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Final Thoughts

In terms of my Peace Corps service in Romania, there are two categories that I feel are relevant when I consider my final thoughts before leaving; what I have learned and what I will miss.  The former covers a myriad of new soft skills that I might not have developed if it weren’t for biting the bullet in taking on the challenge of Peace Corps.  The latter focuses on those people and things that have made my experiences such that I will miss them the most once I am back in the United States.  There is also the question of “was it worth it?” This I answered with a resounding “yes” in another recent post.  So, in no particular order, here are my final thoughts.

This Peace Corps experience has been an amazing opportunity to branch out and try new things that I never would have been able to in my pre-Peace Corps, task driven, cubical life.  Although I owe a lot to each and every company that I have previously worked with; there simply is no comparison to the diversity of challenges and opportunities that Peace Corps service has offered.  From day one volunteers are thrust into new, uncomfortable and exciting scenarios.  Certainly this includes meeting new people, learning a new language, learning about a new culture and learning the job related skills necessary to be successful in the new assignment.  Beyond that, through a myriad of different projects I was welcomingly forced to learn applications like Prezi, Apple’s iLife and iWorks suites of software, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, WordPress and a host of other applications.  Using these new tools, I enriched my own experience and the experience of my students and other audiences by providing rich, new forms of content.  Not only have I learned a ton of valuable new skills, but those that I worked with in Romania also learned through the workshops that I lead and the one-on-one coaching I provided.  What’s more is the example that I was able to provide.  Many more people will now use applications they had never heard of before, simply because they saw me and other Peace Corps Volunteers using these tools.  At the beginning, I had hoped for a less “connected” site assignment, some back water Peace Corps country without internet, cell phones or even electricity.  That certainly would have exposed me to a whole other set of opportunities but I feel much more confident entering back into the work force, having been able to keep up with computer-related trends and without having had a break in desktop publishing, etc.

Even though it should come as no surprise that I would start with computer skills such as these, they only represent a small part of the story in terms of what I have learned.  Having been a member on several different Peace Corps related sub-groups such as the Gender and Development Commemorative Book Project group, the Information, Communication and Technology Committee, and as co-chairman for the Volunteer Advisory Committee I advanced my skills related to leadership and teamwork.  Through my persistent efforts regarding cross-cultural integration I worked towards and learned valuable lessons in intercultural effectiveness.  This is evidenced most by the strong relationship that my Romanian Counterpart and I have built and the countless projects that we’ve successfully implemented together.  My interest and abilities in project management have increased immensely through my leadership of the 2013 renditions of the Trees for Peace project with MaiMultVerde and our youth development summer camps, GLOW and TOBE.  Perhaps most importantly though, is the new global perspective that I’ve developed as a result of my service in Eastern Europe; the world is an infinitely bigger place than I once considered it to be and I’m anxious to explore it more.

Perhaps with an even greater impact on my future than what I have learned is what I will miss from my time in Romania.  I can’t stress enough how thankful I am that my friends and family encouraged me to write this blog; it will be invaluable to go back and reread posts in the future, alone and perhaps one day with my kids.  There have simply been so many incredible experiences that even throughout my service I tried to recreate some of them, i.e., TOBE.  Some of these things I’ll be able to do again in different formats and in difference environments but most I may not.  Also, a huge thanks goes to my mother who lent me the use of her new digital SLR Canon camera; as a result I have more than 6,600 photographs to help me remember my time here.

As for what I will actually miss, let’s start with “things” and work our way backwards.  Romania, as a whole, is incredibly beautiful and diverse, almost as diverse as America, though without the ocean coasts and the deserts.  The one thing we might have Ceaușescu to thank for is his protection of forestlands and wildlife.  Though, ironically, the only reason they were protected were so that they could be saved for his personal use.  Nevertheless, Romania is home to more forested land than any other part of Europe with every square meter of it absolutely breathtaking.  I’ll miss my view of Romania’s countryside from the many train windows through which I peered.  I’ll miss the hillside here in Valea Călugărească that I’ve hiked and biked numerous times.  I’ll miss the cold mountain streams that I cooled off in after hiking.  I’ll miss the hostels I stayed in while exploring the country and the piazzas where I people watched and soaked in the culture.  I’ll miss my school’s family of guard dogs, though sadly they were taken away a few months ago.  One subcategory of “things” I may not have to completely miss is the food; though certainly I won’t be able to reproduce mouth-watering sarmale, saramura de pește, zacusca or salata de vinete in quite the same way that Romanian grandmothers can, I will still be able to make some of it with the handy-dandy Romanian cookbook that I received as a gift.  I’ll miss fresh fruit from my school’s orchard and fresh vegetables from their garden.  And I’ll miss impromptu afternoon grill-outs with fresh meat, free flowing homemade țuica and table wine and endless conversation and laughs.

It should go without saying that I will miss the summer camps, my favorite part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.  What made the camps so great was not only the incredible scenic backdrop of the Romanian countryside but also the people.  I’ll miss the other Peace Corps and host country volunteers and, of course, the brilliant and goofy kids.  Perhaps seemingly cold at first, Romanian adults are incredibly generous and caring, with souls plentiful with goodwill.  They have a strong sense of family and they place a huge importance on living close to and spending lots of time with their loved ones.  I think this is something that we’ve gotten away from in the United States maybe as a result of our nomadic existence — moving away for school, work and/or better weather.  Either way, the eagerness with which several Romanian families have welcomed me into their homes and how they have treated me, as one of their own, was truly special.  I’ll miss my milk lady and her weekly delivery of warm, fresh-from-the-cow milk that she used to so proudly bring me.  I’ll miss the lady at the grocery store who always greeted me with a bright, warm and welcoming smile.  I’ll miss the guards at my school that only spoke a few words of English but were eager and persistent at using them daily.  I’ll miss the rest of the school staff that looked at me strangely whenever I addressed the group in the auditorium, but who kindly made me the first official “Honorary Citizen” of the high school.  I’ll miss my friend, Daniel, who runs the local corner store and his refreshing sense of humor.  I’ll miss my lovely and ever so patient Romanian language tutor.  I’ll miss the Duca and Pițu families who unknowingly have earned a lasting place in my heart.  Perhaps most of all, I’ll miss my good friend and local fixer Marian who gave me a trial run at what it might be like to have a teenager of my own one day.  He was always there for me when I needed him and though I may miss him, I will never forget him.

