Voices from the Field: Bridging Theory and Practice in International Development, Tues 11/5, 5-6:30pm
Every summer, graduate students from NYU Wagner find exciting opportunities to travel abroad and engage in international public service, research and project management. This past summer, four MPA/MUP students from Wagner traveled to Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala and Zambia. As IPSA Summer Fellows, they have been sharing their experiences online through monthly updates and multimedia on this blog.
Tori Chan, World Vision International, Ghana
Kaysey Grard, Ninos de Guatemalan, Guatemala
Naome Jeanty, The Littlest Lamb, Egypt
Ben Nemeth, BioCarbon Partners Trust, Zambia
On Tuesday, November 5, 2013 from 5-6:30pm, IPSA will be showcasing their stories as a part of our fall Voices from the Field Series, a multimedia presentation and panel discussion on working abroad and bridging theory and practice in international development. In addition to the summer fellows panel, four NYU Wagner alumni will share from their professional experiences. Voices from the Field is an opportunity to learn about international development projects across the world, gain insight on landing an international, paid summer internship, and interact with fellow students on the realities of international public service.
RSVP here: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events
It is taking me a long time for me to fully digest what I experienced this summer while in Egypt. So many things changed for me in terms of how I see myself, how I see the world, and how I think I am perceived. Everyday I unearth something else that has changed about me as a result of this trip. Some big some small.
With regard to the field of public service, one of the many things I learned was that even those who are advocates for change can perpetuate the very problems they are trying to combat. This was something I saw in every home I visited in Cairo. Many of the individuals who were passionate about providing opportunities to the children would reinforce the stigma attached to being an orphan in Egypt. Personally, I have experienced a lot of growth. It was exhilarating to be in Tahrir Square this summer. Being there surrounded by women fighting for what they believe in, during such a pivotal time in Egypt’s history was truly uplifting. I was faced with sexism many times while in Egypt, and that experience gave me hope. Additionally, I am extremely wary and more scrutinous of the media. All media outlets. This is because of the severity of the discrepancy between what was being reported and what was really happening.
As for the small things there were many, some of which I am only noticing now. First, I will never again eat falafel in NY. Never. Second, I take a lot less photos and I often hesitate before I take a photo. While in Egypt I had to be very careful about pulling out my camera because people would think I was a journalist and react negatively. I was careful to only pull my camera out behind closed doors or with another individual (usually an Egyptian present). Next, I am hyper aware of the presence of males. I just noticed this a few days ago when I was at a concert and the first thing I commented on was the amount of men in the room. In Egypt, men are dominant in the workforce. and often times I would walk into a shop and be surrounded by men. I’m sure this has contributed to my sensitivity. Finally, I have become somewhat of a coffee snob. While in Cairo I was offered coffee or tea every time I visited anyone. At first I would just drink tea but once I tasted the coffee I was hooked. Particularly when the caretakers made me Turkish coffee. Now I am a little (and by a little I mean a lot) more particular about my caffeine.
Overall, I see the world with new eyes. Thanks to the friends I made abroad, I am humbled and more confident at the same time. I look forward to returning to Egypt soon as I am positive there are more lessons to be learned.
Greetings Wagner Students. I have finished my summer internship with BioCarbon Partners (BCP) Trust in Zambia and am now home in NYC. It has been a productive, insightful and fast-moving summer, but it is good to be home. Internships are challenging because by the time one is adjusted, it is time to leave. If I continued on with the project in Zambia, I am sure that BCP could have seen great success with this project. We take what we can get, and some time is better than none. I would like to thank Molly Crystal and Hassan Sachedina of BCP for allowing me to contribute to their projects this summer (or winter).
I was fortunate to work with BCP this summer for several reasons. First, they have industry-leading projects on the ground in Zambia. I was able to familiarize myself with the REDD+ methodology and the carbon credit verification schemes that REDD projects require in order to generate and sell carbon credits. To achieve verification of a REDD+ project is an arduous process and I was fortunate to see some of this process first-hand. Second I was given much more responsibility than I may have had from a different internship where I may have been given basic tasks to complete. I was also fortunate to manage the charcoal project with a responsive, supportive boss. Lastly I was able to work within a community and immerse myself in the project and its intended beneficiaries. That is a rare opportunity for someone in the development field.
