The Albanian Healthcare System

After working in the Albanian healthcare system for over the past year I have begun to understand the way things work here little by little. Healthcare systems across the world are often a point of criticism, especially in America. People are not happy with the recent Obamacare regulations and many people do not have access to adequate healthcare services. The healthcare system in Albania also is not set up for success in the current capacity, but that is why the Ministry of Public Health is constantly striving for better results and more action. Many Albanians are continually working towards a better society that impacts more and more people. That is also the reason why Peace Corps volunteers are placed in health organizations to help build capacity. Things aren’t perfect, but slowly we are working together to make this place better.

Public vs. Private Sector

The Albanian healthcare system is set up in the private and public sector. In the public sector there are two ministries – the Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Health. The Ministry of Finance controls the insurance commission that pay for public health service specialists. The Ministry of Health has authority over the regional public hospitals, Directories of Public Health (DShP), and smaller health centers. There are twelve regional public hospitals in Albania where the specialists work. Under the hospitals you will find the DShPs and then the smaller health centers and polyclinics. Family doctors work at the health centers and polyclinics. Government employees, children, people with disabilities, students, soldiers, and retired persons are covered under public health insurance and patients without insurance are expected to pay for public health services. The prices are as followed: $10 family doctor visit, $15 polyclinic visit, and $20 hospital stay. They also need to pay all the costs for all medications as well.

The private sector definitely holds monopoly over the healthcare system in Albania. There are many pharmacies, laboratories, private doctor officers, speciality clinics, diagnostic centers, and hospitals. The private hospitals are mainly in larger urban cities such as Tirana, Durres, and Vlore. All dental clinics are also in the private sector. The majority of Albanians cannot afford to be covered under private healthcare.

Culture

There is an interesting culture surrounding healthcare in Albania. The culture of turp (shame) causes many people to have the fear of embarrassment when it comes to health knowledge. Some doctors do not collaborate with other doctors on medical cases because they fear that others think they do not know what they are doing if they have questions or would like a second opinion. In America, it is common for doctors to collaborate and work together, especially in the case of difficult diagnoses. Cooperation amongst coworkers is not the norm and rivalry is common. I have even witnessed this within my office; some of my colleagues will fight over who gives education to certain schools based off of what their job title is. This sometimes leads to no one giving lessons at the schools.

Continuing medical education is also not enforced and is often hard to find. This is not only for the health sector, but also for other areas of Albanian society as well. Teachers do not attend continuing education trainings either. The ministries require workers to continue their education, but in reality there is no enforcement and no consequences if people do not attend these trainings. I have attended several continuing medical education sessions since arriving in country, but all these sessions outline basic information that can be found by anyone on the Internet. The lessons usually do not go in depth into information.

Challenges

There are many challenges that people face working in the healthcare system here. The system is hierarchical, political, and bureaucratic. I quickly realized this during election time last year because no one could work at my DShP until they knew who the new Prime Minister would be. If the political party changes, like it did last year, then most of the directors in control of these public institutions also change. Those in power demand respect and all authority comes back to the directors in control. People cannot step outside the bureaucracy and must receive permission for everything.

There is a lack of organization and chaos. Often times maybe one or two people may know what is going on, while the rest of the office has no idea. Time management is an issue, as well as a lack of planning and proper needs assessments. Even major health events usually come down to last minute planning and fumbling around to get everything together in time. Coffee time takes precedent over work time frequently. Although, I cannot deny that a fair amount of work does happen over coffee, so sometimes coffee can actually be a good thing. Numerous people will arrive late, or just don’t arrive at all. I have several coworkers who habitually do not come into the office, or they will come into the office and then leave for several hours to go shopping. There is no accountability.

Lack of proper funding and physical resources is also a huge issue. The ministry will require all public health institutions, including DShPs and health centers, to perform certain examinations and education each month, but does not provide adequate funding or resources to see out these expectations. Just recently there was a huge controversy over who would get free breast exams during the month of October because the Ministry of Public Health announced that all women over 40 have the opportunity to receive a free mammography. Sounds great, right? Problem is the only mammography machines are located in Tirana and the rest of the country does not have access to the resources needed for the exams. There were supposed to be two mobile vehicles traveling around Albania to help give examinations, but no one had any information about how to get the mobile units to visit their cities. We often run into issues giving health lessons in my community as well because we do not have the money, the gas, the car, or other resources to reach the villages outside of walking distance. The village schools and health centers are all under our jurisdiction, but receive little to no attention.

Relationships are extremely important while working with people here. If you do not have a positive relationship with someone, then you don’t work with those people. This comes back to the fear and rivalry mentioned before. Trust and respect are critical. This has been one of the most difficult things for me while working here because many people are suspicious of Americans and think they Peace Corps volunteers are “spies” sent from America to keep tabs on the rest of the world. There are also ridiculous expectations of Americans. Often I am expected to do everything by myself such as creating Powerpoint lesson plans, making brochures, or anything regarding technology. Working together and transferring skills occasionally happens, but is not always common.

