Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Friday, February 24, 2012

Library Project

I wrote in December about a project at the Akhalkalaki Library. We wrote a Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant proposal for just under $2000 to purchase materials for the library, all with the purpose of making it a more community-focused center for interactive programs. We were able to make almost all of our purchases in January and get things physically set up in the library through January. But the real meat of the project, the trainings and preparations and planning to actually create a programming series at the library, is currently underway.

A warm-up "ice breaker" at our first training

On two Saturdays in February, I was able to hold two training sessions for the library's 13 employees (all women, mostly in their 40s or older). Although we had discussed the idea of having a calendar of events for Akhalkalaki residents, the library staff was still having a difficult time thinking about interactive programs in any realistic way. It seemed like an overwhelming amount of work required of them, and like maybe it would still be impractical. I did my best to win over the nonbelievers and get folks pumped up for the idea, and I think we're on the right track.


Our first training session was just focused on interactive library programs: what are they, why are they a good thing, how can we do this here, and what do we need to do to realize this goal. We started off a little quiet and it was a little tough getting people to give their ideas and ask questions right at first. Then, something just clicked and everyone was giving ideas and getting really into the brainstorming session. Women suggested starting a read-aloud program, having an English club or discussion group, getting people together for poetry readings or to celebrate holidays or special occasions. I had made a list of about 15 different types of programs we could consider, to use as reference if the brainstorming session fell flat. Not only did the library staff come up with all of my examples (which I pretty near exhausted myself in coming up with), they thought up an additional list of programs. The initial excitement after the first training session felt really, really great.

Training One

The second training session, last Saturday, had me more nervous than the first. How do I keep their enthusiasm up as we start digging into the nuts and bolts? How do I keep them hooked on this idea when the work starts?

I had a slightly smaller turnout for my second training, but most of the participants from training one came back for the second. The big controversy at the beginning was over the idea of finding volunteers to help organize and lead programs in Akhalkalaki. No one, they said, will do this for free. Why would someone volunteer, teach a class, read a book aloud, without getting paid? What's in it for them?

Going over the calendar

I knew this question would be one of the biggest hurdles, but if I could convince the library staff that it could work, I also knew that they could go out and convince their friends and family and neighbors to come in and volunteer. We talked about volunteerism, about the benefits of it, and mostly, about how we can find people who love something (say, poetry, or movies, or English) and ask them to share that love with others for just an hour a month. Slowly, even the biggest naysayers in the group started coming up with ideas for finding volunteers in Akhalkalaki to help lead different interactive programs.

All in all, these first two training sessions have been like a dream. The library staff remain excited, energized, and invested in the project. I've assigned minor "homework" assignments for them at each training, and I hope that the homework from session two gets done, as it will give us a great start towards designing our April events calendar and volunteer database. We'll have one more training, focused on bringing the programming to fruition, implementing the volunteer database and program calendar, and then advertising programs. My biggest concern now is that the enthusiasm stays up while I'm away.

It could turn out to be fortuitous to have this two-week break from site; at my most optimistic, I think about how this time will give the library staff an opportunity to really work on building this project on their own, without my controlling the strings. At my most pessimistic, I see all of the progress from our first two training sessions going down the drain and needing to be repeated when I get back, or worse, the project losing steam altogether in my absence.

Whatever the result, there's not much I can do about it right now. So I'll go and gladly enjoy my whirlwind tour of Chicago and Philadelphia, and then our Close of Service Conference in Tbilisi. Then it'll be back to Akhalkalaki, back to work, and, hopefully, not back to square one. (And one more plug: if you want to donate any materials to the library, we'd still be super excited to receive them, and extremely grateful. Check out this older post for more details, or send me an email if you have questions!)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

How is it possible that the ToT is already done?

The Training of Trainers. It was one of my big mile markers in the march to the end of our Peace Corps service. All winter break I worked on preparing PowerPoint presentations, tweaking the conference agenda, and sending ridiculous numbers of emails back and forth with other Life Skills Committee members in preparation. The 2012 Healthy Lifestyles and HIV/AIDS Education Training of Trainers was scheduled for February 2-3 and sat, marked on my calendar, as a far-off, distant to-do, a big project that needed lots of work and was one of my first big time-markers leading to close of service. These signposts went: January 8, putting me 6 months out from COS; the ToT (as we call it, since the official name is too much of a mouthful to say more than once), right around the 5-month mark; the Close of Service (COS) conference March 5-6, almost right on the 4-to-go; April's spring break that comes around Easter; May's various Georgian and Soviet holiday celebrations that get us out of school; June 15 that heralds the actual end of school; and BOOM, end of service in July.

January 8th came and went more quickly (and coupled with the consumption of more pieces of cake and other calorie-laden fare) than I could have imagined. At least the ToT, my February signpost, was still a long way off.

Until, suddenly, it wasn't any more. It was happening, ready or not.

Fortunately, the amazingly talented and wonderful people that work on the Life Skills Committee with me put in hugely long hours and had everything completely ready to go. We worked and reworked our presentations, gave each other feedback, edited and revised, and were ready for whatever the ToT would throw at us. And throw it did.

