Elections & Evacuation

One week ago today all plans for my Peace Corps service were changed, but this story starts weeks prior.

On March 3, there was a national election in Guyana. Since this was a special election (outside of the normal election times), there were concerns about the political atmosphere following the results. Historically there have been certain areas of Guyana that have participated in turbulent protests. Because of this, Peace Corps Guyana staff had been preparing all volunteers on our emergency action plan for months.

On February 28, all volunteers in the country were put on standfast. During standfast, we are required to stay in our communities so that we are prepared for consolidation and potential evacuation. Luckily during the time of elections, I was living in one of the safest coastal regions. It was so quiet during election times that when 4 out of the 8 regions were consolidated, they were brought to my region. So that was a positive!


Side note: To this day, the results of the election are still being disputed. Part of this dispute is coming from international leaders, including the US Ambassador to Guyana, who was granted permission by both competing political parties to oversee the voting process to ensure a fair democratic process. However, the process has become more complicated than that. Check out articles from NYTimes, BBC, Stabroek News, and Guyana Chronicle to understand the elections some more.


On March 11 Guyana confirmed their first case of COVID-19.

So with half of our volunteers on standfast and the other half consolidated, we all waited until we could get our lives back to normal. However, normalcy would not come to happen anytime soon. On March 11 Guyana confirmed their first case of COVID-19. In the following days, there would be three more confirmed cases (all persons related to the first case). Being such a small country, Guyana immediately started taking the precautions needed to keep people safe. One of those precautions included closing all schools in Guyana for 2 weeks starting March 16.

Aside from what the Government of Guyana was doing, this now meant our post was not only dealing with safety concerns from the election but also safety concerns from the virus. To say this was a stressful time for everyone would be an understatement. My stress and anxieties started to grow faster when I was given word that American Airlines would soon announce they were suspending their flights to and from Guyana due COVID-19. Knowing this information before the other volunteers and potentially PC staff, I started gathering all my important documents, personal items and things I would leave to be donated to the community.

I had an hour to pack up my belongings, house, and life in Region 2.

At 1:21 pm Sunday, March 15, the official email from our acting Country Director came through. All PCVs in Guyana were being evacuated, and we had to get Cheddi Jagan International Airport ASAP to catch the last American Airlines flight out on March 16 at 12:30 am. That meant that when the evacuation email was sent, PC staff had less than 12 hours to get all 54 of us plane tickets home, to the airport and on the last flight out. Again, a very stressful time for us all.

Once the evacuation notice came through, I had an hour to pack up my belongings, house, and life in Region 2. However, I was one of the lucky volunteers. Like I said previously, half of our volunteers had been consolidated to my region. At the time they were consolidated, staff reassured the volunteers they would only be consolidated for a couple of days. However, a couple of days turned to a week and then being sent home to the states. The volunteers consolidated did not have the opportunity to properly pack up their houses and get all the belongings they needed to take home with them.


Every PCV’s experience is different.

Upon reaching the airport, we found out that our post is not the only one being affected. Due to COVID-19, Peace Corps HQ has decided to suspend all volunteer activities and is evacuating all posts throughout the world. However, upon seeing what other posts are experiencing, PC Guyana was ahead of the game.

Below is the announcement made by Jody Olsen, Director of Peace Corps. And this is where I will share my unedited opinion of this news, and I would like to remind my readers that my blog is my content and does not reflect the opinions of any organizations I am attached to.

During this time of uncertainty with the coronavirus, every post has experienced something different. All 7,300 PCVs have been experiencing something different. However, we all experienced the same thing. In the end, all PCVs were fired and done so by an announcement made on the Peace Corps website. The news of losing our jobs wasn’t even sent to our emails before it went on the internet. However, I am thankful that my post did tell us this information before we boarded our flights.

It is uncertain at this time if or when Peace Corps programs will resume. Although Peace Corps Guyana is hopeful, only time will tell if I can return to Guyana to finish out my projects.


I am sure you can imagine that this abrupt departure has been the hardest to absorb. I did not have a chance to say goodbye to those at my site who made a difference in my service. Being evacuated also means I have left projects, including a mural at my health center, unfinished. The next blog post I will share about this mural!

