Welcome to Jurassic Park

No, this is not click bait. My friends and I actually camped where the dinosaurs once lived. I will admit, the campsite site is not called, “Jurassic Park,” but rather, “Sataplia- Imereti Caves Protected Areas.”

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The entrance sign

Here is your Georgian lesson for the day, “Tapli” means “honey.” The kind that you eat, not the nickname that your grandmother has for you. The Georgian language has some logic to it, whenever the “place” for something is, you add, “sa” in front of it. Therefore, “Sataplia” loosely translates to, “the place where the honey is.” So, why am I referring to it as the Real Jurassic Park? Well, Sataplia is well-known in Georgia for the dinosaur footprints and its beautiful caves.

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Katharine, Peace Corps Volunteer, took this wonderful picture of the dinosaur footprints

The plan was to leave in the morning on Saturday, November 25th, 2017. We originally wanted to go to Oktase Canyon, but they were not allowing any visitors because of the snow. Many of us traveled far for this camping trip (I did not), so the snow was not going to stop us from camping. So we settled on Sataplia because it was close and mainly because they were open to visitors.

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Sataplia National Park has this viewing balcony that you can view the mountains and the city of Kutaisi. (photo cred: Erin)

Everyone who knew we were camping thought we were crazy. The other American Peace Corps Volunteers thought, “Don’t freeze out there!” Thanksgiving weekend has been the first snow of the season for many parts of Georgia. The Georgians were simply dumbfounded to why anyone would want to sleep outside- by choice. I was able to get a local Georgian friend of mine to call his uncle to drop us off at Sataplia. His question was, “Where are you going after Sataplia?” Our answer, “We are staying at Sataplia.” He kept on repeating the question, because why on earth would anyone stay in Sataplia in the snow. From then on, we coined the theme of the camping trip, “#Campingordeath.”

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Outbound to camping! Front right-hand corner: Neil. Second row (left to right): me, Joe, Erin, Katharine, and Cherish. Back row: Tyler’s hand (you can only see him waving) (photo cred: Neil)

When we arrived, we definitely looked like the crazy Americans. The park rangers were confused as to why we had so many things with us. When we explained to them that we are Peace Corps Volunteers who want to go camping, they welcomed us with open arms! The director of the park had hosted (as a host family) a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2013. So within minutes, some of them left the park to go buy some cha-cha (similar to vodka), wine, and bread to celebrate!

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“Quick! Do the T-Rex!” Sataplia has a couple of dinosaur models in the park. (photo cred: Lasha, via Erin’s phone)

In the meantime, one of the park rangers, Lasha, took us a personal tour of the caves and the park. Lasha embodied the hospitality of Georgia. Of course, the entire tour was in Georgian, but we understood most of it 😉

For the next couple of hours, we drank and ate bread with the park rangers in their office. We shared with them our pretzels and snacks that we bought for the trip. You simply cannot get a better cultural integration moment than that! We laughed and ate and just enjoyed each other’s company.

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Neil and I collecting firewood! The snow was slippery, especially when walking with a huge log downhill! (photo cred: Katharine)

By the time we finished drinking and snacking with the park rangers, it was almost 4:30 p.m. We immediately started setting up our camp and collected firewood. It was the first time in my life collecting firewood. For bonfires in the U.S, we would just buy the wood at the store. Nope, I spent the next couple of hours looking for dead, fallen branches in the woods. I’m not going to lie, I surprised myself with how much I carried and contributed.

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Collecting firewood during sunset! I loved this photo that Erin took of me. It just captures the beautiful Georgian nature.

The park rangers let us borrow their shovels, so we used that to remove the snow where our tents would be. Then, we set up our tents and our sleeping bags. I inherited an old sleeping that has been passed down several Peace Corps generations in Georgia. I am very thankful for it because it kept me alive throughout the night.

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One of my favorite pictures of the trip. Erin captured our campsite with the set setting down. It is picture perfect, to say the least.

We spent the night telling each other stories, huddled around each other to stay warm. Tyler kept up the fire most of the night and he did such a good job. Yay us for collecting enough firewood! It was definitely a fun experience camping. Now, would I do it again in the muddy snow? Debatable.

I also found out that on our way back, the park rangers had given the office key to one of us. They offered their indoor office in case it was too cold outside. So, it was nice knowing that they did not want to find seven, dead American bodies lying in the snow the next morning.

One of a Kind Thanksgiving: Back to the Basics

Yarn Skallah*: “So we have a slight issue. Baia does not think she can get us a Turkey anymore.”
Me: “Do you think you can get a turkey? I mean you can literally probably just kidnap one off the street? They just run around, maybe no one will notice.”
Yarn Skallah: “I was hoping you get one at your site.” I simply laughed at this.
Me: “What is a Thanksgiving in Georgia without a bit of drama? I have never seen a turkey sold here. But I will ask Dato and we will figure it out.”

*Yarn Skallah is a nickname that Ryan adopted during our PST experience. He has specifically requested for me to use his nickname in this blog post. I will refer to him as Yarn going forward.

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Turkeys literally just roam around in villages and towns. Suggesting to kidnap one is not unrealistic, but still unethical.

The above conversation is in reference to our planning stage for our Thanksgiving event in a nearby village. Baia, referenced above, is a local, famous, female winemaker who has a guesthouse attached to her vineyard. Our plan was to rent out the guesthouse, invite several of our Peace Corps friends, and celebrate Thanksgiving early with Baia. I also invited Dato, my director at World Vision, to celebrate with us.

Immediately after that conversation, I request Dato’s help, “Do you know if we can buy a Turkey here?” He nods and said, “Yes, at the poultry market. We can go today and see.” So within the hour, I hop in the car and Dato and I were off to this poultry market that I had no idea existed. Funny enough, it was a couple of blocks away from my host family’s house. This market was filled with live chickens and pigs for sale. Unfortunately, that day, there were only 5 live teenage turkeys. We felt that the price was a bit high, so we decided to pardon the turkeys’ lives and let them live for another day.

 

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You can see a couple of pigs in the bottom right-hand corner. The rest of the picture is filled with live chickens.

I felt perplexed by the whole thing. I really wanted to brine the turkey for days before roasting it. However, Dato was convinced that on the weekends, the price of a live turkey drops. Considering that our event was on a Saturday night, this would work out in our favor. Whilst all this was happening, I could not help but laugh at the situation.

Here I am arguing about live turkeys for Thanksgiving with a villager who grows them for a living. In California, Justin and I would buy our turkey weeks in advance from Costco and begin defrosting it a few days before Thanksgiving. It got me thinking, did pilgrims, the ones who did not raise turkeys, have the same conversation at the market nearly 300-400 years ago? Or did they just kidnap one off the “street” like I jokingly suggested we should do?

