On Our Radar: March 6, 2015

jilljustine13:

Received a shout-out from the Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic region! Thanks for the support!

Originally posted on Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic Region:

We love to read Peace Corps Volunteers’ blogs! They tell the real story of life overseas, the adventures of service and the cultural insights of each Volunteer’s experience. Every Friday, we’ll feature a few of our favorite Volunteer blog posts in a weekly round-up. Whether you are a current Volunteer or thinking about applying, it’s always fun to learn about Peace Corps service around the world.

ONE //#PCWeek2015

In celebration of Peace Corps Week and Peace Corps’ 54th birthday, the Office of Third Goal launched a video contest for Volunteers. Check out the winning video below and the 25 others featuring this year’s theme of Host Country Heroes.

TWO //Host Country Hero: Kruu Ning

PCV Christine in Thailand also wanted to honor her Host Country Hero for Peace Corps Week. One of the teachers at her school, Kruu Ning, is dedicated to lifelong learning and inspires with…

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How Far I’ve Come

I have not been the best about updating my blog lately, but it is mostly because I have been extremely busy. It’s true that work really does begin to pick up during the second year of Peace Corps. Time feels like it has just been flying by and I can’t believe that Group 16 just finished our Close of Service conference. Is Peace Corps seriously almost over? I don’t know if I’m ready to leave this place yet. Albania has taught me so much about myself and about a culture completely different than my own. I love it here and I’ve made roots and made connections that I know will last a lifetime.

Before the New Year I was applying to graduate schools back in the states to receive my Masters in Social Work. I recently heard back from Washington University in St. Louis, which is the best social work program in the country, and I have been accepted as an advanced standing candidate. I also received the prestigious Peace Corps scholarship to attend the university, which is very exciting. I’m still waiting to hear back from some of the other schools that I applied to, but hopefully I will be able to make my final decision soon! I have never lived in the states outside of Colorado, so I will be embarking on another new adventure, which is also a scary thought. Will I make new friends? Where am I going to live? Which cell phone provider should I have? What about health insurance? The questions keep piling up, with no real concrete answers.

I am so excited about starting a new adventure, but I still have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving the life that I have created for myself here. I have become part of a new friend group and part of a new family. It is sad to think about leaving some of my students and friends. Now that everything is finally together, work is going well, culture shock is over, and I have a solid support network it’s time to leave and uproot myself again to a completely new city to start over again.

I have been avoiding having conversations about the future because it really is hard to imagine that my service is finally coming to a close. I remember how I felt during my first summer in comparison to where I am now and I can’t believe how much my perspective has changed and how much I have changed. Sometimes I really don’t want to leave this place and other times I wish I could start my new life right now. It’s hard to be in this limbo period of not knowing exactly what the future holds.

Group 16 at our Close of Service conference

Group 16 at our Close of Service conference

Recently, an undergraduate student at the University of Florida contacted me. She is writing a paper for her Imaginative Non-Fiction Writing Class about Peace Corps volunteers and their experiences. I told her I would be happy to help her in whatever way I could. I think her questions will help begin the long process of reflecting on my time here and what it has meant to me, although I don’t know if I will ever be able to truly express it in words, but let’s give it a go.

1. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I chose to apply for the Peace Corps during my senior year at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Peace Corps interested me since I first heard a presentation from a returned volunteer when I was in high school. I really wanted to try something different and immerse myself in a completely new friend group and culture. I grew up in Colorado my entire life and I really wanted a change of scenery. My social work undergraduate experience and time working in the schools helped push me towards making the leap to sign up.

2. When and where did you volunteer?

I am a Health Education volunteer in Kavaje, Albania. Kavaje is a medium sized city with a population around 40,000 people (although it feels much smaller to me). The city is predominately Muslim, with an Orthodox following as well. My service began in March 2013 and will end in May 2015.

3. How was your time in the Peace Corps different and similar from what you expected?

Well the number one rule of Peace Corps is not to have expectations, but that is basically impossible. How can one not have some sort of expectation surrounding the 27 months of their service? Here are some of the expectations that I had regarding my service before I began:

