Sunday, July 30, 2006

Almost Famous

Dennis and I finished the last of our classes yesterday with a great turnout-17 students (pretty good for a class during summer break right?). All in all the community development project went really well. I was excited that Dennis let me teach the girls how to set SMART goals (even though the acronym didn't translate too well). They seemed to appreciate the process and it helped me feel like I was utilizing that Organizational Communications degree... We have a presentation on Wednesday to wrap it up and then off to swearing in on August 14th. Until now I've only been preparing to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, on the 15th I'll really be one (I hope).

It is going to be a tough transition to leave our current site and readjust to a new life. We've grown quite accustomed to feeling like celebrities in this small village! Just last week Stephanie and I were talking about how we can't walk down the street without children running up to hug our legs and Tatiks (village grandmothers) grabbing our cheeks and telling us how beautiful we are. Everywhere we go people know our names and they stop to see what we're doing. When we visit family members or friends people what to take their photos with us and at the end of our class all the girls wanted our autographs. Some volunteers feel suffocated by all of the unsolicited attention but I just know that these people are trying to learn about our culture by meeting real Americans. I hope we're up to the task of representing the United States!

Monday, July 24, 2006

My new site

I was recently adopted by a very large family in a small village outside of Yerevan. I make the 10th member of the family (if you count Rex our dog). There's Sourik, 62, the head of the house and warmly referred to as "papik" (grandfather); Heriknaz, 59, the brains of the house, known as "tatik" (grandmother); Their son Gevorg, 35, who's annoyed that I speak so poorly; his wife, Donara, 33, she's like a new sister I never had; and their four kids: Souren, 14 (boy), Hermine, 12 (girl), Sargis, 11 (boy), and Samvel...the most talkative, active and generally cheery 10-year-old I've ever met. We spent a lot of time coloring with the pencils Emily (the A12 who lived in my home and worked in my school) gave them before she left. They love to play and talk and show me our animals...

...I live in a small petting zoo. We have a regular farm in our backyard. Tons of chickens (and now 14 new baby chicks) roam around where the two calves are staying with about 20 pigs (three really large ones-I'd say the size of a loveseat and one baby).

Our garden grows everything from palmagranates (the national symbol of Armenia) to pumpkins. We can all of our fruits and veggies so during the winter I will not have to live of off potatoes and bread like in some of the other marzes. We also have corn, tomatoes, apples and apricots so needless to say the food is far better than what I have right now.

Also different is the fact that my new family eats the traditional 'lavash' (a tortilla) instead of the traditional fresh baked bread I've become accustomed to in my current home. Yesterday I had lunch with an 81 year-old-tatik who informed me that when napkins aren't available lavash is the perfect substitute. She demonstrated, 'you simply wipe your fingers, clean your mouth and then take a bite!' This made me laugh quite a bit. I like to tell myself that lavash is more healthy than white bread but I think it's just me wanting to believe that it's a good idea to make everything on my plate into a mini burrito.

I visited the school where I'll be teaching and it seems like a really great place. My counterpart is so kind and the teachers are all active in many different projects. I found an NGO just outside of my village in a nearby town that I'm going to try to network with for some additional projects in the future. I think I volunteered to help the English teacher and the Project Harmony director on a civic education project in the fall.

The school director is very kind and actually has traveled to Vermont. She's quite influential as her husband is the mayor of my village. Her daughter is 22 and is a journalist in Yerevan. One night we were watching the news and she pointed to the screen and said 'my girl'. At least I know how to contact the media!

The site itself is a wonderful tourist attraction and I invite you to visit. Large storks perch on top of our telephone poles and many volunteers come to bird watch somewhere close to my village. You can see Mt. Ararat from my bedroom window. It's nice and warm right now too--but don't worry we have water (sometimes).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Trip to Yerevan

On Monday we made our first trip to the capital city. What a place! Yerevan is a fantastic resource full of exciting opportunities and passionate people. We visited the American University of Armenia in the morning and I was so encouraged by the support they have to offer PCVs. We will have access to the library, the past MPH (Masters in Public Health) projects and most importantly the graduates! Networking at it's best. To be honest I was rather surprised with myself sitting in the classroom and listening to the presentation because I found that I missed the college experience. It has only been three short months since I left the institution but as I was taking notes about the seven steps of the problem solving paradigm I was so excited. It seems like I shouldn't have taken so much for granted while I had the comfort of college life--I guess I miss it more than I realized. I'm excited we have the support of the master's department and I'm even more thankful that I have access to the city from my village.