The last few weeks of my internship in Zambia became very tight. The timeline of the charcoal production process was very close to the completion of my work. I was fortunate to oversee the construction and lighting of the new kiln, but the burning and disassembly happened soon after I left. I would have like to have seen the disassembly and bagging of the charcoal, but the success of the project was evident in any case. The kiln burned successfully in 7 days and has since been bagged.
This summer presented a great opportunity for my professional development and myself. I was able to see the development and administration of projects from both my level and the upper management level of my boss. I also worked a bit on survey analysis, which brought out many great lessons on data collection, and constructive thoughts on the process. This broad scope of work is also something I would not have gotten such experience elsewhere.
I am looking forward to presenting my summer activities to the Wagner Student body this fall during the VFF Presentation Event. At that time I will share pictures and video as well as answer questions about my time in Zambia.
Zikomo Kuambiry! (Thank you very much)
My last couple of weeks in Ghana was a whirlwind of goodbye sessions over fresh fruit smoothies at Smoothys, reggae nights, deadlines, and frantically running around the city looking for my lost friend (who was robbed and missing for a few days).
But before all that I spent a week in the Eastern region with one of the Program Officers on our team. We were conducting surprise visits to the community organizations to make sure they were on track towards meeting the set deliverables. Most of the organizations on the ground were going above and beyond what was initially required of them, but an ineffective funding system and corruption prevented them from making a larger impact. Another week in August was dedicated to working with consultants in registering new vulnerable children into our database and choosing which child would receive scholarships. It was sad to note that some of the children passed away from the time they submitted the paperwork to the time we entered into the database.
I leave Ghana with a more complicated view of international development. It is not simple. My internship allowed me to work with multiple organizations, from USAID to Planned Parenthood to local grassroots organizations. Yes, sometimes the big names in the realm of international development drive around with their logos plastered to the side of their cars and it is easy to assume that it is some in-your-face display of wealth and power. But these logos also give the ability to pass the multiple checkpoints without stopping during evaluation visits. After spending weeks on monitoring visits in the field with tight deadlines, the ability to pass through checkpoints saved us hours of waiting time.
These expensive (and giant) cars may initially seem excessive and unnecessary, but they were also durable enough to endure bad weather, poor road conditions and hundreds of potholes. It reminded me of how easy it is to place judgment. We all have an idea of how we think international development should look like. But there is no such thing as a perfect program. The consequence of living in a world with limited resources is the fact that most things require compromise and some type of give-and-take relationship.
I also leave with a deeper understanding of how important staff capacity building is. I recommended to my manager before leaving that all staff goes through training on Microsoft Office and Excel. I remember meetings that were longer than they should have been due to the lack of technical skills some employees had. I’ve never met such hard working people in my life. But there are little things like learning to type without looking at the keyboard, how to use Excel, or maybe introducing a shared drive/cloud platform instead of emails back and forth that could improve the efficiency of how staff worked with one another. The problem is is that they are often too focused on the program work and not on building the capacity of their own staff.
Where is the balance? Again, it is complicated and doesn’t necessarily fit into a framework or model.
I’ve been back in New York for 3 weeks. It is easy to fall back in the hustle and bustle of the city and forget the value of slowing down when you pass someone on the street to greet them. Then I have times where my friends in Ghana call me and ask me how I am or what I’m eating (like they did when I was there) and I remember to slow down and to take the time to ask someone how they are doing. The other day, the same Program Officer that I travelled around the Eastern region with conducting monitoring visits got married. He and all my summer colleagues bombarded my phone with photos and messages so I could feel like I was there with them. In turn I send them photos of Washington Square Park or the buildings I pass by as I walk through the city.
Before programs and agendas, people matter. Take time to talk to someone, whether it is your colleague, the woman who sells fruit down the road, the halal food cart seller or your taxi driver. You end up learning more than you thought was possible and maybe even make some friends along the way.
