Thursday, February 23, 2012

Eye Care International

I am currently blogging with WIFI from San Miguel. Why you ask? Well, I am locked up here in a hotel because of some weird, unidentified ear/headache problem. I say unidentified because it appears that the Peace Corps doctor disagreed with the doctor here in San Miguel and has started prescribing me medication over the phone. I am staying again tonight to see if I am better by tomorrow. Sorry to report all of this (although it has nothing to do with the title of the post) but I just have to complain for a second: usually when volunteers are sick they go to a hotel in the capital and get to see each other. Gr... I wish I was there too..but I guess that is just being selfish considering I am in a nice hotel right now. Moving on to the reason of this post:

Eye Care International! Here is a brief synopsis of the program written by Paul Holland that you can also find on their website at

"EyeCare International provides vision care to the under served population of El Salvador. It was founded by Dr. William Brinker in 1995 to bring ophthalmology, optometry, and optical services to areas of El Salvador outside of metropolitan centers. Typically, 5,000-7,000 patients travel to the annual two-week clinic to have their vision checked. They may receive eyeglasses or undergo surgery for cataracts or pterygium removal. Approximately 20 artificial eyes are fitted each year. Each patient is asked to donate one dollar (if they can afford it). However, there are no fees for eyeglasses, surgery, or medications.

Each year a group of 40-50 volunteers from the United States and Canada pay for their room and board and airfare to spend two weeks caring for Salvadorans who might have no other opportunity to receive vision care. Volunteers include not only eye care professionals, but others with varied backgrounds who want to help the under served."

On February 13, 14, and 15 I had the wonderful opportunity to help with this years campaign in Santa Rosa de Lima. The other Peace Corps volunteers and myself helped by acting as translators for the various sectors of the event including: filling out their paperwork, before, during, and after surgeries, throughout the process of taking an eye exam, fitting them for glasses, or during the process of getting fitted for a artificial eye. I, myself, was able to translate for tons of patients getting glasses, taking eye exams, and one man who was getting fitting for an artificial eye. Each and every experience with every individual was so incredibly rewarding. I can't explain the feeling you get when you put glasses on someone for the first time. Their face lights up, their eyes get wide, and their smile reaches from ear to ear. It a precious human experience to share that moment with them. And then they say something like, "Wow. I can see you. You are just so beautiful." I was nearly brought to tears over and over again. I think as the translator I got the best deal out of everyone. I got to talk to them about their lives, their challenges, their families, then really understand how much of a difference the glasses were making, and their unending appreciation and gratitude. Luckily Salvadorans are very touchy people allowing those who don't speak Spanish to feel the love through giant hugs and meaningful handshakes (from men).

Of course, there were plenty of challenges as well. The days were very long, tiring, and at times very difficult. My Spanish is no where near perfect so there were obvious times of frustration. How would I know how to say discharge? Or mucous? Aha. There were also some patients who lacked the gratitude of others or were just coming from some free stuff. It is in those moments that I often question the process of development (on both an individual and country basis) through hand outs and events that people just expect to be given for them. Are we just creating a system were people come to rely on the gifts/money (remesas) of others? I have seen this problem a lot here in El Salvador where people have family working in the United States who send them tons of money/things, which allows them to not work all day. This is no way condemning on the work of charities or service projects that provide help. I truly believe in the work they do and the change they create for various people around the world. I just like to think about this in terms of my own work and community:: what is going to happen when I leave? Will this still continue? Can Salvadorans do this for themselves? If yes, how? All tough questions. And I am not sure the answer can always be yes, especially given the tendency of our own human nature. It is really hard to ignore or resist a need or a chance to make someone's life better when you can fulfill it yourself or with the work of some wonderful organization.