  • I would meet new friends. This is totally true. The other volunteers that I serve with here have become my best friends, my confidants, my family. We will now share a strong bond together for the rest of our lives. Besides volunteers, I also have Albanian friends that I consider like family too. I’ve created a strong bond with many of the students in my youth groups and I know that we will keep in touch for the rest of our lives. These bonds with locals did not happen immediately like I originally thought they would, but after intentional relationship building (in Peace Corps lingo we can this IRBing) our friendships grew into daily conversations and coffee dates talking about life, love, and Albania.
  • I would be fluent in Albanian. This sadly is not true. I hoped that I would reach a level in Shqip where I could teach entire classes in the local language. I could teach a class in Albanian, but it probably would not make that much sense. I am able to communicate with people and have basic conversations, but explaining details can still be difficult for me without a little bit of charades. On my final Language-Proficiency Exam I scored Advanced-Low, which was quite the accomplishment for me anyways.
  • I would be busy with work. This was definitely not true, at first. I expected that the day I started at my office that everyone would want to work with me and help me. The relationships at my office were slow and we never really became friends like I originally hoped. Over time we built up an understanding at the office and were able to work together, but it was definitely a rocky relationship. It took me a long time (almost a year) to step outside my comfort zone and finally begin some secondary projects, but the moment I stepped outside my office and looked for work elsewhere was when I really started to feel successful in my service. Now that my service is about to end I am busy every single day with different youth groups and activities surrounding my cervical cancer grant.
  • That I would help someone who knows absolutely no English become fluent. I actually thought that I could help my neighbors and other community members become fluent in English during my time here. I realized that motivation needs to come from both sides though and, even though a lot of people have the desire to learn English, they don’t necessarily have the motivation to continue learning throughout the difficult times. Learning a language is not easy; I learned that here. Motivation and consistency are key. Even though I have not helped the young children do a complete 180 with their English, I take pride in the fact that I have helped many of the students with their conversational English. I can hear the difference in the way my students speak now, in comparison to a year ago. I have also taught one of my Albanian friends a lot of American phrases that she uses in daily conversation. Things like that make me smile.
  • I would start many new hobbies. I could have spent some of my time here more wisely developing hobbies, but honestly I spent a lot of my time soaking up information from the internet: surfing Facebook, reading articles, doing stupid online quizzes, and binge-watching television shows. I do not regret how I used my time because I continued to work on myself as well. I began running, which was something I had never done before and that certainly got me a lot of attention in the community. I learned to cook, kind of. Before Peace Corps I pretty much primarily ate vegetarian TV dinners… not exactly the healthiest of options for the Health Education volunteer. Now I have several different recipes under my belt (some of them with definite Albanian influence).

4. How do you think joining Peace Corps changed you?

Joining Peace Corps changed me in so many ways, and many of those ways are hard to put into words. My entire life here is completely unalike anything I experienced in the states. Being put into a totally different environment by yourself truly humbled me. I learned how to communicate in smiles and hand gestures, and that kindness really goes a long way. I have gained more patience here and don’t think that many things will phase me when I return to the states. I am a better person because I joined the Peace Corps.

5. How did you find the application process to be?

I applied when Peace Corps had the old application process. Prospective volunteers are much luckier now because the application process is a lot easier. Just filling out the application took me over a month to complete. Then I had to wait for several months before my interview with a recruiter on campus at my university. After that I waited for several more months to hear back about my nomination. I was frustrated because two other girls from my social work program heard back a lot quicker than I did and I was worried that I would not get accepted. Finally, I heard back in the spring of my senior year that I was nominated for a world-wide nomination as a Health Education volunteer in September 2012. This meant that Peace Corps essentially had not picked the region where I would serve, but that they would just place me in whatever program fit. In July of 2012 I was still waiting to hear back about my placement and then I received a call saying that my nomination was being pushed back to March 2013. I was devastated because I did not have a plan of what I would do until March. I was still living in my apartment in Fort Collins, but my lease ended in mid-August. I was not happy about the prospect of moving back in with my parents, but I decided that would be the best fit. I could not look for a job in social work because of the short time-frame, so I began working at as a teacher’s assistant in the Special Education program at an inner-city middle school. Peace Corps has an extension process to actually serve and the medical process was a big hurdle for me. I continued having to do medical appointments almost up until my departure. I had to visit a variety of doctors at least ten times and Peace Corps required my entire medical history, which was difficult to find at first.I received my letter of acceptance in August 2012 saying that I would be serving in Albania. I honestly had no idea where Albania was and had to look it up immediately. I was pretty excited with the country and accepted the invitation that same day. I wanted to serve in Eastern Europe and the idea of traveling around Europe was very alluring to me as well. I think that Peace Corps purposefully makes the application process difficult because if you can jump through all those hurdles then you are a good candidate to continue jumping through various hurdles throughout service.

6. What is your most memorable moment in your time with the Peace Corps?

I have so many memorable moments from my service, but I was honored when I won the Blog It Home competition. Peace Corps provided me with a return trip ticket to Washington D.C. to talk about my experience abroad and about Albanian culture. I was so happy to be recognized for the blog that I have been keeping throughout service. It was a treat to talk with students at local schools and other people in the capital. We also got to meet with many different organizations and got a tour of the White House. It was a fantastic experience and definitely a highlight for me.

7. Do you feel like you made a difference in someone’s life? If yes, how?

People tell me that I have helped changed their lives for the better. One of my students told me that before she met me that her life was boring, but now her life is full of excitement. Creating the youth center with my site-mate definitely will leave a lasting impression on my community and gives the students a place to grow into the future leaders of Kavaje. Having activities and clubs that the students can participate in outside of school has definitely helped make a difference here. They have celebrated holidays at the nursing home, cleaned up their community garbage on several different occasions, and educated people about important health concerns such as skin-cancer and hygiene. They continue to amaze me and I know that they will continue to do community projects in the future. All they needed was a little push and motivation to get them started. I was that push, not only for my students, but for my friends and counterparts too. They did most of the work. I was just here to help guide them along the way.