Community Attitudes towards Health Professionals

There is an extreme lack of trust in healthcare professionals from the public in this country. Many people are not qualified for their positions and it is common for people to pay their way through school (and life) to get to the top. That being said, people are suspicious of doctors and often trust friends or family members over their physicians. Patients do not want to take medicine unless someone else in their family has used it before. Many people will lie about their previous health conditions and they will not tell the doctor what is wrong and any of their previous diagnoses or treatments.

Traditional myths towards healthcare can make it difficult while working with community members as well. People believe that fresh, cold air will make you sick. Wet hair will also make you sick, especially if it is cold outside. I never previously dried my hair (because I love those natural “I-don’t-give-a-f*$#” curls that I have) and have had many conversations with community members about why in the world I left my house with wet hair and how I am going to catch a cold. I now don’t leave my house without covering my wet hair because I don’t want to cause a ruckus while walking down the road. A diet based on carbs is also supposed to be good for you. I cannot tell you how many Albanian women have told me that a diet of only potatoes is the best way to lose weight and be healthy. Ummmm, no! Cancer and other significant health problems are thought to be caused by the evil eye and bad luck. Emotional problems should be dealt with within the home and are often seen to only affect the weak. Yogurt, cheese, and rice work better than medicine. Supposedly applying yogurt to a sunburn is the best cure.

People feel that they need to give money to receive proper care. There are a lot of under the counter bribes that happen between patients are doctors. People will give money to have their tests read first and they will give money to receive special treatment and jump the line.

Visiting the Doctor

Visiting the doctor in Albania is a completely different experience than seeing a physician in the states. Like I have mentioned in blogs before, lines are non-existent here. So everyone who comes into the office requires immediate attention and often those who yell the loudest receive it first prior to those who have been waiting. Privacy is not a priority. During a tour of a village health center during pre-service training, our training group walked in while a doctor was examining a patient. The doctor motioned for us to stay as he explained a bit more about the health center, as he was continuing the examine the patient. I felt extremely uncomfortable for the patient because she had no say in the matter.

Instead of wanting an examination many people want an ultrasound and an IV. So many Albanians I know go to the hospital every time they are sick with a basic cold to receive an IV. It blows my mind. I have only received an IV once when I was incredibly sick, but here people will get an IV for a hangover.

Another thing that is different about visiting the doctor in Albania is that the patients are required to go to the Pharmacy to buy there own medication and, often times, their own supplies needed for regular examinations.

Working as a Health Education volunteer in Albania

So now I have mentioned some of the issues that the healthcare system in Albania faces. There is a need for a change regarding the way things are currently in place here. Most Peace Corps volunteers in Albania are placed in the local DShPs or health centers to work with the health promotion department. Currently there is not a health promotion department at the health centers because the entire region is supposed to be covered under the DShP, however funding and lack of resources inhibit those centers to adequately cover everyone. I am placed within the office of health promotion at the DShP in my city. There have been many challenges that I have faced working there, but I can’t deny that there have been a few successes as well. Most of my work consists of developing materials that my counterparts can use to help give more interactive lessons. Normally the way that health promotion works from my experience is that the promotion office will visit the health centers to give brochures, information, and posters. Then they will visit the schools to give short 15-minute lessons in the “good classes” and sometimes students will be used to do promotional marches in the community to raise awareness about topics such as breast cancer and road safety. Most of these activities are not planned ahead of time and involve giving a short lecture without any materials or interactive discussion. This is changing though with the health of Peace Corps volunteers and younger generation Albanians. Now we try to give more interactive presentations that involve Powerpoint, games, pre-post tests, and discussions. Often times, it is difficult to have the full class time (45 minutes) to devote to these lessons because when we give presentations in the schools. Usually we are interrupting classes that are already in sessions. Other times, we may plan to use a Powerpoint or a lesson involving technology, but the room doesn’t have the adequate resources or the power in the school is out. These are some of the many reasons why it is difficult to give health education lessons, even with adequate planning ahead of time.

Things are not always awry here, despite all the difficulties that we face. I have seen strength and intelligence in some of the women that I work with. I see that certain people go out of their way to try and help despite the challenges they face daily in their work and with the system. We may not be giving health lessons everyday, or every week for that matter, but slowly educators and health professionals are building capacity to plan a project and the capacity to give an interactive lesson incorporating the audience into the discussion. I am trying to look past all the obstacles and road-blocks and just focus on the little things that I can do to help. I can’t change the system, but I can help empower Albanians to do little things to help take control over what they can do for their country.

Some of our wonderful helpers during a recent breast cancer awareness march.