My time in Romania has left an indelible mark on my soul and has helped to form the person I have become.  I am thoroughly grateful to the Peace Corps staff for making this possible, to my school for applying to have a volunteer and to the Romanian people for making the experience so worthwhile.  I often wonder if I’ll ever come back to Romania and though that is largely a question of money, time and how quickly I can get through the other 190 some countries, part of me will always be here.

Vama Veche

Shortly after completing our weeklong GLOW and TOBE youth development summer camps, it occurred to me that I had never actually taken a vacation in Romania.  Not a proper one anyway.  Sure, I’ve toured around the country plenty, but usually acting as camp counselor or American tour guide.  With over ten camps completed and eight American visitors (love you guys), I’ve seen thirty-four different cities and villages in Romania.  Although I have seen a lot of the country, at the very least from a train window, there are still a few places that I have yet to go, namely, the Danube Delta, the Danube River, and to the Black Sea coast of Romania.  Unfortunately, with time running out, I won’t be able to cover them all, but I did manage to make a last minute trip to the historic beach village of Vama Veche.

Nestled alongside the border between Romania and Bulgaria, Vama Veche (rough translation, “Old Customs Point”) serves as the last village before you arrive at the checkpoint and enter into Bulgaria.  The village is known for a couple things in addition to its natural beauty.  First, it was a lone bastion of liberal thinking in the times of communist Romania.  No one really seems to know exactly why Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romanian’s once communist dictator, left the village unrepressed but it lives on to this day through the reputation it built during the 70s and 80s as a place for intellectuals to get away.  Second, Vama Veche is known for some of the rather large concerts that take place there twice a year during the summers, attracting upwards of 40,000 people (population 200); don’t ask me where they all go to the bathroom.  Now, as it was then, modern visitors can pitch a tent directly on the beach, rent space to camp in a villager’s yard, stay in a hostel or book a room in one of only a few hotels.  For one reason or another, Vama Veche never saw the commercialization of other Black Sea coastal towns, save a few restaurants, bars and gift shops, and today the residents have ordinances in place to prevent new construction.  As a result, the village is largely unchanged and quite small; you can see from one end to the other and quickly cover it on foot.

As fate would have it, we picked the perfect week to visit.  The weather was excellent with mostly sunny days, comfortable beach temperatures and a great breeze that kept us cool in the hot sun all week.  Students, the mainstay of Vama Veche goers, due to the low cost of accommodation (free), were still taking exams and the hordes of other tourists had yet to descend for the summer.  Still the area designated for the least of illegal tent camping options on the beach was rather packed Friday night through Sunday afternoon.  Although people camp, including us, it’s technically against city ordinances. Having said that, there is a lot that happens in Vama Veche of which I question the legality.  Not to mention that the local police seemed unconcerned as they regularly strolled by the large makeshift beach encampment.

Like other places in Romania, even though it’s off the beaten path, you can still get to and from Vama Veche rather easily.  Having a car would certainly make the trip more convenient, but try getting from one remote part of the U.S. to another without a car or taking a taxi.  It’d be impossible.  We left the bus terminal in Ploiești at 5:30 am and after some minor bus trouble (the driver kept turning the bus on and off while moving at full speed) we arrived two blocks from the beach around noon.  Since I drooled on an unwitting bystander most of the way, the trip for me was over in the blink of an eye.  Anecdotally, something I found interesting during our final approach, even before we crested the hillside and the sea came into view, my Romanian travelling companions became really excited.  Like little school children trapped in the bodies of adults, they giddily peered out the bus window, craning their necks and pointing as the black expanse of water became visible.  This exuberance seemed really strange at first.  Then it occurred to me that they simply hadn’t been to the seaside that often, even in their childhood.  Where as, my mother and I went regularly when I was a kid and as an adult, I lived just off the beaches in San Diego for years.  It was fun to see something that really is amazing, though now commonplace from my perspective, through fresh eyes.

Our days largely consisted of sunning on the beach, walking up and down the beach, talking on the beach, drinking on the beach and sleeping on the beach; dotted by meals of fresh caught and cooked seafood from the water in which we’d just cooled off.  This is as any good vacation should be.  However, we did break up all the relaxing with a couple fun “field trips.”  The first, during one of the later afternoons, following our arrival we thought we’d stroll down the beach to the border just to see what it looks like.  From my experience living on the border of California and Mexico there is a giant fence.  No such thing exists here.  Instead, just before what once was Bulgarian territory but is now Romanian, there are ominous cement bunkers or pillboxes remaining, I imagine from World War II.  Upon closer investigation we discovered what seemed to be a network of underground passages interconnecting them all.  It was a really interesting view into history with no posted explanation (or warning signs) as to their purpose.  So we conjectured that they were built to keep the Allied Forces (or German forces later in the war as Bulgaria switched sides in WWII) from making a beach landing.

