The story of a volunteer
I am a recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in the Dominican Republic. I was in the Youth, Family, and Community Development sector. This sector focuses on youth programs that will provide underserved community needs, like sex education, female empowerment, various sports programs, and more. My community was a small town of less than 2000 people in the Bahoruco region. There, I partnered with the local high school to offer supplementary educational opportunities. My counterpart and I worked with students to foster discussions that brought new ideas to old topics. I also worked on similar youth projects with the Ministry of Women. We created a camp program with the goal of expansion to multiple communities to provide engaging, educational, and free camp programs for underserved youths. Peace Corps was not my first time working with youth, as I had previously worked at a nonprofit youth program for 11 years. I was delighted to bring my youth experience to a new country and culture and see how youth development work happened in a different environment. My community and kids challenged and improved my skills as a youth development worker. I will always appreciate the insights I gained as I transition to a new career.
My favorite project while in site was my work with students that were in school to earn their masters’ degrees to teach English at the university level. I acted as a writing mentor and tutor for the students. Together, we used their papers on various linguistics methodologies for second language acquisition as a chance to improve the overall quality of their writing and their grasp on English grammar. All of my students received top marks for their papers. This project, along with my Bachelor in Arts in English language, has guided me to my next career moves. I am eager to find work as a professional writer. I hope to eventually combine my interest in writing and community development by putting my communication skills to use to help nonprofits keep up the good fight.
The most memorable moments
Presenting to the students
Off for a day at the canal!
My turn to watch the pot
Hold on tight!
One of my dance teachers
Swimming in a river
The youth group trainees taking a break at a pool despite the rain
Time for a refreshing coconut
Last day of a camp that Peace Corps Volunteers helped at in in the mountains
Presenting my community diagnostic
The boats landing at Bahia de las Aguilas
The memorable moments
I, along with 47 other Peace Corps trainees, left for the Dominican Republic on August 21, 2018. The group first met at pre-staging in Miami. Pre-staging was about half rules and half ice-breakers (a trend with Peace Corps). Our Peace Corps trainee class was one of the largest. It isn’t easy to get to know 47 people at once, but the ice breakers actually helped fill up the time and lessen opportunities for awkward idling.
Once in the DR, the ice-breakers were replaced with exercises. One exercise was about public transit. Dominican public transit consists of shared taxis (carros públicos), motorcycle taxis (motoconcho), and buses (guaguas). 2-4 can fit on a motoconcho, 7 including the driver in a carro público, and no limit for a guagua. When I say no limit, I mean it. One time, I counted 23 people in a bus with 12 designated seats. We weren’t allowed to ride on motoconchos, but even the carros públicos and guaguas seemed iffy. I never saw a carro público without signs of extreme wear and previous accidents. One Volunteer told me about a time on a guagua when the driver got out twice to tighten bolts on a wheel. I was assured there are some unspoken rules to driving in the DR. After seeing people go the wrong way intentionally, turn left from the right lane, and three cars abreast in two lanes, I had my doubts. Much farther into my service, the more flexible driving policies were one of my favorite small pleasures of life in the DR. I loved being in a guagua as it drove past farms of banana trees with the car door open, wind in my face, and the lake glistening from the Caribbean sun just a ways off. This appreciation would have seemed unfathomable at the beginning.
We all started off with host families for training in the capital. Some had little kids in their house, some had older kids, and some lived with an older couple. I lived with an older couple. The Doña ran the house. She prepared the food and cleaned everything. The Don worked in the store the family owned below their apartment. In his evenings, he spent his time playing dominoes on a nearby street with his friends. After a week together, I finally understood at least half of what my Don said, although he still only understood less than half of what I said. Leaving home and living in a country where I didn’t communicate as well as I would have liked was hard enough, but I also got to experience amoeba in my first week. Amoeba is a waterborne parasite. I spent the day in the ER with an IV in my arm and frequent bathroom trips. Amoeba taught me something. True Peace Corps strength is having diarrhea with thin walls and walking out to face people afterwards. I had plenty of practice at this, and finally saw that I was strong enough for the Peace Corps.
My first days in the school were in some ways the easiest days and in other ways the hardest. Despite it being the most nerve-wracking time period, those first days were a gift because some structure was already built in. Peace Corps work can be fairly unstructured, as it is up to the Volunteer to build their own projects. Initially, people wanted to take me on tours. There were places to see, people to meet, hands to shake, and courtesies that took up time. My only job was to express genuine interest and pay attention, which I really appreciated as a chance to calm my nerves about this journey that was just beginning.