8. What type of service projects were you involved in?

I was involved in a variety of different activities and projects while I was here. Here are a few:

  • Assisted with health education classes at the schools
  • Taught English and dance classes at the cultural center
  • Aided with health education seminars for nurses and doctors through an USAID small project assistant grant to combat cervical cancer
  • Held a local GLOW camp in Kavaje to promote gender equality, self-esteem, and the importance of girls education
  • Facilitated large garbage cleanups
  • Coordinated a national summer camp for 80 participants
  • Worked on a committee of other Peace Corps volunteers and a local NGO to plan and implement a training of trainers for professionals regarding anti-trafficking
  • Participated in Special Olympics
  • Facilitated several after-school clubs: Model United Nations, Outdoor Ambassadors, GLOW
  • Helped students plan fundraisers which gained over $500 for our community
  • Held a community health fair with my counterparts
  • Assisted with community wide health education awareness marches regarding road safety, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDs
  • Participated in several Peace Corps committees: Volunteer Advisory Committee, Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee, Outdoor Ambassadors
  • Created a community youth center equipped with two computers, a printer, internet, craft supplies for summer camps, a meeting room, and over 500 books in English
  • Went on bike rides with the students to explore the villages surrounding Kavaje

Going through these questions was just the beginning of my reflection process on the past two years here. I am happy with how far I’ve come and how much I’ve been able to do with my time here. Here is a video that I created for my group’s Close of Service conference. This highlights our time in Albania.

Anti-Trafficking Training of Trainers

For the past year I have been working with three other women in the health sector of my group as part of the Peace Corps Anti-Trafficking committee. This was one of the many committees that I decided to join when starting my service. The group before us had created an anti-trafficking facilitation guide during their service and we wanted to expand on that during our time on the committee. We began brainstorming and reached out to an anti-trafficking NGO in Tirana to partner together for an anti-trafficking training of trainers. We decided that we wanted to work with professionals across the country to implement activities for youth and marginalized populations regarding human rights and anti-trafficking. The NGO, Different and Equal, was extremely interested in working together to make this dream a reality and we decided to apply for a US Embassy Democracy Grant in the summer/fall of 2014. Another member of the ATIP committee spearheaded most of the grant writing with help for the rest of us on the committee and after a few months of waiting, we were informed that we had received the grant. Then the work began. We emailed back and forth, sometimes over ten emails a day, to make sure that all the details were in order throughout the entire planning process. Each member of ATIP was in charge of leading a session at the national training of trainers conference. I led a lesson about working with youth and developing interactive lesson plans. It was really quite the experience for me to have the opportunity and the honor of working with so many wonderful professionals dedicated to stopping trafficking in Albania. We were even able to print and translate over 500 copies of the facilitation guide that the group before us created. Those guides are being distributed to Peace Corps volunteers and organizations all over Albania. I am so proud of the work our ATIP committee did over the past year and I can’t wait to see what the next group has in store for the committee. Here is the press release with more detailed information about the project.

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER COMMITTEE AND LOCAL NGO COMPLETE ANTI-TRAFFICKING TRAINING IN TIRANA

The Peace Corps Albania Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee (ATIP) partnered with Tirana-based not-for-profit organization, “Different and Equal” (D&E), completed a successful training of trainers (ToT) at the Hotel Mondial in Tirana on Feb. 11-12.

The trainers were awarded a US Embassy Democracy Commission Small Grant for a year-long anti-trafficking education prevention program last June. The project consists of two parts: Phase I, a 2-day training of trainers; and Phase 2, community-based educational sessions by the participants in their communities, in conjunction with a 6-month monitoring and evaluation component, implemented by Different & Equal, assisted by Peace Corps Volunteers.

Approximately 40 Albanian professionals, representing many communities were educated on human rights and human trafficking, along with key sessions preparing participants with the information and skills needed to deliver trafficking prevention lessons to raise awareness and strengthen grass-roots efforts to end trafficking within their communities.

Sessions included topics such as, What Makes a ‘Victim’ Vulnerable, Risk Factors and Warning Signs, Designing Your Training: Step by Step, and How to Deliver an Effective Presentation.

Trafficking of human beings continues to be a major problem for Albanian society, rooted in deep poverty, corruption and the pervasive desire of poor people to migrate in search for better opportunities within or outside the country. According to US Department of State TIP Report 2014, Albania is a source country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.

Participants were enthusiastic in their participation and role as trainees and trainers. The ToT had a wide variety of individuals from small towns to the capital city. Participants were chosen for a variety of attributes, including diversity of experience, access to a variety of communities, and skill sets. Most participants seemed invigorated by the sessions, as expressed by lively discussion and sharing of thoughts and experiences. ATIP and D&E are optimistic that the energy displayed during the two days of training will drive participants to provide a variety of community activities to educate a broad range of Albanian society.