For our second field trip, later in the week, the one and only ATM in Vama Veche reportedly ran out of money.  So we decided to walk along the beach to the next village north called Doi Mai (May 2) in an effort to replenish our beer money.  The walk is about five kilometers with the Black Sea on the East and tall, bright orange cliffs on the West defining the thin strand of rocky, isolated and desolate beach.  The hike was a quiet one with the melodic soundtrack of the shallow waves reverberating off the cliff’s face.  The only other humans we saw were nudists going about their business, a not uncommon site here.  As we entered the beachside of Doi Mai our trip was rewarded with more interesting military artifacts; this time an old military base that was slowly being undermined by the erosion of the rock face and collapsing into the sea.  One can easily imagine a time when the land had been 40 meters closer to the water, but after decades of wind and rain all that remains are rusted water pipes jutting straight out which now serve as bird perches.  After finding the ATM we took a quick dip in the serene water of a south-facing cove, where I learned that the Romanian word for jellyfish is meduză.

The trip as a whole was a great closing bookend for my service in Romania.  Coincidentally, the first and last cross country trips I made here were with the same Peace Corps Volunteer and this time we had four host country nationals join us.  The last six months had been quite stressful with studies for the Romanian Language Proficiency Interview, Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE), our final Peace Corps conference, Graduate school applications, employment applications and interviews and numerous successful secondary projects on top of day-to-day responsibilities and final government paperwork.  Usually I feel guilty when I kick back to relax, because it seems like there is always something to do (i.e., blogging), but not this time.  I deserved and savored every last sip of Romanian Bergenbier.  Plus, I brought my final count of Romanian villages visited to 36!

During our Close of Service conference in March, we were told not to be surprised that, if upon returning State-side, some people view our Peace Corps service as one long vacation.  The unofficial agency tag-line of “the toughest job you’ll ever love” rings very true with me as I look back on our 28 months of service.  Admittedly, at the end of it I did take a truly well-deserved vacation in the Black Sea beach village of Vama Veche, which we’ll get to shortly in my next post.  But here is my response to the perspective of ‘Peace Corps Service — The Vacation’.

We’ve all taken jobs in the U.S. at one point or another in our lives that we weren’t entirely ready for.  Positions where maybe we were capable but we simply hadn’t done that type of work before.  So we invest time in training and learning all we can about how to do our very best or at least survive.  But, it’s tough; it’s not easy taking on something that we’ve never done before.  There are sleepless nights, times of doubt, frustration and moments where we simply want to give up.  Granted despite the challenges, we usually persevere and over time get comfortable with the new environment and the work itself becomes second nature.

Now, imagine a similar scenario where you have agreed to take on a new job that you’ve never done before but add a little more complexity to it.  Not only are you taking on something new and challenging but you are doing it in a new country, in a new language and in a totally new culture.  Your friends and family, your entire support structure is a couple thousand miles away.  You have no Internet, no mobile phone and no car.  There is no calling your best friend to grab a beer and vent, no hug from your significant other when you’re feeling frustrated, and no regular pep talks from your parents.  It’s hot, a new kind of hot that you’ve never felt before and there’s no air-conditioning in your new office.  Although some of your time is freed up because someone else is preparing your food, you have little to no control over the new diet.  You know what that can lead to …. so, that newly freed time you acquired has just been violently and unexpectedly cancelled out.  To top it off, you’re still figuring out how to use a squat toilet, which alone is enough to break many Americans.

At the end of the day you are understandably exhausted, so it’s time for a good night’s sleep.  Sorry, not gonna happen because your new bedroom, which is really someone’s living room also doubles as a lair for a scourge of mosquitos; no rest for the weary here.  And that is only during the on-the-job training, which by the way lasts three months.  Once you actually get to your new permanent “office” most of the previously mentioned challenges follow.  At your new home, at any given time and in no particular order you’ll have infestations of mice, spiders, mosquitos, ants, beetles, gnats, flies, bees, earthworms and the occasional frog.  Creatures of unknown origin and species will take up residence first in your attic and then in the crawl space under your house.  Birds will get trapped and die in your only heating system.  And at work you’ve agreed to manage 240 belligerent, puberty stricken high school students who have more respect for the newly placed chewing gum under their desks and the penis carving on top, than they do for the new British teacher.  Yes, that’s right, British.  Despite many strategically placed American flags strewn across the classroom, students still ask if you’re going back to England for the winter break.  Meanwhile, you’re still figuring out the language as you explain how much you like extra mice (meant cinnamon) in your hot wine and how you had a pet set of tits (meant turtles) as a child.

Finally, there are the cultural differences.  You think office politics is a headache in the U.S.:  Things get even more complicated when you throw in a little defeatism from a harsh communist past and more than a dash of well-placed anti-capitalism angst from a less than smooth post-communist past.  All this while removing the American comfort space bubble we so love, both in terms of physical and topical space, where face to face conversations often lead straight to why you’re not married, how pathetic your paycheck is and how long you’ve been a spy for the U.S. government.  Any of these things individually are easy to overcome and wouldn’t be worth mentioning if they didn’t all pile up against you and I’m not just talking about a simple 40 hour work week; this is your LIFE for more than two years.  Everywhere you go these challenges follow you; as long as you are in-country, you are at work.

So now you ask: “Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?”

My answer:  “Hell, yes!  Because that is what makes Returned Peace Corps Volunteers the passionate, dynamic, dedicated and diverse hard workers that we are.  We sacrifice a lot to help improve the global reputation of the country we love.  You can’t change the world while sitting on your couch watching Honey Boo Boo.”

“Judge not lest ye be judged.”  Join the Peace Corps, sacrifice, make your mark, make a difference and then we’ll go take a real “vacation” together.

First, I’d like to say ‘Thank you’ to all of you who donated to our Peace Corps Partnership Program fundraiser for this year’s Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) and Teaching Our Boys Excellence (TOBE) youth development summer camps in Romania.  We absolutely could not have done this without your support and we are all very appreciative.  For those who donated, you should have by now received a thank you postcard from me personally in the mail and will soon receive a handwritten letter from one of the campers.  If you donated anonymously our thanks is just as genuine.