Our first two and a half months are a mandatory observation time period. This rule creates a great window to prepare to hit the ground running. From the get-go, I tried to keep an eye out for potential projects. I also used this time to study up on sex eduation and plan games for future charlas (lessons I conducted in the high school). An equally important part of these introductory months is to build friendships. Personally, I think Peace Corps structures the beginning of service this way because no one likes to be lectured by a person they just met. Friendships can make working with teachers and students not only more enjoyable but actually possible. I especially saw this with the students. I won’t lie, my time as a high schooler was no highlight for me. Working with high schoolers caused me some anxiety because I remembered what it was like to be a socially inept teenager. I still feel my heart beat faster when I think back on those first awkward interactions with the students. I knew that it would be uncomfortable at the start but so much better later on if I put myself out there with the students. Luckily, I came with a tool to ease the awkwardness. Every day, I brought a deck of cards. I taught the students card games, but they only took interest in spoons. They ended up asking if we could play spoons nearly every day for months. The game helped, as did shuffling the deck of cards. Dominoes is the most common game in the DR. Kids don’t have the chance to play with cards as often as dominoes. This resulted in dreadful shuffling skills. When I shuffled, my stock went way up with the kids. I started bringing more decks of cards to let kids practice shuffling. One small thing helped us move past first impressions and from that point on, conversations became easy with the students. These beginning friendships made my work in the school possible. Students paid attention to my charlas, tried to help me at an opportunity, and even students that were known to be difficult were extremely kind to me. I genuinely believe that the greatest foundation for my work with the kids was a deck of cards.
The Dominican Republic is populated with pests I didn’t even know existed before I lived there. Horrifyingly enough, the DR is populated with pests I still don’t know about. There is one pest in particular that I now know and can never forget. His name is guaba. Do not confuse the dangerous guaba with the delicious guava. They may be pronounced the same, but they are nothing alike. Before Peace Corps, I considered myself an ally to animals and insects. I had a strict capture and release policy. My bathroom in my host family’s house had permanently open windows, so the policy became “if you leave me alone, I will do the same.” When I first saw the guaba, I thought he was a real hoot: a slow-moving, awkward, boxy spider. He fumbled about a bit, but kept to his space. How foolish I was to think we had an understanding. The guaba gave me a visit that night and went for the back of my left thigh. At first, I had no idea about his night-time visit. I thought the tiny red bump was only a zit. In the first days, the only sign of something unusual was that the zit was hot to the touch. This seemed odd, but there is nothing innately wrong with a little heat. A lesson I learned: heat means it is not benign. This pesky zit became the center of a widening red ring, then a throbbing pain, and finally a mound that was an inch high and an inch wide. As the bump grew, the pain worsened. Movement, contact, and sometimes nothing at all would bring about throbs of sharp pain. Even water hurt if it touched it. The spot was a regular topic when we had visits. Everyone discussed the severity of the spot and how it would progress. The consensus was that if I didn’t let the town doctor pop the spider bite, I would develop a fever and either the leg would have to go or I would die. Peace Corps told me to not let any doctor touch the spot. Instead, I would have to pop it myself. I am very thankful to Peace Corps for giving me the chance to try my hand as a doctor. I now know for sure that this is not the profession for me. I popped it and shoved rubbing alcohol soaked q-tips inside to swirl around to break up pus pockets. Worse than this was when one pus ball was too difficult to squeeze out and grab by myself. I had to ask my new boyfriend to please pull the pus out for me. Eventually, the Peace Corps doctors told me it was time for me to come to the capital so they could see the damage. They ripped off the black, dead skin and cleaned the spot. Now, I have a nasty scar on my leg. I appreciate the mark, as it proves what I conquered.
When I moved to my community, I felt confused about my place there. Everyone had established lives, so how was I supposed to become a part of those lives? A few reminders helped me get through the awkward transitional period. 1) People wanted me there. They had filed paperwork so I could live in their community. Everyone hates paperwork. This effort must mean there was a real interest. 2) Many Peace Corps Volunteers had gone through this experience before me, and many will after me (right after a terrifying global pandemic). And 3) Everyone in the community seemed genuinely nice! Although I appreciated the kindness I saw in my community, I found a way to turn this kindness into another reason to be anxious. Dominicans in general have a charismatic, smooth politeness that was so persuasive that I couldn’t tell if people actually liked me. The truth is that many people liked me, but they already had their own lives going on. I saw firsthand how hardworking many Dominicans are, and not everyone had enough time to dedicate to a new friendship. This sometimes felt discouraging. However, all I needed was a little patience, because soon enough I found many people who genuinely wanted to be my friend. Every Volunteer can talk about their close friendships in their communities. I saw it every time we met up for mini-vac or whatever other meetings, and people were swapping stories about their home. They all could name people that became their true friends. And I would say that for me personally, I had my moments when these host country nationals had my back. It became a huge comfort that there were people there for me to lean on. These were the moments that helped me feel at home so far away from home. If I could say anything to myself when I first came to site, I would tell myself to trust that I would make genuine, long-lasting friendships.
