Well, when I said in the last post that I’d be able to post more frequently, I actually meant that I was going to let more than a month go by without updating. Oops. What can I say, I’ve been busy. So let’s start with what I’m actually down here to do – work.
The 27-month service of every Peace Corps volunteer (no matter the country) is broken up into a cycle as follows:
First three months – Pre-service training; this part has come and gone for me.
Months three to six – Community diagnostic; I am currently in the throws of this period and will explain what it means in a bit.
Months six to 12 – First year of service; this is where we more or less plan and carry out (more planning, less carrying out I’m told) our primary and secondary projects.
Months 12 to 24 – Second year of service; this is where we take a look at how our projects have progressed, revise and make changes if necessary (almost always necessary).
Last three months – End of service; we finish up our projects, tie up loose ends, say our goodbyes and hit the road.
So I’m currently in my first three months of service here in El Seibo (if you look at the little map on the right, it’s close to Higuey), which are typically reserved for carrying out a community diagnostic. Basically, this means getting to know the community: its needs, its leaders, its geography, and its people. We have to conduct surveys and interviews to figure out what the people want and what they need, and figure out ways to meet those needs. The diagnostic also means just hanging out, getting to know people, and sharing in the culture. As it’s happened, I’ve put the more formal diagnostic process on the backburner for the first month or so. I’ve been hanging out and getting to know some really cool families, teaching classes already at my community center, as well as tutoring some of my neighbor kids English. It’s not required of us or even really encouraged that we ICT Education volunteers immediately jump into teaching right away, but my coworkers asked me to and I said yes. I figured it would help me with my Spanish, give me some much needed experience and confidence with actual teaching, and keep me from being bored. Missions accomplished (I think, anyway).
It started my first or second week when a group of jóvenes, or young people, from the campo was brought into my community center for an impromptu month-long computer class in the afternoons. Then the regular classes were left without a teacher, so the encargada, or manager, asked me if I would fill in for the teacher’s classes while he taught this new group. It was my very first month, I had no real teaching experience, and my Spanish level was (and still is) pretty abysmal, and all of my insides screamed at me to say no. But I forced out a “Sí, yo puedo” (Sure I can) and the next week I started teaching three classes: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint, and a basic computer class.
A little bit about my community center. It’s called a Centro Tecnológico Comunitario (CTC) and there around 60 or so of them around the country. Five of my fellow ICT volunteers were also assigned to work at CTC’s in different parts of the country. The CTC’s are a part of an initiative of the Despacho de la Primera Dama (Office of the First Lady) of the DR to bring technology and ICT-related services to people who don’t have access to them otherwise. This is only one of several of the primera dama’s initiatives to help impoverished Dominicans; my host mother works for another program in the community that provides a host of other random services. Anyway, the first lady’s office funds the CTC’s and all of the services are free. The building itself is very colorful (pictures below) with a big gazebo out front for community gatherings and meetings, a moderately manicured lawn, a playground, a lobby, an administrative office, a radio station, a small library, a small daycare, and three rooms that each house ten computers. One of these rooms serves more or less like an Internet café where people (mostly kids) come in, sign their names, and can use the Internet for an alotted period of time. But trust me, it’s not at all as organized as it sounds. Another computer room is the actual classroom where there are at least four classes during the day (two in the morning, two in the afternoon) and it’s where I teach. It can be problematic though because it’s very small, only allows for ten students, and is hard to walk through if I need to help them individually at their computers (which is honestly about every three minutes). The last room houses the P.O.E.T.A. program, which provides classes for mentally or physically challenged people on how to use computers and software with specialized equipment. It’s very cool and ours is one of the only CTC’s that does it. But lately it’s being used as an alternative regular classroom to teach the group from the campo. My CTC has about eight or so employees altogether. There are the two facilitators: Wanda, who teaches the regular morning classes, and Esnaire, who teaches the regular afternoon classes. Then there is Carolina, who is also a teacher at the high school and isn’t around as much but teaches in the P.O.E.T.A. room. The encargada, Jenoris, is the administrator and keeps track of the students in each class and reports the numbers to the main office. Cesarin is the encargado of the radio station but only comes by a few times a week to make sure things are running smoothly. Ruth is newer than me and acts as the librarian and has a group of kids each day working on art projects and reading books. William is the groundskeeper and the one who opens and closes the gate and the building each day. Then there are the ladies who work in the day care but I rarely interact with them or the pre-school aged children that infest that side of the building.
