When I started this adventure I knew it would be unpredictable. I knew it would be challenging and I knew that it would take me so far out of my comfort zone that I might never return. I knew that service is about collaboration, and about advocacy. I knew that Peace Corps used to just do for the people, but has changed its model to include the people. The hardest part might be to get the people to want to participate.
This might have to do with distrust for American government, or even distrust in their own government. It often has everything to do with how you approach your service. Do you spend your whole time devising ways to improve the life of the people based on your “American Lens”? Or do you avoid the people to avoid uncomfortable cultural misunderstandings? How you approach your service will determine what it looks like.
The very first step is to take off your American lens. This means drop your assumptions and your perceptions, which can be difficult. It helps if you research the country you are going to serve. Look for books about it, read up on the government, find videos of movies and music that are popular there and try to find some recipes or restaurants with that style of cuisine. If you can it is most beneficial to find someone who is from that area. The United States has so many immigrants from so many countries, you are bound to find someone who either is from the country or a neighboring country in the same region. Talk with them, ask them what life is like there. If you are lucky they may even explain why they left, but never ask about it. Ask about home and family life, home structures, the economy, what friendships look like. All of this can be very helpful in your service. One of the most important questions to ask is what is transportation like there? Are you going to ride donkey carts to and fro, or are you going to get packed into a little car with so many people you cannot touch the seat and a goat and chicken loose in the back? These are important question to simply set your mind to what life will be like.
The next thing you should know is that not everyone experiences the same things. Reading blogs about other people’s service can only show you what life might be like. It will never mirror your service, so be aware of this. Site envy is a real thing. If you set yourself up to compare your service or mirror it, you will be setting yourself up for failure and depression. Keep it real. You are your own person and you cannot do the things that I can do, nor can I do the things you can do. If we were all the same there would be no need for service work and the World would be very boring indeed.
Remember when you go into service you are opening yourself up to a life that is nothing like back home. People call Jamaica “Posh Corps”. Just because I have reliable electricity and services does not mean it is like living at home, it is not! Jamaica has its own set of unique issues. Every country does, otherwise they would not ask for help. Notice we do not serve in places like France or Australia! These countries have developed enough to function without help or aid workers. If you think service is one giant party, you are in for the surprise of your life. Service is about making friends in areas where friendships look nothing like the ones you have at home. It is about learning how to navigate in a culture that is often male centric and females are secondary. It is about learning when to keep your mouth shut about the things you see wrong, because the fact that the man is screaming at the woman on the street is not domestic violence that you think you see. It is about learning so much about your own prejudices that you will sometimes be ashamed of how you interpret things.
Once you get integrated into the community and culture, then and only then can you move forward in your service. Again, remember that your help looks nothing like help to you. I have held bi-weekly community meetings since mid-June. I have become so frustrated at the lack of support that I felt like my entire service would just be cultural exchange. It is these moments that you have to keep your spirits up, because one day the community rallies and forms its own association. They then take the lead at the meetings and you step back and offer suggestions only when asked for them. You see leaders emerge, and you realize this would not have happened if you had given up. This is what service looks like. This is what success feels like. If you had not been open to having a conversation and held strong in the conviction that the meetings were needed, you would never see success.
Working in the schools is by far the easiest part of my integration and service. Schools are always grateful for help when it is offered. I am currently working with two schools one day a week each. The kids are always happy to see me. The idea that I could read a book to the classes, one class at a time is pretty cool. It was a way to show case American culture yet pop an environmental message in it. If you are an Environment of Ag volunteer pick up a copy of The Lorax, the movie and the book. It will be a great way to share culture but also drive home some messages about trees and their importance. Be open to the fact that the kids will start in their seats, but as the story progresses they will suddenly be in your bubble. And if you are lucky, an amazing thing happens and they end up reading the last few pages aloud to you. So now you have hit a triple play, you have shared a cultural aspect, hit on some environmental issues, and seen some literacy points take off.
It is often thought of that a good service will bring grants to the community to build up much-needed aspects of it. Although this is true, something else is brought to the table. Your ingenuity to get things done without much funding is going to serve you well. I saw a need for books in the library of one school and the other school wanted some books for classrooms. Boys tend to not read as well or much as girls. I remember this issue with my son. I remember giving him comic books to read. It helped some and he at least opened up books and read words. Here in Jamaica I have not seen actual comic books. So I had an amazing idea. I posted to my Facebook that You guys can help make a difference here, )because believe it or not many of your friends want to make a difference but have no idea how they can help) I asked them to purchase and send me a few comic books for the classrooms. The response was amazing and I now have several people shipping me a few comic books here and there. It doesn’t cost much, unless they are super excited and want to ship a whole box of them, Thanks Tammy! Remember sending to schools through media shipping will be cheaper and if you are Peace Corps it should go through customs without a hitch. I am giddy with anticipation for some of these packages to start arriving.
This week was our Project and Design Management conference. We all met up in Mandeville and took a counterpart if we could. Most of us did have one, a few had theirs back out at the last-minute for whatever reason. We went through the process of designing a mock-project, that could actually work into a real project. The purpose of this is to see the issues with projects we thought we wanted. I know that I will be reworking my proposal several times before I am convinced it is the right project. We also met with several grant-donating organizations. I am so excited about 5-6 potential projects and funding that might be available. It was great to have our counter-parts be there to see exactly who in their country offers what assistance. It opened many doors.
I also want to point out that you as a service worker can find sources of supplies and funding that are not so visible. As long as you, the volunteer are not asking for money, you can crowd source many things. I have found places that will donate books as long as I pay for the shipping. I will have to write a small grant for this, other places will donate and ship at their own costs. It just takes the determination to look into it and start writing emails or phone calls asking about the process and how to get access to the help they provide.
I am looking forward to my next year and a half of service! I am currently working on an adult literacy program and I hope to encourage the community to embrace it and start helping their neighbors be better citizens and have more opportunities! It is an amazing World we live in, and it just takes dropping your expectations and your presumptions to find out just how amazing the place you live in is!