Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thankful for the All Volunteer Conference

Last week, Sam and I missed out on most of the school week (darn!) in order to attend the All Volunteer Conference. More than just a clever name, this is indeed a conference that gathers all of the Peace Corps Volunteers in country in one place. Surprisingly, we only have this once-a-year conference where we're all together. Other gatherings tend to be for smaller groups, so although we do see a lot of each other through the course of PC, we don't usually see each other in one big group. The AVC is great, though, for other reasons. We've got a full schedule: we go over our safety and security plans, we elect new members to PC committees, we have a half-day of PCV-led sessions, we spend a lot of time getting to know each other better, and, most importantly, since this conference is always held in November, we prepare and eat Thanksgiving dinner.

This year's safety and security section was interesting. It was very clearly and directly shaped by the "scandals" in the press over the last year, regarding PC's handling of sexual assault and rape over the years. We were sent emails and links to news stories from America by our country director when all this was in full swing last spring and summer (when there was lots of news about the congressional hearings Peace Corps had regarding how the organization has handled cases of rape or sexual assault). But even though we read these and we're in Peace Corps, it seemed far away; maybe we just haven't seen or heard as much as folks at home about it, or maybe it just seems unthinkable when it hasn't been my experience. It's hard to imagine a PC post being anything but extremely helpful, caring and serious in any scenario, but especially in these worst-cases.

The congressional hearings have had an impact, regardless on how connected I feel to it all, on PC operations worldwide. Over the summer PC staff from all over the world had to attend new training seminars on how to respond to rape or sexual assault, how to prevent it and how to ensure that PCVs are kept safe. Our safety and security sessions this year were handed down as a direct result of those trainings and orders from DC. The people presenting sessions to us had to read from a script to make sure that every post conveyed the same information. Our staff and safety and security council members did a great job keeping the information interactive and interesting, but it was an odd departure from last year's safety and security session, which was much more focused on Georgia-specific issues and concerns that our volunteers have. Don't get me wrong-- it's not that I don't support working to prevent sexual assaults on volunteers; quite the opposite, I think this is an important topic to discuss. Really, I mostly just found it weird that Washington was sending scripts around to posts to teach us about safety. Aside from maybe our mothers, I don't think there is any group of people anywhere that worry more about our safety and security than our PC Georgia staff, and I don't think anyone (including our mothers) has more realistic, feasible, Georgia-appropriate, actionable plans in place for keeping us safe or responding in cases when needed.

So that was the safety and security component of the conference. (Last year, we did a half-day simulation of how to respond if the various stages of our Emergency Action Plan are implemented, given different degrees of complication. It was, to say the least, a different atmosphere.)

All Vol isn't all somber and scripted, though. We elected new members for our PC committees. The Life Skills Committee gave our presentation on what we do and what sorts of members we were seeking. We got a lot of great applications for our open positions and had a tough choice to make in winnowing down to just the three slots. I think we got some great new additions, though, and I'm looking forward to all the work we'll do together in the coming months!

The last day of the AVC is spent working on what we call "Concurrent Sessions." These are PCV-led short sessions (45 or 90 minutes) in which we can learn about ongoing projects that PCVs are looking to hand off to new volunteers, share tips on teaching or working in the Georgian context, talk about resources we've created or just have some fun. Last year I attended all the concurrent sessions, getting more and more excited about all the projects I'd be able to get involved with and work on. This year, I was on the other end, presenting some of the sessions and looking to stir up interest among G11s in the projects I've worked on and would like to see continued.

The AVC culminated in the most important session of all: Thanksgiving Dinner. Sam helped head up the "Thanksgiving Dinner Committee" for the second year. He spent every spare moment at the conference in the kitchen, making friends with the Georgian kitchen staff at the conference center, stirring soups, peeling apples, making biscuits and supervising ingredients lists and organization. Last year's meal was delicious and hard to top, but this year's took the cake. Everyone loved everything. The Ambassador came again and specifically complimented Sam on the biscuits (that should translate into a future job offer, right?) and there really weren't nearly as many leftovers as there should have been, which means everyone ate well past the stuffed point. (I personally had a moment of glory when I ate a completely unnecessary extra piece of pumpkin pie with my hands when the plates and silverware had run out.) Especially considering the limitations in the kitchen (it's seriously worse than a Top Chef challenge), the food was fantastic and a really welcome change from the usual fare.

Lacey, working on some pie
Lots of cooks, not enough ovens or burners
My plate(s) were well laden and delicious
No small task, feeding the PC crew!

