Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Warrior's Path Project Results

The best thing and the worst thing about the Peace Corps is the freedom that you have. We spend nearly all of our lives in structure – in school with assignments or in work with tangible goals – making not having it very challenging.

So, when I had to change sites from Ejido Gogorrón to San Blas the biggest thing I took with me was the importance of having a plan. While in Gogorrón, I worked on several projects (some more successful than others), but they often lacked long term vision as I struggled to simply find myself in this new environment. When I moved to San Blas, I took that wandering and languishing feeling with me to create and design The Warrior's Path Project.

Needless to say, I am very proud of of all of the students in the class and am very thankful of all the people who helped me with my project. Just as importantly, I'm happy to say that we were able to accomplish every single thing we set out to do. In fact, the biggest compliment I received was from a Peace Corps staff member who admitted they were doubtful that I would be able to accomplish as much as I wanted to, but now that I did it they had become inspired.

In the end, the program graduated 7 of the original 11 applicants. Of the 7 who graduated, 4 are already in college and have received their academic scholarships. The 3 remaining graduates are high school seniors and will be receiving their scholarships when they begin college next school year.

All in all, this is what we accomplished:
  • Read 3 books of Mexican literature
  • Wrote and rewrote 2 essays
  • Safe sex education (given by a single mother who graduated from the program)
  • 4 sessions of nutrition education with pre and post testing
  • Planned for college (like identifying schools, majors, and exam dates)
  • All of the students reached yellow belt
  • Trained 2 to 3 times a week in Tae Soo Do for nearly a year
  • 2 fundraisers to raise money for training equipment and scholarships
Some of the students receiving their Warrior's Path diplomas.


The students and teacher of the Tae Kwon Do school I used to give my classes (I also trained here to maintain my condition).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Peace Corps Resume

I officially finish my Peace Corps service on November 9th, 2012 – a little less than a month from now.  Wrapping up is a lot busier than I thought it would be, but that's also due to this huge life transition of moving back to the US and figuring out what I'm going to do there.

Anyway, I thought it would be cool to share my Peace Corps resume today, in light of my soon-to-be completion of service.

Length of servie: Twenty-seven months

Places lived: Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, and Nayarit

Illnesses Acquired
  • Giardia
  • Flesh-eating worm
  • Amoebas, worms, and fungus in the stomach (all at the same time)
The flesh-eating worm.

Reading
  • Sixty-eight books read
  • Read eight books in Spanish
  • Read one Pulitzer Prize winner
  • Read the following classics The Iliad, Crime and Punishment, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Rome and Juliet, A Midsumer Night's Dream, and Othello
  • Read over 21,000 pages

Travels
  • Visited five pyramid sites
  • Visited eight states

Friday, June 22, 2012

Video of Project To-Date and Scholarship Fundraiser

UPDATE: The fundraiser below has been filled. Thank you so much for the generous donations!

Peace Corps recently asked me to make a brief video of my project in order to promote the fundraising opportunities that Peace Corps offers. For those of you who haven't seen it, I hope you enjoy.

 

As the video mentions, we are doing another fundraiser to collect money for my students' academic scholarships towards college. We have 4 high school seniors who are about to graduate in the upcoming weeks and head off the college. They all are hardworking, motivated, and special people. One of them, in fact, is a single mother that has persevered and will be likely heading to the best college in the state.

All donations are made through the official Peace Corps page and are tax deductible. If you please, you can donate here: https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=510-021

Project donation page.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Uniforms and Sparring Gear

Six months into my youth development project, El Camino del Guerrero, I couldn't be more pleased with our success. I have seen significant improvement in all of my students – both physically and emotionally – which has exceeded my expectations. I can't help but think that I made the right decision to focus on this as my main project. If I do have any impact, it will be through this program.

Below are some of our major accomplishments:
  • We've now finished reading and analyzed two works of Mexican literature: El diosero and Las batallas en el desierto
  • We've completed our nutrition education classes which was realized through four 30-minute presentations. Students we're administered baseline tests before and afterwards in order to capture how much they improved. On average, students improved there scores by over 500%. (Thanks for the book donation, Kat!)
  • We've completed our college planning sessions; the high school seniors have already or will be taking their college entrance exams shortly.

Finally, with the money that we raised through a Peace Corps fundraiser (thanks again, everybody) we were able to purchase uniforms and sparring gear. The sparring great was a little slow in getting here (two and a half months) but the students were excited nonetheless.


Teaching them how to tie their belts.

Six of eight students are orange belts now.

Handing out the gear.


First time sparring with contact.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Broken System


When I was accepted to the Peace Corps as a Sustainable Business Volunteer, I frankly was super excited at all the things it could do for my resume. I could include numbers of how much sales increased and how I made things way more efficient. I thought that doing “real” service meant I would produce “real” numbers.

