Thursday, May 30, 2013

Last Days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize

Wrapping up two remarkable years of the most transformative experience I have ever had is very difficult.  I’m excited to be counting down the days until I see my beloved family again, but saying goodbye to people I have become close to and finding closure with projects I have become attached to are taxing endeavors.  I’m not sleeping well these days.  My mind is racing around all the people I want to acknowledge with gifts, cards, hugs and tears, as well as my future plans to begin my new work almost as soon as I touch down on US soil with Teach for America.  In short, I’m trying to, but am having difficulty staying in the moment of each of these last days.

We wrapped up the Bella Vista Family Literacy Program with a party, cake, certificates, gifts of children’s books, and a visit from Nina Hernandez, our Peace Corps Country Director.  The Spanish-speaking mothers who I’ve come to have great affection for explained to Nina how they had learned in our sessions the importance of stimulating their children at home by reading aloud to them, conversing with them and preparing them for school.  They all completed the two year project with a little collection of about 15 books to read to their children, the importance of which they had not previously known.

Doña Gloria reads aloud to our Family Literacy group

Leaving Bella Vista for the last time

Our Pat the Great Cat Project (see blog entry from July, 2012) came to a close as well, at least the part that involved our Peace Corps Volunteer participation in teacher training.   Over the last 10 months our team of six Peace Corps Volunteer educators and the US Ambassador’s wife, Barbara Thummalapally, facilitated seven workshops in all six districts of Belize, working with over 400 teachers.  A team of documentary film makers began producing a video of our workshop sessions, and will continue editing for some months now before the final product of a training video is given to the Ministry of Education for future in-service training.  

Each Standard IV (5th grade) classroom in Belize has now received a teacher’s copy of Pat the Great Cat:  A Jaguar’s Journey and soon each school will receive a set of 30 hardcover copies for student use.  Hundreds of teachers throughout Belize are now creatively using this engaging text to support their lessons in wildlife conservation, social studies, math, expressive arts, science, health and language arts.  I am so proud to have been a part of this inspiring team of volunteers and will treasure all my memories of our travels together throughout Belize to bring literacy alive for Belize’s children and teachers.
Our Pat the Great Cat Team

The teachers develop lessons based on Pat the Great Cat and our training

Primary school children learn about rainforest conservation from Pat the Great Cat

Teachers in Corozal develop lessons integrating expressive arts with other areas of the curriculum

Our workshop in Punta Gorda

I also wrapped up my last days in the schools of Stann Creek District by saying goodbye to my favorite teachers and distributing all the children’s books and homemade educational materials I had accumulated for use in my workshops over the past two years.  I put together several files of digital documents of teaching strategies, power point presentations and learning materials, and gave them to teachers on their thumb drives.  I hope I have inspired at least a few teachers along the way!

Here are some shots of one of my favorite schools, Light of the Valley Primary School

Mrs. Logan, Infant I (Kindergarten) teacher
Ms. Villanueva, Infant II (First grade teacher)

Saying lots of goodbyes in my town of Dangriga:

My last GLOW club meeting with the girls

Aidra, Ingrid and Primrose with the GLOW girls

Saying "adios" to my favorite Honduran vegetable seller

The owner of "The Price is Right," my favorite Chinese supermarket

My landlady, Ms. Sandra, made me this beautiful bag as a going-away present.

Sad goodbyes to my best Belizean friend, Dez.

Aidra Rodriquez made me a lovely Garifuna doll as a going-away present

The famous Rodriguez sisters gave me one of their hand-made Garifuna drums to take as a souvenir of Dangriga.  I'm so honored!

So many goodbyes from the teachers, my colleagues from the Ministry of Education, my neighbors and friends in Dangriga, all the members of the Peace Corps staff in Belmopan and my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.....we made it to the end of a 27 month journey.  I will carry the memories of this experience with me all the days of my life.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March 2013

March 2013—Read Aloud Day and Close of Service Conference

March 8 was Read Aloud Day and my Family Literacy group in the village of Bella Vista practiced reading aloud to their preschool children.  Ten mothers and a father, only two of whom speak English, practiced using the little board books that volunteers sent us from the States to help develop their young children’s language by interacting with them using these little books.  Most of the donated books are in English, but the parents are learning to use the pictures and their own imaginations to tell stories, elicit conversations from their youngsters, and develop their children’s oral language.  This one activity has been shown to be the most important key to educational success. 

Together we have learned about infant and child development, we have learned and shared little songs and finger plays, and we have made puppets to help tell stories to the children.  In last year’s Family Literacy group there were both English- and Spanish-speakers, but this year all of the parents are monolingual Spanish-speakers, all from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  While they are interested in learning English, it has been difficult for them to progress as the village of Bella Vista is inhabited by Spanish-speakers, and they all work at the banana farms, with other Spanish-speaking people.  Their children, however, are expected to learn to read and write in English.  But one mother, Nalesca, confidently declared to our group that when she read books and told stories to her 5-year-old son in Spanish, she noticed that he progressed in his Infant I (Kindergarten) class in school.  This wise mother intuited what educators have known for a long time:  when a child has well-developed native language, he or she has a better chance at success in school, even if his or her mother tongue is not English.

Here are some photos of our little Family Literacy class:

This Peace Corps Belize adventure is shortly coming to a close.  The date that I will fly out to the States is May 31.  But before we leave, all of us PCVs will need to fill out “reams” of electronic “paperwork”, (Peace Corps is, after all, a government agency), and we will go through a battery of final medical exams and interviews.  So to prepare us for all of this, the Peace Corps staff provides a Close of Service Conference for two and a half days.  This is also our last time to be all together as a group.  Of the 38 Peace Corps Trainees who arrived in March of 2011, there are 25 of us Peace Corps Volunteers left. 