During the whole week, I had a gut feeling that there might not be a functioning oven. I know that may seem odd to you, but MOST homes in Georgia do not have ovens. Yarn and I continue to discuss this potential dilemma on the phone while we are both working. Dato overhears me and proudly suggests, “We can just boil the turkey.” I swallowed. I calmly said, “we are not boiling the turkey. You do not boil turkeys. You roast the turkey. I cannot stress this enough, but we need an oven.”

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This is the picture Baia sent us. This oven was in no shape to bake anything beyond chicken breasts.

 

We call Baia to see her oven situation. She basically has something equivalent to an easy-bake oven. Her suggestion, “boil the turkey.” Hearing that sentence was making my blood boil. How do people think this is a suitable alternative to baking?!  In the end, I told Yarn that I will attempt to bake the turkey at my house and then wrap it in foil and come to the dinner a bit late. But then, we were stressing out because I had no way to bake the turkey unless I literally just put it raw and hanging on the oven rack. I do not have a big enough casserole dish or anything equivalent. This was a problem for future Rawan. I decided to just focus on buying the stupid turkey first.

I go to Georgian tutoring clearly stressing out about how to cook the turkey. A first world problem is, “oh, I hope I don’t make it dry.” A Peace Corps problem is, “I hope I have an oven. I hope I don’t get chicken $hit murdering a turkey. Oh, if I do find an oven and a turkey, I hope I have a way to bake it.”

My tutor’s suggestion for getting stressed about the turkey’s death was, “It is good you have yard.”
“What do you mean, Lana?”
“So Justin can kill it in the yard and you do not have to worry.”
I proclaimed, “Justin does not kill chickens. Turkeys are bigger. He still won’t kill it.”
Lana suggested, “For cooking, you can still boil the turkey.”

 

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OH, MY GOD. Stop it with the boiling suggestion already. 

 

On Saturday morning, Dato, my supervisor, was going to hire one of World Vision on-call drivers, Dato, to pick Justin and me up. Oh, this is not a typo. They are both named Dato. In Georgia, you will find a lot of Datos (short for Davit, the Georgian version of David). In fact, half of the males in my office are called Dato. Regardless, the two Datos, Justin, and I arrive at the poultry market early that Saturday morning. The plan is to see the marshutkas (mini buses) arrive from the villages with the live chickens, turkeys, and pigs in tow to ensure we get the best turkey.

While Dato was finalizing our transportation for the next morning, I sat on my dining room chair thinking about how I’m going to cook this turkey, Thanksgiving style.

Ryan calls me with a suggestion, “How about you cook the turkey at Baia’s?”
“But Ryan, I thought we went over this. Her oven won’t work. It might be better if I cook it my house. The turkey is supposed to cool off a bit before we cut it anyway.”
“What if I bring my oven?”
“You are telling me you going to lug around a big oven.” It would be a logistics nightmare to carry a huge home oven from the town to the village. Then, I remembered,  “Wait, you don’t have an oven.”

….an awkward moment of silence…

Ryan admits, “Yeah, I just bought one.”
“What do you mean you just bought an oven?” In pure excitement, I continued, “You are literally the Thanksgiving Santa Claus. You literally just saved Thanksgiving.”

Ryan had bought a small, electric and very portable oven. It was similar to Baia’s, but it was bigger. It would be enough to cook a very small, teenage turkey. (Well, so we thought…more on that later).

I called Dato immediately after and told him the change in plans. We were now going to go early to Baia’s so that I cook the turkey there.

When Saturday rolled around, Dato was very matter of a fact about the whole thing.  We strolled to the turkey section of the market. He looked at me and said straight in the face, “Which one do you want?”  I felt very connected to my food at that moment. I said, “I don’t know.” So Dato proceeded to pick two up and offered both to me to see which one weighed more.

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Holding up the turkey at the live market!

As I held up the turkeys by its legs, they were both super chill and calm about it. To be more specific, they did not object. Both of them just hung upside down, blinking at me, unknowing that one of them was literally about to die. The picture above looks like it may be flapping its wings. Trust me though, the wings naturally spread hanging upside down. Another side note, turkey features are super soft.

Here is a Georgian turkey shopping hint: blow on its features while it is upside down. The trick is to blow softly (but hard enough) to see the skin below the features. That way, you can tell what food the turkey is fed. Is it junk food? Is it proper cornmeal?Don’t ask me how exactly, but skin color has something to do with it. I’m not sure I believe in this, but my boss totally took a huff puff or two.

When I finally came to my decision, I gave both back to Dato and said, “That one!” It felt very off-with-its-head-queen-of-hearts moment for me. The turkey seller took the turkey and went off to butcher area for it to be killed (picture below). I could have went home with the live turkey, but I decided to spend the whole 5 GEL to have it killed and plucked! It was honestly the best 5 GEL that I ever spent.

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Sorry that the picture is blurry, I was trying not to be weird taking photos of this moment. 

 

The process of killing, plucking, and cleaning the turkey took about 30 minutes. While we were waiting, we stood in the warm “roasting pig room.” The men who worked there were so curious as to why these two Americans and one Georgian man were at the market early in the morning buying a turkey. Second moment of confusion, why would I waste a whole 5 GEL to have someone else kill it for me. Would you like to guess what happened next?

 

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The room where we waited while the turkey was being killed

 

You guessed it, they gave me suggestions on how to cook the turkey. You guessed again, “Ah, just boil it!” I looked at my boss and I finally snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to take advise from people who have never cooked a turkey. And, I’m not going to take advice on something so inherently American- something that is almost a 400-year-old tradition.” Dato laughed. I, on the other hand, am serious about turkey.  On a depressing note, the conversation was a very good distraction to the noise of the pigs being killed. Silver lining, our turkey was very quiet.

When it was plucked and cleaned, the lady offered to put the turkey in a garbage bag for me and Justin. It was so awkward just going home with a plastic bag with a turkey just lying dead there. I think I miss buying meat and poultry where it is on a styrofoam platter covered with saran wrap.

 

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Me, preparing the turkey before baking it in Ryan’s oven!

 

While I started preparing the turkey at Baia’s, I noticed something I was not happy about. The turkey was not fully cleaned out of its insides. Anatomy lessons are great, I just wished I did not have to have one on Thanksgiving. I was surprised to see how small some of the organs were. If I’m grossing you out, I’m sorry. At least, you were not the one who had to clean it out. I look all happy there, but moments before, I was nervously about to cry while cleaning the turkey out properly. Again, another first world privilege I took for granted.

As the way Peace Corps life goes, another challenge awaited. After I prepped the turkey perfectly, we noticed that it did not fit in Ryan’s oven. I picked the smallest turkey I could find at the market, but it was a bit too big. Neil, another Peace Corps Volunteer, tried punching the turkey’s breast so that the bones would break. That didn’t work. So we took regular kitchen scissors and tried cutting it while maintaining its main form. That slightly worked. So I wrapped the whole thing in foil so it does not directly touch the oven’s “ceiling.”