Speaking of an organization, Eye Care International, is amazing. And I am so glad they do what they do. I wish I had a boat load of synonyms to drop here to explain how amazing they are. I was so impressed with their work, dedication, drive, and continuous energy throughout two long weeks. But most importantly their generosity is astounding! Thank you to Eye Care International! I was blessed to have met every single one of you, hear your incredible life stories, and see the amazing work that you do here in El Salvador. Thank you even more for also providing my community with glasses! I have already given them out to about 10 people and I have scheduled an "eye" day in the clinic for next Monday! Here are some pictures of the loot, my host mom, and my host aunt with their new glasses! :)

Edited to add: I realize I just talked about my own concerns regarding the sustainability of projects, yet here I am giving out glasses for free in my own community. Total hypocrite. What I am teaching them? I mean Eye Care asks for a $1 donation. I could do the same and ask for donations to the clinic, but I am not sure that is all I want to do. I want something that is going to teach the value of glasses. Maybe if I incorporate a program for learning to read (most of my community can't). I could start with the Bible given the religiosity of my community. Hmmm...well...I am going to try and think of a way to make this more comprehensive then simply giving out glasses. Any ideas?! Comments welcome!

Post Script: So I mentioned a little while ago that my community is getting potable water. Oh hell yes! Here is the proof! Giant tube leading down the road! WATER IS COMING! MIRE!


Have a good day. And just remember it is the little things...

"One pair of glasses may not change the whole world but it will change that person's world forever." -Eye Care International web site.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Happy 7 Months! (yesterday)

Happy 7 Months in El Salvador (posted a day late)! Everyday on the 19th of the month I think about that first day that I arrived here. I remember the anxious excitement. I remember the butterflies in my stomach. I remember meeting people for the first time who have now become my best friends and family. It is crazy to think that was only 7 short months ago. I have already learned so much, experienced new things, suffered the extremely low lows, and appreciated the wonderful highs. I am only curious to the future that this place has in store for me and all my fellow PCV’s. But, it is kind of ironic that on this day, this month, a team from Washington has come to analyze this country to see if it is safe enough for us to operate here in El Salvador. The future of our service is in there hands. And all we can do is wait…and keep working…

Since coming home from the Safety and Security Conference, things actually have been kind of busy for me here in Upire. I have mostly been in the school either working with the teachers or the school director either helping with training sessions on the computer or helping to digitalize our schools records and paperwork. We are trying to get all of the school’s information more organized and placed on the computer, so that they can more adequately keep records, track finances, etc. It is a daunting, especially because of the slow and painful death of a very important memory stick, which had the entire school’s life on it. Ouch. But we are working hard to retrieve the lost information and keep up with the process.

Meanwhile, I planned an activity for Valentine’s Day for the students and teachers in the school. The holiday is celebrated here but usually just with a round of “amigo secreto” or secret friend where they buy one gift for a random person they picked out of a hat. There is not a lot of trading of cards or candies between anyone. I decided to make Valentines available to the students. I (with the help of some of my favorite youth!) made little cards with some candy attached that they could buy for a quarter. If they could not buy them, I also keep some paper on hand to give out so that they could just write little notes to their friends, family, and teachers. In addition, I went around to each classroom explaining the importance of love and friendship and asked them to write notes to the special people in their lives. I had set up envelopes for each of the teachers outside on this board and had each classroom write little notes to put in the envelopes. The activity seemed to go well all around. I completely sold out of all the Valentines making the school about $22. The kids seemed so happy running around with their cards and adding little notes to all of their teachers. I think the best part though was watching the teachers open up their envelopes and see all their cards and little presents. They kept telling me how wonderful it was and how special they felt that day. J To my surprise the kids all wrote me cards as well. I did not put an envelope for myself because I felt weird since I was organizing the event, but they put one up for me anyway and filled it with cute little notes! So cute!

I have also spent some time in the school as a sort of substitute teacher. Last week I had to teach kindergarten. Oh man…bless you people who can teach! It is so hard and exhausting. I did not even teach anything to these kids and I was wiped afterwards. I just had them building with blocks and clay. It was basically a game of having someone build the first structure and the rest had to copy that person. I hope it helped with some motor skills or something! But I am not sure because it eventually turned into the kids and I building a pretend city with cars, buildings, etc. It was fun, but as I said super super draining. Those kids have so much energy. Geez, am I getting old? …hope not.