Since my last blog entry in early July, things in Guatemala had, as expected, drastically changed. A new round of English volunteers had joined the team at the school in Ciudad Vieja, so the classes needed to be redistributed based on each volunteer’s past experience, ability to speak Spanish and capability of handling certain age groups. Within a day, I was considered a “senior” volunteer and designated as the new fourth grade English teacher.
I started teaching the class as I had the first, second and third grade classes. My class plans for the younger ages had been designed so that they could easily change based on the students’ understanding of the topic or an activity taking longer than anticipated. However, the cuartos had an entirely different idea of how class should be run.
The first three weeks were full of frustration and learning how to discipline children in a language I had just begun to grasp. I had no disciplinary protocol to follow, no extra volunteers to help manage the class and little respect coming from the kids.
For two weeks, I ignored petty interruptions from the usual culprits and tried to engage the kids who at least appeared interested. Items were thrown through the air, and I was having trouble memorizing the names of all thirty children. I felt like the entire class was spent ensuring that the same troublemakers did not hurt themselves or bully the other kids.
The third week, I lost my cool. I was writing an example on the board ignoring the typical chitchat from the right side of the room, and a young boy lit a paper on fire with his lighter. I certainly don’t remember bringing lighters to school in fourth grade for my show and tell!
I stopped the class and walked the boy to the principal’s office. Upon returning to my completely unintended class, and I was greeted by utter silence. I finished the class with the kids copying English sentences, and I immediately found the volunteer coordinator following the completion of the session.
“I’m sorry, but I need another volunteer to help me. I had a kid start a fire in my class today”.
“What!” he said, most likely anticipating a lecture from the school principal about the English interns inability to control the kids.
“Well,” he said regaining composure, “I must admit, we did give you the worst behaved class in the school. The anti-bullying posters were designed as a result of these kids being cruel to one another”.
We started discussing potential safety and disciplinary protocol that the interns could use. No matter what, it was going to take time for new teachers acclimate to each new class at the school. However, if a base set of disciplinary rules were followed, the kids would hopefully respect the system in place and in turn, allow the volunteers to do their jobs.
The next day, an email was sent to all of the volunteers outlining the new system. Weekly meetings with the volunteer coordinator and all the volunteers were started to discuss any behavioral difficulties and suggestions for the program. While I can’t say that the weekly meetings will last, it was a step forward in the right direction.
And bam, I realized it. That is how it works. Small ideas are created and changes are made, but they do not necessarily last. For the changes that do not fade away, they eventually morph from extra work for the already-struggling staff to necessities for the program. Frustrations and things that go wrong in the day-to-day rhythm of the school create enough grief or disturbance to finally make a volunteer approach someone to say, “How do I fix this? What do I do?”
Change cannot be made without communication. As the program worker who lacked the ability to communicate on account of pride or fear of failure, I was truly disappointed in myself. At the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. When I jokingly told my friends these kids were more terrifying than the gangs of New York, I was not conveying my actual fear for the children and their behavioral problems, but my own fear of being incapable of resolving a situation.
As clear as I can see this now, I was completely unaware at the time that I was neglecting anything I had learned in my Management of Public Service Organizations (MPSO) class or from general life experiences. Accepting failure can be the biggest asset to a person and an organization if an effort is made by everyone to make the changes necessary to resolve the situation.
I did not receive an extra volunteer as I had requested, and I am glad that I didn’t. In the following weeks, I gained better control of my class. There were still times when I looked at them, and I really wondered how great of an impact this English program was even making. Did I really contribute to anything that was worthwhile in their lives? Would any of these kids actually ever be able to apply English to their future jobs as farmers or market women?
I realized something essential however. Thinking of one eager boy in the class who was often bullied, he always was interested in learning. He wanted to learn, his English improved every day and he hugged me when he saw me each class. He might one day use English to have a better opportunity at a career in Guatemala. At that realization, I felt a bit more optimistic.
My final goodbye at Casa Jackson, the house for malnourished children, also caused me to pause and reflect on things. It was a Friday, and I walked up to the designated meeting spot at 1:30pm as I had each of my times previously. From the meeting spot, the group of volunteers would typically be walked by a young man to the center as San Felipe’s back roads could potentially be dangerous.