Our conference was held at Cahal Pech resort in San Ignacio.  We enjoyed being together one last time, and we also enjoyed spending time with the entire Peace Corps staff.  The most meaningful workshop for me was the one in which we divided into sectors and shared our activities from the past two years.  Then we reconvened and shared with every other sector and wrote up “Our Legacy”.  Here are some of the Education Sector's most proud accomplishments:
We trained teachers in:
·            * Literacy
·             *Classroom management
·             *Technology
·            * Assessment
·             *Special Education
·            * Health and Family Life
·             *Cross-cultural Education
There are many occasions when we PCVs wonder if we’re actually doing “enough” or are “making a difference”, so sharing our activities with one another helped to remind us of why we joined Peace Corps in the first place.

COS Conference 2013
Peace Corps Belize
Volunteers and Staff

Our goofy pic

Workshop venue

Receiving my certificate from Nina Hernandez, our Country Director

Now time for fun!  We divided up into groups to complete a digital scavenger hunt.  Our first task was to get a photo of everyone on the team up in the air.

Our team fitting into a really small place.

Our team performing the Gangnam Style dance with some random people we roped into doing it with us.

Our team stuffing as many marshmallows in our mouths as we could.

We Peace Corps Volunteers enjoy our work and our leisure time.  We have two and a half months left of our service here in Belize, and I am grateful to have such wonderful friends to serve with.  I know our friendship will continue long after we have all returned to our homes in the US.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's been a while!

For the last couple of months things have been going along as usual:  giving workshops to teachers at many different schools in the Stann Creek District, working with parents and preschoolers in the Family Literacy program at Bella Vista, and enjoying the relatively cool air of a Belizean winter. (That means around 70-80 degrees F).  

But two exciting, photo-worthy events happened in December:  My son Michael came to Belize for a visit, and I took a short trip over the border into Mexico with my Peace Corps Volunteer friend, Barbara Levy.

After Michael arrived we went directly out to Caye Caulker, where we enjoyed snorkeling in Belize's beautiful Caribbean coral reef.
Michael in Caye Caulker
 Choosing our fish or lobster to grill for dinner
Michael snorkeling with the fish and nurse sharks
Sea turtle
Moray eel
Michael kayaking around Caye Caulker
Night falls on Caye Caulker

After a couple of days in paradise, we made our way down to my town of Dangriga, using Michael's least favorite form of transportation, Belize's public buses.
It's about a 3-hour ride from Belize City to Dangriga, on Belize's ancient converted US school buses.  Poor Michael could barely fit his legs in the seat.  We frequently had to ride standing up.

We spent a few days in my home in Dangriga using it as a base to explore other areas of Belize.  We rode bicycles around town and relaxed both at home and at the Pelican.  
Riding around Dangriga
Michael marvels at Belize's bananas
Michael hangs out with the "piknee" (kids) at the Pelican

One of our side-trips was cave-tubing at Caves Branch.  
We saw Maya pottery and other artifacts in the cave.

Michael and I joined other Peace Corps Volunteers and about 30 other people at a holiday party at the US Ambassador's residence.  Michael enjoyed spending time with Ambassador Thummalapally, his wife and two children.

Michael and I did some ziplining at a wonderful spot called Bocawina Adventures.  We had a great time flying over the rainforest of Belize!

My favorite trip was a long hike we did at Cockscomb Basin and Jaguar Preserve.  I truly enjoyed my son's company as we strolled through the forest, climbed challenging hills, and swam under the waterfall.

The most memorable activity for me was simply sitting on my couch with my son and chatting about life.  I cried for a couple of days after he left.  I miss him terribly, but will forever cherish the memories of our time together in the Belizean jungle.  Thankfully, I had previously planned a trip with my friend Barbara Levy to the beautiful Mexican state of Chiapas a couple of days after Michael left, and our wonderful trip gave me plenty to help assuage my blues.  

Barbara and I took a bus across the northern border of Belize into the town of Chetumal.  It's amazing crossing the border and realizing that Mexico is such a developed country compared with Belize.  It's almost like being in the US.  We spent some time at the mall in Chetumal, where we could actually go to a movie theater and see "The Life of Pi" in 3-D.  

From Chetumal we took an overnight bus to Palenque.  The Mexican buses are deluxe and very comfortable.  We slept most of the way and woke up when we arrived in the morning.  Here are some photos of our visit to the Maya ruins of Palenque.

We also traveled to the waterfalls of Misol Ha 

And Agua Azul

Then we traveled to the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas

We spent plenty of time in this beautiful town, rambling through its cobblestone streets, visiting its churches, restaurants and markets
Barbara and I loved shopping in the colorful markets!
El mercado de los dulces (sweets)

Our last stop in the state of Chiapas was Tuxtla Gutierrez, where we stayed with my friend Brenda at her home.  She showed us around the city and took us to visit the Canon del Sendero, a huge, beautiful canyon.  We enjoyed our visit with Brenda and her family.
At Brenda's house
Heading into the canyon on a motorboat
Crocodile along the bank of the river

Spider monkeys along the river bank

Our vacation through the gorgeous state of Chiapas was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was the intestinal bacteria that I contracted and brought back with me to Belize, knocking me off my feet for three days.  Oh, well, Moctezuma is still trying to take out his revenge on us.  

I promise that my next post will not be so long in coming, and that I will have reports and photos to show how things are going in the schools and with the family literacy program.  Please continue to write to me and let me know how things are going for you.  We Peace Corps Volunteers relish contact from our friends and family back home.  It keeps us going....