Some of our wonderful helpers during a recent breast cancer awareness march.

Smoking presentation

Smoking presentation

Asking the students what they know about HIV.

Asking the students what they know about HIV.

Giving dental demonstrations.

Giving dental demonstrations.

My Voice of America Interview

While I was visiting Washington DC back in September for the Peace Corps Blog It Home competition we toured several agencies, including Voice of America. I actually had no idea that Voice of America is popular in Albania and learned a bit more about the station during the tour. Voice of America serves countries all across the world giving people news and information in their native language. In Albania, Voice of America is part of the national news program aired nightly.

Before I did this interview I had NO IDEA that I would be filmed, which is probably better anyways because if I had known that I would be taped speaking Shqip for national television beforehand I probably would have stressed myself out. That being said, I had absolutely no time to prepare myself for this interview, so I definitely sound like a toddler. Plus I had not been practicing my Albanian most of the summer, so I was a bit rusty. Usually I can speak a little bit better when I am not under pressure, but I am still pretty proud of myself for giving a complete interview in Albanian on national television. I never expected that I would do something like this during my Peace Corps service and it truly was an honor.

For those of you who do not speak Albanian and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about I will give you a brief explanation in English.

“I have studied Albanian for 10 weeks and I lived with a host family in Pajove. They helped me with my Shqip. I am happy that I am in the Voice of America studio in America… Oh goodness. Excuse me, my Shqip is not very good, but slowly slowly. I work at the Directory of Public Health and give health lessons in all the schools. I have two clubs at the high school: Model UN, GLOW, and Outdoor Ambassadors. In the morning, I make Turkish coffee or sometimes American coffee. After that, I go to work and drink another coffee with my coworkers. Sometimes we give lessons in the school. After school I have a group with another American volunteer. In the afternoon, sometimes I take a nap, workout, or run. In the evenings, sometimes I eat dinner in a restaurant or drink another coffee with friends. It’s nice. Right now, I have been in Albania for one year and I will stay one year more. Maybe I will stay two years more if I have another project. Right now I want to start a youth center in my city and then maybe I will stay for two years. I have visited Theth, Valbone, Vau Dejes, Shkoder, Berat… Berat is very beautiful – the city of windows. Oh Berat. In the south the beaches are very beautiful; I have been to Saranda and Ksamil. I love Albania very much, maybe I will return in the future… Oh my gosh!”

In order to watch the video you need to scroll down in the playlist and click “Xhilli in Albania” or click this link.

PS: The music in this video is hilarious.

Halloween

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love spending months putting together the perfect costume and decorating my house. There hasn’t been a year that I’ve skipped out on the celebrations. This year I wanted to bring some of the Halloween traditions that I have grown to love over the years to some of the students that I work with.

Halloween is not widely celebrated in Albania quite like it is in America. However, it is slowly becoming more popular. Some of the children go out and trick-or-treat in their apartment complex, but you do not see many children roaming around in the streets begging for candy here. Several of the city high schools have Halloween parties for the students and you will see some parties at clubs in the bigger cities as well. Dressing up in full costume is rare. Albanians dress up mainly in masks or with face paint. The women wear fancy dresses and men just wear normal clothes.

Our Outdoor Ambassadors group decided that we would have a small party for the group to celebrate the day. I searched the town for pumpkins and finally found a few small ones from random village market vendors. I ended up buying five small pumpkins for under six dollars. Honestly I was surprised to find any pumpkins at all because last year I really wanted to carve a pumpkin for my house, but couldn’t find one. The pumpkins in Albania are a bit different than the giant orange pumpkins that I was used to back in America. Many of the pumpkins here have a white tint with some green specks. At the party we carved pumpkins, danced valle, and ate pizza and goodies. The students all pooled together money to fund the party and a few of the boys even DJed for us. I made a pumpkin brownie recipe that I found on Pinterest with buttercream frosting. The frosting just wasn’t quite the same without powdered sugar though. Overall, it was a fun time for all.

Learning how to carve the tops for the pumpkins.

Learning how to carve the tops for the pumpkins.

The guts aren't quite as gooey here in Albania.

The guts aren’t quite as gooey here in Albania.

Messing around...

Messing around…

Eating our snacks.

Eating our snacks.

The finished products.

The finished products.

I love our Outdoor Ambassadors students.

I love our Outdoor Ambassadors students.

Telling spooky stories in Berat.

Telling spooky stories in Berat.

After our party, I attended another Halloween student celebration in Berat at their youth center. We played Halloween themed Charades and told scary stories. That evening we had another party for the Peace Corps volunteers. It was a great time! Can you guess what our costume is from?

Can you guess who we are?!

Can you guess who we are?!