To my host family, teachers at my school, my students, midwives at my health center, and community members, words cannot express how grateful I am for you all and how sad I am to have to say goodbye. I hope one day I can return to Guyana so that we can finish the work we started!

Until we meet again!

xoxo, Mere

Help recently evacuated PCVs, such as myself, get proper benefits during these uncertain times.

Please click the petition link below!

We need 100,000 signatures by April 22, 2020!

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/benefits-peace-corps-volunteers-who-were-recently-evacuated-their-posts-due-coronavirus

Ambitions for Peace Corps

During college and my AmeriCorps services, I learned that goal-setting can be really important for holding onto your purpose for doing something. Goals can give you things to look forward to and a gentle reminder for why you decided to do something in the first place.

I knew that if I wanted to be able to survive and thrive in my 27 months abroad, I would have to come up with some goals for my Peace Corps service. Starting wayyy back in June 2018, when I first got to Guyana, I started to think about the things I wanted to achieve and the things I wanted to do. My initial lists have grown since then, but I thought I would share with you all my ambitions I set for my Peace Corps service!

First, I came up with a bucket list of all the things I wanted to see and/or do while in Guyana for 2 years. Then as my Pre-Service Training progressed, I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteers and spent some time at my new site, I decided to come up with a list of goals for my service. My goals are not necessarily specific to my position in Guyana but rather a general reminder of things I can achieve regardless of my job title.

Guyana Bucket List

  • Visit 8 out of 10 regions.
  • Go to Rodeo in Lethem, Region 9.
  • Fly kites on Easter Monday.
  • Successfully make roti.
  • Color it up at Phagwah (known as Holi in other countries).
  • Participate in the different Mashramani (Republic Day) activities.
  • Visit Kaieteur falls in Region 8.
  • Explore Sloth island in Region 7.
  • Experience the different religions
  • Celebrate Amerindian culture during indigenous heritage month.
  • Go to the Guyana zoo.
  • Feed the manatees at the National Park.
  • Party at Guyana’s Carnival.
  • Spend Christmas with my host family.

Goals for Peace Corps Service

  • Improve my health and achieve a healthy weight.
  • Read more and keep my brain challenged.
  • Focus on myself and personal growth.
  • Have at least one project that I define as successful.
  • Stay open-minded – try new foods, experience new things.
  • Start doing yoga to slow down my mind and actions.
  • Improve on my writing/blogging skills.
  • Be more emotionally open.
  • Make new friends – take my time to create meaningful, productive and lasting relationships.
  • Network more – growth professionally.
  • Take chances but stay safe.
  • Leave a positive legacy both at my site and within PC Guyana.
  • Appreciate and celebrate the little successes.

A poster I created for the Resource Book that was distributed at my Region #2 HFLE Workshop in August 2019.

Throughout my service, goals have been an important part of what I do. Goal setting is one topic that I teach in HFLE and I do so by using the acronym SMART. SMART goals are used to help guide goal setting. Its stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

When you look at my goals I set above, you will see that they don’t follow the SMART acronym entirely, and honestly that is because I didn’t know about SMART goals until I had to teach it in my classes.

When I am teaching my students, I like to provide examples for them, so I often talk about the goals I have set for my service. Since my goals are more broad, I have to develop the goal more to meet the SMART acronym to provide a more accurate example.

After that, I work with the student to develop their own goals by going step by step through the acronym. This allows them to fully understand their goal they want to achieve and to commit to their goal rather than just creating one to get a good grade.

Some students set goals for school, for future careers, for improving relationships with family members, etc. It’s really exciting as a teacher to see my students think past their current situation and aspire for things in the future.

I’ve already been able to check off some items on both lists above, so let’s see how many more I can accomplish with 7 months I have left of service!

Look out for my next post which will be about my new goals I have set for 2020!

xoxo, Mere

The One with the Big Project

All Peace Corps Volunteers have a primary project. It’s the thing we sign on to do for 27 months when we hit the ‘Apply’ button on the Peace Corps website. On top of our primary projects, some volunteers do secondary projects. Those projects have the potential to be large or small, inside or outside of your community and to have any focus the volunteer and community members choose. From March to September, myself, health volunteers in my region, Preethi & Connor, and our 3 counterparts were working hard to plan, prepare, implement, evaluate, and report on a regional training for HFLE teachers – aka our secondary project.