Now we're back to school, but a wonderfully timed Georgian holiday gives us a day off on Wednesday this week. It's almost Thanksgiving, and I feel like we've got a whole lot to be thankful for. We hope you all have a great holiday and can enjoy and appreciate your dinners as much as we were able to!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wrapping Up, Wearing Out

We’ve had a busy couple of past few weeks. We've been trying not to get worn out with the full swing of school, battling the full-fledged winter weather and finishing up the projects we started over the summer.

Sam held a training for his teaching counterparts on using the new technologies he was able to help them get and set up as part of the grant he won for his school. (He even was able to convince his counterparts to come in to school on a weekend for the training!) His classes have been able to benefit from the new English classroom, gaining the joy of hearing all about Mr. Jolly, a major figure in the new lower-grade English textbooks. He has had some frustrations and setbacks in the project implementation, but even with these difficulties, it seems that all of his counterparts are getting into using the equipment. Further, it sounds like the ability to use the AV components of the textbooks (however diabolically evil some of the songs or jazz chants may be) has really been a boon for the students. Sam should be able to finish up all the final reporting paperwork for his grant project soon and be able just to work to see that it continues to be used and useful.

I’ve been working to wrap up my grant-recipient project that started over the summer, too. Since late July I have been holding a series of training sessions on various women’s health topics for a group of women and girls who consistently came to my fitness club. The trainings were all based on the peer education model and with the goal of making all of the participants peer educators, so they could then in turn share the information with their friends, families, relatives and neighbors. I envisioned it as a fairly simple project. I’d get the women together, show them one of the lectures from the Health Education Lecture Series, run through an activity with them from our Companion Guide or one of the other resources the Life Skills Committee has and that would be that. Ten trainings would be no problem to just knock right out.

Marianna, leading one of the training sessions

From the very beginning this plan was a little flawed in its over-ambitious-ness, I think. I expected to start a training project right in the middle of summer vacation season, to keep the same 11 females interested and attending and available for TEN hour- to hour-and-a-half-long sessions. Sheesh.

More training
The women were great, really, and the keeping-their-attention part of this project wasn’t a problem. They all seemed so interested and starved, actually, for accurate, reliable, easily available health information that there was no trouble getting and keeping them engaged. The training sessions themselves were admittedly a fair bit of work to prepare for, but I had an amazing, fantastic, remarkable counterpart, my friend Marianna, to help me present everything, organize everything and get through everything. The scheduling issue was an issue, but it was an issue in part because of my own decision to take a long vacation in August, as well as because of the usual hustle-and-bustle that September and back-to-school and potato harvest usually bring.

Everyone with their certificates at the end of training

So it took us from the end of July through the end of October, but Marianna and I led 10 hour-plus-long sessions in which we taught our group about nutrition and physical fitness, emotional health and self-esteem, hygiene and communicable diseases, peer education, women’s health, reproductive health and STDs, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and taking health peer education into the community. The women in the group shuffled around their busy schedules to attend, and all came to nearly every session. They all said they were sad to see the trainings end, but they learned a lot, and I’m really proud of them and grateful for their hard work and dedication.

Their roles as peer educators in our town (the goal I had in mind from the get-go) got a head start and a boost through some luck and some leftover money in the VAST budget. I was able to get an addition to my initial grant to take a group of women to a health clinic an hour’s drive away, where women aged 25-60 can get free gynecological exams and those aged 40-70 can get free mammograms. The clinic’s facilities and equipment were paid for and donated through American and European organizations and donors and everything is state-of-the-art, and no one in Akhalkalaki had ever heard of it. As their final assignment for the training, the women had to run a peer education session on women’s health for up to three other women, then they had to bring those women with us to the clinic for checkups. I expected a group of about 30 (of which 11 would be the original program participants). Instead, I took 43 women on two days last weekend for a full day of screenings. It was incredible, to be able to see how the women from the training program stepped up and helped get enough other women over their fears of doctors or traveling to another town.

Director of the Democrat Women's Organization in Akhaltsikhe, Marina, giving a presentation to the group of women before the health screenings began

The grant money made it possible for me to get a bus both days for transportation, to give the organization an honorarium for providing their services on days when they normally are closed (they usually only work Monday through Friday, but opened on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate the size of our group and to be dedicated just to us), and to buy coffee, tea, cookies and lunch for all the ladies. It was a small grant overall (the total budget for both the training and the trips was just around $1800), but I think it had a big impact. And as we get closer to closing our service here in Georgia (just under 8 months to go!), it’s boosts like these projects that really help us feel like we’ve been doing the right thing.

The group of women, waiting for their health screenings

And even though the clock is starting to tick and our PC service is starting to wrap up, we're both excited about trying to get in a few more projects and activities. I think we've got some final bursts of energy (and enough time left) for another few initiatives. We'll try to keep you posted on what we're up to, and not get too caught up in the whirlwind of our last bit of Peace Corps.