Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sacrifice, Strength


 There are days I wonder how much I’ve actually sacrificed. True, I haven’t seen family and friends back in America for over a year and a half. I’ve left behind many modern conveniences such as a gym, a pool, a grocery store, driving. However, I’m still living comfortably enough. I’m eating well, I have my own place, I love my work. I’ve made new friends and have faced challenges that have made me realize how trivial many of my complaints before my service were. I have a good life right now.

However, I’ve been reminded of that sacrifice. I sent an email to my Aunt telling her goodbye. She’s been fighting cancer for years, and the news from home is that we’re to the point of counting days. I’m thankful I live in an age where email exists, where I can communicate back and forth with my family because I know 51 years ago when Peace Corps started they wouldn’t have heard the bad news until weeks after. Still, it’s closing in on a year and half in the Philippines and some of those days I could have spent with my Aunt. Some of those days I could have spent with my two best friends from college, both of whom have recently been married. There are things I wish I had been able to do back in America, but couldn’t.


It’s times like these that force me to weigh the value of my service compared to what I’ve given up. Although I cannot undo the choices I have made, I can still look back and ask myself if I would have made the same choice knowing what I do now, because I know there will be similar choices in future, some of them very soon. And my answer is yes, I’m still glad that I joined the Peace Corps, because my loved ones at home understand why I’m doing this, and although I can’t be as close as I want to be to them, I can still drop a note from time to time. That, and there are people here in the Philippines who I can make a difference for as well.

Mustaches and Moments

Last October my Batch had its Mid-Servie Training (MST), a chance to commemorate being halfway done with service, to reassess our current state at our respective sites, and as it’s last time we’ll see each other as a whole group until our Closing of Service next year. We all have our highs and lows, and at MST there were as many different perspectives and opinions about service as they were volunteers. What we did share in common was a love for the food, and that it was a chance to breathe.

I had a great time personally, and the highlight of our week was the time honored tradition of “Stash Bash”. The men grew out their facial hair, and we had a fun competition. I learned several important life lessons. First, I can actually grow a decent beard. It took about four weeks until it filled in well, but I was happy with the results. I did have to stand strong against peer pressure though. My community loved or hated it along gender lines with the men in favor and the women against (and my office is almost all women). I also learned that a glue stick is “more gluey” than a bottle of glue. When trying to curl my mustache for the competition I tried the bottle of Elmer’s glue to limited success, but upon the advice of another volunteer used the glue stick which worked perfectly.

Yes, I’m perfectly aware of how classy I am.

This is my first (successful) beard. Then again, last time I tried was six years ago.

And here is me for the Stache Bash!
Me and two other classy gents.

The Project

As I talked about before, my main project right now is coordinating a comprehensive series of changes to help the out of school youth have more opportunities in life, to be able to have more control over their own destiny. Suffice to say this isn’t an easy project, but after talking to dozens of people in the community, I have a starting outline as follows.
ORGANIZATION AND REPRESENTATION: At the very heart of this project is to get a group organized of out of school youth leaders. This is a group without any core to it, without a strong voice in the community, and setting up a youth group for them is going to be vital to their future.

LIFE SKILLS TRAINING: Self confidence, self expression, communication, maturity, hope. These are but a few things which most of the out of school youth don’t have. There’s a lot of different ways to impart these values and skills on the youth, and it’ll probably take most of them from camps, to regular activities, to getting them involved in the other facets of the project.

TECHNICAL SKILLS TRAINING: It’s difficult for a school dropout to get a decent job, especially in a rural town where jobs are scarce. The first challenge is going to be to determine what jobs can actually translate into getting the youth working, and then to find people who can assist with the training.

HEALTH: Drug use, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, and a lack of family planning are all contributors to out of school youth, and making their situation worse. In regards to family planning, poor families can easily have as many as ten or fifteen children whom they cannot support, forcing the children to stay at home and work.

EDUCATION: There is an Alternative Learning System created for out of school youth, however it doesn’t have enough teachers for the population. Part of our efforts need to be reintegrating what youth we can  

Back into school, and trying to take preventative measures for current students.

COUNSELING: Many of these youth come from broken families. Some have suffered abuse. For some of the youth to deal with their current situation and their past, we need to find better ways to connect them to the professional counseling the LGU provides.

SUSTAINABLE FINANCING: Some of the youth will need to be self employed. The organization for out of school youth will need to be active. They need working capital for both. As I said before, we cannot train the youth to be tailors if they cannot afford the cloth or fabric. We cannot give them better farming techniques if they cannot afford the equipment and land. My first approach will to be to search for sources of income within the Philippines to promote the sustainable part of it.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: For every adult that helps volunteer, for every group that assists with the project, that many more people become invested in the future of these youth. The more people who take action, the stronger the project will be.

OUTREACH: If this project is successful, it can be duplicated. I will try to keep extensive notes as I go along, and am already connected to the Provincial and Regional focal person for youth.
Although I’ve putting it all in my own words, and organized it as best I saw fit, everything I just listed has come from more than one person in the community. These are their ideas, which is why this project has a shot of working. It’ll take slow, gradual work, and it’ll take the commitment of a lot of Filipinos. As time goes on things will likely be tweaked and changed as find out more.

I spoke before about similar choices to joining the Peace Corps itself are coming up sooner than later. Although I still have some months left, I have to think about whether I want to extend my service or not. The project with the out of school youth is not going to be finished in 10 months. I feel in many ways like I’ve just gotten started. Besides, I think I have adjusted enough to where I feel I could stay for longer if things work out.
However I am trying to keep my options open. I still am taking the Foreign Service Officer’s Test this February. I just created a LinkedIn account in case someone browses my profile and say “I need to give that a man a six-figure-salary!” (that’s how LinkinIn works, right?) One of my goals is to have a job ready for me when I return to the states. My student loans will be taken off deferment, and I don’t want to be kicking myself in the foot knowing that there’s a lot I can do to look for work over the coming months, whether I extend or not. Recently our Volunteer Leader (a volunteer who extends a full year and takes on some staff duties on top of being a volunteer) strongly suggested that a Masters is important for a lot careers. I really don’t want two more years in a classroom, and I really don’t want to have to have more student loans, but I have to respect the advice and consider it.

So… when tragedy strikes, or days bog me down, how do I handle it? Well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I need the extra day off, sometimes I need to step away and focus on other things until I get my head wrapped around it, whether it’s dealing with sad news, or figuring out how I’m going to get things moving at my site with the limited experience I have. It’s only a temporary solution though.

I’m almost certain I’ve talked about how I try to read (not doing so well on that right now), exercise (doing a bit better with this one), drinking hot tea or cocoa (now this one I’m on top of). However, I think the thing that encourages me the most is learning new things. I joke with people that I only started to appreciate learning my last semester of college as I realized for the first time that I wouldn’t have people telling me what I’m supposed to learn any more, that I had freedom to decide what was important to know, and that there was still a lot left out there to find out. Here’s a video I stumbled upon the other day about the golden ratio.

My aim is to try to have a blog post once a month, though once every month and a half or two months might be more realistic. Next month I have the second annual leadership summit. I’ll be using it as a stepping stone for the project with the out of school youth, as I’m hoping over half of the participants this year will be made up by them. I also am going to go back to America for two weeks around Christmas time. I’m anxious to see how things have changed, and to see how my perspective has changed after being gone for so long.

‘Til next time.

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