Friday, February 3, 2012

Thinking Smaller

Volleyball at dusk

I’ve spent a lot of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer struggling.  I struggle with language.  I struggle with finding my place in my community.  I struggle with maintaining relationships back home.  I struggle with finding projects and people to work with.  Then I struggle with sustainability.  I struggle with what comes next.  Inherent to the Peace Corps experience, every volunteer I meet struggles with something--more often, many things.
Ready for another icebreaker?

A recent RPCV reflected in her blog that as an organization Peace Corps finds success in teaching us how to fail.  When you grow up playing on soccer teams that don’t keep score, you don’t always learn how to deal with rejection gracefully.  And Peace Corps volunteers face constant rejection and failure.  We interview our neighbors about their needs and when we set up trainings to meet those needs nobody comes--even when the whole town promises that they’ll attend.  We facilitate the foundation of a much anticipated community group and meeting attendance nose drives after the third gathering.  The sit-down your community contact agreed to during your first few days in town gets pushed back weekly.

Over and over again we tell ourselves, “you only need to reach one.”

During training, our country director shared the story of a pair of volunteers serving together in the early 1960s who reached one: Alejandro Toledo.  As in former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo.  Born into extreme poverty, he ended up with a PHD from Stanford.  A potential reached, he frequently explains, through the support and guidance of Peace Corps volunteers.

When you reach one, they reach others.  Alejandro Toledo reached millions.

I have no intention of holding myself to the standards set by Nancy Deeds and Joel Meister, arguably some of the most effective Peace Corps volunteers in the history of the program.  I do, though, try to place my focus on reaching just one and celebrating small wins.

"Who will change the world?"
This past week, many members of our sector (Community Economic Development) got to reach just one as a group.  Ñande Ha’e Tenonderã (We Are the Future) Leadership Camp gathered almost thirty volunteers with seventy Paraguayans between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four to share four days of leadership, development, and self-esteem training.  Youth participated in seminars presented by various Paraguayan NGOs, engaged in many team-building exercises, and partook in countless icebreakers.

Opening night charlas

Teatro'i and creative problem solving
In our final activity, the youth formed two circles, one inside of the other.  While the inner circle stood with their eyes closed, the outer circle walked around them and responded to a series of questions by touching members of the inner circle on the shoulder.  “Who made you laugh this week?... Who changed your mind about something this week?... Who will change the world?” 

By the end of the exercise, many of the youth could not contain their tears.  Many of the volunteers could not contain their satisfied smiles.  The camp meant something--something maybe even life changing--to these kids.  They met, they exchanged ideas, and they realized that they really could change their worlds.  The volunteers didn’t create any of it, we just supplied the tools these youth needed to get there on their own.

Early morning Taekwando
Only in Paraguay... do harps make the summer camp packing list
I had personal goals for each of our kids.  I hoped our fourteen year old would gain a new perspective while seeing more of Paraguay, our fifteen year old would start to realize his own leadership potential and gain some organizational skills, and our sixteen year old would connect with like minded individuals and learn that others share his dream for his country.  All of them grew more in four days than I knew possible.

Introducing s'mores to Paraguay

A train of excited jovenes pulls into the Caaguazú bus terminal
As we left camp, the kids sang and danced in the Caaguazú terminal and promised to keep in touch.  They made plans for our re-connect camp in July and confirmed everyone’s name on Facebook.  I started to question if we’d ever manage to herd them all on to buses.  Eventually, the southern contingency made our way onto a packed double decker headed back towards the capital.  Little did I know, on the way home from camp I would reach one of my personal goals too. 

Standing in the aisle and pressed against strangers, our fourteen year old surrendered to motion sickness all over herself, me, and another man.  Surprisingly, no one got up to offer her a seat.  In fact, no one seemed all that put off by the incident.  About twenty minutes later the seat next to where we stood opened up.  As I ushered my youth toward it, a young man tried to sneak in. 

Now, we’ve all heard the story about the mother, who upon seeing her toddler stuck under the wheel of a car, summons the strength to lift the vehicle and pull her kid to safety.  My “(substitute) mom” adrenaline came in a different form: without thinking, I grabbed this teen by the waist, pulled him from the seat, and plainly explained to him why he’d have to stand for just a little longer.  Evidently I have picked up a little Spanish along the way after all.  (Of course my body language could have had a lot to do with my clarity, but this still counts as a victory.)

Later that night, around 9:30pm while our youngest slept off her nausea, I got to do some eavesdropping.  Nearly nine hours into our journey and still an hour and a half from home, in a pitch dark bus surrounded by dozing strangers, our fifteen and sixteen year old started planning a project that would ultimately benefit our entire community.  They even considered logistical issues regarding reaching our most isolated rural areas.  To call myself proud wouldn’t even begin to cover it.

When we finally reached the entrance to our town, the boys excitedly bounced ideas off each other as we walked the two kilometers back from the main route.  Our fourteen year old, still not quite yet awake held back, half listening.  Worried that a rough bus ride sullied her camp experience, as we approached her house I asked her, “Did you miss our town?”  “A little,” she replied.  “But I miss camp more.”
Over the next few months, I can’t wait to see where this new-found enthusiasm takes them--even if it means struggling to get our camp’s theme song out of my head.  Aaaaaaaauuuuuuuuttttoooo-estima....

"Auto-estima, no se puede comprar. Auto-estima, viene de adentro...."
"Self-esteem, you can't buy it.  Self esteem, it comes from within...."
The Southern Contingency: On Wednesday, we left before sunrise.  At 4:45am we collected the kids from each of their houses and exchanged goodbye kisses with their mothers.  In the dark of early morning, we could barely make out their expressions.  Excitement?  Fear?  Two thirds of our youth had never before traveled without parent and yet they headed halfway across the country with two Nortes who possess only limited Spanish.  Around 11pm the following Saturday we returned everyone safe, sound, and ready to work.

Kevin, Vero, Damian, Joanna, and Luis


  1. JOANNA:
    Here I am. crying at work, Listening to Segovia on YOUTUBE, hoping that for someshort time, maybe I did reach someone.

  2. Sometimes it takes years for evidence of our presence to show up.... Yours is known.