Bittersweet Goodbye

Goodbyes are the worst. Starting out on a new adventure can be scary, meeting different people can be awkward (especially in a second language), day to day routine can be boring, but goodbyes are the absolute worst. Twenty-seven months have passed since my first blog post and now I am preparing to say goodbye to my neighbors, who have become family, my work partners that have become mentors and my friends that have become so much more.

Apologies, I haven’t updated this blog in a while, life got busy and normal and the blog moved to the back of my mind, but I will give you a quick update on the projects. I just attended the second Constuye Tus Suenos conference filled with some 50 entrepreneurial Dominican youth, always inspirational. As for the women’s project, it is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because they have made real progress. They are using notebooks to track expenses and sales and balancing their books! They have organized into three teams: administration, production and sales; to be a more efficient business. The sales teams are moving! Each week they take product to a different list of local stores to promote their products and now have tripled or quadrupled the numbers of stores they sell in and are still motivated. Last week I sat down with the administrative team and as they opened their notebooks, the president said, “Alright, let’s plan what we have to do in May. What’s our sales goals? How much product do we need to produce? How much of the raw materials should we buy? Who is going to buy it and when?” I was so proud. I can see that change is truly happening within them. It’s not me leading meetings anymore, or pushing them to do things, it’s them who are leading the charge. I am so proud of them and felt guilty/sad leaving them, but great news is Peace Corps is sending a follow-up volunteer to continue working and aiding them. I have no doubt the women will continue to have positive change and advance.

The project has been frustrating because the renovation of their factory which was supposed to be complete by March 30th, is still half done. The story is too long to put it all here but from the donors to the architect to the hardware store, nothing has gone right and it doesn’t seem the true goal of renovating the women’s factory is first on anyone’s mind. I’ve tried to move things along and fight for the women but it has been difficult. Two months ago I warned I may not be around for the inauguration and everyone laughed, of course it would be done by May, and here we are May 5, 2015 and the factory isn’t close to done. Sadly I won’t be around for the inauguration of their renovated factory but it doesn’t really matter to me. I was around for the real change within the organization, within the women and within myself and that’s what truly matters to me. I measure my service by that true change.

So with all these updates it brings us to my current state, the worst part, the goodbyes. Two years ago I said goodbye to many loved ones in Boston, but it didn’t seem as tough as this. Everyone in America has internet and is pretty easy to communicate with, people in my village barely have cell signal. This village is so small, everyone has become part of my life and vice versa. The women from the organization have become like mothers to me, the kids like adopted children, nightly coming over to do homework, and the men like fathers. I have neighbors in particular, that without, I couldn’t have made it through my service. They fed me, they gave me their drinking water to bathe in when all there was was contaminated water, their grandkids kept me company nightly in my house or on walks, they truly accompanied me throughout my entire service. When I was bored or lonely, their house was my house, their family mine as well. I can never thank them enough for all they’ve done.

So you can see why the goodbyes are going to be so hard. I have a week left here in my little wooden house surrounded by cacao trees and love and still can’t imagine how I am going to say goodbye. Two years flew by. Now I am trading in these dirt roads and friendly neighbors for the concrete jungle and neighbors I don’t know yet in New York City. I’ll be in Boston for two weeks probably dealing with a lot of reverse culture shock and then starting a new adventure in NYC doing financial counseling for underserved populations there. I’m super excited as well as super nervous I may have forgotten how to ride a subway and speak English. Hope to see everyone while I’m home and can’t wait for the best part, saying hello!

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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Those of you who know me, know I love a good political conversation, but I’ve deliberately kept politics out of this blog. This blog isn’t political and neither is this story. This story is a story of one individual immigrant, in a long history of immigrants and immigrations.

The island of Hispaniola, of which the DR makes up half and it’s neighbor Haiti the other half, is a complicated island. You would think on such a small island two neighboring nations would almost live as one people, but Dominicans and Haitians are two very distinct people, with their own cultures, languages and customs. There is a long history of occupations, wars and massacres between these two countries that leave relations today tense.

Today the tale between the DR and Haiti is almost the same age-old immigration tale happening around the world, people leaving one nation in hopes of finding a better life on the other side. Many Haitians cross the small border to the Dominican looking for a better life and most end up working the toughest and dirtiest jobs; street vendors, cutting sugarcane, working in cacao, whatever odd jobs they can find as illegal immigrants. This story is of one Haitian who crossed the border and made his way to my campo.