In all likelihood, if you are reading this post then you have probably read others about my time here in Romania; and, even to the casual reader, it should come as no surprise that my all time favorite Peace Corps experiences are the camps we run as volunteers.  They are a chance for us facilitators to work alongside passionate host country national Romanians to provide an unparalleled growth opportunity for their kids.  Through the implementation of proven educational strategies we are able to encourage noticeable improvement in important skills, attitudes and global perspective of our campers through fun, engaging and interactive activities.  The participants are very bright, well behaved and are genuinely a pleasure to work with; in many cases they are the very best that Romania has to offer.  My only regret is that this is my final year as a Peace Corps Volunteer and that I most likely won’t be working with them in any direct manner again.  With that in mind, I felt it was important that this final Peace Corps sponsored GLOW/TOBE Romania be an extra special one for all involved.

After acting in the capacity of session facilitator over the past two summers, I decided that it was my turn to manage the camp itself.  Undeniably, this year’s camp faced some challenges from the beginning.  These stemmed mainly from the withdrawal of two host country nationals critically connected to the programming and logistics of the camp; both were instrumental in the success and enjoyment of this event over the past two years and their absence added some definite complexity.  Thus, during the third installment of the TOBE, I was thrust into not only the role of a financial manager and fundraiser but also programming and operations.  The original site that had been selected for GLOW/TOBE turned out not to be adequate and as a result we made the last minute decision to move the camp to an alternative location, my Peace Corps assigned site in Valea Călugărească.  Fortunately, I had critical local support in three key areas.  The one remaining host country national from our partner NGO, Școala pentru Viața (the School of Life) who oversaw operations for GLOW was instrumental in making this happen.  Second, my Romanian Counterpart, Loredana Duca who was essential to the preparation of the new location was simply amazing.  Finally, my Peace Corps Volunteer colleagues who contributed to programming and individual session management; three of which came from their sites in the Republic of Moldova, at the expense of their own vacation time.  This camp would not have been the success that it was had we not leveraged the expertise of all these amazing individuals.

As in past years, the week was packed from beginning to end with many activities; from dawn until well after dusk, we kept the campers busy with team-building exercises and challenges of every sort.  Worth mentioning is that this is the first time in Romania that GLOW and TOBE were hosted at the same time in the same location.  This decision complicated matters logistically, but made for a much richer overall experience for the campers.  Both had overarching but different themes that each individual activity drew from.  This added an interesting level of complexity to everything the campers did.  Specifically, for TOBE, the theme was that of Knights.  With undertones of chivalry and honor penetrating each lesson.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of our boys were 14 years old; even though we encourage participation from teenagers up to 18; these are the kids who happened to apply this year.  The use of the Knights theme was hugely successful and as much as I would like to take credit for the idea, that distinction goes to Adrian Rusu one of our Școala pentru Viața consultants.  Really, I just liked being called “Sir Jeremy” all week.  We labeled each of the camp locations for meetings, dorm rooms, dining, etc., after something related to the genre; the Armory, the Squire’s Dungeon, and the Dragon’s Forest to name a few.  We even had a wooden sword crafted by my local friend, Marian, to pass around at the daily “Knights Quorum” as a sort of talking stick.  Upon arrival to the camp, each camper (as a squire) had to decorate his own shield (name tag) as it pertained to him.  Additionally, I am happy to announce, that at the end of the camp, each participant was “knighted” in a semi-formal ceremony in front of our large bonfire.  Fortunately, none of the knights was too proud afterwards to enjoy several s’mores…sorry, I mean dragon’s breath cookies.

Despite the initial challenges, in the end, what matters most is that the event was seamless for the campers and that they had a high quality, fulfilling educational experience and that they were able to make new friends that they will never forget.  Though dispersed throughout the country, there is now a thriving network of new acquaintances that will remain connected through social media.  Many of them have expressed interest in taking on the challenge of continuing the GLOW/TOBE initiative into the future even though Peace Corps is resigning from the country and won’t be here to help.  It’s my hope that through organizations such as the U.S.-based Friends of Romania group I’ll be able to help support these promising young leaders in the future, even if I can’t have as much fun as they do by attending the camp itself.

Since our group of Peace Corps Volunteers will be the last for Romania, a major topic of conversation for us pertains to our “Legacy.”  What will we, as individual volunteers, leave behind?  What will Peace Corps Romania, as an institution, leave behind?  There are tangible things like books, other educational materials and marshmallows; and, of course, there are countless personal and professional relationships that we hope will have a lasting impact, but the third aspect of our legacy is skills transfer.  These are intangible, knowledge-based, developmental, and educational resources that we impart on our host country friends and colleagues in the hopes that they will carry on some of the more beneficial initiatives that Peace Corps has brought to Romania for the sake of continued future development.  Some of the most significant examples are the youth development GLOW and TOBE summer camps that we host (more on that in a future post) each year and, of course, the countless hours we invest teaching English.  But what about the myriad of topics that don’t fall under the purview of GLOW/TOBE and English lessons?  Workshops!  That’s the answers.

From about the mid-point in our Peace Corps service the lovely women of our Bucharest-based Programming Staff have encouraged us to create, initiate and facilitate workshops on topics for which we have specific personal interest.  These half to full-day sessions are intended to act as a vehicle to transfer some of the more unique knowledge and skills that we as Peace Corps Volunteers bring to our host countries and could range from “how to construct a composting bin” to matters of the high-tech.  The latter is where I come in.  Though admittedly, I’m no computer programmer or hacker I am probably one of the most wired Peace Corps Volunteers in existence with almost any Apple product you could mention, two Wi-Fi hotspots (classroom and home), 3G internet in my pocket, multifunction wireless color printer, dedicated postcard photo printer (thanks mom), a classroom ceiling-mounted projector aligned with a white board as a make-shift Smart Board and portable projector/speaker combination.  Heaven forbid the power ever goes out.  So from the beginning, as a known IT enthusiast, a backroom conspiracy was hatched to loop me into hosting a workshop on tablet computing at the American Corner in the Romanian city of Craiova; a conspiracy that I gladly went along with.