For the first time in eleven weeks, I walked up to an empty meeting spot. I spoke briefly with the designated guide. “I think you’re the only one today,” he said quickly in Spanish, “so I arranged a ride for you”. A Guatemalan man pulled up on a motorcycle and indicated I hop on. I laughed at myself as I clumsily crawled on the back. My mom would have had a heart attack watching me climb on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle without a helmet, but my volunteer friends from the center who had left in the previous weeks would have nodded and laughed in approval.
We sped down the bumpy, cobble-stoned streets towards the center and I watched the local San Felipe residents notice the pale, red-headed gringa on the back of a motorcycle with a Guatemalan man. I pulled up to the center and after some brief conversation, Julio told me he would return at 4:30pm. I had never been the only volunteer at the center. The smallest group I had ever worked with had been five volunteers; yet Casa Jackson did have a much higher turnover of volunteers than the schools. With universities reopening in the coming weeks, everyone in Antigua had felt a major change in the atmosphere of the town.
The nurse looked alarmed when she answered the door and realized I was the only volunteer. I greeted her, changed in scrubs and disinfected my hands. I heard the babies as I walked up the stairs, and I felt like I could hear the sickness in their cries.
The day was a blur. I changed, fed and administered respiratory medication via nebulizer for sixteen babies. I tried to hold and play with each room for an equally fair amount of time, but there will still a few babies I had worked with for the last eleven weeks that I held onto for a few moments longer to say goodbye. I cried for the little girl I knew was going to an orphanage. I sang to each room and brought disinfected toys to the babies that had been quarantined. Lastly, I said goodbye to the one I had fallen in love with, Sarai. I wished her the best with her life, even though I knew that it would be tougher than some of the other babies as a result of a neurological disorder.
The nurse ran from downstairs, “Julio is here”. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to everyone, and as I left I felt fairly defeated. I knew that tomorrow, there was a possibility that no one would come. They would sit in dirty diapers longer than usual and not be held. They would cry. By caring for them for such a short period of time, I realized just how much there is left to be done. Tomorrow, there will be another sick baby.
Choosing a job in public service is creating a new lifestyle that will revolve around redundancy, change, sadness, anger, policy, corruption and the potential ever-lasting feeling that you have not yet accomplished your intended mission.
I did not go to Guatemala naively thinking that my short period of time would change anything. However, I did leave with a new direction and clearer understanding of the large tasks ahead of individuals currently working in or entering public service.
With that said, I have found myself ever-more interested in public health and the implementation and development of health systems and infrastructure in communities. It is difficult to summarize what I learned and how I changed as a result of my time in Guatemala. I will be heading back to Guatemala in December to solidify my knowledge of Spanish and further explore potential options for my future career.
“I think there’s a point where you realize the world has just been revealed to you. It’s like realizing your parents are both good and bad. It’s sort of, oh no, things will never be quite the same again.”
I want to thank everyone for joining me for my updates and time in Guatemala. I really look forward to working with everyone this coming semester!
Greetings again from Zambia! I am in the 8th week of my internship with BioCarbon Partners Trust and things have been going very well. I have fallen into a definite rhythm of life in the country. Several things about my work have changed since my last blog post. First, I have been engaged in the redesign of the charcoal project and the management of the construction of new kilns. I am also training a local counterpart to successfully adopt these new systems when I leave in August.
Soon after I arrived, it was obvious that the charcoal project model needed to change. The first model was one in which the Ndubulula Eco Charcoal Association (NECA) – the community organization in charge of the kiln – would be compensated upon the sale of the bags of charcoal. The organization would then pay its members based on a system of their choosing. When I arrived it was found that motivating the workers was difficult and the construction of the kiln was taking too long. To design a new system my counterpart and some others helped me to examine the way charcoal is produced traditionally. I found that traditional laborers are paid by piecework labor by different tasks – chopping down trees, constructing the kiln, or bagging the charcoal – or paid in alcohol and n’shima. A successful project would be one that mirrored the traditional methods (not the alcohol and n’shima) while also paying high enough wages to ensure that people could rely on this project for a living without resorting to unsustainable charcoal production on the side.
