principal about hosting a career day to close out the month.  She gave me a confused look when I mentioned the activity, and admitted she had never heard of a “career day.” I told her how a career day entails inviting different professions to speak with students about their work.  Most importantly, I explained how this teaching style could give students a better understanding of potential career options, what skills they would need, the level of education they’d have to achieve, and the values they’d need to instill, in order to acquire a desired profession. She thought the idea was great, and suggested we invite a few individuals, being as it was a new concept.

We decided to invite a doctor, a nurse and a fireman. The principal and teachers created a formal invitation to give to the invitees, along with a question guide for presentations. On the day of the event, it rained non-stop. I called the hospital, and the doctor and nurse informed me they could not participate, due to the weather conditions. I contacted the fire station, and luckily, four firemen were en route to the school. The students waited in the salon area, and excitedly ran to the door at the sight of the fire truck and ambulance. Four firemen walked into the building, carrying all types of equipment. I introduced the men to the students. Next, the firemen spoke about what they did on a daily basis, the skills needed for their job, the level of education necessary, what they liked most and least about being firemen, and most importantly imparted advice to the students about choosing a profession. Two of the firemen had an additional profession. One as a mechanic and the other as an engineer! The best part for some students involved putting on the equipment, and the types of uniforms firemen used.


                                 
                                         Me with the firemen of Totonicapan and the principal of the school.
Despite not having all the invitees, the students enjoyed the career day. I was then able to learn from the setbacks of this 1st career day to aid in the planning  of a successful career day, which included eleven (11) participants with my Saturday school in Nimasac.

Steps I Used to Plan a Successful Career Day in My Village

1.) Hold a meeting with all teachers and the principal to explain what a career day entails, and the objective of the event.

2.) Brainstorm a list about different professions that may be of interest to the students.

3.) Using the list created develop a survey for the students. The survey should include two questions, one relating to what skills the students would like to learn and develop, and a second asking what values the students would like to instill and ensure are a part of their profession. Next, create a grid with three columns. The titles for the columns can include Professions, First Choice, and Second Choice (or something of the like). Put the list of professions in the first column, the students should then place a check in the second column in the row of their first career option, and a check in the third column in the row of their second career option.

4.) Tabulate the results of the students’ surveys, and invite the most popular professions selected. Each teacher in the school should then be assigned a profession to invite, and the formal invitation should be created accompanied with a question guide for presentations.

5.) Once participants are confirmed create posters and nameplates for each profession.  Posters can vary, but should state the profession and level of education necessary. One thing I wish I had included are skills needed for that profession, and key values. I did add images of the profession on the posters as well. Each participant should be assigned their own classroom, and place their poster inside of their classroom.


Here is the poster I created for a physical education teacher, who is a professional trainer for wrestling and exercise! The poster includes the name of the profession, the level of educaction needed for the profession, as well as two images depicting the profession.
Here are the firefighters standing in front of their poster. The two firemen came to the first career day, and were glad to be invited a second time to my other school. Two women firefighters came as well!
Here I am standing in front of a poster that says Bachelor's degree in Education. The level of education needed is to attend a university or college. The man pictured is also my host country conterpart.
                                                      
6.) Create signs for each participant, and place them outside of each participant's respective classroom.







 If there are not enough classrooms then a participant can use the salon area, which is best suited for a professional wrestling teacher or physical education teacher.



7.) Create signs of green, red, and yellow. The signs can be made with construction paper and Popsicle sticks, and these will serve to let each participant know when to start speaking (green), when their time is almost up (yellow), and when to stop speaking (red).

8.) On the day of the event, sit all career day participants on the stage (or in front of the audience) with their namplate in front of them. Give each participant given an opportunity to speak briefly (five (5) to seven (7) minutes) about what career they represent, the level of education necessary, key skills needed, and what they like most about their job.


Pictured are the nameplates in front of the eleven (11) career day participants. The nameplates were useful in helping the host of the event correctly call each participant to give their presentation, and to identify their career.






9.) After each participant has given their short presentation, teachers should then escort the career day representatives to the classroom that states their profession.

10.) Students should then pass into a classroom to listen to the profession they are most interested in learning about, 20 minutes is what we agreed upon.

11.) Teachers will advise the career day representative when time is up, and students will then go to a different classroom to listen to another career day representative, for 20 minutes.