After months in Mexico, I realized that I wasn’t gong to have my biggest impact in that way. First of all, small business work can be challenging because of the inherited situations that come with any project (e.g., people who have a small business not out of passion but out of desperation for work). Secondly, I perceived so many cultural issues that cannot even be captured by numbers. As said best by Octavio Paz himself, there is a real cultural inertia keeping things the way they are. I realized this is where my work would be…

Through work with a local women’s cooperative, I came to know of a lady’s son who was in the second grade and still couldn’t read, write, or even completely recite his ABCs. Yet, the kid was in the second grade meaning he somehow “passed” the first grade. I came to know that his second grade teacher refers to him as vago and hits him on the head with his book. I even saw one his tests that contained literally gibberish for answers. Somehow he passed that, too.

Alright, I thought, I should try and help out a little. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t? The child’s mom mentioned that sometimes he writes the letters in his name backwards, which I also noticed when I worked with him for the first time (mixing up “M” and “W” or “H” and “I”, for example). I excitedly printed out some sheets of paper explaining dyslexia, gave it to the mom to look over, and told her to share it with the teacher.

I thought I had solved the problem!

Wrong. The teacher responded by saying that the kid didn’t have any problem other than being lazy. However, I knew the kid wanted to learn from the way he interacted with me in our tutoring sessions. I could see how it could get lost in a classroom of thirty because the child did have an unusually short attention span, but I didn’t understand the teacher’s closed attitude.

Since it didn’t work out talking to the teacher, I made my way over to the DIF thinking that child services ought to be able to provide more than just my one-hour-a-week of tutoring. I was immediately disappointed. Nobody in the DIF even knew what dyslexia was and they tried to send me elsewhere! I demanded to speak to a psychologist just hoping they would have some concept of learning disorders. Thank God she did. Although learning disorders weren’t her specialty, she believed that DIF’s role is to link children with the resources they need.

We had a couple of sessions with her when we reached the point where it was time to get the DIF’s social workers involved. They were going to go to the child’s school and interview his teacher, which was part of the protocol to get us some further help. Since his school is equipped to handle children with special capacities – it has a special education teacher and a psychologist on staff – I thought this might finally get the child some face time with them.

So, I excitedly arrived at our next meeting pining to hear what the social worker found. The social worker said that she interviewed the teacher and that there was nothing wrong with the child other than him not being interested in learning. Nothing more. What?! The DIF is supposed to be about helping kids, not about maintaining the status quo. I could sense the door of all the progress we had made was being slammed in my face. I then went on a long tirade. I talked about how the teacher is obviously going to have her own point of view in order to protect herself, how she is not even trained to be able to diagnose kids with learning disorders, and that the DIF’s job is to make things better! Luckily, cooler heads prevailed as the psychologist stepped in and said we should send the child to the CREE in Tepic (almost like the DIF, but at the state level) and have them run some diagnostics. If the kid has a learning disorder then we can do something about it. If not, maybe the teacher is right.

After the social-worker-visit the child’s mom had to face the teacher the next day at school (the teacher requires the mom be present in class daily in order to discipline her son when he gets out of line.) The teacher proceeded to tell the mom that it was pointless that we went to DIF because her son was just vago (a recurring theme). She told her that going to the CREE in Tepic would be a waste time because there was nothing wrong with him. She also shared how she and the social worker that interviewed her are cousins.

When our appointment at the CREE finally arrived competent and professional staff immediately helped us. We met with a physician, a neurologist, and a social worker who asked various questions and conducted various tests. The social worker gave us two oficios, one for the San Blas DIF (to help the mother our financially with future transportation to CREE), and one for the child’s school (to conduct a study of his behavior). The oficios also contained the CREE’s preliminary diagnoses of the child: ADHD and a secondary learning disorder (probably dyslexia).

So, at this point, I was surely thinking we were over the hump. I was wrong again.

That Friday, the child’s mother goes to his school to drop off the oficio to the director. He says the special education teacher is unavailable to conduct the study that day. The child’s mother comes back a second time, the following Monday, to only get the same reply. The child’s mother then comes back a third time, on Tuesday, to again hear the same thing. Finally, the fourth time, the mother seeks out the special education teacher herself. The conversation will surely surprise you.

The special education teacher was shocked because she hadn’t heard of the situation at all. She then pulled together a quick meeting with herself, the mother, the director, and the kid’s regular teacher. At first, the director denies ever having received the oficio! The mother, astute as she is, made of photocopy of the oficio – with the director’s signature – and produced it on the spot. I’m sure you can imagine how his faced must have looked. He subsequently claimed that he must have misplaced it. Right. I never would have imagined someone would go through so much trouble to block a 7-year-old kid from getting some help.