 

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Dato and I literally squeezing the turkey in the oven

 

The turkey was so small, it took less than 2 hours to bake! Remember how I said I bought one of the small turkeys at the market? Well, apparently, it showed when we took it out of the oven. The poor turkey was so underdeveloped that the breast was protruding. It looked like a bunch of voulchers took a few nibbles before we were able to serve it.

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The turkey once it was done baking. This is before we ate it.

Regardless, it was delicious. I mean, how could it not be? It was the freshest turkey any of us have ever had. I also managed to cook it perfectly, despite my conditions. It was not dry and it tasted like a real, American Thanksgiving meal.

At the dinner table, many of us toasted to our friends and family back home. We combined the Georgian tradition of toasting with hoars and the American tradition of going around the table individually giving thanks.

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Yarn toasting with a Georgian horn to express what he is grateful for.

When it was my turn, I gave thanks to the turkey. Without this turkey, this Thanksgiving would not have been possible.

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*Only one animal was harmed for the making of this thanksgiving.

Mini METS: a One-day STEM Workshop

Mini METS are our one-day STEM workshops conducted at various Peace Corps Volunteers’ sites.

When BJ, Amanda, and I created the METS Initiative in 2016, BJ had suggested that it should be more than just a camp. There should be another component of the initiative: Mini-METS. Amanda and I wholeheartedly agreed. Mini-METS are one-day “camps” that would be hosted in various Peace Corps Volunteers’ sites upon request. As you may know, METS is our STEM initiative. It is STEM spelled backward and it also means “Me too” in Georgian.

Even though Georgia has made efforts to increase science education, it is still not a popular major to study in university. Not only that, many of its scientific facilities are outdated. This is one of the reasons why the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) invests in Georgia. In fact, MCC is the one that awarded San Diego State University the $30 million grant to partner with Georgia to have an American Accredited University in Tbilisi. As you may recall from my previous blog post about METS, Georgian San Diego State Universities acted as our counselors in our camps.

 

As this article in the Daily Aztec mentions, the money from the grant “will be allocated toward renovating labs and improving the quality of higher education.” Also, the article mentioned that “MCC wanted an American accredited U.S. degree to be offered in Georgia because Georgia needed higher education to meet the standards of emerging democracies.” This is one of the many reasons why the whole METS initiative started. This is why we feel that we need to continue our work in METS beyond just our summer camps.

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Rose (left), me (center), and Atka (right) hosting our Mini-METS on Saturday, October 28, 2017

This past Saturday, on October 28th, 2017, Atka, Rose, and I hosted the second Mini-METS in a local town in the Imereti Region at our friend Ryan’s site. The first one was conducted in the spring by BJ and Amanda. On Saturday, we had nearly twenty youth show up to the event. We conducted three activities for Mini-METS: 1) rockets 2) math tricks and lastly 3) lungs. With each presentation, we discussed the theory first and then did the experiment. It is important for students to understand the science behind the experiment. I don’t want them walking away thinking it was “magic.”

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Atka explaining the chemical composition for our rocket experiment

So for the rockets, Atka explained what were reactants and catalysts. She taught them how all the materials interact with each other to create a mini “rocket.” Curious to what our rockets actually were? Simple. They were Alka Seltzer tablets, water, and a film tube canister. No, seriously that is it. You put half an Alka Seltzer tablet in a small film canister with warm water. Close the lid. Place the canister upside down and wait for it to launch!

What was surprising was some kids left immediately after this experiment. It was a bit shocking because this experiment is a huge hit and every student loved it! They were all jumping in glee and we had to do some crowd control. It is just difficult to compete for their attention- on the weekend- especially when they have Facebook waiting for them at home.

Then, I did a math presentation. I know, it sounds like a snooze. What kid would want to learn math on a Saturday? Ryan was hesitant to have this when I told him that it was part of our agenda. I can’t blame him. I thought it was going to be boring when I introduced it at the Kobuleti camp. However, it was such a hit. The kids in Kobuleti were literally jumping out of their seats to participate.

So, I tested my luck for the second time to do it at Mini-METS. Guess what? Another hit. I taught them how to divide big numbers by five – in seconds and in our heads! Spoiler alert: you double it and then divide it by then. I decided to do a simple math trick because many of the students in the audience were in the sixth grade.

Lastly, Rose did our lung presentation. She explained how lungs work and what can cause inflammation. One way to stop inflammation of the lungs is smoking. Thus, it was basically a mini-anti-smoking campaign. How best to illustrate how bad smoking is? Do an experiment where you can literally see the damage after a few minutes.

 

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Rose (center) is explaining how to properly use our lung model above.

 

Our lung model is basically built from plastic bottles, balloons, and cotton. The device is the one actually smoking the cigarettes. Even after even a few cigarettes, the cotton inside the plastic bottle changes color to a more yellowish-brown. Thus, this indicates that lung damage from smoking is almost immediate. It is a great way to show kids immediately how smoking damages the lungs. I want to say this experiment is completely harm-free, but I cannot. We did incur a bit of second-hand smoke during this process.

 

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The students “building” their lungs for the experiment.

 

A lot of the kids enjoyed this too. I’m not sure how many of them will not pick up the habit of smoking though. Smoking in Georgia is a big problem. The majority of males in this country smoke. It is not very “lady-like” for women to smoke, therefore, the problem is mostly with men. Regardless, we hope that we were able to impart some knowledge on these youth.

Overall, Mini-METS was a success. It is really fun seeing kids get excited about science and math. It made it worth it to wake up early that Saturday morning!

Expressing Gratitude

I remember as a child whenever I couldn’t get a new toy, I would whine, “I wish I were rich. Then, we could buy it.” My mother and grandmother would look at me and tell me to re-evaluate my definition of being rich. They said that richness can come in many forms. The corniest one of all is, “richness in the heart, where you are full of the love given by family and friends.” Naturally, they received the biggest eye roll a child could give. At the time, they weren’t getting any love with that response.

 

My facial expression as a kid probably looked like this cutie.

 

Now, as an adult, I have to agree with their definition. I’m probably going to impart that same “corny and lame” definition to my future children. I’m assuming, but I think we can all agree that there is truth to their definition. However, how many of us would still chase after the traditional sense of being rich- you know, the one with money? A year into service, I don’t think I will be chasing massive “traditional wealth” any longer. However, I will not deny that I would like to live comfortably. Basically, I want to be able to take modest vacations once a year and live in a small house that I own. In essence, I would like to be solidly middle class.

During service, I have a lot of positives and negatives moments just like any other person. However, in the Peace Corps, the lows tend to go a little deeper than an average person in America. Caveat, pain is all relative. For instance, my Georgian neighbors do not think it is a bad day if their water runs out as well as their electricity, internet, and gas. They just deal with it because that is their daily life. However, in the beginning of my service, that would be a bad day for me. Why? Because I never had to deal with all things going out concurrently in the United States (if I paid my bills that is). My definition of a bad day means so different than a year ago.

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Just last week the electricity went out due to a rain storm. We did not have electricity for hours. Yet, we worked away at the office.