Our next stop was APEC (AIDS prevention and education center) NGO. Here we learned: "If we want to change people's way of acting, we have to change their way of thinking." At first I viewed AIDS as a small issue in this country... I mean, according to the CIA factbook it is a small issue. What is important to note on this topic is that there is no such thing as a small issue in such a globalized world.

Finally, we went to a group home for disabled adults called Warm Hearth. Warm Hearth (Armenia's first group home) was founded by two PCVs who saw a need for a different approach to handling the developmentally disabled. Their work is amazing and inspiring. Although the two had fairly standard terms of PC service, beyond their wildest dreams this project became a reality last winter. What they kept repeating to us, and what really hit home for me, was that they never knew they could be capable of accomplishing this feat. Learning how to work within the Armenian system and how to interact with organizations such as Mission Armenia, financial contributors from the states and the government here is a tough challenge. They taught us that we never know what seeds our service may plant--and what the impact can be in the lives of those we meet. This is true in the states too. Thank you for all you do!

Friday, July 07, 2006

U.S. Ambassador visit

The title today is a bit deceiving because I wanted to mention that the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia came to speak to us yesterday but I don't have a lot of time to write about his talk. I will mention that all of the Armenian language trainers wore yellow ribbons to his presentation to show their support for the stance he has taken regarding the Armenian genocide in 1915. I encourage you to learn a bit about the tragedy as the impact is still felt here today. We have a wealth of books on all kinds of topics available to us but I don't have much time to read. As soon as my schedule frees up a bit I will do some research and provide you will more historical/cultural information about this event and others (if you're interested). I did check out one book, it's called Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope by Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller. The jacket says it's a "remarkable view of how geopolitics affects ordinary people." Ordinary people are the center of my work and the motivating factor behind my decision to be here so I thought I might enjoy this book.

Today we had our first LPI. An LPI is basically a language competency exam. It was all oral but I think it went well. I managed to converse for about 20 minutes with my interviewers and they responded so I think they at least managed to gather my message. That's the goal for now. I need to work on my tenses and for some reason I completely forgot the ending to say 'in'. For example I would say sentences like 'I worked office' or 'I live Ohio' which I'm sure was pretty entertaining. I know the's 'um' so I should have made statements like: "Yes ashkhatel officeum" but I guess it didn't stay with me during the exam. The exam was a good benchmark though, and an eye opening experience because we are now officially halfway finished with training. In a few short weeks we'll be sent out as really PCVs...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Site announcement

Today was a big day in Armenia. I learned where I will be living and working for the next two years and I think it is a good fit. My site counterpart is the deputy directory at a secondary school and also the life skills teacher. She has participated in the teacher training for life skills education orgnized by the Ministry of Education and Science. There are 500 students and 37 teachers at my school. The school is a Project Harmony site since 2001 which means that it has eight computers and internet access. The school participates in online and offline projects and collabortes with IREX and inschool director training programs (I don't actually know what IREX is but I'll find out). The school has a newspaper called Boghboj and a youth club called Huis.

Most important for network opportunities is the fact that I am just 50min-1 hour ouside of Yerevan. This will provide me with a number of resources. Although I am expected to spend 15 hours per week in the school teaching health classes and other health education activities I will be able to develop opportunities for career development with the youth group that is strong and active. My counterpart does not speak any English so I think that my Armenian will improve through my work.

My host family consists of eight people. A father (farmer), mother (housewife) , son (farmer) and daughter in law (housewife) and then three boys ages 14,11 and 10 and a girl age 12. They had an A12 living with them from 2004 to now and she is an English teacher at the school where I will work. She leaves next week.

I'll have more information soon, I hope everyone had a nice holiday and Maggie had a fantastic 22nd birthday. I'm thinking of you dear! You, Rachel and I will have to develop lesson plans together via e-mail!

I have a language proficiency exam tomorrow--it sure is a busy week! Hajohutsun (goodbye)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Red White and Boom

Happy Independence Day everyone! I hope you are all enjoying some excellent fireworks and BBQ!