Working with my counterpart, we designed a new model for NECA that was based on the traditional model. We identified eight steps – which may change to nine – in the process that would determine the paying of more regular and consistent wages, which we felt would be a better motivator of the workers. We began with a community meeting to discuss the new model and what the pay rate would be for each step, looking to find an agreement on both the steps and fair wages. Ensuring that everyone understood the process beforehand would help the management of the project. A few days after this meeting, we began working on a new kiln.
We began the new system with the first step in the process – felling trees and cutting them into pieces that will eventually be placed in the kiln frame. Using improved harvesting methods, the felled trees will regenerate so that when this strip is returned to in 18 years, it will be found in a similar state to before being cut down. Using axes, the workers cut trees ranging in circumference from 33cm all the way up to 126cm! After felling the tree, they then chop the trunk into smaller pieces for carrying and separate the canopy, which is used to line the forest floor and help with regrowth.
The first step has been a great success. In one week the workers managed to cut down enough trees for two kilns. For comparison, it took over one month to cut enough wood for the previous kiln! So far the system has shown itself to be successful, maybe even too much so. They cut more wood than we needed, causing us to go over budget. Now we will have to design a regulation to prevent this from happening again. However, with projects like these and in designing new systems, adjustments will have to be made as new lessons are continuously learned. When working with community projects, nothing is set in stone and one must continually learn from the lessons that are given by the project implementation.
I have been enjoying this work immensely. Performing the field research to design the new model, seeing the first phase succeed, and being here to work out the kinks in the new model has been especially satisfying for me. Additionally the new model is moving much faster than I had originally anticipated. I may get to see the construction and burning of a kiln from start to finish, which was not expected when I first developed a timeline of the new system. That is an exciting prospect for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I have settled into a rhythm of life in the country. Everything takes more time when one lives without electricity or running water. For instance it takes me 1 hour to make and eat breakfast in the morning. I typically make oatmeal, and between starting a fire, boiling water and cooking the oatmeal I have listened to a good 40 minutes of the BBC news. I have to take time to boil water for hand washing and dish sterilization, which is a few hours every few days. Some days I make enough relish in the afternoon to feed me both lunch and dinner, but starting my charcoal stove takes me about 30 minutes each time and the initial cooking takes around 90 minutes. With the August winds starting now, I sometimes have to light my stove inside my house, which then fills it with smoke for at least an hour, making it uninhabitable for me. Life in the country takes time and patience, but I have settled into the rhythm and these tasks have begun to flow for me.
In a piece of very good news, I have successfully run off the pesky goats I mentioned in the last post. One afternoon I saw them come into my yard, so I grabbed my big stick, swinging it and yelling, running them off into the bush. They returned several times in the next hour and were met with similar fury. After the third time, they did not return, and have not returned to my yard. Now I can safely leave soap in my shower and buckets of water on the porch without worry. Now I have to figure out a solution to the Geckos that occasionally fall from my ceiling.
My time here is short, and it will move quickly. There is much to do, and I am confident that I will leave this project in a good position. I am looking forward to presenting my work to the Wagner community and sharing my story in the fall.
Until next time.
Ghanaians have this way of taking you in and making you feel like family. I have been in Ghana for two months and a part of me feels like coming here is like coming home.
I’ve somehow managed (unintentionally) to avoid any and all expats. All my friends here are locals: my taxi driver turned best friend, the university student with dreams to become a farmer that I met during a blackout, a poor t-shirt designer that fell in love with a girl too rich for him and a cook that makes the most incredible rice and chicken from a shack on the beach. My weekends and weekdays consist of trips up the mountains with my taxi driver where we sit (and sometimes cry) while talking about life, I go to birthday dinners with new friends I’ve met on the street, catch-up with people with strange names over beer and eat local foods at places no abruni (look it up!) ever has probably been to.
I spent last week in Koforidua at a capacity training workshop. The goal of this training was to educate leaders from communities on peer education, sexual and reproductive health and skills training on facilitation/communication. The World Vision USAID team, along with staff from the Ministry of Health and Planned Parenthood were involved in facilitating the different sessions.