The Albanian Serbian UEFA Soccer Game and Modern-Day Racism

Soccer, also known as football anywhere outside of America, is huge in Albania and the rest of the world. It’s a very competitive sport that brings together people from around the globe to partake in the games. Everyday I see young boys to grown men practicing soccer around my community and my balcony faces my city’s stadium, so I can watch the games from the comfort of my home. I have honestly never been that interested in soccer, or any sports for that matter, but sometimes I can get into the spirit. It’s a great way for me to relate to my community and integrate with people here. I even watched some of the World Cup matches with my students and that is a big deal, especially since it is hard to get me to watch the Super Bowl when my own home team is playing in it.

On October 14th Albania faced Serbia in Belgrade for the European Championship qualifier game. No Albanians were allowed into the stadium to watch the game in Serbia, however you can bet that practically every Albanian was glued to their television set for this particular game. The score was 0-0 when Serbs began throwing flares onto the field. Along with throwing flares the fans were also chanting ethnically derogatory chants such as, “Kill the Albanians.” The game was then paused to clear the field and during the break a small drone was seen over the field sporting a Greater Albania flag, which included portions of surrounding nations with high ethnic Albanian populations. One of the Serbian players tore down the flag from the drone and fighting ensued amongst the players. There are rumors that the Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama’s brother was the one to set off the drone, but no findings have been shown to prove this. After the players began fighting the Serbian fans threw chairs and other objects onto the field in attempts to assault the Albanians. The players had to flee for their safety off of the field. After the Albanian players fled the stadium the game was suspended for 40 minutes and eventually abandoned. This was the first time that Albanians had played a game in the country since 1967 because of previous tensions between the nations due to the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.

Many Albanians assumed that Albania would receive the win for this game, but today the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) announced that Serbia would receive the win 3-0, but without any of the points. Serbia was given the win because during the 40 minute suspension the Albanian players refused the pitch. The Albanian players were assaulted by fellow players and fans, so it’s no surprise they did not feel safe to continue the game. Both teams received punishments for their behavior during this game and were fined 100,000 euros.  Serbia also has to play it’s next two games without fans in attendance.  This game was more than just your average soccer match against rivals. The tension dates back thousands of years between the countries. In order to understand the significance of this, it’s important to look back on the history of Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia.

Albanian History and Greater Albania

Albanian ancestry can be traced back to the ancient Illyrians that evolved from the Stone Age. Albania has been under control and attacked by Romans, the Bulgarians, Norman crusaders, Serbs, and Venetians before the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Under Ottoman reign, many aspects of Albanian culture were destroyed. The people were oppressed and excluded from growth and trade with other European countries. Many Albanians resisted the changes and refused to follow under Turkish control.  In order to try and maintain the country, the Turks scared many of the inhabitants to convert to Islam. About 2/3 of the country converted, many out of fear of the regime. Albanians continued to resist Turkish control and in 1878 the Albanian League was formed to help preserve Albanian traditions and language. They fought again with the Ottoman Empire in 1908 and finally succeeded in 1912. This new independence eventually led to the rise of communism with Enver Hoxha in 1941. Hoxha also oppressed the people of Albania and instilled fear among the country. Thousands of bunkers were built across the country in case of foreign attack and Albanian was, once again, isolated from the rest of the world. After Hoxha died in 1984 the communist party eventually collapsed in 1989. Reforms came into place in 1990 and a multiparty system was put in place with a planned election in the next year. In 1992, a new democratic regime came to power in Albania under the control of Prime Minister Sali Berisha. Recently, a new Prime Minister, Edi Rama – former Mayor of Tirana, was elected to help govern the country. Since Rama took over power in 2013 the country has seen a lot of changes and he is pushing to help Albania become a member of the European Union.

Greater Albania is the concept that portions of Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, Kosovo, and parts of Serbia belong to Albania because the majority of the inhabitants in those areas are ethnically Albanian. Only 60% of Albanians in the Balkans live within the borders of Albania. Another 10% of Albanians are living along the Albanian-Montenegrin border. Many of the other ethnic Albanians are spread out in the other bordering countries of Greece and Macedonia. Kosovo is 90% ethic Albanian and 10% Serbian.