I didn’t know this Haitian man, he could’ve passed my house weekly, daily, who knows, but I never met him. I don’t know where he lived or who his family was, I don’t even know his name. He came to our community to work on the electricity project. The electric company “hired” Haitians to dig the ditches for the lamp poles and to connect the wires pole to pole. Last week, one particular ordinary day, this man went to work, someone forgot to shut off the electricity in our zone, and he was electrocuted and died. When word got to my house he had died, no one even knew his name, they just said, “A Haitian died with the electricity.”

There is a sizeable Haitian community where I live, so thankfully someone found his brother, the only family he had here in the DR. Where I live the Dominicans and Haitians don’t mix much so I didn’t think anyone would be going to the funeral. At first I think people were curious. They wanted to see if the rumors of his stiff naked body were true, or if you could really smell the burnt still on him. They wondered what type of voodoo and witchcraft the Haitians would do to bury him.

But once the Dominicans actually started going to see the body, the talk changed. The men talked of how painful it was to see his distraught brother, who opened the casket every ten minutes to clean his brother’s face. The women, many with sons illegal in the US, related all too much to how painful it must be for a mother to never be able to touch her son’s face again, dead in a far away land. They talked about how sad it was that no one could bring him back to his own land because they were too afraid of immigration at the border. Something changed, the community started seeing this man as the human being he was. Weather it be Dominicans to Haitians, or Israelis to Palestinians or Al-Qaeda to Americans or Americans to Latinos, an important thing happens when you start seeing a people as human beings, you start treating them like that.

Although a little late the community started pulling together to support the Haitian community and bury the man with dignity. They stopped recounting the horrible details of his death, they brought food and donated a burial plot.

Amazing things happen when you see people as human beings, you see them as having basic rights. In our Declaration of Independence the US defines basic rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is the one that seems to drive everyone: to get a job, to buy a house, to marry, to have kids, to look for a better life, wherever that may be.

Sadly this man, who I still don’t know his name, left his home like so many immigrants in pursuit of happiness, only to find despair. May he rest in peace now.

Sadly this man, who I still don’t know his name, left his home like so many immigrants in pursuit of happiness, only to find despair. May he rest in peace now.

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New Batteries

I’m getting so bad at blog updates, must mean I’m close to coming home! I officially have less then six months left, but the project is getting busy.

We finally started construction on the chocolate factory. The women always used the word casita, meaning little house, to describe their workspace, now that things are moving, they believe in their business and are using the word fabrica o planta, meaning factory. Their computer was delivered last week, which we start classes on next week. Their spirits are electric, after 15 years of hard, unpaid labor, they are finally seeing their vision realized.

There are plenty of bumps along the way. I was worried this week things were slowing down, the women getting disengaged because of the bumps but like always they rose to the challenge. The architect’s design wasn’t detailed like they wanted, the workers don’t always show up, the water project has gotten disorganized and the women work almost everyday to make enough product to meet the demand. I was worried they were getting burnt out, I was getting burnt out but today they had new batteries.

When I walked up to the workspace at our normal workspace the women already were together, hands on their hips, arms flailing, mouths moving a mile a minute, I knew something was going on. The workers didn’t show up for work again on the fabrica and the water hadn’t come through the pipes for weeks. Before they even asked for my advice they were calling the workers bosses and got them taken off the project and new people put on. Tomorrow they have plans for the water bosses.

I’ve learned so much from these women’s strength. They aren’t loud and boisterous. They don’t demand your respect; they earn it. They don’t boast about their accomplishments, they show them to you. They have a silent grace and power about them that I admire. The way they protect their community and their families without anyone even realizing they are doing it. These women have let me into every part of their lives, I’ve gotten to see their inner workings, and they really are astonishing.

There’s a theory in development that believes by focusing on betterment of the lives of women in a community, that they will in turn share their benefits and bring the rest of the village up to their level: children, spouses, elders, disabled. Throughout my service I’ve seen this happen. I don’t know how the women stretch money, clothes, food and water so far, but they do. In my last post I was worried about what the women would do when I was gone. They may not do everything by the book when I’m gone, but I have no doubt they’ll be fine. Their generosity, ingenuity and stamina continue to amaze me, a year and a half into my service.