Someone was speaking to us at one of our technical training days and she told us about a very successful A12 who was getting ready to leave in July (we call this Close of Service or COSing). The A12 was interviewed and asked how she had been so successful-or what kind of mentality she had maintained. To this she replied: “I fought passionately to be busy”. Right now, as I am only a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) I have no problem staying busy. They run us from language training to Vanadzor for central day trainings six days a week. The days are long and challenging but I enjoy it because I thrive on a busy environment. The real fear, and I think I speak for all trainees, is what happens on August 15th when we are sworn in and sent on our merry ways. This coming Thursday each trainee will receive an envelope with his/her site assignment. This is a very important day, and for many a day when we need to seriously consider our futures. The envelope will answer questions that have been haunting us for months: where will I live? Who will I live with? Will I have gas/electricity/running water/an outhouse? Will I work in a school or be placed with a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) counterpart? Who is my counterpart? Is he/she nice? Will my village be small or big? The list goes on and on…especially for someone like me who doesn’t handle ambiguity too well.

Our first practicum went very well. It was Monday the 26th but we will be working the month of July on our follow up community development project. We held a focus group of 9 girls ages 7-18. This age range wasn’t ideal as our target demographic was teenagers but it worked out well because they were very open to answering our questions and participating in our PACA tool. PACA is Participatory Analysis for Community Action. There are four tools that the Peace Corps uses to evaluate community needs. Interestingly, these tools remind me a great deal of the concepts I studied in school. Although they would not translate well to American business, they serve as highly-effective information-gathering tools. We had the girls complete a daily activity schedule and then we gathered the information to discover what their needs/interests are and what they do in their free time. Dennis and I completed the practicum and felt like we had two very positive aspects working to our advantage: 1) the girls have a lot of free time, even the 18-year-old doesn’t do too much because they are all enjoying their summer rest from school. 2) They are very curious about Americans. Just based on that curiosity alone I do not anticipate any issues with attendance in our future classes. This week we brainstormed ideas about topics for our classes/exercises for the girls. We looked at what they wanted to learn about and decided to do a self-esteem workshop that would equip us with personal information we need to know to develop three 60 minute career development courses. Many girls wanted to talk about the future and we feel this is an excellent way to reinforce their potential. Dennis graduated with a degree in psychology so he will contribute information that he’s studied and I will research ways that we can teach the girls about finding work and preparing at the university. I’d like to provide them will an excuse/opportunity to seek mentor relationships from successful women in the village or have them do an informational interview on women who work in careers that they may like to pursue. Vardushik, for example, will go to Vanadzor to learn about nursing in the fall. I think it would be great for her to complete an informational interview on one of the nurses at our local polyclinic. We have a lot of work to do, however, as Dennis and I have never taught. We are learning in technical training about lesson plan and curriculum development and I’ve checked out several books from our resource center. I’m really looking forward to our self-esteem exercises when we can have the girls lift one another up. This is much more lasting than anything I’ll tell them and sustainability is my main goal. I’m 22 and I still remember being in the youth group with Sonny when we gave one another a ‘pat on the back’. Pat on the Back is simple to do; it just takes a piece of paper taped to the back of each participant. Everyone goes around and writes compliments about the person who’s wearing the paper. In fact, to this day I still pull out my paper and read the nice things people had to say about me.

Anyways, I digress. Lala is a wonderful cultural facilitator who has a passion for life and a passion for her country. Every time she presents she makes us realize how fortunate we are to be working here. She’s the kind of person like the father on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the man who says that all words come from the Greek language. Lala would say: “It takes 76 grains to make hatz (bread), 66 of them originated in Armenia!” She’s great. The very first day of training she introduced herself and quoted Bob Dylan. This past week she introduced the brilliant rule to us. Everyone knows the Golden Rule but the brilliant rule says: “Treat another person the way he would like to be treated.” This is a great exercise to get into and something I will surely take from this experience and hold on to in the future. If we always practice the golden rule we are constantly treating people how we would like. If, however, I step back and don’t think of myself…I mean if I truly consider what the other person would want and then do it, I turn my concentration from me to they. This is what we need to do in our work.

One last thing: Lala often teaches us quotes, songs or poems from famous Armenian scholars. There is a famous Armenian saying that I want to share with you. It perfectly describes the way I feel for you at home; those whom I care so much about: “Call me on your days of happiness. On your days of sadness I’ll come myself.”