Thursday, October 27, 2011

Life at 18 months

So as it would be, Teena has been losing her voice (from talking too much no doubt). The inevitable has finally happened! So as a request to my ever so normally gregarious mother, I will tell you all about my life the past months here in El Salvador. October completes the 18th month of my Peace Corps service. This experience has had long, long days, but ironically probably the fastest two years of my life. My service will be ending in March of next year, so I have about four more months to make the best of it here in El Salvador.

Since March, as projects go, I have been very busy. I can’t believe it is the end of October. Efficiency and productivity are measured significantly differently in the rural countryside of El Salvador than that of the normal US workday, so that is definitely going to be an adjustment when I return home stateside. This job is a big job filled with a lot of little jobs. But perhaps my biggest project and one that I am very proud of is my income generation and vocational workshop conference. Last year I applied for a grant through World Connect, Mothers to Mothers, an organization that awards funds for projects benefiting women and children in developing countries. I was granted $2000 to complete my project. The initial idea behind the project was to 1) to generate income for women (being that the majority of my community is single family households) and 2) mainly to provide an activity, hobby, vocation to occupy their time better (since the majority of their time is cooking and cleaning). Over several months, I hosted vocational trainings, along with basic business teachings. The first workshop, we learned how to paint roof tiles with lithographs and napkins. They make for a nice artesian gift to hang on your patio or against a wall. The second workshop was a crochet workshop, where the women learned how to knit and crochet bags, hats, clothing, and ornament items for the kitchen and bathroom. The third workshop was a jewelry workshop. Perhaps, this was the most popular among the youth. The final workshop was learning how to make organic shampoo, soap, and other products such as disinfectant. Three of the workshops were taught by a contractor of a development organization here and the final workshop I taught with the help of some fellow Peace Corps volunteers. During our training in Peace Corps, they teach us various ways to help generate income for the communities; shampoo being a very successful and easy project to start.

Overall, the workshops last over five months, and benefited a total of sixty participants. The community really enjoyed this project. Now that they have learned basic business skills and new vocations, the goal is now for small business development. Currently, we are in the process of forming and organizing our co-op for the community. About a third of the participants from the workshop are now going to continue making the products to help generate income for their families. We are selling our products wherever there is a market currently; in our small shops in the communities to community festivals to the US embassy crafts fair. This is a work in progress, but I am being more and more confident in my women from the community. Several years ahead, I would like to see a developed co-operative working together, making a living off making their products!

In addition, I have also been working to construct a “casa communal” for the community. This acts like a civic center for the community, where anyone can use it for meetings, classes, fundraisers, birthday parties, etc. This project has been successful in fundraising because of dedicated family members living in the states, particularly in New York. They have organized themselves and hold monthly fundraisers for community projects here in El Salvador. Its really inspiring to see Salvadorans help Salvadorans. Now that the rainy season is coming to an end, we probably can get more work down with our construction. We the project went to a standstill a couple months ago, due to the daily rainfall. This committee in New York is going to do great things for the community! I act as a liason to send them photos and keep them updated on the progress! After the Casa communal project, they would like to fix our road. The road is pretty bad, so that would make everyone happy.

Another project that has taken a huge amount of my time is my work with the GAD committee of Peace Corps. As president of the gender and development of Peace Corps of El Salvador we have been very busy. Last April, a fellow volunteer wrote this musical in Spanish in Salvadoran slang about the gender inequality that is ever so present in El Salvador. As a gender committee, we thought through theater was an excellent medium to educate Salvadoran youth about the problems with machismo and self-esteem for young women. So we created the monster. My job was essentially the producer of this project, organizing every event. Since April, we have been working with an at-risk theater group from the national university to perform this play, songs and all. We had seven regional performances, so that volunteers from all around the country could bring their youth to see the play and then after participate in a discussion about the themes presented in the play: gender inequality, machismo, self-empowerment and self esteem. Over 700 youth were able to see the play and about fifty volunteers helped to support us. This project was so successful on a national level that an international organization called PASMO, aimed at preventing HIV and gender violence wants to continue funding our project. This was really exciting because I was applying to several grants just to make our national tour possible. Now, PASMO wants to train an additional three theater groups to continue going around the country, educating through the arts. So, our GAD committee is helping to organize to make this happen. We also our generating a gender manual that Peace Corps will use to train trainers in gender activities. I am very proud of this project.

Additional projects with PASMO will be a flash mob in December during the Christmas shopping fighting machismo and next week, as president of GAD, was invited to the inauguration of PASMO’s next director. All the embassies will be present (meaning the US, Spain, Germany) as well as representatives of the United Nations. PASMO would like to present our committee and the musical as on of their featured projects! So yay for a cocktail party! I am very proud to be fighting for gender equality and sharing with young women that anything is possible.
Other news, my parents made a visit down to El Salvador this past September. We had a great time. It was nice getting to hang with my mom and Tom. You all should come down before I leave!