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Sustainable Service

Sustainable Development, that’s the strategy and the goal here in the little village in the Dominican Republic where I live. It’s also the Peace Corps method in every village that every Peace Corps volunteer lives in. My job in the Peace Corps is to integrate into my community, become so part of them that when there’s progress, it’s not my progress, it’s our progress. We work together to identify community needs and problems then create strategies to solve them. All though it’s not always true, the purpose of my service isn’t even to solve community needs, it’s really to teach the community members how to organize and solve their own needs.

My community is so small (152 people) and so friendly (the list for this one would go on for days) that it was natural to integrate here. From the day I moved in, my community members saw and treated me like family. They made my job of integration easy. Sure, in the beginning I visited new houses and interviewed people for my community diagnostic but my neighbors were the ones who welcomed me in, gave me juice, fruit, lunch, dinner, water and opened up their homes and lives to me. So with integration down my service moved into the real service phase.

Through talking and living with my community members we decided on the projects I’d work on. My main project was and is working with a women’s association/business to organize and commercialize their business and products. As I soon realized lack of water was also a severe problem in Corozo. Other problems were lack of activities for young people, jobs for youth, the bad roads, lack of health care, instable electricity and cacao production down. Lastly, the one I dreaded, but everyone unanimously wanted, so I had to do, was English class.

Obviously, I can’t solve all of these problems in two-short years of service. I worked on projects that touched on some of the issues (not electricity because I’m terrified of being electrocuted here) but not all. Sustainable development and the goal would be if I worked with community members on addressing one of the problems and then they using the same skills they could address the others. Throughout my service, the women’s business has also been one of my top priorities.

The women’s business thankfully has had some success. They now have: production control, simply logging the date and who made products and with what; quality control, weighing portions, comparing colors and tastes and packing; they have new attractive labels and packaging,; they organize events better than any wedding planner; they’ve increased sales but who knows by what percent because they just started recording sales this year and they are still hard at work progressing. I’ve worked with the women in their daily and weekly activities, making product, packing product, recording sales and analyzing costs. I’ve become so intertwined in their success, their success is starting to feel like my own, and this isn’t a good thing.

Although I’m not done with my service part of my service, I want to start transitioning into making sure my service created sustainable development. I want to start stepping back from working so closely with the women on their daily activities to make sure they can do them themselves.

Currently, I still help the treasurer heavily with the bookkeeping. I don’t do the bookkeeping but she has trouble understanding charts and how to fill them in so I still go over the books with her weekly. I’ve seen multiple production days when I’m not there the women forget to record their hours worked or fill in the production notebook. I don’t want to diminish the women’s success, because they have been an integral part in their own success. The women are superb at always getting work done, if there is an order, it will be filled. No one ever skips work or doesn’t work the hardest they can. The women just aren’t accustomed to boring office details, which are sometimes the most essential part of a business. They are experts in cacao and hard manual labor, but they aren’t experts in notebooks and pens. They can almost always get weights right by looking at it, so don’t remember to weigh out portions.

Their success has come so quickly that they’ve been scrambling to fill orders and I’ve stepped in to help with the notebooks. I’ve taught and explained how each new practice works but the women seem to fall into their old ways. I don’t want the business to fail, I am interested in how much sales increase and how much profit they make from each product, so I end up filling in the notebooks out of my own curiosity. I thought once the women saw how important the administration part of a business was that they’d make it a priority but that still hasn’t happened.

I’ve started to realize the women don’t run their business like traditional businesses and that’s okay. I can’t push American business practices on them, if it doesn’t work in their culture. They have a president but in meeting you almost don’t know who is on the board and who is not. The women truly work as a team. I’ve realized I don’t have to make the women run their business like a fortune 500 company. They do need organization, but maybe they can find a middle ground. My hope is that through learning from each other and borrowing ideas, that the women can keep the essential family run feel and unity to their business but also use some of traditional business skills I’ve been trying to teach them.