greateralbania

Kosovar and Serbian History

The earliest known people in Kosovo were also that of Illyrian descent. Slavic descendants were in control of the land in Northern Albania and Kosovo by the 12th century. Kosovo is considered to be “Old Serbia” by many Serbs. Kosovo, like Albania, was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Empire and many inhabitants were converted to Islam. Many Serbs began to resist the conversion to Islam due to their Christian ties to the Orthodox church. They began migrate out of Kosovo towards Belgrade; this is known as “the great migration”. Then Albanians moved into the Kosovo region. A Serbian seminary was opened in 1871 in the city of Prizren, which led to a stronger presence of Serbs in Kosovo. Albanians called for the “League of Prizren” to help resist advancements of Serbs on Albanian territory in Kosovo. Rebellions continued in the region and eventually the Serbs regained control of the Kosovo in 1912 during the Balkan War. Albanians continued to outnumber Serbs in the area 2:1. Kosovo eventually had a ‘voluntary union’ with the Republic of Serbia under a Yugoslav Federation in 1945. The Albanians in the region continued to be treated as a minority and as second class citizens, even though they were the majority by numbers. Kosovo was at a disadvantage economically and eventually in 1981 student protests in Prizren called for a secession. Serbs in Kosovo felt mistreated and took over control of the media, schools, health-system, and industries under the Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic. Albanian Kosovars were denied their basic human rights during this time. The Albanian Kosovars tried to peacefully break free from Serbia in 1991, but were met with resistance and continued oppression. The Kosovo Liberation Army was formed in 1995 to fight against Serbia and Yugoslavia and in 1998 armed conflict took over the region. Over 700,000 weapons came into the country and guerrilla warfare ensued. Many ethnic Albanians were targeted by the Serbs and over 900 Albanians were killed and many were forced to leave their lives behind. Since Kosovo was part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, NATO was hesitant to get involved in the conflict, but the conflict was a human rights catastrophe and eventually NATO began launching air attacks against the Serbian militia. Over 850,000 refugees left Kosovo during this time. Serbia finally agreed to sign a UN peace agreement in 1999 after the 11-week war. However, this was not the end of the violence in the region. More ethnic violence ensued in 2007 and NATO sent in more assistance to keep control in the region. In 2008, Kosovo became independent with the recognition of the United States, France, Germany, and Britain. Russia and Serbia felt this was a violation of international law and do not recognize an independent Kosovo. Recent deals were made in 2013 between Serbia and Kosovo. Serbia now recognizes that Kosovo’s government has control over Kosovo and the primarily Serbia areas in the north of Kosovo have autonomy. 

Modern-Day Racism

Albanians are very proud people. They are proud of their unique heritage and they are proud of everything that they have overcome in their history. I am constantly surrounded by Albanian flags everywhere I go. There are giant eagles posted on cars. T-shirts, jewelry and random items are adorned with the beloved double-headed eagle. After being here for over a year and half, I feel a camaraderie with the people who live here. They are proud. They are strong. And they never cease to amaze everyday. I am proud too. After the UEFA game on October 13th, students and teachers arrived at school decked out in Albanian gear to support their soccer team. Hundreds of Albanians in Tirana took to the streets the night after the game to show support for their team. It was the subject of everyones’ coffee conversation. We all thought that Albania would for sure take the win for the game. We figured, ‘How could they not give the win to Albania. We were up in score and the fans were assaulting our players.’ After decisions were made today, many of my friends on Facebook were upset and posting statuses about how the “UEFA Said YES to racism.”

In my opinion, the decisions made by the UEFA continue to exacerbate tensions in the Balkans and it promotes the continuation of oppression of Albanians in today’s world. There is no doubt that the fans were chanting racist and inappropriate remarks towards the Albanian players. The players arrived in the stadium with fans chanting out death threats! That is ridiculous and it is not good sportsmanship. Their words were paired with violence as well. Flairs were thrown on the field, which was the reason play was originally halted in the first place. While Albanians definitely played a role in this dispute, they were not the original perpetrators – like much of the media online suggests. This is a disgrace to the UEFA and to soccer.  Sports are meant to bring people together, but instead they are sparking up ethnic tensions that have been present for many years in the Balkans. It is not right to give the win to Serbia because Albanian players did not return the pitch. The Albanian players’ lives were at risk. No wonder they did not feel “psychologically ready” as one player stated. How could someone feel safe to play soccer when thousands of people are cheering, “kill the Albanians” and throwing objects on the field. I agree with Albania coach Gianni De Biazi who stated, “The UEFA commission’s decision does not give justice. The three points belong to Albania and they’ve taken away from us what we’ve deserved.” Albania deserves the win. Many of my Albanian friends see this decision as perpetuating racism and I agree. It is not right for the UEFA to give the win to Serbia after the Albanian players were faced with animosity and straight up racism. We cannot ignore what is blatantly in front of us. 

Albanians will fight back through their appeals to the UEFA. I hope they win.

Serbian fans burning the NATO flag during the match.

Serbian fans burning the NATO flag during the match.

A Serb player capturing the flag from the drone.

A Serb player capturing the flag from the drone.

Fighting among the players of both teams.

Fighting among the players of both teams.

A chair hurled from the fans.

A chair hurled from the fans.

Albanians supporting their team in Tirana after the match ended.

Albanians supporting their team in Tirana after the match ended.

More support for the Albanian soccer players.

More support for the Albanian soccer players.

A fact sheet that Prime Minister Edi Rama posted on his Facebook page.

A fact sheet that Prime Minister Edi Rama posted on his Facebook page.