This has pretty much been life lately. A lot of days in the school doing anything they really need. I was also very lucky to be a part of an amazing Eye Care event, but I am going to post about that separately.

So there you have it: what I have been up to recently. I know the last post touched on some seriously troubling feelings I had been having and I have pretty much ignored those in this post. I’ll be honest here. Those feelings are still there. I go through phases where I think about the future of my service here and it looks pretty grim (given the security circumstances). And then there are great where I feel as though I am really going to get to stay in my site and finish my service completely. It is up and down. Everyday. There are days when I look for jobs online (sorry to everyone in that process, it sucks!). And then there are days I plan my future projects and ideas for Upire. It is rollercoaster of emotions. But all I can do is deal with it, talk about it (probably with Tricia), and wait for the results when I will probably be forced to face these emotions and make a significant decision.

But until then on a happy note, I leave you with some pictures! Thanks again Mommom for the camera!

My best friend, Xio with her Valentine!

Girls filling envelopes!

Armadillo shell!

My favorite American/Salvadoran/Argentinan family

This is my awesome host brother, David! Just to show we make giant tortillas in my house :)

mmm. Zapote

Cat gets mouse. Victory.

Post script: I forgot to mention that my friend Jesse invited me to make gingerbread houses at his house one day this past month. We made them because his family has this tradition of making them in the states and he brought the tradition here to El Sal last year. So when his parents came to visit they brought all the supplies. I am so lucky I got to be part of such a fun event for the kids in his community. I am posting a few pictures here of Jesse and the kids for his mom (who has mentioned that she reads my blog :)). Jesse kind of fails at posting (sorry Jesse, but he knows its true ;)) It is just that he is way busier than me and in his prime of time here, so it is understandable he doesn't post. It is because he is super-volunteer (it really is true). But as a thank you to his mom for the awesome supplies and fun event, here are some pictures! Super fun and amazingly delicious :)

Hard at work!

Jesse and his neighbors

So delicious :)

Friday, February 3, 2012

I Don't Know

Famous three words of this past week. And I hate them. I just got back from the All Volunteer Safety and Security Conference in La Palma and if I were to sum it up in three words it would be the following: I Don't Know. No one knows anything about the future of this country and apparently the big guys had to come all the way from Washington, D.C. just to tell us that. Here is the general breakdown (or the highlights) of the conference:

1. Day One: a lovely charla entitled, "How Did We Get Here?" which basically consisted of two hours of history regarding the decision to conduct this evaluation of this country. This was them trying to ensure us that this was not some overnight decision and has actually been a long time coming. Just google El Salvador and you will be inundated with reasons for why we are in this position. And although this post sounds super angry, I am not arguing with the need for the security assessment in this country, but I am upset with how it has been handled thus far.
2. Day two: This was basically a day to present us with various options including Peace Corps Response, re-enrolling in another Peace Corps program, and what it is going to mean to stay here in El Salvador (including new transportation system and current rules), etc. There were also additional informal sessions in the afternoon regarding these options and also Career planning, Extending, etc for all of those people who are being forced to leave the country early (I am not sure if I have mentioned how many volunteers are being forced to leave. We are basically losing 60 with a forced early close of service (including my sister group which holds a number of my closest friends and volunteers). That leaves my group (newest) and the group with about 6 months more, which is a total of about 35 volunteers. And that 35 number is dropping everyday as people decide to leave.
3. Day three: We had a weird mental health session in the morning followed by meeting with our program managers to talk about what is going to happen here. Then in the afternoon there were sessions on various different projects, writing grants, etc.

That is a rough outline of the conference. If it had not been for the opportunity to see and hang out with my friends, it would have been a serious waste of my time. Why? Because....What did I learn from it? Absolutely nothing. And here is why: Apparently Washington is sending an assessment team here February 15. This is going to decide where volunteers can go, live, etc. They are going to have the decision by the middle of March. Following that the volunteers that are not in that area are going to have to switch sites. They gave to no clue as to who is going to have to move, where they will be moved, or when (but it will probably be late April). Yes....more....waiting....