I took the GRE last week. I find out my score in December. Applications for grad school are in January. The plan is to be attending in the fall of September 2012.
This has been a wild two years. I love the work that I have been doing in the campo and across the country. Because El Salvador is such a tiny place, traveling is really easy. Its been really nice living close to the beach! I will miss that. Or going up in the mountains. El Salvador is a beautiful country with beautiful people. I will miss it a lot when I leave. So, I am going to enjoy this time while I have it here with good friends.

I promise to update sooner than later!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

When it pours...

Ok so it has been awhile last since I have posted. I will try to give you an update on my life here.

In Peace Corps, they say it takes till the one year mark to really feel integrated in your community and to have some sort of stability with your projects. As far as being integrated, I think I can check that one off. My community no longer is looking at me like I am from outer space and now, some too often, I am being invited to be a part of community events and asked well…what does the gringa think about this? To them, I know everything. So, to keep this going, I am constantly learning along the way. Looking back now after a year and going on four months, I really cannot remember when I started getting busy. Now that I am busy, I really am missing the days where all there was to do was to lay around all day in the hammock with a good book. Peace Corps tells us to cherish this time, as it is not always constant. However, I do not know how I will live in the future without the beloved hammock.

So what has this redhead been up to?

My primary projects as of this moment are income generation vocational workshops. Back in November, I applied to a grant from an organization called World Connect. World Connect is a rather large organization, benefiting children and women. The grant I was applying for was through an program called Mothers to Mothers. This grant was focused on improving the lifestyle of women in my community through income generation. After several initial diagnostics with women in my community, it was addressed that not only did they want something to do, other than cleaning and cooking in the house, but also to be able to provide for their families better. Not able to just focus on one vocation, mainly because there were several interests, I decided to focus on four, where each workshop would feature a different vocation as well as a business skill aspect for small business development. To make this idea happen, I needed money for materials and instructon to further implement the project. As volunteers, we constantly struggle with this predictament, where will the money come from? When we come to our communities, they look at us like an ATM. Although it is rather one cruel joke, only we do not come with any cash to give these struggling communities. So we have to fundraise.

This past January I was awarded the grant to do this project. The last several months have been organizing the community, buying materials and finding instructors to teach the courses. The first workshop was focused on decorated roof tiles. These tiles basically roof the entire country. Twenty women and youth participated in this workshop and encouraged more interest in participation for the following workshop. The second workshop was focused on crochet. More women and youth wanted to participate in this workshop making woven bags, scarves, and hats.So far, there has been excellent participation and interest in the project. The goal is after these workshops, the individuals who are interested in continuing beyond a learning level will be creating a small business of their own to sell the products.

Currently, we are getting ready for our third workshop, which will be learning how to make jewelry. This one will by far the most popular workshop, as the youth are very excited to be making earrings, necklaces, bracelets, you name it. The final workshop will be focused on making organic shampoo and soap. Once we complete the vocation part of the project, then we will start our small business development courses to further develop this project towards income generation. I have really enjoyed seeing the community take an active interest in these workshops.

There have been several moments in my experience here where I take a glance and ask myself, is what I am doing making a difference? Am I creating a platform for sustainable development? And I believe the answers are yes. I hope that when I leave, these women will be capable of making a product and selling that product, generating income for their families. I also hope that they will remember these years I have been with them as memorable and all the things I have been able to provide to them. Vamos a ver, meaning we shall see.

Another project that I have been working on for awhile, and that has been taking up a substantial part of my time is our casa communal. The casa communal is what we refer to as a civic center, but in reality is a big house, where the community can hold meetings, events, birthdays, you name it. These are so important to rural communities, when there is struggle among people with religious affiliations and political parties. For several people here, that is how you choose a social circle. The casa communal is the one place where people can all come together. Again, this project like every project takes money. I have been really fortunate with the funding for this project. Essentially, the funding is coming from a group of family members who live in the states. They grew up as children here and have since been living in the states for over twenty years. They came to me when I first got here and wanted to propose how I could help them help the community. This really has been a win win for everyone. But this still is a work in progress, nothing happens fast here. Hopefully by the time I leave, we will have our building up and running.

Other than those rather large projects, I have been working in the school, doing computer and art classes. As I am the second volunteer in my community, the first volunteer managed to get computers to the school. We have typing classes as well as learning basic computer skills so that when they get older and perhaps have a chance to further education, they will know how to use a computer. The art classes are merely for fun, as they don’t really have recreational activities in the school.

Also, I have monthly meetings with the youth, awkwardly talking about sex education. This is still a struggle, as religion plays a huge part in their lives. However I think it is important, as the community still sees their fair share of fourteen year olds who are preggers.

And for this past Mothers' day, we had a self-breast exam awareness event, in which we had testimonies and demonstrations about how important it is to be safe and to have check ups. Thanks mom for sending those exams!

Ok well, that's it for now.
Pictures to come!