My main project in site was my work in the high school. Every week, I would do charlas and English lessons in the classrooms with my counterpart. Charlas come from the verb charlar, which means to chat. A charla is a lesson that includes games and activities to make it more engaging. Charlas were a great way for me to get comfortable being out of my element, thinking on the spot, and getting used to running programs. My charlas focused on topics such as self-esteem, perspectives, listening, sex education, and more. It was incredible how so much preparation resulted in a charla that flew by! I spent hours beforehand, scouring the internet for activities, games, interesting information, and whatever else I thought might engage the kids. When I shadowed classes before I started my work, I noticed that the majority of the classwork was sedentary. I wanted my charlas to be a reprieve for the students, so I focused on making them as active and interactive as possible. The students enjoyed the end result, but they also moved on very quickly. Oftentimes I planned for an activity to last 15 minutes and they were ready for the next part in 5. I took it as a compliment that they were so excited they wanted to keep going, but the impromptu sections were never quite as smooth as the parts for which I had considered every detail. At the end of the day, I think I am more grateful for the unplanned moments than the planned moments. These were the moments that allowed us to develop real friendships. The students were able to see me as a genuine soul who was doing her darndest. These unplanned moments left me without any pretension, and I would say that the students really got a sense of who I am. Speaking in another language can actually make expressing who you are very challenging. It was a real victory for me that these students knew my personality. If everything had always gone according to plan, I’m not sure if it would have been as easy to get to know my students. The moments I feared the most ended up being a huge asset to my integration in the high school. Plus, I am happy I gave the kids some amusement in their school day!
Kindness can be an effective method to connect with someone, no doubt about it! An equally effective method is when you recognize that kindness has taken you as far as it can and it’s time to lay down the law. As a timid, unsure, newbie volunteer, I couldn’t recognize this point until the point had tried to catch my attention, waited around, tweedled its thumbs, and finally moved on. I was filled with regrets when I looked back on these moments, and my nighttime bathing was often filled with thoughts of, “oh if only I had said that.” I was fortunate to have two Volunteers on either side of me that had already lived in the country for a year. Both of these Volunteers were much more assertive than me and both were beloved by their community. Their backbones hadn’t pushed their community members away, but had helped them gain the respect needed for them to get some real work done. Truthfully, they were one of many Volunteers that had learned how and when to be assertive. Eventually, even the most timid of Volunteers learn to stand their ground. Two years after all is a long time. One day, I finally seized my chance. Some of my coworkers that were reluctant to work with me would use my Spanish level as a way to get out of projects. They could understand me just fine in every other conversation, but once the topic became work, all I heard was how difficult it was to understand me. One day, I firmly responded that if you can understand me in every other conversation, you understand me when I am discussing work. My hands might have trembled, but my voice did not, and I could see the immediate shift in their expression. After that day, I never heard that excuse again! Whatever your weakness is, Peace Corps will expose it. As painful as that vulnerability may be, it also offers you the chance to overcome it.
I knew that baseball was popular in the DR. What I didn’t know is that basketball is the second most popular sport! Almost every town had a public basketball court (a cancha). My community did not, and they approached me and the other Volunteer in our town to see if we could build a cancha for the community. The next town over had a Volunteer who had just completed a cancha project with a program called Courts for Kids. If they could do it, we should be able to pull that off too! Right? Amongst Volunteers, the land is considered the biggest hurdle for a project with Courts for Kids. We considered ourselves lucky, as our community leaders told us that the town already had a designated spot of land for a basketball that was owned by the town hall. We sent in the application and received positive responses from Courts for Kids. However, after we submitted the application, things began to unravel. What came next was a political/legal battle over the intended plot. Both the town hall and a citizen claimed ownership of the same land. Funnily enough, they had the same lawyer that drew up each persons’ title for the land. Unfortunately, the two men were of different political parties, which made an amicable resolution even harder because we were in the middle of an election season. We held out hope, but the issue became serious enough that it went to the courts. We tried to pursue other plots of land, but to no avail. One community member even offered up his land for free. We weren’t able to capitalize on this incredibly warm gesture, as there was no road to the land and therefore no way to transport the heavy equipment we needed. Sometimes, success simply isn’t in the cards for a Peace Corps project. A Volunteer can try everything they can think of, but many aspects are outside of their control. The project was dropped, but I learned more about how to navigate complicated situations in my community.