I want their development to be organic and sustainable. I don’t want to force notebooks on them, or worse do the work for them. I want them to understand all the business practices and their benefits and then decide which ones to include in their business, because at the end of the day, and at the end of my two years here, the business is the women’s. They organized when there was nothing here in in their community. Before USAID, before Peace Corps and when I was still in middle school these women were making products. Now their association is turning into a business and I hope they have success as much as I hope they don’t lose the essentials of their organization. I hope they learn and adapt as well as never forget how they started. I hope their development is sustainable, even though my service isn’t.

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Women at Work

So I haven’t updated in a while, partly because I’ve been busy and partly because I forgot I had a blog. I’ve been in country almost a year and a half and this Peace Corps life is starting to feel like life as usual. I’ve survived pre-service training, three-month diagnostic, arrival day, the awkward months of not speaking Spanish well, the uncomfortable days of just getting to know people and the moments that have taken my breath away. I’ve had sweaty months of hard work, slow months, vacation months on some of the most beautiful beaches, months full of frustrations and set backs and well as months of accomplishments. Through it all I’ve had my support back home, my Peace Corps family and Las Productivas by my side.

Las Productivas is the group of women that I was assigned to as my main project. Just like family, I didn’t choose these women and none of us are perfect but I love each of them. I’ve been with them a year and a half and they still amaze me daily with their generosity, perseverance and grace. Recently other people have started to take notice of these humble yet formidable women.

Recently, a famous Dominican chef came to visit the women’s group because she had heard about their products and was interested in how she could help. Like me, she fell in love with the women and their story. She brought the women onto her LIVE national cooking show. She dedicated her entire show to recipes using the women’s products as well as giving time to them to present their products to the national audience.

From this opportunity Chanel 5, or Telemicro, the largest cable network in the Dominican became interested in the women. They visited our small community today to interview the women and film them working.

These experiences have been great publicity (and super fun!). Since their appearance on the cooking show the women have gotten three new large clients, two in the capital and one in a tourist resort in Punta Cana. It has not been without it’s bumps but progress is happening.

The new sales are great but now is the real test. A business doesn’t just need to get clients, it needs to keep them. The women now need to have steady production of a consistent product. This means buying materials on time, having quality control and having distribution of the products. They now have so much work, they need to divide it up, put people in charge of each area. They need to have production teams and sales teams, a manager and an accountant. They need to work on the administration as well, define who are the owners, how much they will pay employees, how will they count the hours? This is what we’ve been working for for the past year and a half. We’ve worked together to better the organization, the marketing, the accounting, the production and now is the time to see if it’s paid off. I’m happy I still have 6 months left to accompany the women on the next part of their journey, but I hope 6 years from now it’s all so natural they forget who taught them it.

Watching the women be intereviewed I’ve never felt prouder. Watching them transform from housewives with a hobby to business women has been unforgettable. Watching them juggle their household responsibilities and make their own work a priority has taught me a lot about my own future.

Overall I have 6 months left and I expect them to be busy: remodeling their workspace, buying the equipment they need and continually working with them to strengthen their business. Although they’ll be busy at this point in my service I feel more at peace then ever. When I wake up I don’t see the negatives anymore. I’ve forgotten about the things I lack here and instead focus on the things I’ll miss when I’m back in the States. I’ll miss the large blue Caribbean sky, I’ll miss my neighbors rice she sends me daily (even though I tell her no), I’ll miss the smell of toasting cacao, I’ll miss wearing jeans everyday, I’ll miss ridiculously friendly people, I’ll miss doing something new everyday and I’ll miss the clear night sky when there’s no electricity for miles.

Thankfully for now I don’t have to say goodbye to any of it. Thankfully I stopped looking at the negatives and started seeing how full my life is here before I was in the US looking back at my time here. I have six months left and I’m going to enjoy every day.

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Construye

          Constuye Tus Suenos or in English Build Your Dreams is an initiative in the community economic development sector of the Peace Corps. It’s a business class that teaches entrepreneurism throughout the 14 sessions. Each session touches a different theme like market studies, sales strategies, and budget projections. As students progress through the course, learning about parts of the businesses, they progress writing their business plans. In my community I graduated 8 students.

