My most rewarding moment so far during my Peace Corps service took place during the Mid South Sub Regional conference which I coordinated this past weekend. It was only a one night camp/conference, but had its fair share of adversity throughout the planning process. Since most of the conferences I have been to have all taken place in Rancho Campeche, I thought it would be nice to have a change of scenery and began looking for a different venue. Nina, the project partner of the previous volunteer in my community, gave me the name and approximate location of the center she had been to a few years back as part of a Peace Corps conference. Since the phone number she had for the center didn’t seem to be in service, I headed out to the center and was satisfied with the facilities. I met the security guard/groundskeeper, Ortiz, who is actually a police officer but apparently assigned to protect the facility.
One thing which I have come to like about Dominican culture is that people often treat strangers as friends. Walking to the gym, there is a man, who I’ve never formally met, that sells fruit and often gifts me bananas or star fruit as I walk by. Another example of this is the type of information and frequency with which it is immediately shared with strangers. Strangers are expected to saludar (greet) one another upon entering public transportation as well as upon passing on the street (not so much in the city as in smaller towns). I usually make a habit of waving and greeting my neighbors as I walk by, but have occasionally been called out by strangers who I’ve never seen before, because I walked by without saying hi. Upon entering a guagua, strangers often strike up both heated and comical conversations on any topic as if they’ve known the other passengers their whole lives. I’ve met a few people in my community who have introduced themselves to me by telling me their name, state they were living in, number of children they have in the U.S., their history as a drug dealer, years served in prison, and how that led to their deportation, “Ah ok, nice to meet you, I’m Daniel”, I would reply.
Now that you have some of that background information, Ortiz’s introduction to me included his salary discrepancies with both the police (he gets paid $7,000 pesos or $180USD once a month) and the owners of the center as well as his wife’s health problems which are racking up medical bills they can’t afford. No doubt, I’m sure part of his intention in telling me his story was that he hoped I would reach into my American pocket and hand over a wad of pesos to alleviate his problems, but nonetheless he was an overall nice guy, pleasant to talk to and helpful in showing me around the grounds and putting me in contact with the owners. Thanks to his help, I was able to reserve our spot at the center. A few weeks later, after our deadline had passed to submit our grants which included our budgets and quotes from the centers we would be using, my boss asked me in passing how the process was going. When she heard which center I had chose she informed me the Peace Corps no longer does business with that venue and we would have to change locations. Scrambling to find another center, while simultaneously hosting my visiting family was a challenge, but led to our returning to Rancho Campeche which was a blessing in disguise.
As we had 8 volunteers and 4 Committee Members (older chicas who run their own groups in their respective communities, essentially functioning as young, Dominican PCV’s) we budgeted for 48 people to attend the camp. However, as our region had a plethora of volunteers, one switched regions and four others dropped out for various reasons, including one the night before. Knowing I had plenty of chicas who would be great to bring to the camp, and that the Comite girls would bring their entire groups if I let them, between us we made up for a good portion of the empty spots. Even though we were highly outnumbered by the chicas, most events I’ve been to have had 1 volunteer for every 2 chicas and we had 30 girls to 3 volunteers, the maturity and experience of the comite members made all the difference and allowed for the camp to run smoothly, despite small set backs such as our t-shirts for our wiki wiki (aka tie dye) activity not being ordered – we rolled with the punches and tie dyed our camp t-shirts which due to another error were white instead of the light purple our PCVL Kristy had requested. So it all worked out in the end. Also, I received a call a day before the camp from Rancho Campeche asking me when we were arriving, as there was a further miscommunication between the PC office and them, where the office called and changed the date I had reserved (which was given to me by the office) without informing me of the date change. Rancho Campeche was very understanding and allowed us to still come on the day of our original reservation, although it was a hassle to them as they had all arrived to work to prepare food for us.