As we await our upcoming appointments at the CREE, the child keeps improving. Betty is now chipping in tutoring hours, as well, which has made a big difference. He’s getting better at reading, writing, and almost has his ABCs down.

While this project is one that will never show up on my VRF, I can’t help but think how important it is. And while it will never show up at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington either, I can’t help but think this is what the Peace Corps is about.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tutoring Sessions in the Afternoon

Sometimes, without my usual friends, I do things that I never would have imagined myself doing. Things like finishing two books in one weekend or trying to get into classical music. You've got to do something to fill the time – especially when you don't have a commute to eat up two hours of your day (I, luckily, get to ride my bike to work).

Sometimes you come across projects that you never imagined working on before, also. I am technically a Sustainable Livelihoods volunteer (small business in an environment friendly way), but I can't say that my projects have ended up being in that area.

However, through a small business project I once had, I came across the second-grader-son of one the women I was working with. He apparently still couldn't recite his ABCs, read, or write. How did he pass the first grade?, I wondered.

I decided that any decent human being shouldn't pass up the opportunity to help a child out like this. If you can't read your options are pretty limited in life (his mother, sadly, never went to 1 year of school). I can't say I was super enthused to work on the project (teaching isn't my passion), but I did know it was important. Very important.

Actually, this has been a big lesson for me in the Peace Corps. I think that when people think about the Peace Corps (or any type of social service, for that matter) they think it's going to be a great time. More precisely, that working with others humans beings is super rewarding. Yes, it is. But, it's also frustrating. You're not going to change every person that you meet. Not every person you meet is interested in changing. The bottom line is that social service is work and we have to learn to love it – with its up and downs – like many other things in life.

Anyway, I've been working with the child for some months now and we're starting to see some slow but steady progress (my fellow volunteer is pitching in now, too). He can usually write his complete name (in Mexico that means four names) without error and his reading is improving. Right now were working on learning the upper-case and lower-case of each letter.

I've also been working with child services (DIF) to connect the child and his mom with some other resources. Maybe more tutoring. Maybe he has a learning disorder? Maybe more accountable teachers that won't pass him just because they don't want to deal with the issue. Needless to say, that's been a whole experience in itself. But we finally have an appointment in Tepic (the capital city) to meet a child neurologist. If we can get an official diagnosis (if there is anything, of course) I'm thinking it will be easier to get him some more help.

Writing his name.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading, Writing, and Self-Education

When most people hear about The Warrior's Path: Personal Development through Hwa Rang Do, they immediately think about martial arts and physical exercise. Of course, martial arts is the principal item that drives the program and it's the reason we get together two days per week, but it really focuses on so much more that that.

This youth development program has had each of its components specifically tailored to the culture of my community. Of course, this isn't to see that I know what's right or that the US' culture is better (I can see many things that the US could take away from Mexico like family time or living in the now), but that there are areas where can all strive to be better. 

Below are a couple of the areas that we're currently working on.

Three Books by Mexican Authors 

Mexico, and Latin American, in general, has a rich history of talented authors, many of whom are unknown to the everyday person, myself included. Despite Mexico's rich tradition of literature, it is common to hear Mexicans mention that there is a lack reading in the culture. I think this is highlighted best by a leading Mexican presidential candidate failing to mentions a mere 3 books that have influenced him during a press conference at a book fair, of all places.

Upon conducting my interviews with the kids applying to the program, I became of aware of the fact that there is literally zero required reading of complete books the high schools in my community. And, on top of that, a handful of the kids had never read a book in their entire lives. So, where are they are going to get it from if the schools are aren't providing it the parents don't emphasize it?

To me, reading is an important tool, especially in today's age of TV and internet, to exercise our minds, self-educate, and grow as people. Thus, one component of the program is to read three complete books by Mexican authors. Why Mexican authors? To help provide a deeper pride for their country and a deeper respect for their culture (and it also reminded me I should be doing the same thing with my culture).

This past Monday, the 24th of January, we finished reading our first book: El diosero by Francisco Rojas González. It's a book of short stories, some funny, about Mexico's indigenous people.

Discussing the first half of a book we read over Christmas break.

Writing

Practicing writing obviously has it's advantages, but it would be a lie if I said that was a component in the program from the get go. I really didn't decide to add it in until I was reading the essays applicants had to write to apply to the program. Needless to say, when I saw the spelling mistakes, grammar errors, and run-on sentences, I decided it was something we had to work on. If this program's goal is personal development and to get kids into college, writing is a must. 

I knew I did the right thing when a student told me that they don't receive detailed feedback on their essays in school. I think constructive feedback is required for any type of growth.

Rewriting their personal essays with corrections. They all got a lot better.