The goal, per the American Corner, was to provide a high-tech lesson on the effective use of tablet computers within the realm of education and for responsible social media usage for their group of about 14 high school students in a “Hi-Tech Club.”  Thus, one Friday in March I travelled to Craiova and hosted the four-hour session and achieved these goals through real-time classroom instruction, explanation, demonstration and application and I threw in a bonus topic of plagiarism for good measure.  In a flash, we covered topics from Social Media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Blogging to publishing applications like Apple’s Pages, Numbers, Keynote and alternative presentation tools like Prezi.

The wonderful staff of American Corner Craiova set up a great, multi-week schedule for their “Hi-Tech Club,” which included visits from several other Peace Corps Romania Volunteers over the course of three months.  Coincidentally, I was their first speaker in March and their last guest in June.  They requested that I return for an encore performance and to serve as a fitting bookend to their project.  My second session was in the same vein as the first but focused on Internet safety and security this time around.  My thinking behind this was, now that they know about all the wonderful tools the internet, social media and tablet computers have to offer, these students should now know about some of the more common Internet threats and how to avoid them.  Thanks to another volunteer (thanks Melissa) who clued me in and to all the hard work that the folks at NetSmartz.org put into their materials, this second session was a piece of cake.  NetSmartz is an organization that creates content designed specifically for educating kids, teenagers and adults on Internet Safety and best practices.  The session went well and, in fact, at the last-minute, I was asked to do an encore of my encore, in the same day with two four-hour back-to-back sessions for two different groups of kids.  Even though I was exhausted at the end of the day, I knew that the material we talked about had made a difference.

Not only were these workshops a benefit to the idea of skills transfer, but also they were a real breath of fresh air and change of pace for me as they provided a different venue and different topic of lecture apart from teaching English.  The students were highly engaged and interested with lots of topical questions, but also showed genuine interest in learning about Peace Corps Volunteers and America.  As it often happens with our work, nothing is limited to the scope of what is defined; there are always breakaway conversations and opportunities to expand beyond the confines of the subject at hand.  After all, our mission is “Promoting World Peace and Friendship,” and that is our ultimate legacy project.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the blog title above to view the photographs.

Our Peace Corps Country Director is understandably a big fan of Habitat for Humanity.  She worked on builds with the organization during her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then later found employment there, finishing her six years with Habitat as a Director of Volunteer Engagement.  As our Country Director in Romania, she collaborated with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity in 2011 on a week-long build to construct a house from start to finish with homeowner, Volunteer and host country manpower.  Although I was here in country at the time, my group and I were still confined to our three months of pre-service training so, unfortunately, we couldn’t contribute, but the stories we heard about the event were only positive.  In the summer of 2012 she had hoped to coordinate a “caravan” of sorts where various volunteers from different parts of Romania would help facilitate different Habitat projects in their regions.  However, due to lack of funding, the project never really got off the ground.  It seemed as though our chances of participating in a Habitat build, such as the one other volunteers had incessantly bragged about for two years, were increasingly unlikely as our time drew down.  So it should come as no surprise that within seconds of receiving an e-mail requesting volunteers for a last minute build in May, I shot back a message with an enthusiastic “Yes! Count me in.”

Certainly, I had heard the name Habitat for Humanity before, but honestly never really knew how the organization worked; if cornered, I probably would have said that they are a charity that procures materials with donations, builds houses with volunteer labor and then gives the home over to the lucky homeowner.  As it turns out this isn’t entirely true.  As outlined by their website, Habitat is “a non-profit, Christian organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world and make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action worldwide.”  Yes, they do take donations of money and materials and use volunteer labor, but the important clarification is that the homeowner also invests hundreds of hours toward the build and pays a down payment on the home and pays a mortgage.  Habitat provides the new homeowner with the no-profit, low-cost loan and the repayment is placed in a revolving fund used to build or renovate more Habitat houses.

This particular Habitat for Humanity build was for the Chirca family in Oarja Romania, just outside of Pitești on the map, and was already well underway when we arrived.  A group of about 15 of us Peace Corps Volunteers were brought in for two full days to mainly help with landscaping outside the house and insulation and drywall on the inside.  Both days were absolutely beautiful with comfortably warm weather and bright fluffy clouds dotting the sky.  Working alongside two of the family members and a guest appearance by the village mayor’s daughter, we quite literally whistled while we worked.  Well perhaps it was more like off key singing as American Volunteers sung their favorite show tunes from Glee; hopefully the Chirca family doesn‘t think all Americans are crazy like us.  Despite the odd looks from the locals we powered through two exhausting days but finished up our tasks feeling quite satisfied.

Many friends tell me that they can’t believe that I volunteered for two years with the Peace Corps and that they could never do it themselves.  First of all, many of us underestimate ourselves and with just a handful of events changed, any of my friends could have been writing this blog post in my place.  The real fact of the matter is that you don’t have to invest two years of your life to make a significant difference in the lives of others.  Using a little of our free time here and there we can help immensely to improve the lives of others.  Habitat is only one example.  My recommendation is that you first figure out what your personal interests are and then find a volunteer opportunity that matches.  I guarantee that you won’t have to fly half way around the world to feel good about yourself while making a difference.

Check out the following websites for some ideas:

Habitat for Humanity

Volunteer Match

Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, VA.