It all seems great and wonderful but there are a slew of problems with the CTC and the teaching methods and how it’s organized but I’ll save all that fun and happy stuff for another post. Let me now briefly explain the true horror that is felt when you enter a classroom of kids aged anywhere from seven to 19 that you can’t really understand and can’t really understand you and have barely even touched a computer before in their lives and have grown up with an education system that does almost nothing substantial to facilitate actual learning. Your first instinct is to run like hell. You’re sweating more than usual, which means you look like you just got out of a pool with all your clothes on. You stutter and slur and forget all of the Spanish you’ve been taught in an instant. But you take a deep breath and “fake it ‘til you make it,” which is a slogan that my technical trainer taught us during CBT. Thanks, Peace Corps.
My Word and Powerpoint classes weren’t so bad since most of the students already had some experience with computers. But my basic computer class was and still is a challenge. The first class consisted of teaching them the correct way to turn a computer off and on and we practiced several times before they got it right. Then we learned all the different parts of the computer and what they were used for and about different types of computers. It took a while but my reward finally came a few classes in when I asked them to repeat these things back to me and they did so flawlessly with big grins. Then a few classes later they got so excited when they learned how to type their names. Now we’re learning the wonderful world of WordArt and Paint and they’re getting bored! It’s definitely been a lot of work and frustrating at times but also a lot of fun.
But now that I’m down to the last of my first three months, it’s time to get to work on my diagnostic. I’m handing out short surveys to the kids in the classes and any visitors that I happen to catch and are willing to fill out a survey (which are few) so that I can get a feel of what other classes they’d like offered, what they like and don’t like about the CTC, and a few other stuff related to the radio station. Next I’m going to try to survey kids at the local high school, which has a much larger pool of jóvenes, and see what they’re interested in. Then I have to go around town and interview families about the needs of the community. Hopefully Wanda, one of the facilitators, will accompany me for this. She’s the one that’s been helping me with my survey questions. It’s definitely going to be another busy month.
Let’s move on lastly to some fun stuff. Every once in a while Peace Corps DR lets us volunteers take a couple days of R&R without counting it as vacation days. So a few weekends ago I met up with a few of my fellow March arrivals as well as some older volunteers in the capital to have fun and relieve some stress. We ate lunch and swam at the pool at the American embassy (which awesomely lets Peace Corps volunteers in during the day), spent lots of time drooling over free wi-fi at the office, saw Prince of Persia in English with Spanish subtitles at a movie theatre (two thumbs way down, by the way), hung out and danced at a colmado in the Colonial Zone, and revisited the swanky bar where we had our Peace Corps prom. It was a great weekend. And of course this last weekend was the 4th of July. It’s Peace Corps tradition for volunteers to meet up at some really awesome place and just chill out (or go a little crazy). So I met up with about 16 or so volunteers from my group in the capital (where I got my first package – thanks, Briget!!!) and we all hopped on a guagua to a town called Paraíso (Paradise) in the southwestern part of the country. (But this is no easy feat – from my site to Paraíso in total is about six and a half hours.) It’s our friend Clayton’s site and his project is to develop this little local resort on the beach as part of an eco-tourism program. Yeah, he’s got a tough life. Anyway, we met up with around 20 or so more of our March group there and had an incredible weekend. The place is beautiful, though the beach we were on was rocky and had huge pounding waves caused by the distant tropical storms. But we had a pool and slept in tents under little thatch-roofed huts and took advantage of cheap drinks at the bar. On the actual 4th we all traveled about ten minutes south to another one of our friends’ sites where there is a lazy river that you can float on in an innertube that flows right into the ocean. There we ate fried fish and tostones and had a few Presidente’s (the most popular brand of Dominican beer). Then that night we had a campfire and roasted hot dogs and smores. It started raining shortly after that, so we headed to the bar/main dance area, broke out our iPods, and pretty much had a dance marathon. I was a complete and total hot mess. Despite a moderate digestional incident on the way back (which I will not expound upon here but I’ll gladly tell you about if you ask me), it was a really great weekend and it was awesome to catch up with my fellow March arrivals who I hadn’t spoken to since we parted ways almost two months ago.
Well what a trooper you are if you’ve made it this far. I’ll keep the goodbye short and sweet. I’ve learned now not to make any promises about my next post, but it’ll come at some point. Hope everyone’s doing great and keeping cool. Hasta luego!