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“Why limit the development of HFLE?”

If you recall from a previous post, health volunteers here in Guyana work within the secondary schools to strengthen the Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) curriculum. One of the ways we do this is co-facilitating classes with our teachers so new strategies can be introduced to enhance the lessons.

A little over a year ago Preethi and I got an idea. We thought, “Why limit the development of the HFLE program to just 3 out of the 8 schools in our region? Why not provide the opportunity enhance HFLE for all schools and not just the ones with a PCV?”

WhatsApp Image 2019-08-28 at 2.50.48 PMAfter spending some time in our schools and working with our staff, we came to realize that the current curriculums for the subject fell short in the amount of content for majority of the topics. Unlike other subjects, HFLE doesn’t have associated textbooks. Aside from doing their own research, HFLE teachers only have the curriculum guides as a resource. This was a challenge me, Preethi and Connor came to understand, but the three of us needed to know whether local teachers across the region felt the same. So after a month of informal interviews with local HFLE teachers, Head Teachers and Heads of Departments,  we started brainstorming what we could do.

In our minds, it was simple. The best way to reach all 8 schools was to conduct a large-scale, regional HFLE workshop for teachers. At the workshop we would present an additional resource book we [the volunteers] created to supplement the curriculums. With 3 local counterparts on board with the solutions, we started the process to receive funding from Peace Corps’ Small Grants Program.

While preparing for the workshop, we sought out support from important partners in the region such as the Department of Education. With the department’s help, we were able to make the workshop mandatory for all 8 schools and have snacks, lunches, and drinks provided every day of the workshop.

WhatsApp Image 2019-08-29 at 3.47.46 PM (2)As our first school year started to come to a close, Preethi, Connor and I began diving deep in our preparations for the workshop. Along with our counterparts, we needed tostay on top of the logistical things –  define a schedule, plan sessions, create teaching aids, get supplies and materials, and continuously keep in contact with our local supporters. But out of all of those tasks, one was the most painstakingly difficult and yet the most rewarding . . .  our Health & Family Life Education Resource Book. There were many long nights of researching, writing, creating, editing, and producing the content for our book, but all the time and effort was worth it after receiving so much positive feedback both during and after the workshop.

“One of my favorite moments was seeing the participants break down that wall of reservation.”

After 7 months of preparation, it was finally time to facilitate our workshop. From August 28-30, 2019, 9 teachers from 7 out of the 8 secondary schools in the region attended our workshop and were trained on HFLE. The workshop covered various topics such as the history of HFLE, types of life skills incorporated in the subject, the four overarching themes, content for some of the difficult topics to teach under each theme, and new student-centered activities teachers can use in the classroom with their students.

whatsapp-image-2019-08-30-at-3.18.00-pm.jpegFor every session, there were 2 facilitators, one PCV and one counterpart. Those facilitators would model their sessions off of Peace Corps’ approach to lessons, which is to focus on student-centered activities to encourage the most amount of learning. There were a lot of sessions presented throughout the three days; however, my counterpart, Miss Carlana, and I were responsible for facilitating the following sessions: creating HFLE-friendly classrooms, creative lesson planning, and covering topic under the 2nd theme of HFLE, such as sexuality and contraceptives.

whatsapp-image-2019-08-29-at-3.40.50-pm-e1574280987335.jpegMy favorite memory of the workshop was when Carlana and I were discussing contraceptives. At the end of the session, the participants had to do a condom demonstration . . . but with a twist. Participants were grouped in pairs, one partner was blindfolded and tasked with putting the condom correctly. The other partner had to orally guide the blindfolded person to put the condom on with all the correct steps. The group to finish first and do the step properly, won. This was one of my favorite moments because you could see the participants break down that wall of reservation and start to have fun with a topic that typically gets thrown out because teachers are not comfortable with it. Participants were able to see that there can be fun to teaching sensitive material.

“We are still feeling the pay off!”

Obviously more could be said about our project, but in the end it’s not about boring you with the details – its about sharing the experience. So . . . what did I gain from this experience?