Materials for the ToT

Our conference was held in Bazaleti, Georgia, about 45 minutes north of Tbilisi. All the conference participants and Life Skills committee members were staying at the conference center and our Peace Corps staff members and guest speakers and translators were staying in Tbilisi, to drive up each morning for the start of the conference. Or so, in theory, we thought. Wicked wind kept me up most of the night before our opening day, banging metal roofing pieces back and forth and making me think that maybe someone had a whole lot of New Year's fireworks leftover and was passing time by exploding them all right outside my window. The 6 inches of snow that had so pleasantly and beautifully covered the grounds of the conference facility the day before turned into an odd landscape of bare earth and huge drifts by morning. The road from Tbilisi to Bazaleti wasn't spared the drifting. We got our first call during breakfast, letting us know that our PC staff and translators were a little delayed due to drifting on the roads. We decided to aim for a 30-minute start delay for the ToT to give them time to get in.
Beautiful, fickle snow

Looks like people were paying attention, right?

Then the car brining our staff members up got stuck. In a giant snow drift. In a village about halfway between Tbilisi and Bazaleti. Oh, and the doctor who was going to present a session on HIV/AIDS as our expert guest speaker? Canceled. She couldn't get out of Tbilisi due to the snow. Yikes.

Peace Corps Staff, making their way to Bazaleti from Tbilisi

While we were really concerned about how our staff members and translators were faring, stuck in a snowdrift in no-man's-land, we also had 36 PCVs and their counterparts ready and raring to start. So we did the best we could with what was available, thanked our lucky stars for our over-prepared session plans and PowerPoint presentations (which were translated into side-by-side English-Georgian), and imposed upon one of the counterparts to do live translation as we presented. McKinze kicked off our welcome and introduction session and I transformed into our HIV/AIDS "expert" presenter. We were a little nervous at first, but then our preparation work paid off and we fell into our grooves. Connie, Jason, and Jana did presentations all about the Life Skills Program, Stigma and Discrimination and the Health Education Lecture Series DVD and Companion Guide. Everyone did an awesome job presenting and by mid-afternoon, when our PC staff and translators were finally freed from the snowbank and made their arrival, we looked like old pros. They all joked that really they hadn't needed to make such an effort to get there after all.


Day two of the conference was a more technical day, all about behavior change communication and designing projects based on the principals of this theory, but our participants were great. They took everything in stride and were active and engaged throughout. They all seemed to come away with really excited counterparts, great ideas about starting up a health project at their sites, and a lot more understanding of what kinds of projects have been done previously by PCVs in Georgia and what kinds of resources are available to help make these projects more effective and easier to implement. McKinze and I did most of the day two presentations, and by the close of the conference, I was about as close to a vegetable as I've been in the nearly two years I've been here.

The Life Skills Committee of PC Georgia, celebrating the close of a successful ToT

Now, looking back on the way things went, I'm immensely proud of the way our committee handled things. I think we presented a very professional training that gave lots of helpful information and made implementing health projects in Georgia seem both doable and fun. I'm excited to track how ToT participants move forward with their project ideas and hopeful that they learned something useful during the training. Most of all, I'm glad for a (slight) reprieve in the flurry of activity. Not too much time off, though... I've got other projects to tackle and the clock is ticking!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


It's been quite a while since our last post. January has come and gone, along with another New Year's celebration. As usual, tables and stomachs groaned under the weight of the dolma, blinchiki, cakes, cookies, fruits, and roast piglet.

Shaen got to play Santa Claus this year, throwing his little cousin and sister into paroxysms of joy. Lilit quickly learned the true meaning of New Year and promptly put all of her presents into a bag which she carried and around and wouldn't let anyone touch.

After the fireworks, the toasts, the visits, and the tripe soup to wrap up the season, we still had a little time to recover before the start of our last semester as teachers in Georgia. We took a trip to Tbilisi to run some errands -- I had volunteered to look over applications for Georgian students looking to study abroad in America, and Melissa was beginning to assemble materials for her library project -- but otherwise we took advantage of a little quiet before the storm.

Tbilisi Decorations

Then it was back to school, with lots of hopes for the spring. Melissa's library project is off to a great start -- thanks to everyone who has donated books, CDs, or DVDs! The two of us are agreed that whatever Georgia's charms, it's going to be nice to be back in the land of Office Depot and Staples the next time we need to buy supplies in bulk. But the Language Resource Room Melissa is working with the library to develop is off to a good start, and staff trainings begin Saturday!

Almost immediately after starting school, on a snowy Wednesday morning, Melissa headed to Bazaleti to help conduct the Healthy Lifestyles "Training of Trainers" conference, which brings volunteers and their counterparts to discuss ways to implement projects and share information on health and well-being with people in their communities. The conference was a big success, and even more impressive because, with staff, guests, and translators stranded in the snow for the first morning, Melissa and the Healthy Lifestyles Committee managed to run the whole show by themselves.

Afterward, we met in Kortaneti for the first weekend in February, and, as usual, it was a really nice, really relaxing time.

We came back this week and headed to school, only to have a pleasant surprise waiting for us today: thanks to the snow and the cold, schools across Georgia have been cancelled through Monday! And here I thought we just didn't get snow days.

So it'll be a lot of hot tea and good books for the next couple days, and, come Monday, we'll be just about halfway through February! Hard to believe, but we'll be finishing up before too long. Stay warm, everyone!