Sources

Serbia vs Albania abadoned after players and fans brawl on pitch

Albania: A Brief History

Albania: History 

Albanian – Countries and their Cultures

Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo

Kosovo’s Conflict

Unrest along the Border of Kosovo and Serbia

Albania to appeal UEFA punishment over Serbia

Serbia gets walkover v Albania, three points deducted

Work is Back in Season

With the start of fall comes a renewed sense of energy in my community and my work here. My trip back to America gave me perspective and a new drive to use towards my projects in the upcoming months of my service. Before leaving for the Blog It Home Top Bloggers week in Washington D.C I felt stuck in a rut and was a bit lost at what I was going to focus my efforts in during my second year in Albania.

Now that I am home in Albania and school is back in session, projects and work keep coming my way. I might even have to start rejecting some offers because it seems as though I am going to be pretty busy. I am really excited to have work finally come my way. My first year of service was a lot about building relationships and sometimes I wanted to pull my hair out because I was unsure if all of the “intentional relationship building” was ever going to turn into anything substantial. Sure enough though, just like it’s outlined in the Peace Corps timeline of a volunteer’s service, things are beginning to look up.

One of my counterparts at the Directory of Public Health and I are putting the final touches on our cervical cancer project and hope to get a Small Project Assistant (SPA) grant provided through Peace Corps. We initially applied for this grant back in January, but unfortunately our original proposal was not approved. We learned from this experience and have spent the past months ironing out details and learning how to work better together to get this done. This has been quite the learning process for both of us, but I think that we finally have a good understanding of how we can make this work for ourselves and for our community. I really hope that the project will be accepted this round because it would be a great success for my workplace and there is a serious need in our community. The first aspect of the project will focus on training 30 health professionals in our city and the surrounding villages about female health through a half-day training of trainers. After the training they will be able to: identify risk factors of cervical cancer, demonstrate how to properly use contraceptives, utilize community resources to receive PAP smears, explain the recommendations for annual PAP smears/pelvic examinations, explain good sterilization procedures, identify the female reproductive tract, and improve their capacity regarding women’s health topics. In the second portion of the project, the health professional will take their knowledge learned at the training of trainers and hold their own mini-trainings for women in their community. Once the women in the village receive the training, they will then have the opportunity to receive a free cervical exam and PAP smear at the local hospital. The community health professionals will help pick the participants for the training and PAP smears based off of risk factors, age, etc.

Another project that I would like to work on in this upcoming year is starting a youth center in Kavaje based off of a successful center that was started in Berat through the work of several amazing Peace Corps volunteers. The project would partner with the town hall and the culture centers in the city. The youth center would be an open space for future Peace Corps volunteers and community teachers and counterparts to use for after-school activities, clubs, summer camps, etc. I am very interested in youth development in my community and offering students here an opportunity to expand their learning outside of the traditional classroom environment. Once the project is approved by the mayor, I will apply for a Peace Corps Partnership grant and will begin raising money back in the states and here in Albania to help buy supplies and materials to make the youth center a reality.

Last year the first Outdoor Ambassadors group was started at the high school. We work on volunteer projects and building student leadership. This year I would like to expand this group to the professional high school here. Having a youth center and a reliable space to hold these meetings would help out tremendously. Beginning English clubs and homework clubs would also be much easier if the city offered us a space to hold regular meetings. My site-mate Chuck is also starting a Toastmasters club and a Gavel club, so this center could also be used for those activities as well. It would also be great for my soon-to-be yoga club! *Fingers crossed. I have a lot of great ideas, but sometimes it can be hard to find the time and to manage my time efficiently to work on all of them. The high school is also hoping to bring Model United Nations back as an afternoon activity for the students. This year I would be co-facilitating that club with a teacher at the high school. So far I have received a lot of student interest for Model UN, so hopefully our application will be accepted. If we are accepted, the students will be given a country to represent in the nation conference and they will mock debate with other clubs across Albania. It is a great way for students to learn about diplomacy, practice English, learn proper research methods, and become up to date on current event.

Continuing health education classes in all the schools, holding several after-school clubs, and working on two different project proposals should keep me pretty busy for the next year. I am so excited to see where everything goes. Now I just have to begin bracing myself for the colder temperatures… My house is absolutely freezing in the winter and I am not exactly ready to be living inside my coat and sleeping bag just yet, but at least this winter I know what to expect.

Our first OA meeting of the school year to talk about promotion, upcoming projects, and the new school year.

Our first OA meeting of the school year to talk about promotion, upcoming projects, and the new school year.

One of my counterparts and my other counterpart's baby.

One of my counterparts and my other counterpart’s baby.

Stopped for a drink on a 45 km bike ride with my site-mate and another Peace Corps volunteer.