El Dia Contra la Violencia de las Mujeres is an important day in the Dominican Republic. The holiday exists to try to shed light on the very real issue of domestic violence. Femicide, or femicidio, is a growing problem in the DR. The day is typically recognized with skits and songs on the issue. I knew that my community took femicide seriously, but I wasn’t sure if they considered that they might have a very real impact on this issue. What would happen if every community member stood up for any moment of gender discrimination? Would it ever escalate to violence? Along with the high school teachers, I created a presentation involving games and demonstrations that would help the students connect gender discrimination to gender violence. When I spoke with my Peace Corps counterpart, she told me that this was a new take on a very familiar topic for the students. I planned and prepared as much as I could for the presentation. I enjoyed a good relationship with the students, but that day I could hear students laughing at me when I presented. Normally, I acted very goofy for the kids and they joked around and teased me. Such a relationship did not lend itself well to a serious presentation. I couldn’t be mad at the kids, I after all had created the pattern of giving them a good spectacle to laugh at. Humor had helped me connect with them before, but it wasn’t doing me any favors now. I felt deflated. I considered how to change the mood of the presentation and remind these students that this was a serious topic. Women in their lives either had been or would be affected by femicide. My mood lifted, however, when I saw that some students were impacted by the presentation. A female student said, “wow” in response to one of the statistics I had students reading on the discrepancies of treatment of men and women in the DR. One student learned something new about her country, and that information made an impression! Maybe that fact would stick out to her enough to cause a shift in her perspective on gender discrimination. This one student might even cause a domino effect that could maybe shift the perspectives of her fellow students. At the end of the day, I counted this presentation as a success, because even small steps are important.
Sometimes I searched out community members to work with. Other times, people sought me out. The people that pursued working with me became my greatest allies. Oftentimes, they already had an idea for a project. The Ministry of Women was an organization that had worked with a few Volunteers and knew that Volunteers have lots of valuable time and energy that they can dedicate to projects. When I first met the woman in charge, she immediately expressed her interest and appreciation for Volunteers. Within the week, a group of Volunteers and members of the ministry of women met up to plan out a summer camp. The camp became a true blending of host country nationals’ and Volunteers’ input. We divided the camp into sections. I did the science section. I actually never thrived at science during my time in school, but Peace Corps is a time to tackle new subjects, and I decided to try my hand at chemistry. I chose chemistry because many experiments only require cheap ingredients and there is a detectable change in the experiment, making it fun for the participants. During the 8 weeks, we ate fizzing oranges, made cards with shaving cream and food coloring, made bouncing eggs, watched a black carbon snake grow, and more. The kids looked forward to my section. I felt proud that they understood the basic concepts of the science and enjoyed learning . . .although they may not have known they were learning when we did the experiments. I guess hidden lessons are the key! This success was possible because of the interest and drive of the host country nationals. The Volunteers all realized how lucky we were to find a group that wanted to do the work. This success taught me that there are always host country nationals that want to do good work for their community, and the best way to serve my community would be to support their efforts. They, after all, are the experts on their country.
Questions are a beautiful thing. If something feels off, a simple question can explain away the confusion. I often felt that my confusion and concerns were too trivial to ask about. What did that person just say? Why do the goats wear triangular wooden collars? Also, who owns the goats and how do they not lose them when there are no fences? Why are Dominicans so blasé about giant spiders but terrified of frogs? Lastly and most importantly, why is my white bathing bucket sometimes in the bathroom and sometimes not? I had no intention of interrupting my dona’s busy day to ask about something so small. This was my favorite bathing bucket, but if it was sometimes missing, there was probably a good reason and maybe that good reason was none of my business. I chose observations over questions. Instead of bothering someone, I could let the answers unfold themselves before me. What answer revealed itself this time? The truth dawned on me slowly. First, I realized that the bathroom is locked at night. I just assumed that Dominicans had superior bladder control, or hardly needed to use the bathroom. This seemed plausible, as I hardly saw them drinking water in my house. Second, I noticed that every bedroom had a bucket in it. I wasn’t sure why, but buckets are handy, so there must have been a reason. Third, there came the day that I saw that someone had relieved themself into my bathing bucket. Why would they do this? The toilet is right there. Then it clicked. The buckets in the bedrooms were chamber pots. So, one of my host brothers must sometimes use his chamber pot at night and would take it to the bathroom in the morning to rinse out . . .the very same bathroom I bathed in. My bathing bucket was one and the same with my host brother’s chamber pot. Observations are well and good, but sometimes a question is needed. Maybe you think I learned my lesson and asked if the bucket was at least washed out with soap. No, I did not. After a certain point, ignorance is bliss.
Some fragments of service
Every service encompasses a song or two