Denver Peace Corps Fellow Essay

In celebration to my admission to Denver – I would like to share with you the essay I wrote about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I could not have had a successful time without the support of my family and friends at home or my Peace Corps family of volunteers and locals. Thank you


For as long as I can remember I have been an advocate for equality and social justice, but my time in the Peace Corps exposed me to just how important it is to stand up and fight for those who are too disempowered to fight for themselves. I learned through my experience of living in Las Pajas, a marginalized community of Haitian decent set in the middle of the sugar cane, the many different faces of poverty, discrimination and marginalization. These experiences have both changed me as an individual and helped to strengthen my career goals to continue to fight for disempowered individuals and educate others on social issues that are affecting the impoverished and marginalized of our world.

Limited access to employment, health care and education were barriers to success that the people I lived and worked with faced every day of their lives. There were national laws that denied the majority of the men, women and children a birth certificate, forcing them to be stateless and denying them their basic human right to a name and a country. There were high drop out rates for boys in primary school and extremely high illiteracy rates among female community members. Boys were growing up with a lack of adult role models and girls were entering in abusive romantic relationships with men up to twice their age. Teen pregnancy was as common as bacterial infections from bad drinking water, which is to say, extremely. With so many social problems and injustice, how can one begin to help?

It is said that volunteers don’t work for the community but with the community; that volunteers live among the people and learn from them while empowering community members to address issues that they themselves have identified as a priority. During my time living in the Dominican Republic, I worked with youth and parents on a wide array of social issues through youth groups and community driven projects.  I led a number of groups focusing on gender equality for women, held community events educating mothers and their daughters on reproductive health and domestic violence. I worked with local community counterparts to construct a library and technology center and together we ran literacy classes for both adults and children. I coached sports teams and ran art classes while teaching about how to prevent the spread of HIV. I provided local youth leaders with opportunities to leave the impoverished and marginalized community and meet other like-minded youth while further developing their leadership skills. Most importantly I showed the youth that a world exists beyond the oppressive sugar cane curtain and I served as a loving and caring adult in their lives for two years and a half years. I wasn’t always successful in my projects, but I did always work with the people.

When leaving the Peace Corps, one worries about how they will describe their service to others. Volunteers struggle with explaining how even the failures were successes, because it was through such failures that we learned how to succeed. My service was filled with hardships and failures but looking back, I do not regret a single mistake. I learned how to ask for help and take the time to really get to know others and learn how to best work and live with people very different from myself. Serving in the Peace Corps was an opportunity of a life time and while I will never be sure of the impact my service had in Las Pajas, I can be sure of the impact that the people of Las Pajas made on me, and that is a positive one. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I have, will see success even in my failures, and will never give up fighting for equality and justice. 

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A year ago this month…

During my second year of service in the Peace Corps I volunteered to translate and assist for a medical mission that was performing free surgeries to the people in the Dominican Republic. They were doing everything from removing cysts and hernias to correcting clef palates on infants. It was amazing to see the dedication the doctors had to their patients. It was heartwarming to see individuals finally have an opportunity to a live life a little more comfortably. I was inspired. I knew that I wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of others; that I too, wanted to improve the quality of life of those around me. I knew the medical profession was not my path, but that I would also dedicate my life to serving others.

On my second day on the job, there were rumors that a patient had a reaction to the anesthesia. The patient was a 6-month-old Haitian girl who had come in for a clef palate reconstruction. I had checked in the baby; held her in my arms and spoke Creole with her mother. When I saw the doctor walk out of the operating room to update the mother on the status of her baby, I volunteered to translate for him. He looked at me with eyes filled with sadness and asked if I was sure. I was. I knew I would be good at the job. That I could keep the mother calm until the doctors fixed whatever the problem was and she could hold her most precious possession in the world once again. I knew I was the best one for the job. I did not know that the baby had already passed away.

I sat down with the doctor and the mother and began translating. Telling the mother that her daughter had a reaction to the anesthesia and was in critical condition. I was speaking a mix of Creole and Spanish and holding the crying mother’s hand as she searched my eyes for more answers. Will her baby live? Can she go in and see her? When we know more, you will know more, I told her.