Stopped for a drink on a 45 km bike ride with my site-mate and another Peace Corps volunteer.

Hanging out at Spille beach. It was a beautiful place to bike to.

Hanging out at Spille beach. It was a beautiful place to bike to.

At

At

The doorman at my workplace dressed in full American garb. I told you Albanians LOVE America!

The doorman at my workplace dressed in full American garb. I told you Albanians LOVE America!

Darien Book Aid recently donated me a bunch of books to expand the English section of our library. Right now there are only about 10 outdated books. This will be so great for the students!!

Darien Book Aid recently donated me a bunch of books to expand the English section of our library. Right now there are only about 10 outdated books. This will be so great for the students!!

My Ode to Kate

In the fall of 2013 I wrote a poem about my site-mate Kate. Kate has been the other American living with me in my city for the past year and a half. We’ve had a lot of good times together: shopping at the treg, traveling around Albania, having coffees for hours, running youth groups, talking about life, and so much much. Kate is now on to her next endeavors in America and I will miss her so. I am so grateful to have had to opportunity to live, learn, and grow with this amazing girl during my Peace Corps service. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings for her. Here is the poem I wrote, which was originally published in the Peace Corps Albania monthly newsletter “Hajde Hajde”.

“I love my site-mate Kate.

We often go on coffee dates.

She helps me when I’m down,

And we go out for afternoons on the town.

Sometimes we xhiro the boardwalk,

And make all the çuns gawk.

Kate is more than my site-mate.

She will always be my life-mate.”

Our first toast together.

Our first toast together.

Hanging around in our city.

Hanging around in our city.

Celebrating Halloween at the party for the high school students.

Celebrating Halloween at the party for the high school students.

Kate surprised me at work with a birthday cake.

Kate surprised me at work with a birthday cake.

After Kate's wonderful TEDx talk.

After Kate’s wonderful TEDx talk.

At our favorite pizza restaurant.

At our favorite pizza restaurant.

Until we meet again my friend… Ma ka marë malli për ty.

Top Bloggers Tour

In 2013 Peace Corps held the first “Blog It Home” competition to reward volunteers for doing a great job promoting Peace Corps third goal through blogs and social media. The first year the organization chose four blogs that were nominated by their country directors. This year they continued the competition, but improved and learned from the previous year. In 2014 volunteers from all around the world were asked to submit their own blogs, rather than having country directors nominate one volunteer per country. Over 350 blogs were submitted from the 65 countries that Peace Corps is currently serving in. Once the blogs were submitted they went through an intense vetting process by employees in the 3rd goal office in Peace Corps headquarters. They narrowed down the blogs to 90 in the first round and then down to 20 finalists. After the best 20 blogs were selected, Peace Corps turned it over to the public for a voting contest on Facebook. Whichever blogs received the most “likes” on Facebook helped decide the final winners. Many of you may have received annoying messages asking for your help to win the contest. After several (long and excruciating) days the voting was over and I felt like I had a pretty good chance. Then I received the congratulatory email.

I was ecstatic! Nine volunteers from eight countries were chosen to represent Peace Corps in the Top Bloggers Tour in D.C. All of the other bloggers are amazing and you should definitely check them out: Keith and Heather in China, Bronwen in the Dominican Republic, Anna in Cameroon, Sara in Guinea, Erika in Senegal, Christine in Thailand, and Julia in Uganda. Now I didn’t mention earlier, but the prize for winning this contest was an all-expense trip to our nation’s capital to help promote goal three, our Peace Corps country of service, and to have the opportunity to network with some of the best and brightest in Washington D.C. I was so excited to be able to share some of the wonderful things that I have learned about Albania this past year and a half. Plus burritos. Chipotle was definitely my first stop back in the states #noshame.

The week was a whirlwind of activities, professional development, and Peace Corps promotion. I arrived on Monday afternoon after 15+ hours of travel from Albania and immediately met my roommate, a volunteer serving in Thailand. It was really interesting to chat with a volunteer from another country because we were able to connect and relate on many different levels, despite the fact that we serve in communities with very different cultures. We ate burritos (did I mention that I LOVE burritos) and then I passed out at a completely unreasonable time, damn jetlag!

The next morning we started bright and early at the Peace Corps headquarters. I met the other winners and the staff that helped bring us all the way back to America. When we arrived the room was FULL of snacks – peppermint patties, cookies, chips, candy, etc, etc. WOW! It was overwhelming. I wanted to eat it all, but sadly my stomach did not agree with that sentiment. We received information about the week ahead, had time to develop the final touches of our presentations, toured the Peace Corps office, and ate delicious food trucks. In the afternoon we toured Voice of America, which is an american radio/television broadcast that serves many communities across the globe. Voice of America is actually pretty popular in Albania (I had no idea) and is shown on the national news on Channel 24. Much to my surprise, Voice of America Albania wanted to interview me for the program. Immediately I was nervous and a bit apprehensive about how much I could really explain in Shqip, but I mustered up my courage and did the entire interview in Shqip. I probably sound like a 3-year old, but hey, at least I tried!