Participants were given an identical pre- and post-test on sexual and reproductive health. By the end of the workshop, participants who weren’t aware of what menstruation was, what constitutes as rape or how HIV is (and isn’t) transmitted had improved their average scores by over 20% and had a basic understanding about human anatomy/biology and HIV/AIDS transmission.
There is so much I’m learning, but the most valuable learning has come through random day-to-day conversations. It is an interesting time in Ghana. Nurses and doctors have been going on strike because some haven’t been paid for months, there is a Chinese “gold rush” which has diverted some water from some villages, people are still unsettled with the sudden and apparently mysterious death of the past President and the controversy over current President Mahama, and there is an increase in taxes (even a new proposed tax on condoms). A few days ago when I was still in Koforidua I had dinner at the hotel with some colleagues. We were discussing international development in Ghana and concluded that Ghana doesn’t need aid, this country needs education and to learn how to use its resources wisely. This country is rich in resources; there is gold, shea, cocoa and oil. The problem is in the value chain. You can buy a jar of 100% shea butter here for $2 or buy a product in the States with 5% shea butter for $50. The majority of the oil in Ghana doesn’t actually belong to the country and gold is taken from the land and sold for exorbitant prices in the rest of the world. Even a few days ago a friend showed up at my office with a chocolate bar, this chocolate bar came with a lecture from him on how Americans are shortchanging Ghana and basically stealing cocoa from the country.
It is already difficult to help change someone’s mindset (and sometimes impossible); it is even more difficult when you add in the cultural differences. My Ghanaian best friend is barely able to make his weekly payments on his taxi. Yet he insists on running errands for friends and their families without charge. He drives from house to house in traffic dropping off medicine, money, food, etc. This wastes hours of his time a week. Time he could be spending working.
He spends 5-10 cedis a day washing his car because he takes pride in his work and wants people to feel comfortable in his car. I explain that his car is ridiculously clean and he doesn’t need to clean it daily, especially these days as we are in rainy season. After weeks, he finally listens. It’s pouring rain today. I get a text from him saying “thanks”.
Then Monday comes around and he has 200 cedis due to the bank, he avoids the bank and works hard for the next few days (accumulating interest!) until he can make the payment. “People here are so connected to one another, I can’t just not help someone in need even though it wastes my time,” he explains.
How do you argue with that?
Change can come slowly if not at all.
To end on a lighter note, the people here are still some of the friendliest, most welcoming and kind people I’ve ever met. Last week I was rushed to the ER and when I returned to work the group had prepared a song for me. I don’t go through a day without receiving a phone call or text from someone just checking in on me. Someone will always be dancing. Someone will always be trying to talk to you. Someone will always be singing or laughing. This is Ghana.
Life in Antigua has continued to be incredible. This week, I was offered an extended position teaching English classes to children for Niños de Guatemalan (NDG). So, after some time considering my options and speaking with my intended NGO representative in Honduras, I have decided to stay in Guatemala for the summer! While I am sad that I won’t be able to see the Bay Islands this summer, I know that I will have the opportunity in the future to reconnect with Intensive Heart Ventures and dedicate a more significant amount of time to their project in Roatan.
Since my last blog entry, things have been on high speed. Last week, I found myself with six other volunteers speeding down a dirt road in the back of a pick-up truck on the way to work. Not exactly the subway, but it was efficient enough.
The first day at the Nuestro Futuro, I felt like I was at any average elementary school in the states. There was chalk drawing spattered across the cement, kids running through the courtyard and teachers trying to control their designated classes.
Suddenly, an alarm started blaring throughout the open courtyard. The students started running for the exit of the school, palms facing towards the sky above their heads. The volunteer coordinator turned to me. “Earthquake drill,” he said and scooped his hands above his heads like the kids. Taking their cue, we moved outside the fortress-like walls of the school that blocked out any view of the small, impoverished homes constructed of tin pieces and dirt roads and stood out of the way.
The kids were excited and giggling as a local police officer that doubled as a fireman and earthquake professional explained safety protocol and kept the kids engaged. However, as I looked past the groups of well-dressed students from Nuestro Futuro, I saw several children in the streets watching in awe of the kids their age. One little girl held onto her little sister, barefoot in tattered clothes. They did not giggle and laugh like the students of Nuestro Futuro. I asked the volunteer coordinator how many children in Guatemala did not attend school. “Eh, in this town alone? More than 50%”.