12.) Finally, the students should reconvene in the main salon area, and the career day participants can return to their seats in front. Next, each participant should be given a diploma for their participation and closing remarks are given.

13.) Provide refreshments for the career day representatives as well.

                               

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Eco-Trashcans, Addressing A Growing Community Problem

           Every Saturday, I walk five minutes to the only middle school in my village. This middle school is unlike my other schools, since students only attend school on Saturday and Sunday. Several students are the same age or older than me, are wives and mothers, husbands and fathers, and have full-time jobs or various forms of work during the week. Younger students attend this school as well, like Olga. Olga is gaining a life changing experience by leading two girls’ groups on Mondays and Fridays with an NGO called Population Council, and therefore attends school on the weekends.
In this school, I initially struggled on whether I could have the same impact with these students as in my other schools. I just did not see how the school could be effective in granting the same education received by students who attend school Monday through Friday. Another issue was the number of students in the school, over 200. The normal class size is twice the size of my other schools, and doing interactive presentations on life skills themes posed major challenges. The first theme I was asked to teach was leadership. I decided it would be best to introduce the theme through a participatory project outside of the classroom, to show teachers and students a new teaching style and way of learning.

First, I spoke to the students about the importance of leadership and key characteristics of a leader, i.e. someone with goals and plans to achieve them, working well with others, showing respect, developing your own ideas, having your own values etc. I even gave a PowerPoint presentation on leadership using photos I had taken of the students the previous year. Next, I spoke to the students about the importance of community participation, which entails how community members can develop plans of action to address community problems. I reinforced how participation can award residents leadership roles, especially through involvement in community decisions and events. Once students understood both concepts, I then introduced a current community problem: the huge amount of trash in the community, with nowhere to put it or recycle it. I spoke about the forms of organic and inorganic trash and how long each takes to decompose. Next, I introduced one of the many possible solutions community leaders, or youth leaders, could enact to address the problem: Eco-Trashcans.
I initially planned on creating the Eco-Trashcans from plastic bottles, inorganic trash, chicken wire and cement, but it would have cost more money, and the trashcans would not be mobile. The design for the Eco-trashcan came when I spotted one in front of a red store (pictured in photo). I entered the store and asked for the contact information of the person who created the trashcan. The following week, I visited Manuel, and he created an exact replica of the trashcan to show me how it was created. We discussed how much iron we would need to create four (4) Eco-Trashcans, and the price of manual labor. Each trashcan is valued at $11, and four (4) would cost $44, which is 352 Quetzales in Guatemalan currency. I spoke to a local credit organization, called COSAMI, to receive the funding for the project. The school received complete funding to buy the iron and pay for the manual labor. I then returned to the school to show the students the process and materials.


Rewarding the manager of COSAMI, a local credit organization in Guatemala, with a diploma after he approved of donating complete funding to create four (4) Eco-trashcans. The principal of the school is standing to the right. 
Steps to Creating an Eco-Trashcan are as Follows:

1)      Collect forty-eight (48) plastic bottles of the same size.

 

2)  Use gloves and collect forms of inorganic trash, and make sure the trash is NOT wet, muddy, smells bad or too dirty.


 Inorganic trash includes, but is not limited to:
  • Styrofoam
  • Food Wrappers (from chip bags, candy, etc.)
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Plastic Bags
3)  Drill a hole into the center of each bottle cap and drill a hole in the center of the bottom of each bottle.
4)      Cut the inorganic trash into small pieces, small enough so iron rods can easily pass through the bottle.

5)    Stuff the bottles to the top with the cut pieces of inorganic trash.


6)   Have an ironworker create two iron circles of the same size, 1 meter and 50 centimeters long, with 55 centimeters in diameter, and place one (1) of the iron circles on a wooden platform.



7) Next, have an ironworker create sixteen (16) iron rods of the same size, each one (1) meter long, or the the length of three (3) plastic 20oz water bottles. The space between the iron rods should be 8 centimeters, or can be determined using the plastic 20oz water bottles.


                  

8)  Attach the sixteen (16) iron rods to the bottom circle, leaving enough space between each rod for bottles to slide through.

                                                     

9)  Next, have the ironworker create four (4) small iron rods, which will be placed in the bottom circle to create eight (8) triangles; this will prevent trash bags from falling through to the ground.




















10)   Slide three (3) bottles on to each iron rod.



11)   Place the top iron circle on top of the sixteen (16) bottle caps, and bend the tops of the iron rods over the iron circle.