Check out all those snacks.

Check out all those snacks.

Showing off my Peace Corps tattoo.

Showing off my Peace Corps tattoo.

Before our interviews.

Before our interviews.

Voice of America tour.

Voice of America tour.

I was interviewed on a real set!

I was interviewed on a real set!

On Wednesday we were all off to the White House to meet with two representatives working with White House social media and other pertinent projects. The first person we spoke with was actually a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Washington D.C. has the highest population of returned Peace Corps volunteers in the country) with an amazing story following his service. He stayed in his host country and actually developed a sustainable phone company with members of his community. Now the business is run by the host country nationals who helped develop the company from the ground up. Truly an amazing Peace Corps success story. After that I met with senior staff members of both my senators from Colorado. I explained my story and talked with them a little bit about Peace Corps. Currently Peace Corps is not receiving much funding in comparison to many other government programs, so it’s important to try and give a face and real-life story on why we should continue to fund these sorts of programs. If you would like to see Peace Corps receive more funding from Washington please sign the petition here to help our budget increase. In the evening we were back to work with a group presentation at the Martin Luther King library followed by an hour of break-out sessions at individual tables. I borrowed some supplies from other wonderful volunteers in Albania and was able to have a pretty impressive display. I wore a traditional costume from the Miredite region and had several dolls to show some of the traditional dress from other areas of the country. I also brought maps, mountain tea, wedding decorations, postcards and personal pictures, and of course the wonderful flag. I spoke with all different sorts of people, some of them were also interested in possibly joining the Peace Corps. During the evening I even taught a mini valle (circle dancing) lesson. I am not the best at valle admittedly, but I definitely worked it.

Our first White House meeting.

Our first White House meeting.

Group shot outside the west wing.

Group shot outside the west wing.

It's pretty cool inside the White House.

It’s pretty cool inside the White House.

Outside my senator's office.

Outside my senator’s office.

Giving a presentation at the MLK library event.

Giving a presentation at the MLK library event.

Panel time.

Panel time.

My table full of fun stuff from Albania.

My table full of fun stuff from Albania.

Talking about Peace Corps and Albania with some of the participants.

Talking about Peace Corps and Albania with some of the participants.

A former Peace Corps Albania staff member even came to support me!

A former Peace Corps Albania staff member even came to support me!

The next day was my favorite day of the week because we gave presentations at local inner-city schools. I gave presentations at Jefferson Academy Middle School and at Hendley Elementary School. It was so great to be back in the classroom setting. In total I gave 8 individual classroom presentations to over 150 youth. It was amazing to be back in my element. After the school visits we had another presentation for the youth in the evening. Peace Corps hosted an event for the Girl Scouts in D.C. Hundreds of girl scouts came to the event to hear all our stories. This format was similar to the event at the MLK Library the night before. During this event I focused more of some of the amazing gender development work that volunteers in Albania are working on right now, especially the GLOW “Girls Leading Our World” program which was piloted in several cities across the country earlier this year. It was a really special event and when discussing with the other volunteers we could really feel the positive energy from the girls. Who knows, we could be the reason some of those girls chose to join the Peace Corps in the future. I know I was definitely inspired when I heard from a returned volunteer while I was in high school.

Giving a presentation at the elementary school.

Giving a presentation at the elementary school.

The last day we gave a presentation to Peace Corps headquarters about our favorite blog post and how blogging has helped us develop as volunteers and as professionals in today’s world. I spoke of the random viral success that my blog received and how that changed the way I blogged from that point on. I also met the congressman Mike Coffman from my district in Colorado. We ended the week in typical American fashion with happy hour at this hole-in-the-wall bar next to headquarters. It was such an amazing and special week for me. It is still hard to believe it actually happened because it all went by so quickly. I can’t wait to take this new energy into the next eight months of my service. Thanks Peace Corps and thanks to all my avid followers! This wouldn’t have been possible without your help.

Chatting with my congressman.

Chatting with my congressman.

The 3rd goal team left us with the week in numbers if you’re curious:

  • 350 blogs submitted and narrowed down to nine winners
  • 9 bloggers traveled 70,000+ miles to present in D.C
  • Volunteers spent four days in D.C for the Top Bloggers Tour in which there were:
  • 16 congressional visits
  • 5 Voice of America interviews in local languages reaching millions across the globe
  • 2 White House meetings
  • 5 D.C public school visits reaching 450+ middle and elementary school students
  • 6 professional development sessions
  • 1 library presentation
  • 95 Girls Scouts Global Action Awards earned

As you can see, Peace Corps kept us busy, busy, busy.