Last year I participated in a project called “Trees for Peace” or, in Romanian, “Pomi pentru Pace.”  The premise was to plant one tree for each of the 22 years Peace Corps had served in Romania since the fall of communism.  This project was carried out in ten communities throughout Romania including mine, Valea Călugărească, resulting in a total of 220 trees planted.  Collaborating through one of our talented Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders assigned to work with the Romanian NGO MaiMultVerde, loosely translated as “More Green,” we implemented the project, using U.S. Embassy funds, during a sort of “field day” week that the Romanian Ministry of Education implemented for the first time in 2012.  As you may recall from my blog post at the time, the project was a great success.  Working closely with my Counterpart and her headmaster class, coincidentally with the profile of Environmental Protection, we partnered with experts from our agriculturally focused high school and planted the prescribed number of trees and installed a custom built bench alongside the commemorative plaque we received from MMV.  Before last year’s project was even completed people were already asking me if we could do it again next year.  Not knowing how or if we could my default answer was, “Sure, why not?”

Well, the answer to “why not” initially, was that our Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, a third year volunteer assigned to work with the Romanian partner NGO MaiMultVerde, had completed his service and was now gallivanting around Europe.  One big reason the project was so successful last year was thanks to having a dedicated volunteer who could focus on managing the project more or less as a fulltime job—after all, he had a desk in the MMV office.  So the real question this year was whether or not one of us could manage the nationwide project on top of our regular responsibilities.  Willing to give it a shot and, with no one else raising their hand with interest to make an attempt, I volunteered to take on the project and code-named it: “Trees for Peace 2.0, The Greenhouse Effect”.

In November 2012 I reached out to our Peace Corps Country Director and asked if she’d get in-touch with the U.S. Embassy to discuss their interest in facilitating the financials of the project for a second time.  Meanwhile, I contacted MaiMultVerde and confirmed their interest, at which time I was partnered up with a very talented individual, Ștefan Bradea, for partnership in coordinating the project.  Within a couple of weeks, not only did we have a green light from the Embassy, but also they were encouraging us to expand the project in some way.  This was great news, but posed a challenge.  How do we grow while our volunteer headcount is shrinking?

Remember that with Peace Corps’ imminent withdrawal from Romania we’re not bringing on new groups of volunteers, so by the time our shovels would be scheduled to hit the dirt we’d be down from 70+ volunteers compiled mainly of Group 27 and Group 28 to only about 35 from the latter.  Thus, my thinking was that if we can’t branch out with more trees in more locations why not increase the impact of the project at fewer sites?  That’s when I remembered the work of a volunteer from an earlier group who had collaborated with her community to build an entire “Eco Park” from recycled and repurposed materials.  The hallmark of this was a greenhouse constructed of used 2-liter plastic water bottles.  This idea really stuck with me —  () because I thought it was incredibly clever, and (B) it’s tangible; much of the work we do as volunteers is in education and youth development and simply can’t be measured.  So, I found appealing the idea of building something and leaving behind a visible mark of our existence here in Romania.

Over the course of the next five months the project came together; the scope was defined; volunteers signed up to participate; funds were distributed; trees were planted; and, greenhouses started to go up.  There were plenty of challenges along the road, with countless and constant e-mails flying in and out, uncontrollable delays, mounds of paperwork and tedious tracking of stamped receipts and invoices.  But in the end it was totally worth the effort we all invested.  Our scheduled day for breaking ground slipped from the first week of April during “Școala Altfel” to, perhaps more appropriately, April 22nd, Earth Day.  Sacks of recycled bottles flooded in as each of our six sites began their builds; in total we needed almost ten thousand bottles rinsed, labels removed and bottoms cut off.  But with a small army of students, with group leaders naturally emerging, the work went by almost effortlessly.

Although there were the occasional moments of doubt and disagreement, and despite the fact that our greenhouse in Valea Călugărească is more of a rhombus than a rectangle, it sparkles with a calming light blue in the sunlight and is a daily reminder of what we can accomplish and learn when we work together.  In the end, I can’t say how long our greenhouse will actually last.  As I look around Romania at the old communist bloc apartment buildings, many crumbling from the passage of time, I wonder how many groups of ninth graders will pass by our greenhouse and ask who the crazy American was who helped to build it.  Held together by untreated wood, metal wire and, yes, even duct tape, the physical structure may not last more than a few seasons.  So, in the end, maybe it is better that we rely on the intangible to promote our Peace Corps legacy into the future.  After all, what is ‘peace’ really about?  It’s not so much the tangible structures we build together but the friendships and collaborations that foster our cross-cultural understanding that ultimately bring peace.

Click here to see the Prezi I gave at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest

Request for Support

Please ‘like’, share and help support one of the most impactful programs Peace Corps Romania offers; GLOW/TOBE Youth Development Camps. This will be our last set of summer camps before Peace Corps departs Romania, so please help us to develop their future leaders. Your contribution will provide food and lodging for 70 Romanian girls and boys during this week-long event.http://1.usa.gov/WQOp71

One of Peace Corps Romania’s more active organizations is our Gender and Development (GAD) committee.  The group is run by Peace Corps Volunteers and Host Country Nationals and, as the title would suggest, its mission is to promote gender equality in the social and economic development processes of Romania.  As the GAD website explains, the organization fulfills its aims through various outlets, such as national campaigns like the 16 Days Against Gender Violence, by holding workshops across the nation, helping with and creating GLOW and TOBE camps, and supplying grants to worthy actions.  Although I am not a member of the GAD committee, I have participated in a few of its initiatives, most notably GLOW and TOBE but also its annual 16 Days Against Gender Violence campaign.

The latter event is among one of my favorites while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, though my role was relatively limited, acting largely as a Producer of sorts.  The campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, was launched in 1991 as a way to organize activities that focus on gender violence awareness.  Each year the GAD committee rolls out a slightly different take on the same theme.  This time around it observed the 16 days from November 25th through December 10th, with the following relevant and important days:

  • November 25: International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women
  • November 29: International Women Human Rights Defenders Day
  • December 1: World AIDS Day
  • December 3: International Day of Persons with Disabilities
  • December 10: International Human Rights Day

Per GAD’s marketing materials on the topic: The 2012 theme is “From Peace at Home to Peace in the World”. Writing (in Romanian), Art, Photography, Theatrical Performance, and Film Submissions should be creative interpretations of this theme created specifically for this competition.