12)  Use long and durable plastic string to fasten each iron rod to the top of the circle, to ensure the rods do not move.



I have since created nine (9)  Eco-Trashcans with three (3) different schools. The process gradually became easier each time they were created. It is important to stress the cutting of the trash into small pieces to ensure the eco-trashcans look great!























                                   



Since the creation of the eco-trashcans I have seen FIVE (5) REPLICAS in my community and surrounding communities.

                           



Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sacrifices as Newfound Appreciations

Laughter contagiously fills the red and white kitchen, as eleven women sit close together on a white tiled floor preparing tamalitas. I’m perched on a red plastic stool next to a window, captivated by their natural interactions. Suddenly a familiar, yet foreign emotion takes me to a similar scene in a different setting, like scrooge in “A Christmas Story.” It begins with a spontaneous flashback of my five great aunts. One is standing, while others are sitting on the edge of two couches. They are in my great grandmother’s living room as usual. Their faces are filled with excited emotion, as they laugh, do impressions, make jokes, and scream over each other, while discussing everything from baseball to the latest and most ridiculous dances of my generation.

When I came back to reality, I realized the Mayan indigenous women were all looking at me and laughing. One of them asked me in Spanish if I understood the joke. I honestly had no clue what any of them were saying from the start. Their conversations were always in the Mayan indigenous language, Kiche, with few words in Spanish. I smiled at her, shook my head in response, and asked to be told the joke. The joke related to women describing themselves as flowers, and how one woman’s husband strongly disagreed. I didn’t entirely get the joke, but her explanation and hand gestures were hilarious. 

Thus far, I’ve completed one year and five months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, and have never taken a trip back to the United States. When the women began unreservedly laughing at the same time it sounded so much like being in my great grandmother’s house for the holidays. It unearthed a warm sentiment I haven’t felt in such a long time. As a volunteer, I realize I sacrifice so much, but somehow Guatemala has tried to compensate special moments I’ve lost.

Curiosity summoned me to the kitchen, where I sat observing how women cook and prepare their traditional foods. They were tediously preparing this huge meal for over thirty family members, and had been doing so for over four hours. These family members came to celebrate Dylan’s 1st birthday! Dylan is my host family’s first and only child. He was dressed in a small grey pinstriped suit, with a long-sleeve blue shirt and tie. Dylan even had a fresh chili bowl haircut!


 Dylan’s 1st birthday was just a few days after Jeremiah’s 1st birthday, my new baby brother, who I have yet to see, pick up, kiss and hold! The beginning of August was also the second birthday for my niece, Shayla. I was sad to have missed both of their birthdays. Yet, picking up baby Dylan, and teaching him how to walk across the kitchen floor while he laughs and reaches to grab my braids, is definitely on my list of unforgettable moments.

Left to right is Margarita, Dylan's Mom, Margarita's Mom and sister, Me holding Dylan, and Margarita's three brothers.
Mostly every volunteer experiences that inevitable urge creeping up to be back in the States, but I quickly put it on the backburner. I realize I am far from done, and surprisingly at a point where I wish I had more time. I know what I am doing here, and realize what more needs to be done. Most importantly, the youth in my schools are benefitting so much, and become easily saddened at the thought of my returning to the States.

Yesterday, I gave one of my best class presentations about self-esteem and gender to some of my youngest students. I had two teachers in the classroom, which is a huge difference from not having any in the classroom at the beginning of the school year. The students actively participated, followed directions, and didn’t mind that I went over time to finish the lesson. The teachers enjoyed the activity as much as the students!

I think about the girls group I work with through Population Council too. Before giving the class presentation on self-esteem, I had attended an event earlier that morning, in which the girls showcased their involvement in Abriendo Oportunidades (Creating Opportunities).  I watched their skits and dances like a proud Mom. We’ve done so much, from salsa dancing, English lessons, a sports tournament, hairstyles, watching” Karate Kid” and “Up”, and their Tire Garden is a HUGE success. I have so many more activities I want to implement before leaving, and have had plenty of moments pleading for more hours in a day!

 I know sacrifices are needed and worth it. Thus far, coming to Guatemala has undoubtedly been one of the best sacrifices of my life, and certainly in God’s plan for me. I am not only realizing how “A sacrifice is best refuted by accepting it.”  - Wilhelm Steinitz, but sacrifices also highlight what we take for granted, while simultaneously leading us towards new appreciations.