During my Peace Corps mid-service training last month, when I turned on the hot water in the shower at the hotel, it did not work. Instead of fussing with the nozzle or getting irritated, I just took a REALLY cold shower. I got used to things not working that I did not even try to fix it. Low and behold, if I turned the nozzle to the cold end and waited, hot water would have appeared. My mistake. I should have tried to outplay the engineering of the bathroom design. This insignificant experience shows you something though, I no longer get frustrated over the little annoying things in life. I just move on and deal with the “bad.” I only discovered that the water indicators were switched after conversing with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who experienced the same thing. I have gotten to the point now that when I do have the perfect shower temperature, I have a great day. Little things like that make me ecstatic.

Therefore, if hot showers make me happy, imagine how grateful I am for having friends and family visit me. As you already know, my great-uncle visited in February and my friend Sarah visited me in April. In July, I had four different people visit me. My friend Nicole, one of my closest friends since I was 14 years old, came for nearly three weeks. My friend Tim, from my study abroad experience in Amsterdam, came from England. Then, my aunt and uncle from my dad’s side came for a weekend at the end of July. Then, my friend Danielle visits me a month later. I don’t know anyone as fortunate to have this many people visit them during their Peace Corps. Thus, I feel rich that I have so many people in my life supporting me in this journey that they are willing enough to take a plane to this part of the world.

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Danielle and I holding the Georgian Flag during her first day visiting me on Shepard’s Day, August 12, 2017.

In terms of the love and support I receive, I am very rich. It does not take much for me to remember this either. Every day, in my town, I see children begging for money. I see old ladies sitting on street corners outstretching their hand for some spare change. There are a lot of street dogs and cats. I do have the hardest time with seeing the children and the dogs.

For children, I cannot imagine growing up and being ignored by everybody or even worse, being treated worse than an animal. The street children are shoved and kicked out of restaurants. The children do harass the customers. Sometimes, the children even wrap their bodies around unwilling customers’ legs. I just cannot even imagine the psychological damage, the abuse, and the neglect they grow up with. The silver lining is that I’ve traveled to countries were situations for street children is much worse. There are organizations, including mine, that works to help alleviate child poverty and advocate for children’s rights.

I cannot say so much for the cats and dogs. One day, as I was walking home from work, I heard the loudest cries I’ve ever heard around the corner from my house. I turned to see where the noise is coming from and I saw a dog limping and yelling. One of its hind legs was nearly severed. The dog was limping and one of its legs was hanging on by a thread. A pool of blood was underneath where it was standing. I assumed that the dog was run-over by a car. In those few minutes, I have no idea if anyone helped the dog. I’m not perfect either, I was so horrified that I walked away crying. I was not able to stomach the sight. For the next 30 minutes, I heard the dog yell in pain and I simply prayed.

In America, I would have gone to the dog and called someone. I had no idea what to do in Georgia, so I simply prayed and hoped it wouldn’t suffer for too much longer. On a positive note, Georgia is trying to take care of its stray dogs as much as they can. Nearly all of the stray dogs have received rabies shots and it is indicated by a tag on their ear. Also, many people feed these dogs with bread or scraps of food. There is still hope in this world.

METS Camp: a STEM-themed Summer Camp

One of my proudest accomplishments in Peace Corps has been establishing a STEM-themed summer camp for Georgian youth. And it all started over a year ago…
Once upon a time on the eve of DREAM Camp 2016,  other Peace Corps Volunteers and I went out to dinner in town. I had asked them how DREAM Camp got started and they told me the idea that it is started around November during In-Service Training of 2015. I did not know starting a camp can be “easily” attainable. For some reason, the idea of establishing my own camp captivated me. An idea as quick as lightning struck, I wanted an all-girls science camp. Even though I was only one month into service, I noticed Georgian youth are not engaged in STEM much. Sure, they take chemistry classes in school but most of it is based on theory with no practical training. Why would anyway want to pursue a STEM career if all the fun is taken out of it while it is being introduced?
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I went home that day and just researched fun, engaging, educational experiments that I could conduct in Georgia. I came across NASA’s website and noticed a few things. I began researching organizations that I could partner with to host this camp. Most importantly, I started thinking of other Peace Corps Volunteers I could engage with that have a strong STEM background. I know that one of my friends, Amanda, is a chemical engineer. She had worked for about a decade as one before Peace Corps. I gave her a phone call. She was in.  I have “Technology” experience with working for IT companies before Peace Corps, but I was a human resources professional by trade and not an engineer. She would bring the “E” part of STEM.
The next week or so, we started talking about how the camp would look like. I gave her a call one night and I proclaimed, “I know what I want to call the camp, it will be ‘METS’.” Over the phone, along with another friend, Ainsley, they said, “It sounds cheesy.” They weren’t into it. I tried convincing them that “METS” was perfect because it meant, “Me too” in Georgian and it was STEM backwards.
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My e-mail to my friends indicating I wanted to start a camp called METS 🙂
Lo and behold, the very next day, my former sitemate and friend, Jill, shared another Peace Corps Volunteer’s Facebook post with me. Would you like to guess what that post was? It was a camp that BJ started and it was called “METS.” Yes, the very name I had come up with. Also, it was a science camp. How could I come with this idea and someone else had implemented it? Blessing in disguise? Great minds think alike? I needed to know more. So, I messaged him and later that night, we had a long phone meeting.
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He was happy that I shared the same passion. BJ was an engineer and a lawyer. Therefore, he had expertise in implementing a STEM-themed camp (read about the original camp here). I was excited how many of our ideas were the same! He, too, also looked at the NASA website. It turns out that his camp was only at his site. It was just a day camp and not an over-nighter like the other Peace Corps supported camps. No one was able to help him implement his and he thought that his day camp would not be sustained when he left. He was happy that he could pass it on and I was happy that I didn’t have to start completely from scratch. It made sense that moving forward, I would work with BJ to take it over for the following year. At that time, I had also told him that Amanda was in and she wanted to work with me on this. From that moment forward, we had three Peace Corps volunteers dedicated to starting a week-long, overnight STEM-themed camp.
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BJ’s METS summer camp at his site in 2016
However, I do want to point out that BJ had a slightly different vision that I originally did. Initially, I wanted an all-girls STEM Camp. BJ delivered a co-ed camp and thought that it was more important to have both genders. I was hesitant at first. Retrospectively, I think it is because I had my American lenses in which our American society inactively discourages females to participate in STEM-related activities. However, in Georgia, both genders are desperately needed in STEM professional fields. Secondly, the school system here awards compliances and discourages loud behaviors. At first, I did not see this. But now, after a  year of service, I agree with BJ wholeheartedly. As a true feminist, I want equality for both genders. Since boys are not excepted to do as well in school as girls, they deserve to be just as encouraged to attend our STEM-themed camp.  Although this article is not about Georgia, I feel that a lot that was written in here could describe the Georgian school system if you want to read more about gender equality in schools.
To help ensure that the group work would be divided equally, BJ implemented “engineering roles” that was inspired by NASA.  He separated the students into groups of four and each student had a specific role that would rotate each day. Each of the four roles (Project Engineer, Test Engineer, Developmental Engineer, and Facilities Engineer) would help ensure that no kid would get too excited and do all the work. Since the roles rotate, each student had a chance to be each type of engineer by the end of camp. We decided that keeping the camp co-ed and keeping the roles should continue for the next camp.
We also decided that it would be best to have two separate summer camps. BJ was in the cohort ahead of Amanda and me. Therefore, his service was ending in June/July of 2017. The first camp would be held in June so that BJ could “teach us the ropes” before he completed his service. The second camp would be in July or August so that Amanda and I could teach the new Peace Corps Volunteers how to do the camp. Creating a timeline was a great first step on how to launch his initial project into a full-fledged overnight camp. However, we still had more work to do.
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Amanda (right) and I (left) showing off our METS swag at the August Camp in Kobuleti 2017.
For the next few months, Amanda, BJ, and I worked hard to secure a partnering organization to do a camp with. In Peace Corps, sustainability is key as I mentioned earlier in this post.  Therefore, we wanted to work with Georgian partners to launch the camp. BJ had started a working relationship with San Diego State University in Tbilisi. Therefore, we wanted to continue that relationship with San Diego State University at the minimum. The students at San Diego State University would be our camp counselors and the partnering organization would help run the camp logistically.
Our first camp was held in June, in Telavi, a city in Eastern Georgia. We had 24 students ranging from 13-17 years old. We also had 6 counselors- five from San Diego State University and one from our partnering organization, Students for Energy Efficiency. The camp was funded through Small Projects Assistance (SPA) by USAID. The kids were very active and truly enjoyed working on all the experiments that we did.
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I’m explaining the safety rules and procedures at camp 🙂 Safety First!
 Sessions were first divided into two parts. The first part was the lecture in which they learned safety and the scientific theories behind the experiment. The second part of the lecture is when they tested the theories through practical experiments.
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The campers built “air conditioning” units from a bucket, water, a water bottle, and a wall fan. A handy experiment indeed!
Needless to say, the children were much more excited to complete the experiments than to listen to the lectures. Their eyes would just lit up anytime we were about to start conducting the experiments.
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BJ demonstrating how to read the thermometer that we just built
At the end of the June camp, one of the community member’s daughter stopped by to check-out the camp. To welcome her, one of our campers should her the model bridge she built from different types of noodles and a hot glue gun. It was amazing to see our camper describe all the scientific theoretical concepts and how they relate to our everyday lives. She basically summarized the entire camp to our guest. That was an amazing moment to witness because it was a glimpse into how successful our camp was.
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Me (left) along with two out of the three G17 Peace Corps Volunteers, Rose (center) and Olivia (right).
At the end of August, Amanda and I along with three other G17 Peace Corps Volunteers hosted the second METS Camp in Kobuleti. It was filled with meaningful discussions about how to pursue STEM careers as adults. Even though I am not an engineer, I was able to provide career insight to those wanting to pursue computer science and computer engineering. I had worked in IT companies and have personally recruited computer engineers. The students truly appreciated listening to some real-world experience.
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Atka, the third G17 (center wearing the lab coat), demonstrating the lung experiment that is made up of water bottles, balloons, and cotton.