When the class finishes we submit all the business plans and grade each one. The fifteen best plans in the country are invited to present their plans at the national conference and compete for the capital to start their businesses. Last year going to this conference was one of the highlights of my service. Seeing young people 16-29, supporting each other in such a professional atmosphere, believing and presenting their dreams was inspirational. This year I was even more excited because two of my students were selected to present!

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We prepared for a month, revising the plans, making the powerpoint presentations and practicing and then practicing more. They put in a lot of hard work and when their names were called to present I think I know how mother’s feel. I was so nervous for them, I want to do it for them. They both presented better than any practice we had done and I was so proud. One judge even asked one of my girls a ton of questions, borderline attacking her and she stood up there and defended herself with a smile! I was beaming with pride. Along with my students 13 other nervous, prepared, hard-working students were presenting in other rooms.

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Neither of my students did win the prize money but I’ve never been prouder of them. The course and writing the plans isn’t ultimately about winning the money. The course is about having passion for something, thinking it through, planning steps to make it happen, and then following through to make it happen. My students did this. They learned, opened their minds and were determined to present the best plans they could, and that’s exactly what they did.

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The last day of the course one of the Dominican judges asked a Dominican student, “If your neighbor told you she wanted to be an astronaut, what would you tell her.” The student pretty quickly laughed and said, “NO, she can’t be”. The Dominican judge said, “of course because you all are from rural parts of the country you think you can’t be anything but the things close to you, or the same thing your father was.” He continued, “If I asked an American young person from the back woods of Kentucky if they could be an astronaut, you know what they would say. They’d say, Yes, because they believe they can be anything they want to be.”

To me this was what the conference was about. This judge couldn’t have made it clearer. In America were raised in this belief we can do and be anybody we want to be. Here there really isn’t that belief. Seeing my students from our tiny campo and students from all over the country start to believe in themselves and open their minds to new possibilities made all the hard work worth it.

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Progress

            Haven’t written in a while. I guess after so much time here, the machetes, weird creatures, weird sicknesses and all the other bizarre, daily surprises have just become part of my normal life. These days I’ve been recovering from the Chinkunguyna (some days everything still hurts!) and been busy with my projects. Two of my business students were selected to compete at the National Constuye Conference, where they’ll present their business plans for a chance to win the capital to start their business! And as for the women’s group, the renovations and work on the their workspace has finally begun!

 

            As part of the project, a Dominican laboratory gave a workshop to the women about hygiene in food preparation and also about cacao. The teacher was dynamic. It was a three day workshop and in these three days I saw a change in the women. The day of the graduation (pictured below) they glowed. They looked and felt empowered with their new knowledge and encouragement. They divided their workspace into new areas, the office, sales area, production area and storage. It’s a small step but it’s progress!

 IMG_5617IMG_5620IMG_5621IMG_5577Finished Products.

The workshop also showed the women how to control their production. We now have a notebook that logs who works on the production of what products, what days. Also we set time limits, temperatures and other parameters to make our products more consistent. The best part was the women were involved, absorbing every word and piece of knowledge the teacher had to offer. We still have a long way to go but I can see a definite positive change in the group and their work.

 

In addition to the workshop we have been working on the renovations for the women’s workspace. The plan is to make the space more appropriate for food production so the women can get their public health registrations, which in turn will open up larger more formal markets (aka supermarkets). These renovations are still in the early stages, architects making plans and budgets, but I can’t wait to see the finished product! The important part is the women themselves can’t wait, they have started on their own renovations.

 

They were told it would be good to close off their property with a tree line. The trees will attract insects that would otherwise enter their workspace. So the tree line works as a repellent, as well as its aesthetic appeal! I thought it’d be a lot of work but yesterday the women got down to business and within an hour had all the trees planted. (Pictures Below). Everyone brought a machete, three women brought the trees, four others brought the shovels and quickly got to work. One measured the perimeter, while another marked it, Oliva dug holes while her granddaughter planted. It was a community and family affair like most things in Corozo. These women are like a well-oiled machine when they work together. They laugh while they work, sometimes disagree in the process, but always get the task done. I love watching them work and can’t wait to see what they accomlish in the future.

IMG_5835Altagracia my host mom with her machete.

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Everything’s a family affair!

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Finished, with our new logo and sign and the trees. Starting to look professional!

 

 

 

(Pictures won’t upload but hopefully I can get it to work later. Sorry!

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