When the campaign first launched, I brought the idea to my Counterpart’s attention and watched her eyes light up with excitement.  As a teacher of Romanian Literature she immediately put on her Director’s hat and jumped on the idea of collaborating with her students to create a Theatrical Performance.  Coincidentally, this was the first year that GAD included this particular category.  So, over the next few weeks, we worked out a script, students designed costumes and props and we transformed my classroom into a mini theatre.  After a couple of rehearsals we let the film roll, recorded our submission and then sat back and waited for the results.  A couple months later the good news arrived and as it turns out our students won first place under the heading of Theatrical Performances, never mind the fact that they had the only entry in this category.

Worth mentioning is that the entire project from start to finish was generously sponsored by IREX/Biblionet and the SensiBlu Foundation.  As reward and recognition of the students’ hard work and dedication, the GAD committee and its sponsors invited all winning participants to an award ceremony at the National Library in Bucharest.  The photography, paintings and essays of many participating students were debuted and film submissions were played on repeat for all guests to see.  Our students had the distinct honor of performing their submission for the large group of attendees. In the end, each of our students won a digital camera and their round-trip ticket to Bucharest for the event.  With their newfound stardom pumping up their self-confidence our little troop of performers later gave an encore performance in our high school’s auditorium.

Ultimately, the point of this project was to encourage participants and spectators to challenge the status quo as it relates to gender equality and more specifically domestic violence.  Even more so than in America, I have learned that in Romania the traditional role of women as homemaker is still very much alive today.  During preparatory discussions on this topic, many of our high school boys were appalled at the fact that I do my own laundry, cleaning and cooking; in their minds this was very much the role of their mothers, girlfriends and/or future wives.  Unfortunately, many of them have witnessed domestic violence first hand or know of someone who has.  Fortunately, the general consensus was that this type of behavior is unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated in their generation.  I can’t say definitively if we managed to outright change the thinking of these youth, but I know for sure that we planted a few positive seeds for the future.

Film: I want to tell you that I love you.

Catching Up

The past few months have been an absolute blur of activities.  Between school and the Peace Corps organization itself, I’ve been kept very busy.  As such, I haven’t had much time to blog, but now offer this summary of recent events in the hopes of bringing everyone up to speed on some of the highlights of what’s been going on.

EQ Wine Visit – August 26th thru 29th 2012 – Valea Călugărească

Since the beginning of summer break my Romanian counterpart, Loredana, asked me to block off the last week of August on my calendar for an International European visit that she’d planned for us to host.  The project is a multi-year event that is funded through the European Union and is designed to bring expert secondary school educators together to further improve upon and develop a more complete curriculum about viticulture and vinification for their students.  So, on Sunday August 26th, our guests began to arrive in Noah’s Arc fashion, two by two.  We had pairs from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Germany and, of course, our own representatives from right here in Romania.  Including the two travel days, our guests visited Valea Călugărească for a total of five.  Loredana and our viticulture professor, Vali, handled the majority of the planning and preparation, leaving only small logistical details to me, such as the creation of a Prezi presentation which highlights the various wine regions and varietals of Romania.  Beyond this, I was largely just a shepherd and resident English expert.  Though short, the week was jam packed with things including tours of local wineries and vineyards, the Romanian National Institute of Wine Research and Development (right here in Valea), plenty of wine tasting and of course “classroom time” where our participants sat down, conference room style, and hashed out improvements to their curricula.  Ultimately the goal of the project is to strengthen and improve the European wine industry, by training the youth of today for the future of tomorrow.  The second stage is a competition in which high school students are prepared to compete academically against each other at the European Wine Championship.  This championship takes place in a different city every year; 2011 took place in Germany, 2012 having been in a small town in Italy and 2013 scheduled for a town in Slovenia.  It was a great opportunity to be able to assist Loredana and Vali with this project, as I was able to meet folks from throughout Europe and to learn more about wine.  At times it was a little awkward as this is a European project and I was the only non-European in attendance.  Fortunately, though, I was able to help with plenty of copyediting and translation into English.  As a result the group invited me to tag along to the next competition in Slovenia in April, on my own dime of course; no European funds for the American!

“Eu sunt! Tu?” – September 7th thru 9th 2012 – Predeal

Peace Corps Romania currently has two Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders or PCVLs.  These are volunteers who have already completed their initial 27 months of service, have applied for an additional year and have been selected by their peers and Peace Corps Staff to serve in a heightened capacity.  These volunteers are first and foremost role models and support to the larger Peace Corps Volunteer community but also take on a primary job with a societally beneficial organization of their choosing.  Currently our PCVLs work with the WWF Romania and Public Services International.  The latter organization focuses it’s efforts on promoting better quality public services to the population at large and functions globally in 148 countries/territories.  Here in Romania they partner with an organization titled “Eu sunt! Tu?” that focuses on educating and empowering the Romanian LGBT community.  Recently, they hosted an annual event in Predeal bringing together about one hundred members of the small but growing Romanian LGBT community for a weekend of discussion, presentations, team-building and socializing.  Our PCVL who works with this organization requested some additional help from PCVs to facilitate the activities of the weekend.  So, being close to Predeal and always up to help out, Aran and I eagerly signed up.  Arriving Friday afternoon and staying through Sunday morning, we were kept busy from dawn to dusk with a myriad of logistical items, but mainly we were just there to help ensure everything went smoothly.  Notably, Friday night Loredana Groza, Romanian pop singer and TV actress made a guest appearance where she shared a story of her interaction as a heterosexual woman with the LGBT community and her support for them.  Unfortunately, this community continues to have difficulty with mainstream Romanians, but they are gaining ground and increasingly are winning the battle for acceptance; I was happy to play my small part in helping their cause.