 

In a world where politicians do not believe in climate change, we need more STEM education than ever in our lives. I hope that both camps I helped conduct inspire at least one child to pursue a degree in STEM. So many of our world problems could be solved using Science, Technology, Engineering or Math 🙂

Thoughts in the Midst of Darkness. Literally.

This is my second blog post that I have written in darkness. However, this time, in complete darkness. The only thing illuminating this room is my laptop screen, which is powered by my reserve battery. I am sitting on my bed with a pillow propped up to support my back. Yet, even with my laptop turned on, I still cannot properly see my toes. It is really dark in here. As you may guess, I currently do not have any electricity. I have not had electricity for a few hours now, which, is not uncommon in most places of the world.

Since I have no electricity, I have no internet and no power. My electricity supports the internet modem (obviously). I will post this when the Internet returns. As for the water, I do not have city water (aka running water) 24 hours a day. In the afternoon, the city water stops and I use a pump, powered by electricity, to give me water. Thus, no electricity means no water, no electronics (except for this laptop), and no internet.

I did finally remember that I have a candle and definitely took advantage of it.

Whenever there is a bad storm, the power goes out. It does not surprise me or even frustrate me. Sometimes I think it is funny and sometimes I place internal bets on how long it will last. However, what always happens is reflection. The running theory is that when you have no distractions or modern conveniences- again, except for this laptop- there is a lot of room for reflection. Here is what I think I have learned with only 9 months of service left…

1) I do not miss or depend on modern conveniences as much as I thought I would. I do not own any of the following in my home: a dryer, TV, microwave, an enclosed shower, attached indoor toilet, or even a sofa. The thing I miss the most is ironically the sofa. Soviet-style dining room chairs are not the most comfortable and neither is a 40-year-old mattress. Sometimes, I just want a sofa. However, my life does not feel any less complete with any of the abovementioned absent in my life. Sure, they made my life easier, but I don’t actually truly crave them. It is more like a fond memory, something I kinda miss. However, it is something I can live without.

So many homes in Georgia have these Soviet-Union chairs. Our home does as well. 

 

2) Working on something I love sometimes does not feel like work. I do not think I put in 40 hours in the office, realistically I put in close to 32-35. However, I do believe I work more than 40 hours a week easily if I include my secondary projects. I go home and I work on activities and committees that I have cofounded with my Peace Corps friends. It is hard work, but it has meaning. I may not see the impact or have instant gratification, but I believe in the work I do. Therefore, it does not feel like a chore. I truly enjoy doing it in my free time. That is an odd concept, volunteering to do work on my free time without any expectations of receiving anything in return.

One of my major projects was to co-found METS Camp: a STEM-themed summer camp

 

3) I’ve become more creative and innovative with little resources. I have literally conducted workshops out of upcycled paper and nothing else. In the U.S, when we think of a professional training, we thinking conference rooms, snacks, notebooks, whiteboards, you name it. As long as I have some sort of roof in bad weather, I’m good to go. I don’t even need a functioning restroom with running water to host an event for dozens of people. Excepting to have all those resources and conveniences would be a very diva-like move indeed.

I have learned to ask more meaningful questions to see how we can teach and train without any visual aids. During DREAM Camp, we had break-out sessions. Since they were occurring concurrently, we only had one projector. For fairness and sustainability, we decided that the three concurrent breakout sessions would require ZERO resources except for chairs and maybe some sheets of paper. Even with few resources, the sessions were meaningful and successful.