The hectic planning and spot filling aside, the camp itself was a success. I was able to bring 8 girls from my community, which was in itself a challenge, but led to girls from the rival communities of Arenoso and El Caliche to form new friendships which I’m hopeful will solidify our group from here on out. As we left our community, I felt like a father as I fired back at the full time tigueres, part time motoconchistas and told them to drive slowly for the girls who were nervous riding motos. Nonetheless, moments later it felt as though we were in Mario Kart as the 5 motos carrying the 9 of us and our luggage whipped in and out of traffic and around each other on our way to the highway where we would catch a bus to take us to my favorite motorcycle ride of the country (through a sugar cane field then up the side of a mountain which overlooks the pueblo of Yaguate). As the 9 of us climbed on to the guagua and I counted the girls, I briefly wondered what had I gotten them into, as one tiguere in the cocina (back of the bus) started to hit on one of my girls and the girl in the front of the bus, closest to me sat next to an old man drinking Brugal rum straight out of the bottle at 9:30am. Be that as it may, we arrived safely and timely, with the girls taking in the new surroundings and loving every minute of the trip.
At the camp, I was incredibly impressed by the maturity and confidence of the youngest girls who were the best behaved and most appreciative children I have yet to meet. We made mailboxes for the girls to write each other positive notes, thus raising their self esteems. I wrote generic notes to all the girls but wanted to write specific ones to the girls I brought as well as Yisel, one of the younger girls who made a point of telling me she had written me a note and put it in my mailbox. Shortly after I wrote Yisel a little note, she came and found me, very formally and graciously thanking me for my note – not the typical behavior from 8 to 9 year olds I’ve dealt with thus far let alone most teenagers or adults! The notes themselves were really special to me as the girls seemed very appreciative of all the work that went into the camp and very pleased with the outcome, only complaining about the mosquitoes and the fact that the camp was only one night long.
Some of my favorite notes:
Daniel, Thank you for allowing me to participate in this event. I hope that our group lasts forever, and with this energy that you have given us. Don’t change and let God reward you for your efforts.
Hola Daniel, I am writing to tell you that you are a very special person, cool and friendly, thank you for allowing me to be here. I like your style and the way you treat other people.
“Thank You” for the opportunity to be part of this chicas brillantes event. It was very nice and charming. I liked everything we did during the day, the ice breakers and the themes were very special for me. Thanks for your care and for all of your help. You are very funny, I hope we do this camp again. May God bless you always!
Hola, First, thanks for the opportunity to participate with you all, for all of the knowledge and I hope that we do this camp again. May God bless you, you are super special!
It is always inspiring to see and hear from so many young leaders and to be able to give them the opportunity to learn and divertirse away from their communities in a camp atmosphere different from any other most of them have ever experienced. The little laughs – such as the frog in the bed, or all the younger girls who were away from home for the first time pushing all their bunk beds together to make a big bed for all of them – were the icing on the cake and the gracious notes definitely made my day!
To give an idea of what we actually do at the camps, here is a run down of our agenda:
11:30am – 1pm Arrival, registration, lunch
1pm-1:30pm Welcome, Camp Rules, Introductions, Run Down of the Day’s Schedule
1:30pm-2:30pm Community Introductions, Bingo
2:30pm-3:30pm Women’s Health
3:30pm-4pm Snack Time
4pm-5pm Teamwork and Healthy Communication Activity Stations:
a) Drawing with a partner sharing the same pencil
b) The human knot
c) Group lifting of a glass of water (with strings attached to a piece of cardboard which the glass was placed upon)
5pm-6pm Friendship bracelets
6pm-7pm Free time / Swimming in the Pool
8pm-9pm Tie Dye
9pm-9:30pm Sweet and Salty – Reflection Time
9:30pm-10pm Preparing for Bed
10pm Lights Out!
8:15am-8:45am Dinamicas (ice breaker games) and Reviewing the Day’s Schedule
8:45am-9:45am Developing Leadership Skills
9:45am-10:15am Snack Time
10:15am-11am Breaking up by Community to Plan an Event/Activity
11am-11:45am Certificates and Closing Activities
11:45am-12pm Packing/Organizing Luggage
12pm-1pm Lunch and Send-Off