Kennesaw State Visit – September 29th 2012 – Valea Călugărească

Early last spring Peace Corps staff contacted me from our country headquarters in Bucharest as they passed along a message from an MBA student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  Through this exchange, I was introduced to Coulter Stout who, as it turns out, is a former Peace Corps Romania Volunteer who served in Pitești and had enrolled at Kennesaw State University in conjunction with the Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship Program as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV).  As he explained to me, KSU coincidentally has a great exchange program where EMBA participants collaborate with businesses in Romania, resulting in annual trips to Romania for the Americans and vice versa for the Romanians.  This time around Coulter was interested in having his colleagues partner with a Romanian general or secondary school to work on a project of some sort.  This is where my Colegiul Agricol and I come into the picture; with a tight schedule the KSU students wouldn’t have the time to travel a great distance to visit a far off village and since we are located quite close to Bucharest and I was the first in the area to raise my hand, a partnership was agreed to.  Throughout the spring and summer, Coulter and I communicated regularly providing framework to what would be a great visit by their group.  When the day finally came and their giant tour bus arrived, our school was aflutter with activity and curious eyes.  From the start Coulter’s team had wanted to provide some form of educational presentation to a group of our students, Loredana and I decided that something in the vein of “American Culture” would be best and the KSU folks gladly and whole heartedly obliged.  They prepared an interactive photographic game show whereby they educated our kids on important American landmarks.  I’m happy to say that I scored quite well, with the exception of the “Southern Most Point Buoy” in the Florida Keys.  Additionally, one of their students created a video compilation that included images from their daily lives in America.  In closing, another one of them led our students in an impromptu rap session about their visit to Romania; needless to say my kids loved every minute of it.  In addition to generously donating their time, and creative genius the group also donated several gifts directly to the school, including learning materials and even farm equipment to be used by our agricultural students.  Overall, it was a great collaboration and both sides seemed to benefit from and greatly appreciate the experience.

Peace Corps Gala Event – September 29th 2012 – Bucharest

With Peace Corps’ imminent departure from Romania looming, the US Ambassador to Romania, Peace Corps Staff and the PCV community wanted to do something special to celebrate our 22 plus years of accomplishments working hand in hand with Romanians.  So in the spring it was decided that a gala event would take place as a commemoration.  The US Ambassador graciously donated the use of his Bucharest residence, Peace Corps Staff and two key PCVs worked tirelessly to organize and promote the event, while a handful more PCVs like myself contributed to the event by designing and managing a regionally representative booth.  The over arching theme was “Legacy of Change” and a dozen or so Volunteers, in conjunction with host country nationals, created a booth designed to show off something special from their respective areas.  Early on in the process, I was recruited to help represent the Montania region of Romania, specifically Prahova County where Valea Călugărească is situated, more likely than not because they knew my region’s reputation for wine production.  So with months of hard work and lots of preparation the big day finally came.  Loredana and Vali both helped in significant ways in the creation of our booth, as did two of my favorite students, Ana Maria and Marian.  Our school prepared various fruit jams and a traditional apple pie-like pastry for tasting and I sourced 50 liters of wine from my neighbor Nicu to offer our 300 plus guests with samples.  Other booths included, traditional egg painting, Romanian artwork and handmade crafts, and even a scouting exhibit.  There were also speeches by the Ambassador, Peace Corps Romania Country Director and many others as well as traditional song and dance.  When entering the “fair” each guest was given a regional “passport” for which every booth had a unique ink stamp to mark the appropriate region of the passport; a very clever souvenir and keepsake.  As much work as we put into this event it was absolutely worth it and a great way to celebrate our time in this wonderful country.

If you fast forward to about 44 minutes in this clip you can see a Romanian news broadcast about the event featuring yours truly.

TOBE Video

If you’ve had the time to keep up with this blog over the past two years you’ll know that one of the most rewarding aspects to my Peace Corps service has been TOBE (Teaching our Boys Excellence).  My hope is to participate in this skills development camp again in the summer of 2013.  Meanwhile, during the last camp one of our great facilitators, Nicu, recommended that we create a video to promote the event for next year.  The result is this short movie trailer I compiled in October to get the word out for next year.

English with Jeremy

In my spare time last year I worked with a general school in the town of Bucov and the Roma Education Fund in the village of Ciupelniță.  This year my counterpart asked if I would help out with her daughter’s first grade class once a week teaching English in Ploiești.  It’s really amazing the difference in attention, enthusiasm and energy that younger kids bring to the classroom when compared to my high schoolers.  As you may recall, I worked with Loredana’s daughter’s kindergarten class once last year for a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration and absolutely loved it.  So far this year, Loredana and I have hosted four sessions with the first graders teaching about introductions, numbers, colors, parts of the body, and even Halloween.  The timing even worked out such that I was able to bring other Americans to these classes including another PCV serving in Romania, an RPCV who just finished her tour in Senegal and my good friend Scott from San Diego.  A quick slideshow of these first few events can be seen here.  Even though I often ended up doing silly dances, generally acting like a fool and am genuinely exhausted afterwards, I really enjoy working with these younger kids and appreciate the boost to my Peace Corps morale that they bring to me weekly.

Odds and Ends

In addition to keeping busy with the aforementioned litany of projects, I’ve also hosted another Language Refresher Weekend (similar to the one last year), toured around Romania with my American visitor Scott, visited the historical monasteries in Suceava and, among other things, continued work with my weekly English Club and regular regimen of classes. Two major projects that I’ll be working on over the next couple months are, firstly, a funding scheme for TOBE 2013, and also an encore of the Trees for Peace project I participated in last year, though this time as the Peace Corps point man organizing it.  Overall my work here continues to be hectic but rewarding and with only eight months left I’m trying to make a strong push for a solid finish.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the blog title above to view the photographs.

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