Some of the campers at DREAM Camp after our Breakout Session

 

4) I’ve grown to become a more patient person. When projects do not go smoothly, and they never do, I ride out the bumpy wave. I have grown to be more patient with the unexpected turbulence. However, I am not immune to having bad days. For example, yesterday, I was a bit of miss cranky pants. We were buying supplies for our composting grant and the merchants were less than helpful. Things were not delivered on time, ATMs decided not dispense cash, and credit card readers decided to become illiterate. After an hour of walking around the city figuring things out, I thought to myself, “why can’t things just work in this country sometimes?”

It was ironic because this bad attitude was only 24 hours after I had presented on a panel. On this panel, I said, “You can’t change your situation or people, but you can change your attitude.” So basically, I had to take my own advice or be a hypocrite. It was not easy. However, I have noticed that I have become better at practicing patience.

5) Gratefulness is a feeling that encompasses me the most. Maybe I count my blessings to keep me sane, or maybe the difficulties have pointed out the beautiful things in life. I don’t know why, but I feel grateful most days now. Life is not easy in the Peace Corps and I think when little miracles happen they seem really big. When people show up to a meeting on time, I feel like I moved heaven and earth. When my youth take my advice seriously, I feel like I actually made a difference. In the United States, little miracles are easy to ignore because they do not take so much effort to achieve. Feeling all the feels makes me feel in a sense happier. Peace Corps has been rewarding and I seriously hope that general feeling does not go away.

Teaching Diversity and Inclusion at DREAM Camp (2017)

In high school, I didn’t give a dime about being popular. I had a tight group of friends and we did our own thing. Hands down, I was one of those “nerds” in high school. I spent a lot of my time studying and excelling academically.  I did, however, care about others feeling safe and included on campus. I was a part of an organization in high school, called Bridges, that advocated for acceptance and inclusion on campus. We did a lot of projects to combat some of the negative thoughts and stereotypes experienced on campus.
So fast forward more than a decade later and I still haven’t graduated from this mentality. I still don’t care about being popular, and I still care about fostering an environment of inclusion and acceptance. Thus, for the second year in a row, I was involved in DREAM Camp, which stands for Diversity: Respecting Ethnicity and Multiculturalism. I’m sitting with my other Peace Corps Volunteers at camp and some of the teenage campers excitedly wave and blow kisses at me. I look at my friend Neil, “So, I can’t tell if they legit like me or they are making fun of me.” Neil, who is an English teacher in Peace Corps, casually states, “Georgian teenagers do not plot or go out of their way to show fake affection like that.” He believed that the kids liked me.
Some of these kids went out of their way to actually spend time with me. I was also going out of my way to hang out with them. I convinced a few of them to teach me how to perform a Georgian dance skit. I taught one of the girls how to float in the sea. We had deep discussions with other campers about race and prejudice in America. During camp, we had something called “the Positive Box.” You can write positive notes anonymously to campers, counselors, or PCVs about your experience at camp. I received a few notes from campers and they were literally the sweetest!
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Elene learned Georgian dance for nine years and was happy to spend a few hours with me to teach me.
The kids at these camps genuinely want to learn and interact with American Peace Corps Volunteers. They are excited to spend a week with us and ask thoughtful questions. I told the new Peace Corps Volunteers to show vulnerability and to be honest and open. I described how last year I shared stories about my childhood and how raw I was. It paid off loads. I wanted to create the same atmosphere this year with the campers. I wanted people to be real about the negative effects of discrimination and intolerance. I wanted the message of inclusion, hope, and love for all to ring loud and clear.
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A note from one of my campers: “Dear [Rawan], you are the only person in the camp, who fell in Love with the heart and soul. I like to dance with you and your tattoos <3 I love very much <3”
During my sessions, I asked thought-provoking questions. For example, I asked if immigrants to America were “real Americans”? I know that sounds simple, but in all honesty, it is not. A lot of Georgians struggle with the idea that non-native born Peace Corps volunteers are real Americans. I think it stems from the fact that they believe that the Armenian-Georgians and Azeri-Georgians are Georgian second. They are Armenian and Azeri first. Ironically enough, they said that immigrant Americans are true Americans. So then I said, “okay, so the Armenians with Georgian passports are real Georgians?” They yelled, “NO!”
So then I was, “okay, so then with that logic, immigrant Americans are not real Americans.” I looked at their faces and I asked, “Why are they not real Georgians if they want to be Georgian? If they speak Georgian? And have been living here for generations?” Of course, the only answer they could give was that it was traditionally thought as such. I wanted them to question the system. I wanted them to internally debate some of the negative stereotypes in their community. Because through those debates, they can learn and grow. Of course, I inserted a lot of jokes and humor in these tough discussions. That is probably why at the end of the day they were still willing to hang out with me.
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My organization partner handing me a note written for me from the Positive Box.
By the end of camp, I noticed that some of the youth were including the minority campers in their circles. We had one camper who did not speak much Georgian. She is ethnically Armenian and living in an Armenian community. In the beginning, it looked like she felt isolated. By the end of camp, I saw the ethnically Georgian teenagers include her in their activities. They translated for her when she presented and were kind. The Armenian-Georgian youth admitted to Kaigler, another Peace Corps Volunteer, that her negative opinions of Georgians softened. She felt that the Georgians were kind and were receptive to her. These kids were growing in front of our eyes and it was wonderful!
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Kids wrote so many positive notes that we had two positive boxes by the last two days of camp!
At the end of camp, we felt all the positive vibes. I had so much fun with kids and I bragged about them endlessly to Justin when I got home. I truly appreciated the kindness all the campers showed me. I felt that, maybe, my corner of the world is getting better to include minorities and appreciate the differences.
But the fuzzy feelings only lasted so long.
Three days after the camp was over, I watched some news of what was going on back in America. I saw Neo-Nazis and the KKK take to the streets in Charlottesville. I read that a heroic woman, Heather Heyer, was murdered while she was protesting hate. I saw a picture of a black police officer defend and protect the very people who wanted to turn him down. It is chilling. It is terrifying. The juxtaposition of my experience at DREAM Camp and what is going in America is perplexing to me. It is hard to believe that both events were occurring almost concurrently! I couldn’t sleep last night knowing how much hatred is filling out streets back home.
Thus, I find it hard in my mind to preach love and inclusion to Georgians when we clearly aren’t doing such a good job ourselves in America. I cannot tell the Georgian youth to advocate for the minorities in their communities if I cannot do the same. Of course, my small actions every day speak volumes in the community. However, no matter how hard I try, I cannot overshadow what is shown on the media. I cannot fight the xenophobia that some of the politicians publicly state.
My job to advocate for peace and friendship, the very goal of Peace Corps, is sometimes hard these days. I am a representative of America and I am supposed to represent peace and friendship. Yet, my own president cannot even publicly denounce these hate groups.
I told my youth at camp that when something doesn’t sound right, the least you can do is just say something. You can ask questions to make the person think twice on why they said something so hurtful? Staying silent only helps the oppressor. This is me saying something. This is me trying to reconcile the facts that my country has a lot of hate in it (and always has); however, many of us are trying to do the right thing.
Therefore, no matter how small this acknowledgment is, I still want to acknowledge it. I want to publicly say that I do not agree with the actions of the KKK and the Neo-Nazis back home. In building a positive relationship between Georgia and America, I have to acknowledge the hate in the country while trying to advocate for inclusion. Most importantly, we have to continue to fight the war against hate. I feel such sadness that Heather Heyer was murdered. I don’t think she has died in vain because there are so many of us that believe in her message and supported her last heroic act.