Also present at the concluding ceremony were Deputy Minister of Interior and National Coordinator for Anti-Trafficking Elona Gjebrea, US Embassy Public Affairs Officer Valerie O’Brien, and Peace Corps Country Director Earl Wall.

Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee (ATIP) Albania: ATIP is a an initiative of Peace Corps Albania, which promotes the dignity and safety of vulnerable women and children by combating human trafficking through spreading awareness and reducing stigma, empowering women and children to recognize and avoid dangerous situations, and supporting Peace Corps Volunteers, local NGOs, and state agencies in the fight against human trafficking.

Different & Equal: D&E is an Albanian non-for-profit organization established in May 2004 that provides education, intervention and reintegration services for Albanian victims of trafficking.

Two of my Albanian friends were participants

Two of my Albanian friends were participants

An anti-trafficking activity

An anti-trafficking activity

The ATIP Facilitation Guide printed in Shqip/English

The ATIP Facilitation Guide printed in Shqip/English

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During my presentation on how to work with youth and develop engaging lesson plans

ATIP Group 16 Committee

ATIP Group 16 Committee

Discussing ideas during group work time

Discussing ideas during group work time

The director of different and equal beginning the training

The director of Different and Equal and a Peace Corps volunteer doing an interactive activity to show the effects of trafficking 

Outdoor Ambassadors Go Green Talent Show

My students in Outdoor Ambassadors, a youth group focused on environmentalism and leadership skills, decided to hold a talent show to fundraise money for community projects and future activities. We have been discussing and planning this show since the beginning of the school year in September. The show was originally planned for the beginning of January, but the students did not use their time correctly over the winter break to plan so we had to postpone the show until February. My site-mate Chuck and I wanted this show to be a student-run operation, so we gave the students some guidance, but left most of the decision making, planning, and preparation up to them. They wrote the program, found performers to partake in the show, made and sold tickets, decorated the auditorium, and coordinated with everyone to make sure the show happened. We helped push them along the way and make sure that they were adhering to deadlines, but in the end the students ran the entire show.

The show was focused on promoting environmental awareness in our community. The performers spoke with the audience about the importance of throwing away garbage, reducing pollution by riding bikes or walking, the effects of smoking on the environment, etc. We also had several other performances such as singing, bands, and dancing. It was a very dynamic show with fourteen different acts. The students really put in a lot of work to make sure the show was interesting for the audience. I also created this video to show the garbage problem in our community to persuade people to begin taking an active role in keeping their city clean.

It was quite the learning experience for all of us. The students got a taste of new and different leadership roles; they did not have prior experience planning and running a show. Not going to lie, much of the planning was chaotic. The students were confused about what roles everyone had and who were supposed to do which tasks. This meant that things often did not get done when they were originally planned. They ended up pulling it together with the proper amount of direction and time.

They began holding rehearsals several weeks before the show. The first initial rehearsals consisted of a lot of confusion and arguing, but things began to have more of a flow and consistency after a few tries. Still things were a bit rocky all the way up to the day before the show, so the students decided to hold one last rehearsal before the final show today and that is where the true madness begins…

Here is a breakdown of the day.

9am: Students begin arriving at the auditorium for rehearsals. Most of the students do not arrive until around 9:20am. Some other random students decide to skip school and attend the rehearsals as well.

9am-9:30am: The group starts decorating the auditorium with balloons. The balloon project does not get finished until around 10:30am. We had less than 40 balloons…

9:30am: Still waiting for most of the student participants to arrive. The power in all the building goes out. We have no lights in the auditorium.

10am: The power is still not back. The students are starting to panic. Everyone is using their phone lights to navigate through the pitch-black room. People are trying to change into costumes, put on makeup, and practice before the performance.

10:20am: The lights are still out in the auditorium, but power has come back to the rest of the building. We try to figure out what the problem is with the lights in the auditorium and supposedly the lights in the auditorium are connected to a separate generator that is part of a different breaker of a surrounding village. Very confusing situation.

10:40am: Still no power. Haven’t been able to start rehearsals. Now students who bought tickets begin to show up… over an hour early. They expect to be let into the auditorium, but I refuse because we still do not have light and still haven’t begun rehearsals.

11:20am: No lights still. The show is supposed to start at 12pm. The students (and myself) are really starting to stress out. The students who aren’t stressed are messing around in the darkness. People keep saying “Inshallah” or “God-willing” in hopes that the lights will return soon.

11:30am: The students from the high school are let out from school early. Over 300 tickets were sold. Hundreds of kids are standing outside the auditorium and trying to get inside. I was afraid there was going to be a stampede.

