We have been Peace Corps Volunteers now for almost 2 years, in our small community in Talamanca. I have worked on a number of things, but the projects I am always the most “proud” of and that make me feel like I am learning as much as community members I am with, involve local youth.
Within about a week of being in our community, Stephen and I were teaching English classes (we started with one student, at her kitchen table…and we hadn’t planned on teaching English before then). We did know English was (is) a huge community need, though, so thought we’d give it a shot. Almost 2 years later we have the most loyal English classes (3 nights a week…so much for not teaching English!) on the planet. A handful of these students started in the very first class we had (about a month into site we expanded from the kitchen table to a backyard to have more room), and have been with us ever since (now we teach in the front room of a student’s house/pulperia).
When Stephen and I started a co-ed Chic@s Poderos@s group, we looked to the group of kids in our more advanced English class. These kids are mostly 11-12 years old. We figured we had been working with them for such a long time, and, even though we hadn’t been directly teaching them about things like values, drug prevention, machismo, family violence, and so on, we had indirectly been teaching them about ALL of these things, as well as providing a “model” of sorts of a mostly normal, well adjusted, pareja (couple). And we thought it’d be nice to have a place to more directly talk about these, and other, super important issues. And our kids had built trust in us. Most of our kids joined and came to almost every class (which we are most likely continuing in the coming school year).
These kids are special in so many ways. They come to these classes and programs AFTER going to classes at school, which they HAVE to go to, during the day. They take notes in their notebooks, and show up with energy and enthusiasm to learn (not all of the time, of course, as this would be strange). But the point is they come, week after week, in the evening, to learn with us, teach us (I attribute a lot of my Spanish learning to them, as they aren’t shy about correcting us), share and laugh with us. We already know this group will be the hardest to say goodbye to. BUT, we do have about 5 months left, so, although we’ve started the process of reminding kids of our upcoming departure, we still have time left for doing major appreciations and all of that, right? We don’t have to think about all of that right now?
We had our last Chic@s Poderos@s (youth empowerment) class of this school year about a week ago. After doing skits at the end of the class (which was focused around family violence), the kids all ran up to us and said they wanted to do one more skit, but with ALL of them in it. We said that would be great, figuring it would be another skit about family violence. Wrong. The kids came back to us a few minutes later and proceeded to do a skit about Stephen and myself and our Peace Corps service. Two kids played “Stephen and Melinda,” while the others played themselves as our students. They proceeded to show, through their dramatization, their appreciation of and respect for our work with them…. including challenges we have faced as a group, and how we have worked through them and grown from them. I am surprised I held it together (meaning didn’t actually cry), although I was on the verge for sure. After their dramatization, they talked about how they appreciate the fact that we came here from another country of our own free will and work every day to help try to make their lives better, regardless of the challenges and struggles, and that we don’t give up on them. I was (and still am) incredibly moved by this. Stephen and I didn’t say much after they spoke (couldn’t in some ways, because we were choked up), but just thanked them and shared our appreciations of their time, commitment, respect, and sharing as well (especially since, they, like us, are volunteering to be part of our activities).
This morning Stephen and I attended graduation at our elementary school (our first one, as, at this point last year we hadn’t worked nearly as much with the school). We were excited and emotional, as many kids we work with were graduating, and one of them was not only graduating, but also moving to San José in a week. Shortly after the kids took their seats at the front of the room, they asked for the Junta de Educación to walk to the front of the room, with the “special invitados (invitees).” The directora then beckoned Stephen and myself (with a smile) and said that we were the special invitees. Stephen and I turned towards each other with shock, as we had no idea we’d be part of the ceremony in any way. Not only were we introduced to the whole school and community attendees as “special invitees,” but we were asked to help hand out diplomas, and were 2 of only about a few people seated in front of the room next to the Directora. She gave a speech in which she talked, at length, about Stephen’s and my work in the community, the fact that we are living far from home in a foreign country and culture, volunteering to help others, and how we are examples/role models for not only the children but for other community members as well. She mentioned our projects, but mostly talked about the caring with which we work with the kids and other community members, and how it has been a blessing for the community and school to have us living and working with and among them. Stephen and I were speechless, especially since this was followed by the president of the Junta de Educación, who also highlighted our work in the community at length. Stephen and I were then expected to speak (but of course we didn’t have anything prepared, as we were not expecting to be part of the program). This, however, was really great. I found that, maybe due to the recognition, or the emotion surrounding the event, or I’m not sure what, I spoke more confidently and fluidly than usual in front of a TON of people (not my favorite thing normally); I shared our enormous appreciation of the teachers and parents (who really do most of the work), the Directora and the Junta President, and everyone involved in the education, growth and development of these young people. I spoke about how we have been able to work in our community because of working WITH the children and other community members, and how nothing we’ve done would have been accomplished without their collaboration and support.
All in all it was incredible. The night with the kids, seeing them share their appreciation, the school today expressing their appreciation (especially the Directora, who, although a super tough cookie at first, over time has grown to be one of the warmest people in the community with Stephen and myself).
I am generally very content and satisfied with the work we do with kids and other community members, but receiving community recognition and support in such a public, warm and loving way… I will never forget it, or our community. Despite the Peace Corps being one of the most emotionally and otherwise challenging experiences I’ve ever had, it has been, and will continue to be, one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done, and I’m glad I have been patient enough to truly discover and appreciate that.