Over the next 45 minutes, I continued to translate for the doctor. Updating the mother on the status of her baby; her condition moving from critical to grave, to “may not surivive”. I was no longer translating words, but cultures. I wasn’t there to only give the mother the most tragic news she would ever hear in her life, but was also there to support her and hold her as she cried, to understand her and make her feel comfortable. Being a poor Haitian woman living in the Dominican Republic, she had a very different life then any of the doctors who worked in the hospital. I had the ability to bridge the gap and make her feel as though she had an ally.

Then the doctor looked at me and said “Can you please tell her that her daughter has passed”, I looked at him with pleading eyes. Those are words that one hopes they never have to utter. I was 26 years old. I wasn’t a doctor. What right do I have to tell this woman that her baby, her most loved and cherished possession, had passed away? I looked at her and said the words, but she already knew by the sadness that filled my eyes. I embraced her as she sobbed and asked god for the answers that I could not give her. Why my baby?

The next few hours were a whirlwind of translating words and cultures. I found my self not only supporting the mother, hugging and holding her as she rocked her baby’s body, but also reassuring the doctors that they did all they could. I was explaining customs of the Haitian poor, of what the mother would want to do with the body and what would happen next. I was advocating for the mother with the hospital officials, who did not want to release the corps from the hospital without proper documentation. The baby was of Haitian decent but born on Dominican land, therefore, due to Dominican law, was denied a birth certificate. How, they asked me, do we write a death certificate for a human that never legally existed? Just do it, I pleaded. I knew they could, they just didn’t want to. Prejudice does strange things to people, even in times of great tragedy.

I was able to stay calm and support those around me. I, of course, was affected by the death, but also knew that I had the ability to make the proper arrangements and help everyone move forward. I was the only person who could speak fluently to everyone in the room; I was the only person who understood what grieving looked like to Americans and what grieving looked like to impoverished Haitians.

When the day was done, I was commended for my ability to handle the stressful situation. I was thanked for making the mother as comfortable as possible. It was an emotionally draining day. A day that I would rather never have experienced, but, at the same time, I am glad that I was able to be there to support that mother and those doctors during that time. I do not regret offering to translate for the doctor.

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Chicas Brillantes Continue to GLOW

Chicas Brillantes Continue to GLOW

Written by Zach Gerth

“Chicas!” 2nd year Youth Volunteer Sarita Evjen called out. A second later the thunderous reply “Brillantes!” came, voiced by over 60 girls from all over the Dominican Republic.  The call was one of countless similar calls ringing out over the grounds of Rancho Ecológico Campeche on the outskirts of San Cristobal during July’s annual Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).

2012’s Camp GLOW was the culminating event for the Chicas Brillantes program. The Chicas Brillantes curriculum uses a combination of lessons, or charlas, art activities, and sports to teach young Dominican women about values, self-esteem, healthy relationships, sexual health, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Every year there are also regional and sub-regional exchanges, along with International Women’s Day activities. The program started in the Dominican Republic in 2007 and currently has 900 active members in 70 groups nationwide. “Reaching these girls at a young age is especially important in a country where 58% births in 2011 were by mothers under the age of 18[1], where 70% of new cases of HIV/AIDS are women, 20% of women have been victims of physical abuse, and 10% have been victims of sexual abuse[2],” says Kristy Humphreys, a co-coordinator of GLOW and the PCVL (Volunteer Leader) of the Youth Families and Community Development (YFCD) sector.

Camp GLOW was inaugurated in the Dominican Republic in 2004, but the DR’s version of Camp GLOW is part of a worldwide Peace Corps network. The first Camp GLOW was held in Peace Corps/Romania in 1995 and has since expanded to other Peace Corps programs such as Armenia, Belize, Tonga, and the Ukraine. Each program focuses on addressing the unique challenges facing young women in their respective cultures.

Sara’s call and response of “Chicas-Brillantes” came on Tuesday, July 24th, a day designated with the theme “Yo Soy Sana”, or I am Healthy, before a presentation about Women’s Health. The charla focused on teaching the girls to better understand and take care of their bodies, and included discussions on everything from UTI’s to HIV prevention. The charla also featured an activity in which the girls filled up balloons with flour and a marble to simulate a breast, and learned how to self-administer a breast exam. Other activities for “Yo Soy Sana” included a presentation called “Growing Success” that focused on healthy relationships, a charla about the nature of discrimination and how it can affect an individual, as well as an activity called “Deportes Para La Vida” (Sports for Life), which uses physical activities to teach about the nature of HIV/AIDS, and methods of prevention. That evening, the girls and volunteers came back together for what has been dubbed the Condom Party, in which the girls are taught about the importance of condoms and how to properly use them. The party ended with each girl having to appropriately apply a condom to a plátano, and Chicas led group discussions and skits about the obstacles to safe sex practices in the Dominican Republic.

