As those who know me know, I love to stay busy. For example, my last semester at Saint Vincent College I had a full course load of 19 credits, an internship with Clelian Heights School for exceptional children, a part-time job with the admissions department, was President of Women in Business, and a member of a handful of other clubs and organizations. I always had something to do and I loved it.
Fast forward a few months to my arrival in my site in Panamá, and you could probably understand how I would feel completely underwhelmed and stressed out that there didn’t seem like there was that much to do. Don’t misunderstand- my community is very poor and does have some hardworking people in it, but in order for my work to be sustainable I have to work hombro a hombro as they say- shoulder to shoulder.
The first few months my job was literally just to visit neighbors and community members and get to know them. Those first 3 months were the hardest months of my entire life. In addition to the challenges of just living life as a Peace Corps volunteer, I woke up almost every morning with nothing on my agenda. It may sound great if you’re reading this after a long day at the office, but I promise you, it gets old really fast.
So, I did the only thing I could do and started laying the tracks for as many relevant and achievable projects I could think on. Poco a poco (another Panamá saying meaning little by little) things have finally started to come together and I find myself constantly busy both in and out of my site. I doubt there will ever be another time in my life that I will be this excited to be overwhelmed by work.
Overwhelming, but in a good sense, is exactly how I would describe it. At the moment I’m finishing up with a leadership seminar, organizing a community-wide eco-stove project and beginning to write a grant to fund it, planning an agribusiness seminar series in my town, preparing to train the incoming group in June, was just selected to serve as the Treasurer for a national gender and development group, am running a women’s baking and business group, teaching English in the local elementary school, helping some neighbors with their chicken project, helping lots of neighbors with their cacao farms, working with an artisan group in the neighboring town, and also just got selected to serve as a National Agribusiness Coordinator and Trainer. Whew!
Obviously I can’t write about all of that in one blog, so here are some highlights:
After my dad’s visit in January, I took two high school girls from my community to a National Gender and Development Youth Seminar in Veraguas where I also served as facilitator. For almost every one of the participants, this was the first time they had left their families overnight, and some of them were even the first in their family to ever leave their own region! During the week we talked about self-confidence, values, life and career goals, and personal health. To see the kids not only learn such important topics, but also to break out of their shells and befriend people different then them was one of the most memorable things I’ve done in Panamá to date.
Another activity I really love is working with our new baking and business group. Every week or two, we get together to make something sweet and delicious and while it’s baking over the fire, we analyze costs, potential profits, and how and when they could produce these items to sell. We’ve only done a few classes, but it’s really promising! Many women spend all day, everyday, in their own homes, so they’ve loved getting out and doing something, and I’m loving testing each product.
I may know a lot about baking, but I still have a lot to learn about cacao. To help bring us up to speed, Peace Corps sent some other volunteers and I to a week-long cacao training at the end of February (in the midst of parasites round 2….) We spent the week both in the fields and in the kitchen; it was educational and quite tasty!
Peace Corps also sent us to a Ngäbere Language training, where we spent the week learning the local languages and living with the locals in a Peace Corps site in the mountains of Veraguas. It’s always hard to leave your personal house and live with a really, really poor family, but it’s also always an incredible learning experience.
Lastly, I really love all of the business work I’ve been able to do! It’s very small scale business- things like educating families on why they should make a budget or telling store owners that yes, they should have records of purchases and sales, but it’s been great. This year, I’ll be a National Agribusiness Coordinator, which means that I’ll be traveling the country to train other volunteers and work with communities on basic business practices, and I also got to help lead a regional agribusiness seminar in Bocas. Though I had done informal business training, this was my first seminar. We talked about group organization, basic finance, marketing and business development, and legal issues that they may encounter. One of the highlights of the week? An older woman who got the biggest grin after learning how to use a calculator. Now she can't wait to go home and teach her friends, and that is exactly why I love my job!