Smashing Gender Stereotypes

Bringing awareness to gender inequality in this country has arguably become my strongest passion. I am promoting gender equality in half of my projects because I have committed my service to it. Thus, when my friend Kate asked me if I would like to collaborate with her on a gender specific project, I said yes. On a cold November afternoon, we both visited the American Corner, in Kutaisi, in hopes to create some sort of a gender-related club. We were both bouncing around ideas like doing a film club featuring strong female role models. Another idea was creating a book club. Essentially, we wanted to break down some of the gender stereotypes and promote gender equality through lively discussions and interactions.
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My friend Kate and I in Tbilisi in April 2017. She is easily one of my favorite people in Peace Corps 🙂
After much thought, our idea expanded into creating one-day workshops in various villages and towns throughout Georgia. Along with our two other friends, Liv and Rose, Saqartvelo Smashes Stereotypes (SSS) was born. Saqartvelo means Georgia in Georgian and I couldn’t be more proud of my friends for coming up with an awesome name. The strategy was simple: each workshop would have 3 sessions. The sessions are identified through a needs assessment. The community chooses the top 3 topics they would like us to cover. The sessions range from Employability, Social Media Best Practices, Gender Norms/Stereotypes, Community Activism, Domestic Violence/Early marriage, and more. Typically, the local English teachers in the community act as our translators.
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My friend Liv and I leading a session on Gender Stereotypes
We have had 5 separate workshops throughout Georgia. Workshops have ranged anywhere from 7 participants to over a 100. During the sensitive gender topics, we have gender-split discussions. Our male Peace Corps Volunteers will lead the discussion for the boys, and we lead the discussions for the girls. The session sparks great conversations and discussions. Sometimes, I will catch the students having side-conversations during the sessions. At first, I want to tell them to pay attention to the topic at hand. However, I’ll eavesdrop and I will notice that they are actually discussing the topic! Since this is not a formal educational session and attendance is optional, we will let the side-conversations continue if they are not distracting.
Other times, the exact thing happens. A student will make a comment and participate in the session, but the comment can derail the discussion. For instance, I was leading a session on gender discrimination in the workplace. I asked the teenagers to provide examples of gender discrimination. They started mumbling amongst themselves for ideas. A brave young girl raised her hand and proclaimed, “There is gender discrimination in the U.S, but there is no gender discrimination in Georgia.” This girl was trying to convince me that Georgia, which is listed as number 79 in the world on the Gender Inequality Index, has no gender inequality! I took a deep breath and said, “Just because we don’t recognize something, it doesn’t mean it is not there.”
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Some of the students working on activities that we give them during the ssesions.
These comments fuel my motivation for Saqartvelo Smashes Stereotypes. Girls in Georgia are encouraged to do all the housework while the boys are not. It might not seem like a big deal, but it was a huge cultural shock aspect when I first came to Georgia. During training (PST), Justin and I would take our empty, dirty plates to the kitchen after eating. My host mom and sister welcomed the help- but only from me! In fact, they insisted that Justin leaves the plates on the table. Then, they yelled at me at said, “Bechi Ara! Marto Gogo!” Which translates to, “Boys, no! Only girl!” To combat the gender stereotypes in a polite way, I said, “In America, both can do it. Why only girls? Justin wants to help.” My host sister literally had no answer other than, “this is the way it has always been done.” This is a train of thought that needs to be questioned.
According to the World Bank Group’s Georgia Country Gender Assessment in 2016, “Household responsibilities appear to play a critical role in reducing female labor force participation, but not male labor force participation.”  It is important to learn how to identify what is gender discrimination and the simplest forms it can take place. So when I told that teenage girl that example, she remained speechless. I could tell that she too started thinking about the “logic” behind the tradition. If no one ever questioned tradition, women today will not be able to vote or own property- even in the United States.
We also try to instill a sense of self-confidence and self-power. During the domestic violence session, Rose does a beautiful job in explaining that help is available in Georgia. She discusses the resources and the hotlines available in the country. It would be useless if we discuss American self-help tactics, so we provide local resources as much as possible. Domestic violence is a big problem all around the world; however, talking about it is more stigmatized here. According to EurasiaNet, “In 2015, police registered 901 domestic-violence cases – an 88 percent increase over reported instances in 2014, based on police figures cited by the ombudsperson’s office. In 2014, the latest year for which data is available, the government’s emergency-assistance hotline recorded 9,290 calls related to domestic violence.”
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The Georgian PSA to make people aware of the Domestic Violence Help Hotline.
Therefore, to aid in positive change, we create a safe space for these discussions. One of my favorite parts of this project is the community involvement. The teachers at these schools are highly involved and are excited to co-lead these discussions. The students that participate come voluntarily; therefore, they are motivated to learn about these topics. Witnessing the community involvement and the student’s eagerness is a sign of a bright future for Georgia in combating these gender stereotypes.

Job Shadowing: Making One Child Smile at a Time

As cheesy as it sounds, one of the biggest joys of my Peace Corps service is putting a smile on a child’s face. As Justin puts it, it’s very easy to do in Georgia. I consider last two weeks ago a success because I received dozens of smiles, hugs, and kisses from the children in my community. Prior to Peace Corps, I had an awkward stage in life where I did not know what to say to children and sometimes I would walk away by patting them on the head. For me to start off a blog about kids is truly a success and a sign of personal growth- or dare I say, maternal instincts kicking in?!

Two weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to host two wonderful Peace Corps Trainees: Miranda and Rose. Peace Corps Georgia gives trainees an opportunity to job shadow a Peace Corps Volunteer, at their site, so the trainees can gain perspective on a volunteer’s daily life in the community and at their job. On Monday morning, Miranda and Rose had the opportunity to speak with my counterparts. My counterparts informed them about the various work that we do together and the strategic initiatives World Vision and Youth2Georgia work on.

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My friend Neil and I cooked a feast (supra in Georgian) for our Job Shadowers the day they arrived.

But later, I thought it would also be fun to do an English Club lesson with them at the Day Care Center. If you read my English Club blog post, you would know that my English Club is anything but an English Club. It essentially me attempting to get vulnerable children to sit with me to learn anything. Since the lessons fall apart within 20 minutes, I no longer lesson plan for long activities. So, when Miranda said, “so we should plan for an hour lesson?” I simply looked at her and said, “ha, we are lucky if they sit still for 10 minutes. I think 20 minutes should be sufficient!” So, we planned for a couple of activities and walked to the Day Care Center.