In the meantime we are still on a serious travel restriction. We still cannot go to the capital. We cannot really travel out of our departments. When we leave we still have to clear it with our immediate bosses. We are restricted to basically only traveling when absolutely necessary. And we really have no idea as to when this is all going to get better.

I have been trying to write this post and I am sure I am doing a terrible job at explaining what happened at this conference, but that is because my mind right now is wiped. I am not sure if I can fully explain how draining this entire experience has been since we got that dreadful email back in December putting our service here in question. And the question now is what do I do personally? How do I handle all of this?

Unfortunately, I am still trying to figure this out. I am trying to decide if it would be worth it to re enroll in a new Peace Corps program. It would be a nice new adventure of the full 27 months, I would have more say in where I go and what program I do, and hopefully it would be a in a safer and more stable place. I should point out though that my decision to leave actually has nothing to do with security. I have never felt unsafe in my community and very rarely in this country. When I do leave site I am usually on a bus with a driver who I frequently play with his children and drink coffee with his wife. I feel fine under his watch. My reason for leaving would ultimately be the harsh ambiguity and not knowing the future of my service, the challenges of starting projects under these conditions, and the inability to travel at all. Plus knowing I could have another service elsewhere with the potential to be better is all too tempting...

I'll be honest all during the conference I was ready to jump ship. I was completely willing to start over and join a new country and hopefully avoid the next months of uncertainty here in El Salvador. Of course, I had things holding me back, which made the time during the conference very stressful. Just thinking about leaving my friends, community, this country, everything I have known for the past 6 months, and embark on another new, uncertain journey, made me sick to my stomach. Nevertheless, I had just about made my decision to leave because I was so done with feeling so crappy all the time. I was on the bus back to site and just starting to figure out how to handle having made said decision. And then something changed...

I arrived back in site and I realized that I am not ready to leave Upire. I am being given another 1 month and a half in this beautiful caserio for sure and I am going to take it. Yesterday, my host mom greeted me with a "Hola mi hija chicquita" (Hi my little daughter) and I knew I was not ready to leave her. I am not sure how to do my host mom justice in words. She is almost as amazing as my own mother (and if you know my mother, you know that is saying A LOT). I just sat looking at her and almost cried at the thought of leaving her prematurely. We then sat and chatted about the current situation but she moved right on saying "you know we are going to work hard for the next month like everything is fine" and we talked about potential projects. Next week she wants me to come in and help teach classes (one on art, one on school gardens, and another or hand washing, etc) and then help with this adult English class. We also talked about doing Valentine's Day, working on raising funds for computers, developing a newspaper (kind of) club and starting a "History of Upire" book. I know that I should not start projects with all of this uncertainty but you know what...I am going to pretend like I am staying because that is what I need to do.

If I have to leave here, I have to leave it, but at least I know I stayed as long as I could and did all that I could do. I am going to wait it out until Washington comes through with a decision. And then it will be time to think about it some more. But I think I have come to the conclusion that this is the time when this country needs us the most. I may have to suffer now through a changing Peace Corps program here in El Salvador, but if I can help keep it alive by staying, I am willing to do so. I signed up for an adventure. I signed up to be removed from my comfort zone. I signed up to be challenged beyond my wildest dreams. So with all that Peace Corps is giving me exactly what I wanted.

I hope this is coherent enough for everyone to understand. Please feel free to send comments, questions, or advice my way. I appreciate talking this out with other people. I want to thank everyone for their support in my decisions, the process, and just listening to my story.

For whatever challenges you are currently facing..."May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into the and above the clouds."

~Edward Abbey~

*I hope you all notice the change in tone in this post. The beginning (which highlights my angry feeling during and immediately after the conference) and the end (once I got back to site). Quite an amazing range of emotion, one has.