11:40am: The police arrive to help control the crowd. People are getting anxious all around. I am running around trying to calm everyone down and get everything together for when the lights come on. They tell us the lights should be back soon. They have been saying this for a while.

11:50am: The lights come back on!!! We begin letting students into the auditorium. It’s madness. Students without tickets are trying to enter and some of the Albanian adults are letting them in anyways, despite the fact that they don’t have a ticket.

11:55am: The auditorium is completely full – past capacity. Everyone is running around backstage trying to get everything together to start.

12:05pm: We begin the show without any rehearsals or preparation. The show must go on! Everyone was a bit nervous, but began to calm down as the show started.

12:15pm: I helped backstage with the music and technology. Sadly, since we did not have time to check the sound before there were some problems. The music was on way louder than the microphones, but everyone still did a great job. I accidently played the wrong song at first for the first singers, whoops.

12:30pm: The students’ energy backstage was so cheerful. All the students were cheering each other on and taking videos/pictures. Everyone practically forgot we didn’t even get to rehearse.

1:30pm: The show finished and I could breathe again. We celebrated with a big group cheer and group hug after dancing the finale to the “We are the World” song. It was a very happy moment.

Despite all the problems that we faced throughout the day, the students pulled off a wonderful show all on their own. They planned it. They implemented it. They did it all. I can’t explain how proud I was the moment that it began. It was such a crazy day, but totally worth it. The students made close to $400 for future community projects with the youth center and our city. They are such amazing leaders. I don’t know how I will ever leave them…

During rehearsals

During rehearsals

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Waiting for the lights to come back on

Waiting for the lights to come back on

The full auditorium

The full auditorium

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

An anti-smoking skit

An anti-smoking skit

Another great singer

Another great singer

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Our great narrators and directors of the show

Our great narrators and directors of the show

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

The entire cast during the finale

The entire cast during the finale

Me and the valle group

Me and the valle group

Part of the group after the show

Part of the group after the show

Model United Nations

Model UN is a youth group focusing on mock debate and international relations. There are nine students per Model UN team and they are split into three separate UN committees. The students in General Assembly are discussing achieving sustainable development: prioritization of the sustainable development goals; enhancing global partnerships through tri-sector development; and preconditions of sustainable development: safety, security, and good governance. Security Council is discussing conflict prevention and mitigation: measures to combat terrorism and trading in illicit markets; preventing regional escalation of internal conflicts in Middle East and North Africa countries; and preventing and reducing conflicts over natural resources. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is discussing coordinated action against human trafficking: the costs of human trafficking to development: economics, society, and health; protecting refugees and marginalized groups from human trafficking; and the rule of law in the fight against transnational organized crime and human trafficking. Each student group represents a certain country and their views on particular topics affecting our world. They work together with students from other high schools across Albania, representing different countries, to develop problem-solving resolutions. This program is a great opportunity for the students to develop critical thinking skills and to practice English while learning more about the world around them through individual research. The team that I am facilitating is representing India.

As you can see the students are debating some pretty serious topics and to top it off they are doing it in their second language. It really is quite impressive. Our group meets twice a week for an hour and we discuss current events, the students’ research, public speaking and formal debate, UN committee procedures, etc. It is a lot of extra work for the students on top of their school course load and extra classes course load. (Note: A lot of the students in Albania take extra classes outside of public school in the afternoon because it can be difficult to actually learn in some of the public classes. There are usually some students in every class that have bad behavior and bring down the moral for the rest of the class making it more difficult to actually learn.)

Part of Model UN this year is completing a community project. The students in my group worked together to get over 400 books in English donated to our newly created youth center. This is the biggest collection of English books in the entire town. I am currently working on cataloging all the books to have a fully functioning library as part of the center.

We also recently had the opportunity to visit the UN House in Tirana. The students heard from representatives from UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women, UNFPA, UNHCR, IOM. It was an extremely informative session and the students all seemed to really enjoy our field trip together. During our time in Tirana, Chuck and I wanted to show the students a taste of American culture, so we took them out to eat at Cinnabon (which recently just came to Albania) and a restaurant called the Stephen’s Center, which serves American food. We’re hoping that we can also go and visit the US Embassy before the final conference as well.

One of the struggles that I have had as a teacher for the group is getting the students to put their research into their own words. Plagiarism is not taught in the same context here in Albania and copying articles word-for-word is the norm. Besides that though, the group has been going great and I am super proud of all the students thus far. The students recently participated in a regional mini-conference with other teams to practice what they had learned so far. The students all learned from the conference and were able to get a better understanding of what will be expected from them at the final conference in April. I can’t wait to see all their hard work at the final.

The entire group during one of our MUN meetings.

The entire group during one of our MUN meetings.

The group with all the boxes of books that were donated to the youth center for their community project.

The group with all the boxes of books that were donated to the youth center for their community project.