  1. I strengthened my leadership skills but I also felt like regressed on my delegation skills. There were many moments where I was stressed from taking on too much when I could’ve delegated it out.
  2. I confirmed that I do enjoy health education but would rather not do it in a school setting post-Peace Corps.
  3. I realized that it’s not worth sweating the small stuff and that sometimes there’s nothing I can do to bridge the cultural gap in professional standards.
  4. I learned how to do things that can be transferred to a future career such as grant writing and project planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating.

WhatsApp Image 2019-08-30 at 3.20.45 PMThis workshop has really given me and my service a sense of validity. It has been something I could dedicate my time, knowledge and skills to on a large-scale, and I feel like it was a success! It’s been months since we concluded this big project, but Preethi, Connor and I are still feeling the pay off. It’s been rewarding to see participants using what they learned in their classrooms, getting publicly recognized by both Peace Corps Guyana staff and Peace Corps headquarters, sharing our experience with the Ministry of Education in Guyana, and furthering discussions with nationwide stakeholders to standardize this workshop in the future.

I don’t think I’ll do another project as big as this one, but I am excited to see what other small things I can do at my site before my time ends here in Guyana! Stay tuned for more!

xoxo, Mere

 

(p.s. Here’s a short slide show of some of the photos taken at the workshop. Enjoy!)

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Geography Lesson

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Mashramani Festival. Annual country-wide celebration in observance of its Republican anniversary.

Guinea? No, that’s in Africa.

Ghana? Nope, that is also in Africa.

[French] Guiana? Correct continent, wrong country.

In June, I will be going to GUYANA.

Never heard of it? Me either until my interview with the PC placement officer. Here’s a quick tutorial and basic knowledge on the place I am going to call home for the next 2.5 years.

Location

Guyana is located on the north coast of South America. It is wedged between Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname, and is slightly bigger than my home state, Illinois. The country is further divided into 10 regions. After training, I will be designated to a community within one of those regions.

Fun Facts About Guyana

  • Guyana is the only South American country that has English as their official language, and everyone speaks it regardless of background.
  • Guyanese Creole is also a common language, and is a altered version of English with an Indian/African influence. It will become my second language while in the Peace Corps.
  • A large portion of Guyana citizens live abroad.
  • The currency is the Guyanese Dollar.
  • It is one of two countries in South America to drive on the left side of the road.
  • Guyanese people identify more as Caribbean.
  • Guyana was the location of the Jim Jones cult that took place in the 70’s.
  • Over 700,000 people live in Guyana, and 90% of those people live along the coast.
  • Hinduism is the official religion.
  • There are no roads connecting Guyana with Venezuela.
  • Guyana is the 2nd most densely forested country in South America (after Suriname) – 3/4 of the country is covered in trees.
  • The national animal of Guyana is the jaguar.

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Phagwah or Holi. Annual Hindu Festival of Colors celebrating the arrival of Spring!

History

The Cooperative Republic of Guyana, or Guyana (formerly known as British Guyana), has on its historical background quite a long record and experience on being struggled upon and conquered by different countries. Below I will highlight important points in their history.

1498 – Guyana was discovered by Europeans. For 500 years there were many battles between the Dutch, French, Spanish, and British to gain control of this area.

17th century – Dutch colony, and in 1815 the British conquered the Dutch.

17th & 18th century – the large landmass north of the Amazon River and east of the Orinoco River has been divided into 5 sub-regions, namely: British Guiana (now Guyana), Spanish Guiana (now eastern Venezuela), Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), Portuguese Guiana (now northern Brazil), and French Guiana which is at present a French department in South America.

Late 1800’s – slavery was abolished. Guyana has started to become a home to the black people, and Indians started to storm the country and work in its rich sugar plantations.

1966 – Guyana gained independence from the U.K.

1970 – became a republic

1992 – believed the elections this year was their first fair and free elections since they gained their independence.

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Easter in Guyana. Annual holiday celebrated in Guyana with kite flying.

I can’t wait to share my personal experiences with you all once I am in country!

xoxo, Mere

(Disclaimer: these images are not my own and outsourced from explore Guyana.org.)