The children were so excited to meet Miranda and Rose. It was the first time I personally brought guests to the Day Care Center. The weather was beautiful, so for the first time ever, we held our activities outdoors. Then, a miracle happened! The children behaved. For. The. First. Time. EVER! Tamta (my Day Care Center counterpart) and I looked at each and were dumbfounded. We have dreamed of this day and when it actually happened, we did not know what to do.

The children literally stayed for the entire duration of our planned activities. Then, they wanted more! They actually wanted more from us. I looked at Rose and Miranda and I was so surprised, “you don’t understand, this has never happened.” So, if you are in need of a miracle, please contact Miranda and Rose- they will be our new official Peace Corps Volunteers in July. They literally have magical powers beyond our imagination. Their magical powers had the kids smiling and laughing. The kids were participating in Simon Says! They were following directions! They craved our attention instead of running away from us!

I’m so sad that I didn’t take any pictures of the event to document this rare miracle. In a sense, that is true Peace Corps. We live for the tiny miracles that occur during our service. The rare glimpse of hope that our work is doing something meaningful. As much as I have struggled with my English Club, last week was a moment I will always cherish.

On Tuesday morning, Justin invited Miranda, Rose, and I to his school. Collectively, we thought it would be a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity to allow the trainees to see another Peace Corps Volunteer’s job as well as mine. However, Justin also had something sinister in mind. He creatively crafted a “spousal revenge” episode of the century. He started off the lesson by giving his third graders questions to ask us. The first question was, “Do you like Star Wars?”

Hmm, that is odd. I see Justin pull out his iPhone to take a video. I knew something was brewing. I choose my words carefully to answer the first question. Then, another third grader asked, “Why don’t you like Star Wars?” Ah-ha! Justin crafted this to publicly shame me in front of his third graders! Why do you ask? Because I refuse to watch Star Wars. I am one of the few Americans who just has no interest in the subject. Justin, on the other hand, has made it his life mission to get me to watch it at least one time in my life (and to enjoy American football). (Sidenote: Justin did get me to play fantasy football, and, while it was totally awesome, it just wasn’t my thing.)

Therefore, be careful who you marry. Their interests might become your interests. After his revenge, we all drew pizzas and hamburgers with the cutest third graders. The children had learned the ingredients for the dishes the week before and this was a creative way for them to review the words for pickles, meat, bread, cheese, etc.

After the class was over, Justin asked us if we would like to stay for the fifth-grade class. At first, I personally felt compelled to return to my job. It was already 10 a.m., but then I saw a bunch of the fifth graders spying on us in the teacher’s lounge. So the three of us thought, “Why not make a bunch of kids happy?” Literally, that is how we decided to stay. At 10:30 a.m., we stood in front of the fifth-grade class introducing ourselves. Justin’s counterpart told the students to ask us questions. All of them were mumbling and laughing. They were so excited that they were nervously giggling and stumbling on their words. The typical questions ensued, such as, “Do you like Georgia?” “Do you like khachapuri?” “Do you like us?” Both younger and older generations ask the same questions, so at this point, I have well-crafted responses to these questions.

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With Justin’s 5th grade class

Towards the end of the questions, I whispered to Justin, “Do you think they would want a picture with us?” So, Justin asks, “Do you want a picture with our guests?” Never in my life have I seen a bunch of fifth graders get up out of their seats so fast. I thought that Rose, Miranda, and I were going to get trampled. They were so excited and they were all pushing each to be next to one of us. That my friends is what it feels like to be a micro-celebrity. I’m just kidding- we aren’t celebrities. But we do get kids excited when we take pictures with them 😉

Youth Empowerment Summit

This month, my organization, three other Peace Corps Volunteers, and I hosted a Youth Empowerment Summit in Kutaisi, Georgia. In fact, there were three other summits that took place this Spring. It was all inspired by our training last November. Peace Corps held a Training of Trainers (ToT) for 20 Peace Corps Volunteers, selected World Vision staff, and some youth in Tbilisi last November. All the Peace Corps Volunteers that are on official programmatic committees were invited to attend. Since I’m on the Gender Equality committee and partnered with World Vision, I was invited to this training. We learned the importance of clubs and volunteerism. The objective of our training was for us to hold summits for the youth in our communities on how to create and sustain clubs.

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Our Training of Trainers in November 2016

During the week-long training, we practiced presenting various topics that might be useful for the youth. Session topics included: leadership skills, collaboration, volunteerism, asset identification, and more. I really appreciated that after our training, Peace Corps provided us with resource books on these topics. Our post also invested in these resources since they also translated the books to Georgian so our counterparts can also take advantage and utilize the books.

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Some of the resource books that Peace Corps provided us after the Training of Trainers

The ToT was essentially organized by the regions that the World Vision Georgia offices are located in. Since World Vision works with youth and is a leading non-profit in this field, Peace Corps invited and requested them to be our partnering organization for the summits. As you may recall from this post, our Peace Corps projects are always partnered with the community’s leaders, schools, or organizations. However, my region has so many volunteers, it was decided to split my region into two groups. Thus, that is how we ended up with the four groups.

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The World Vision team: the staff, the Peace Corps Volunteers, and the youth.

Thus, for the months leading up to May from November, my small group have been working hard to replicate some of the Training of Trainers elements into a Youth Empowerment Summit. The goal to create and sustain clubs beautifully complements Peace Corps’ and the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Georgia’s. Both the Peace Corps and the Ministry know that when the youth participate in clubs, they are more active citizens. The sense of achievement in clubs could easily bleed into other parts of their lives and help develop skills in the future.

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Justin with his youth from his school working on the project plan to implement their travel-themed club

Together with my other Peace Corps Volunteers, we wrote a Let Girls Learn Grant for this project. We focused on developing leadership, communication, and collaboration skills that are needed for club development. We created activities that would identify their assets and their interests in creating a meaningful club.  Essentially, we wanted to make sure that the event was fun as well as impactful. In the end, we invited 9 Peace Corps volunteers along with 19 youth to participate in the two-day, two-night summit.

One of the biggest challenges with trainings like these is teaching the creative and critical concepts. I’ve noticed that the youth do not have the language that American youth use- and I’m not talking about the difference between Georgian and English. Georgian youth tend to have a more difficult time understanding certain creative concepts. For example, many of them have a hard time identifying personal assets. They do not grow up in a society that values every little achievement wrapped with “you are so special” cocktail mix.

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We had the youth and the Peace Corps Volunteers compete in an activity that focuses on collaboration called the “human knot.”

Most Georgian youth in schools are taught to memorize Georgian poems and recite other facts. There is little room for creative projects that imparts critical thinking. Thus, asking the youth this weekend to “create a sustainable club” was not an easy feat. For many, it was the first time in their lives that they had to truly create something original and not replicate or summarize someone’s else work. Which is why opportunities like these trainings are so important.

Our summit helped some youth to think “outside the box” to create clubs that their peers would enjoy participating. Some of the youth with their respective Peace Corps Volunteers will be implementing their clubs soon. However, most will be creating them for the upcoming school year. Thus, wish them luck on this journey!