Before the mini-conference in Elbasan

Before the mini-conference in Elbasan

General Assembly room at the mini-conference

General Assembly room at the mini-conference

The GA team from Kavaje

The GA team from Kavaje

ECOSOC room at the mini-conference

ECOSOC room at the mini-conference

The ECOSOC girls

The ECOSOC girls

The Security Council girls

The Security Council girls

Practicing unmoderated caucus

Practicing unmoderated caucus

Waiting for the UN House presentation to begin

Waiting for the UN House presentation to begin

UN House Visit

UN House Visit. Don’t worry it hadn’t started yet. That is why everyone is on their phones… 

Hearing from different UN agency representatives

Hearing from different UN agency representatives

Eating American food for the first time!!

Eating American food for the first time!!

My counterpart Entela teaching the kids how to write resolutions in the proper format

My counterpart Entela teaching the kids how to write resolutions in the proper format

2014 in a Glance: My 365 Grateful Project

At the beginning of 2014 I decided to begin a project where I reflect on something that I am grateful for every day. I was having a hard time maintaining a positive attitude and I felt that this project could really help me reflect and appreciate more in my life. I never really knew what kind of effect that doing something like this would have on my life, but it really helped me realize that in every day (even really crappy days) there is something to be grateful for, whether it’s a hot meal or good friends. I found something to appreciate every day in 2014.

2014 was the best year of my life. I have grown so much over the past year and I had the pleasure and opportunity to experience so many new things and travel to new places. During my first year of Peace Corps work and life moved very slowly for me and it wasn’t until 2014 that things really started to pick up. I felt more integrated into my community, hung out with more Albanians, and began to find meaningful extra projects outside of my primary assignment. I traveled to Japan, Croatia, Belgium, Washington D.C, Colorado, and Italy. I reunited with friends and family that I had not seen in over a year. I also met Quinn. Quinn is the most amazing and kind guy that I have ever been with. I am continually grateful to share this experience with him.

Here are some highlights from my 365 grateful project:

january 11

January 11th: I am grateful for beautiful bike rides to the beach.

I started biking around the villages surrounding my town to explore and get some exercise. This was a photo from the first long bike ride I went on. I biked for about an hour and a half to get to this spot and was completely in awe when I found this beautiful area. I remember sitting on this pier and contemplating about how amazing my life had become.

jan 14

January 14th: I am grateful for my wonderful neighbors. They gave me some homemade byrek for lunch and delivered it by tossing it in between our balconies.

My neighbors always wanted me to help their daughter with improving her English skills. They paid me in delicious homemade byrek. I had a pretty good laugh when they were tossing me food like a football between our balconies, which are not part of the same apartment complex.

february 18

February 18th: I am grateful for Irida. She is a leader in our new youth group and a sweetheart. Today she invited me and my site-mate over for homemade lunch. Te lumshin duart Irida!

At this point in my service I just started the Outdoor Ambassadors group at the high school and it was completely new. Irida was one of the first students interested in taking part of the club. This was the first time that I was invited over to an Albanian’s house for lunch and she specifically made my favorite dish, fasule, because I had mentioned how much I loved it and how I couldn’t find it anywhere in town. It has been amazing to watch Irida grow over the past year and she is now one of the top contenders to go and study in the USA next year as part of the YES Program.

feb22

February 22nd: i am grateful for our first youth group hike.

This was the first time that we went on an excursion with the Outdoor Ambassadors students. It was such a new and fun day for all of us. It had rained the day prior and the pathway was extremely muddy. Right after this picture was taken the group got caught in the mud, trying to take a shortcut back into town. Luckily, we all helped each other get past the mud, but I can’t honestly say that my shoes have ever been quite as clean since.

march 5

March 5th: I am grateful to Skype with my long-lost best friend. We haven’t been able to talk for almost a year because of schedule differences. It was nice to catch up and we can’t wait to catch up more.

It can be hard to keep in contact with friends and family back home with the distance and the time difference. This was the first time that I was able to talk to Lane since joining the Peace Corps in March 2013. Keeping in contact with people back home is very important to me, even though it can be difficult at times.

march 28

March 28th: I am grateful for evening coffees with my good friend Erin in Shkoder.

Erin has always been such a good friend to me throughout Peace Corps. We don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like because we live in different regions of the country, but occasionally we are able to get together and it’s always a blast. This picture does not do that sunset justice, but it was absolutely beautiful. Erin and I were enjoying coffee together before having dinner with a bunch of Italians who are also living in Shkoder working with families in Northern Albania regarding blood feuds.

april 8

April 8th: I am grateful for late night showings of How I Met Your Mother with Quinn.

Quinn visited me and my old site-mate during his volunteer visit while he was in training. While he was visiting I was in the middle of marathoning How I Met Your Mother, so we spent our evenings watching HIMYM together in my apartment. It was nice to kick back, relax, and get to know Quinn.

april 17

April 17th: I am grateful for my host family.