“Yo Soy Sana” was just one of five days of GLOW. Wednesday’s theme of the day included “Yo Soy Poderosa” (I am Powerful) which featured presentations such as Positive Thinking and Healthy Communication, and ended with a Talent Show featuring the girls’ creativity. Thursday’s was “Yo Soy Brillante” (I am Brilliant), which began with a charla about important women in history. The Professional Panel of Dominican women that followed was particularly powerful for the girls. The Panel included a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, and a food wholesaler. Tina Stavros-Braham, co-coordinator of the conference reflected on the importance of the Panel. “Many of the girls are from incredibly humble circumstances. They live in a male-dominated culture in which the pursuit of education is not emphasized and a woman’s role is often relegated to care-taker or home-maker, and so to be able to talk with these professional Dominican women who have succeeded despite facing the same hurdles as the Chicas face was incredibly powerful.” A lawyer who participated on the Panel told an anecdote about her time studying for law school. Everyone in her life had told her she couldn’t be a lawyer, that she wasn’t lawyer material. Initially she believed them and went into teaching; a job more traditionally suitable for women in the DR. Eventually she decided that she wanted to help others and felt that the best way she could help was to be a lawyer. So, despite her own misgivings she decided to proceed with law school and achieved her dream. Diane Partl, Director of Programming and Training added, “The women [of the Panel] lead very balanced lives. Mothers, professionals, community service workers. They are aware of all of their roles, and that they can manage them all instead of being just one of those things is a wonderful example for the girls.”

One major focus of the Chicas Brillantes/GLOW initiative in the Dominican Republic is to develop and foster leadership amongst the participates. To that end, the Chicas Brillantes “Comitè de Consejo” (Advisory Committee) was established during the 2011 year. The Comitè is a group of 10 young Dominican women who have graduated the Chicas Brillantes curriculum and have demonstrated exemplary maturity and leadership skills. The Comitè girls are then required to either start a Chicas Brillantes group of their own in their community, or help their PC volunteer facilitate his/her group. Selected annually through an application process, they are also included in the planning process for Camp GLOW, helped facilitate every charla given at camp, and were put in charge of running entire activities such as the Condom Party and Talent Show. Their leadership was especially important during the charlas. “A volunteer and a Comitè girl can be conveying the exact same information n,” says Humphreys, “but it carries so much more weight to the Chicas when it is a fellow Dominican youth saying it. Aside from the Comitè girls developing skills in organization, leadership, and public speaking, they are also incredible role models for the girls as young Dominican women who are strong leaders in their respective communities, independent, and intelligent, and who are proud of these qualities. It has been amazing to see their development as young women, and we hope to expand the roles of these girls in the program in the future.”

In a pre-test given to the girls at the beginning of Camp GLOW that featured questions such as, “What are some Qualities of a Healthy Relationship” and “Give an Example of a Long Term Goal,” the girls collectively scored an average of 53%. In the post-test administered on the last day of camp, the Chicas collective score jumped to an average of 78%. While the jump in score represented a major success, Chicas Brillantes and Camp GLOW, as with most other YFCD initiatives, strives to reach more than just the kids directly participating. Each initiative relies on these participants “multiplying” the information in their communities, be it through informal communication with friends and families, or by facilitating groups of their own. Aside from the progress on the GLOW test, the effectiveness of the Chicas Brillantes/GLOW initiative is evidenced by the 50 veterans of Chicas Brillantes who now independently or, in conjunction with a volunteer, facilitate a group of Chicas Brillantes in their own community. Each year more and more young Dominican women are being exposed to information about leadership, self-esteem, and healthy living practices, and with Peace Corps’ continued partnership with these incredible Chicas through programs like Chicas Brillantes and Camp GLOW, the thunderous call of “Chicas Brillantes” will continue ringing from every corner of this beautiful country.

[1] DR1 Daily News — Wednesday, 06 June 2012

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