Saturday, November 28, 2009

2009 DOMINICAN TOP TEN

Ok, ok, after almost a year of forgetting/not finding the time to blog, I’ve decided to try to keep up again. Sorry I have been so lazy with keeping in touch! I’m not exactly sure where to begin, so I think I’ll just tell you about the top ten things (in my opinion) that have happened throughout the year:

10. Whales. In late February, my two best friends here (Jenn and Emily) and I went whale-watching off the northwest coast of the island in the Samaná Peninsula. We boarded a boat with a lower deck with about 50 tourists or so in hopes to see some humpback whales. They hang around the DR shores from mid January - mid March every year to mate in the warmer waters before heading back toward Maine. We ended up seeing a mom with her young and a couple more lone whales throughout the trip. I was unable to get a good photo because they were jumping low and fast. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any tails, but it was still a really fun trip.

9. Escojo Sub-Regional Conference. My youth group (Escojo Mi Vida…”I Choose My Life”) was in charge of planning the sub-regional conference this year. The theme of the conference was to teach the youth how to use dramas to teach other youth about HIV and pregnancy prevention, self-esteem, etc. Nine youth groups from around the area met up at a nearby pool to learn about these topics and meet new people.

8. Field trips with muchachos. A project I started about a year ago was a youth group for younger girls ages 7-13. We met weekly to learn about better nutrition, read books, work on art projects, learn a little English, etc. In March, we visited an art museum, which the girls absolutely loved. They especially enjoyed the escalator ride, because they had never ridden on one before. When we got back from the trip, I had a bunch of jealous boys on my hands. The girls decided to let the boys join the group, so I often had about 40 children showing up for the weekly meetings. This past October, I was able to bring 20 of them to the zoo in the capital for the first time. I will never forget their reactions to the anaconda, monkeys, and tigers. It was so neat to give these children an opportunity that most kids in America take for granted.

7. America, here I come…and go! In June, my boyfriend (see #1) and I visited the states for a much-needed, relaxing vacation. We spent a few days in Grand Rapids hanging out with family and friends. It was nice to see everyone again at church and to give a presentation slideshow about my experience up to that point. My grandma’s 80th birthday celebration was also one of the main reasons for the trip. She was so surprised to see us! I then spent a week meeting my boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin, driving to the east, and attending his cousin’s wedding in Vermont. The last week and a half was spent in Grand Rapids, catching up with friends and family. Thank you to everyone for such a welcoming trip back home.

6. Stove Project. You may all remember me asking for donations about a year ago to build improved wood-burning stoves in my community. Well, thanks to Thornapple Community Church members, a few wonderful friends, and a very generous doctor who visited my site, the grant was filled to build 28 of these stoves in Sabana del Rey (my community). It was quite the adventure deciding exactly which families would receive the stoves and who would build them. We worked it all out though after my boyfriend gave a training session in May. The families who received the stoves are so grateful. They no longer have to suffer with smoke in their faces while cooking, and the stoves use much less firewood. Now everyone in the community wants one!

5. School Library Project. Since I studied Elementary Education, I was hoping to be able to work with the teachers in the elementary school in my community. I quickly learned that the students only go to school for 2-3 hours a day and only when the teacher feels like showing up. After observing a couple classes, I also realized that the school (like most rural schools in the country) had close to nothing material-wise. The kids are given text books, but most of them had never read a children’s book. In fact, most of them had great difficulty in reading. To attempt to change this, I started working with the librarian in the Peace Corps office to solicit books from local Dominican agencies and from back home. Once again, my home church (TCC) came through and sent a box full of books. The community now has a beautiful library with over 600 books, including a nice reference section, children’s books, adult books, Bibles, and an English section. I also had enough grant money to buy a computer, fans for every classroom, and a teacher chair for every room. The teachers and many women in the community are also trained to run a check-out system, so I am praying that the kids read and that they keep up with library maintenance. Thanks to all who donated books and money to the project!