The children in my host family are absolutely adorable. I always loved hanging out with all of them. I went for a short day visit to see the family that took care of me during pre-service training before giving a presentation to the new trainees. This was such a nice day because I was able to have a coffee (and a real conversation because my Shqip skills had improved greatly) with my host family.

april 20

April 20th: I am grateful to reunite with my mom in Japan after a year of not seeing each other.

This was the first time that I was able to see my mom in person since starting my Peace Corps service. My step-dad had a work meeting in Tokyo and agreed to fly me out there to be part of the trip. It was amazing to experience a completely different part of the world while hanging out with my family, who I had not seen in such a long time. I had such a fun time shopping and exploring the city with my mom. Plus, all the Japanese food was to die for!

may 10

May 10th: I am grateful that I finally had the opportunity to climb to the top of the pyramid.

Basically if a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania does not climb to the top of the pyramid in Tirana before the end of their service then it’s a crime. On this day I was helping give a “Tirana Tour” to the trainees in the new group. As part of the tour we walked around the entire city, had lunch at a Mexican restaurant, and climbed to the top of the pyramid.

may 20

May 20th: I am grateful that Entela and I are spending the afternoon planning GLOW.

This was a fun afternoon for me and Entela, one of my best Albanian friends (and now counterpart). Entela and I met through another previous Peace Corps volunteer who was her teacher at university. We became close friends and I asked her to be my counterpart to help run the GLOW: Girls Leading Our World summer day-camp in my community. That afternoon we made lesson plans, started compiling a GLOW manual, drank wine, and ate American goodies (cookie butter). It was lots of fun.

june4

June 4th: I am grateful for the crazy high school beauty pageant I attended tonight. It gave me a good laugh. Is this real life?

This was seriously such a strange event. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to buy some tickets from a few of my students. During this show, the high-school students modeled and acted out skits. There were also some talented hip-hop dancer and other performances. The weirdest thing about this though was the progression of the modeling outfits. It started out as regular school clothes, more scandalous “summer” clothes, prom clothes, and then ended with all the girls in wedding dresses…

june12

June 12th: I am grateful for afternoon beers from Brauhaus on the beach with my site-mate.

It ended up working out that Peace Corps sent another volunteer to my city who also enjoyed biking and drinking. Chuck and I would go to the beach together often when the weather was nicer to have a few brews. I especially enjoyed coming to this spot because they served Brauhaus beer from a micro-brewing restaurant in Tirana.

june24

June 24th: I am grateful to teach yoga at GLOW camp.

I love yoga. And I love teaching yoga. I was not able to teach yoga since a summer camp in 2013 and I was really excited about the opportunity to show some of my girls at camp how amazing of a stress release yoga can be. I prepared flows and music that I thought would be appropriate. They learned the moves and were extremely attentive during the first class.

june 28

June 28th: I am grateful for this cutie. Think I’m gonna keep it.

I had a cat for a little while in 2014. I found Spec on the road near my house and noticed immediately how he was more friendly than other street cats I had met. I also noticed how he was a little baby and I really wanted to take care of him. He was one of the best cats I have ever had, but sadly I did not keep him because he was too big of a responsibility for me. I was traveling too much over the summer to really properly take care of him. I miss snuggling with Spec and having him to come home to. Luckily, another volunteer agreed to take care of him for me.

july2

July 2nd: I am grateful for Kampi pa Emer.

Kampi pa Emer was a camp coordinated by a Returned Peace Corps volunteer and his Albanian wife. They come back to Librazhd every year to hold this camp. The aim is to help integrate Roma and Albanian children through shared activities and games. This was such a fun camp to work at because it was with younger cuties. I taught hoop dance and GLOW. The GLOW lesson was led entirely in Shqip, and I was pretty proud of myself for that.

july8

July 8th: I am grateful a friend from America is visiting Albania.

My friend Bryan visited me in Albania before we went together to a music festival in Croatia. Bryan is the only friend (or family member, for that matter) that has visited me in Albania. Hint hint everyone.

july11

July 11th: I am grateful for epic selfies and night 1 of Ultra Music Fest.

I saved up a bunch of vacation time working during my first year of Peace Corps. I took some time off over the summer to go to some big name music festivals in Europe. I always loved live music, especially electronic music, so I was extremely excited to go to a real concert again. It was also a lot of fun to hang around Croatia in summer. It’s true; the beaches are spectacular.

july27

July 27th: I am grateful for an amazing last night of the best festival of my life. Thank you Tomorrowland. Hope to come back someday!

Tomorrowland was an epic festival. There were so many famous electronic musicians there and over 100,000 people from across the world. I met people from all continents. It was quite the experience and I don’t think any festival will ever top how awesome that experience was.

august11

August 11th: I am grateful to finally commence the summer camp I’ve been planning for the past 9 months.

I spent the majority of the summer coordinating all the details for the Outdoor Ambassadors summer camp. It was a lot of work and there were times that I wanted to gauge my eyes out. The camp ended up being quite the success and it was worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. Thankfully I had a lot of other amazing volunteers to help make sure the entire event went off.

sept7

September 7th: I am grateful to live in such a beautiful country and to partake in such a gorgeous hike to the northern blue eye.