I looked around, and I continued to see little faces peeking through barbed wire fences. Some slowed down as they carried heavy loads of wood past the main entrance of the school. They looked at the kids in envy, but quickly returned their eyes to the dirt road and moved on. As we reentered the school courtyard, I began to understand another possibility of why the walls were so high at the school.
Not everything in Guatemala is discouraging however. I have continued to study Spanish, but I am learning the most from the kids. Last Friday was sports day for the kids. The kids had the opportunity to leave the cement courtyard and utilize the sport field of a private school nearby. The private elementary school looked like a five star resort, literally.
With fourteen “sports stations” set up, each volunteer would run one station by themselves.
“Who wants to coach the baseball games?” the coordinator optimistically asked.
A British volunteer across the group chimed in, “I vote we designate it to the only American in the lot.”
After shooting some playful dirty looks his way, I picked up a baseball bat. I am not afraid to admit that I may be the worst American in the world. I certainly didn’t know a whole lot about the game of baseball; let alone how to coach it in espagnol.
Within one minute of my title as baseball extraordinaire, I had a crazy mob of 7 year-olds speeding at me with baseball-thirsty eyes. While I wanted to run away and hide in the bushes, I took my rush of adrenaline to pick up the three wooden baseball bats that kids were already wielding as swords.
“Buenos dias!” I yelled and raised my hand like I had seen the other teachers do to quiet down the kids. From then on, the day consisted of a blur of “correr rapido!”, “pegarle a la pelota!” and “STRIKE UNO!”
Fourteen games, 130 kids and four hours later, Coach Kaysey was ready to pass out from heat stoke. However, aside from my third degree sunburns, it was hysterical experience and the kids were happy.
My official first classes teaching English solo have been experiences in themselves. The morning starts with a third grade class, two-second grade classes and finally, two-first grade classes. I go in confident in my lesson plan, only to leave having entirely changed 90% of my original plan. However, as I begin to understand the kids level and they begin to remember my name, things have become a lot easier. The second graders have lost their “tude”, and the six-first graders spend the majority of their recess braiding my hair into knots.
Aside from planning my lessons and mornings at the school, the rest of my days have been filled with hours at Casa Jackson, a house for malnourished children. My first day there was the most gut wrenching experience of my life. You always imagine that you are prepared to see something, having an idea of how bad it could be. However, it just does not compare to real life.
I walked into the center, and I could smell milk and rubbing alcohol. I donned a blue nurse scrub top and mask, and we were quickly ushered in by a sole nurse. She quickly explained that all the babies were sick with colds, but that’s honestly all I caught. With 16 babies and four volunteers, we raced through the center changing and feeding every baby. There was no orientation or explanation. Dipers were found and the clothes station was located without question. The other volunteers knew the drill, so I just followed their leads.
Once the babies were changed, we spent the next few hours medicating those babies that needed it and just soothing, playing and holding them. During the last hour, I found one that I could not let go.
She was located in the isolation room, where babies with high temperatures were being kept away from the other babies. The nurse gave me a bottle, and indicated I needed to feed her. I have fed plenty of babies, but this one intimidated me. She was about two months old, but could not have weighed more than seven pounds. I read her name sign that hung above her mint green metal crib. The sign indicated that her family was located at least four hours away from the center, and she had been at Casa Jackson for two weeks.
As I changed her into her pajamas for the night, I felt the bones sticking out of her back and saw how my pinky finger could wrap around her little legs. Her skin was on fire as I held her to my chest and just sang to her. I felt like I was going to break her with every move I made, but I swaddled her in a blanket. Finally, she fell asleep in my arms.
Having the ability to work with these children has been one of the best experiences of my life. The organizations here are understaffed and at times, completely disorganized. But, the employees and volunteers are extremely proactive, and each and every day we make it work.
I don’t know where I am going to be in 3 year, 10 years or 20 years. However, given my time in Guatemala thus far, I do know that I am going to spend the rest of my life working with kids.