4. Close-of-Service (COS) Conference. In August, the group of 54 volunteers that I came into the country with (which had dwindled down to 39 I think) had our final good-bye conference. We spent 3 days at a Holiday Inn discussing our adventures and futures. It got me thinking about a career, and it was sad to realize that it was all coming to an end for most of the people in the room. We tried to celebrate by going to an All-Inclusive resort in Punta Cana for a couple of nights. It was so nice to relax on the beach and swim in the pool with nothing to worry about for a few days.

3. Despedida. This is the Spanish word for going-away party. The Catholic priest, school director, and most spirited youth in my site worked together to throw me a surprise going-away party. Many times, volunteers become frustrated with most Dominicans because “gracias” is not always a common word in the Dominican language. There have been many times where I felt that my community didn’t appreciate the work I was doing, because they rarely said thank you. But boy was I wrong. Everyone was just saving up their thank-yous for the end. The women and teachers wrote and sang me a song about the stoves, groups, and library that we worked on. The youth group choreographed a Mexican-type dance complete with costumes in my honor. It was liked so well by the crowd that they performed twice. Songs were sung, speeches were made (even when the power was out and we were using the light from my boyfriend’s head lamp) and people were crying. I knew about the surprise, because the community was not very good at keeping a secret. But I never expected to show up to a crowd of 200 people or so all trying to hug me at once. They even went all out as to give me a plaque, a huge chocolate cake, and a delicious treats for all. It is custom to not serve the cake to all the guests, so my boyfriend and I ended up eating cake at every meal for the days right before I left. Of course, we gave it to neighbor kids and those who helped throw the party afterwards. I have never felt so touched in my life, and I am so sad that I had to leave. The people are and will always be in my heart forever.

2. Extension Opportunity. I decided that I wasn’t ready to leave this country quite yet. I’m really sad about not being home for the holidays again, but who wants to leave the Caribbean during the winter?? Plus, my boyfriend doesn’t end his service until May and I know it would probably be difficult to find a teaching job in the middle of the school year. Therefore, I looked around for an extension project that I could do for 6 months. God is so good that He led me to the perfect extension, and Peace Corps approved it! I changed my site to the deep southern coast, about 7 hours from where I am living. You should see the views around my new community. It is true paradise. I am living with a 77-year old spunky woman in a nice cement block house. Her daughter cooks my lunches and does my laundry. I still have cold bucket baths and sleep under a mosquito net, but the house has a generator. Yay for 24 hour electricity! Work is a little different story though. I am now working with an American priest to visit remote, extremely needy, elementary schools high up in the mountains. We arrive to the schools by scary motor-cycle rides and by foot (sometimes 2-hour long hikes). Most of the students who attend these schools are Haitians and denied an education at public schools. The Catholic Church runs the nine elementary schools, but almost all of them lack materials and teachers. Many of the kids don’t attend school regularly due to all sorts of reasons (looking for water because of dried-up water sources, family need for them to work in the fields, etc.) I was shocked the other day to see the teacher giving three lessons at the same time. He had first/second grade on one side of the room and third/fourth on the other side of the room with a few fifth graders in the back storage room awaiting him. With a line down the middle of the chalkboard, he was teaching three classes at once! Like the rest of the country, the school day only lasts a few hours for the kids. I will be giving lessons to the students about basic hygiene (dental care, washing hands), self-esteem, and HIV discrimination. I hope to work more closely with the students to help a few of them learn to read and hopefully think of some really creative teaching strategies to help the teachers. Please let me know if you have any ideas!

1. I fell in love!!! His name is Tim Brown, and he’s a fellow volunteer. He works as an environmental volunteer….building stoves, working on a hydroelectric project, library project, playing with neighbor kids, etc. I enjoy visiting the waterfall in his site and bathing in the crystal-clear river when I go to visit him at his site way up in the mountains. He went to school at Michigan State, and he’s from Madison, Wisconsin. We pretty much started dating after the Thanksgiving 2008 celebration that Peace Corps throws for its volunteers every year, and he has been a wonderful boyfriend ever since. You may have met him when we visited the states together this past June. In case you haven’t yet though, don’t worry. We’ll be back in May. See you then and I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving. Happy Holidays!

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Good stuff.

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