Hiking in Thethi/Valbona was always at the top of my Albania to-do list. My friends and I finally planned the trip up and it was everything I could have imagined. It was beyond beautiful and it was actually my first experience backpacking. Back in Colorado I hiked a few 14ers, but never with a pack. It was fun to hike, camp, and then hike some more. Northern Albania is absolutely gorgeous and I may even try to do this hike again before I head back to America for good.

sept15

September 15th: I am grateful to be in Washington DC for the Blog It Home competition and for my first Chipotle burrito in over a year.

I was honored by Peace Corps and chosen as one of the winners of the national blog competition. During my entire flight back to America I dreamed of American cuisine, specifically Chipotle. After my extremely long flight, almost 24 hours to be exact with layovers, I finally made it to the hotel in DC. Immediately I convinced my roommate that we must get Chipotle burritos NOW. That burrito was so delicious. I miss Chipotle and guacamole.

sept 24

September 24th: I am grateful for a day in the breweries in foco with my friends.

Since Peace Corps flew me back to America I decided to take advantage of my geographical location and head back home for a few days to visit friends and family. I wish that I would have stayed a bit longer in Colorado because a week really wasn’t long enough to catch up with everyone. I was able to travel back up to my college town of Fort Collins and reminisce with some of my social work buddies. We also went to the breweries, one of my favorite past times, to have a few good beers.

sept27

September 27th: I am grateful for family.

My family is so important to me and I really wanted to see everyone while I was home. I miss spending holidays with everyone and being able to catch up on the phone anytime. It was truly wonderful to see everyone again.

oct23

October 23rd: I am grateful that the municipality has agreed to give us a room to start the youth center!

This was the first time I was able to check out the room that would become the future youth center of Kavaje. Having Chuck at the municipality finally gave us the in to make my dream of a youth center a reality. It’s crazy for me to see this picture now because this room has been completely transformed. I actually just came back from a meeting at the youth center. The room is fully functioning with internet, the necessary essentials, and a lot of the art materials that friends and family sent me. We have four different groups meeting their weekly with activities almost daily. I will update you more on the youth center later!

oct27

October 27: I am grateful to run into one of my OA students on the road just in time for a bike ride to the beach.

This was a fun bike ride to the beach. We ran into one of my students on the road and asked him to join us to the beach. The man on the left ended up giving me and Chuck handmade raki (Albanian moonshine) and some other traditional food. Just because. It was nice to be treated for absolutely no reason at all. I cannot tell you enough times how much I love, and appreciate, Albanian hospitality.

nov7

November 7th: I am grateful for these crazy kids. They are not only my OA students, but my friends. I love them all so much.

Can you tell that biking to the beach has become a theme in my service? This was the first time that we biked to the beach together as a group. It was absolutely pouring rain that day and I was shocked that any of the students actually showed up in the first place. Since they showed up I was ready, and willing, to go on the adventure. Most of the students had never even seen the areas of town that we were biking around and they mentioned that I know our city better than they do.

nov15

November 15th: I am grateful for a nice dinner with good friends.

Sometimes volunteers get together and enjoy delicious meals together. This is always a nice contrast from my usual daily dinner alone. It can get boring, and tedious, to continually cook nice meals alone.

nov23

November 23rd: I am grateful for my new tattoo.

I got another Albanian tattoo to commemorate my service thus far. This time I got the word “avash” tattooed on my left wrist. It’s funny because avash is actually a Turkish word, but it is used so common here in Albania. Avash avash is a phrase that means slowly slowly and it is representative of life and of many situations here in country. I always try to remind myself avash when something is frustrating me. I also want to be reminded of how working quickly is not always necessarily the best way to get things done.

dec24

December 24th: I am grateful to hear part of the Pope’s Xmas Eve mass and the ballet.

I tried not to include too many posts about Quinn and how grateful I have been to have him in my life. His fresh perspective and caring personality has helped me so much throughout the past year. He has been the main person that has been there to listen to me complain, to share in my successes, and to spend time with. To celebrate Christmas and New Years we went on a vacation together to Rome, Florence, and Venice. It was a blast and probably the best vacation that I have ever been on (probably because he is the best company that I could ever ask for). We spent the morning of Christmas Eve at the ballet watching the Nutcracker, which is one of my childhood favorites. Then we ventured out at night to hear the Pope give mass.

january-1

January 1st: I am grateful for new beginnings and the new year. I am grateful that I finished my 365 Grateful Project.

Back in Albania again and happy to begin 2015. The grateful project truly taught me a lot about myself and about how perspective changes everything. I am proud of myself for actually sticking to a New Years goal for the entire year. How often does something like that actually happen?! It was a nice ride. I can’t wait for all the things I have to be grateful for in 2015. It is already turning out to be a very special year. Life is so beautiful.