Fundraiser

As separate piece, I currently am conducting a fundraiser for $1,500 to pay for the three books we're reading, official uniforms, belts, and some equipment that we're missing (e.g., mouthpieces, chest protectors for the bigger kids, etc.). The community has contributed to over 50% of the project's funding through providing a martial arts facility, training equipement, and sparring gear (all free of charge). To date, we have received donations totaling $1,000. We only need $500 more!

All donations are made through the official Peace Corps website and are tax deductible. Donations can be made here. Thanks for your generosity!

Peace Corps donation web site.



Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Tae Soo Do Instruction Begins

After all the presentations given at the local high schools, the applications finally started coming in for El Camino de El Guerrero – albeit just a couple of days before the deadline. I have to admit, there was a point where I didn't think anyone was going to apply. ( should have known that between being in San Blas, where things are on a slower schedule, and dealing with teenagers, that everything would be last minute. But, the most important thing is trying your best; if it doesn't work, try something different.

Upon receipt of the applications, the next and final phase before selecting the winners was an interview. The point in the interview was to really see what kind of person they were. To find out if they were truly interested in participating or just wanted to give it a casual try. Also, for those who maybe lacked in grades or in their essay, to see if there was a motivated person inside of them that deserved that extra chance.

Applicant interview with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer.

All the requirements that applicants had to go through – (1) the application form, (2) a letter of recommendation, (3) a minimum GPA of 3.0, (4) official school transcripts, (5) a parental letter of consent, (6) a 1-page essay, and (7) and interview – really separated those who truly wanted to participate in the program from those who were only curious. Not to mention, this was the first interview many of these kids had ever been in.

All of this, of course, was the point: I firmly believe that people, generally, do not appreciate what is given to them for free. Therefore, as this is a "free" program (at least monetarily), the goal was to give it intrinsic value. In other words, to make the selected individuals feel like they really earned their spot in the program and that it was something special to be selected. That being said, when I called the winners to let them know they were accepted, the genuine joy and excitement in their voice let me know it worked. I just wish I had recorded some of them.

Since Tae Soo Do training began with the eleven selected applicants (five boys and 6 girls) instruction has been great. It's always difficult beginning from scratch because there are no higher ranking students who already know the ropes and who, therefore, can help you. Instead, all of the culture and customs need to be implemented slowly.

Needless to say, the thing that made me the happiest after the first class was, besides hearing them complain about how sore they were, that they all came back a second time. Now, as we're begin our second month of training, I hope the success continues.

Learning how to bow at the end of class.

Breathing and dynamic strength exercise.

White belt basics.



Friday, December 09, 2011

La Isla Isabel

Peace Corps Mexico is set up in a unique way in that its volunteers are required to work for various branches of the Mexican government. In my case, I work with CONANP which manages the country's natural protected areas.

In San Blas, the natural protected area is Isla Isabel which is an absolutely breathtaking place! Its'a about a 3 hour boat trip each way, but well worth the trip. As a Boy Scout I've camped all over the place, but never I have seen something that seemed so untouched by humans. Needless to say, it's internationally renowned for its bird species (including the blue footed booby) which have not evolved a fear for human beings. In other words, you can walk right up to them and they don't get scared. The island was made a national park after Jacques Cousteau urged the Mexican government it was a special place.

I had the great pleasure of visiting the island personally a few weeks ago....

Our guide.




The blue footed booby.



The brown footed booby



Our other guide.

The fisherman camp.

Frigates.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Warrior's Path: Personal Development through Hwa Rang Do

A year ago (almost to the day), I was dropped off in Ejido Gogorrón and and expected to make the best of the situation. The difficulty lied in having no structure, little guidance, and no concrete plan. Coming from a highly structured environment where there was always some tangible goal my entire life (school, college, work – never a time without order) the adjustment was hard: sleeping 10 hours a day probably due to mild depression, not always wanting to mingle with people but feeling judged by staying indoors all day, and adjusting to things you like and don't like about a new culture. Not to mention changing sites 6 months into the game.

People always say "The Peace Corps is what you make it," or even there's even the Peace Corps official slogan: "The hardest job you'll ever love." There was a time when I wondered if this was true as I often felt listless and uninspired with nothing to rouse me. But, like the name of this blog, the Peace Corps is partially about finding yourself and I think we all know that takes time.

In the Peace Corps, since you have the free reign to create your own projects, you have to let yourself think big. For me, I was always scared to "think big" to the point where I simply wouldn't do it. If I thought big and put my all into something and it didn't work out, that would mean I was less of a person, that I was not capable of inspiring others, and not capable of success. I would be just average. But, this is flawed thinking.

We all want to be above average and that requires risk; by not taking the risk – by fearing failure – one will never be above average. Being above average inherently requires taking risks.

Back in Gogorrón, I always felt like my best project was when I taught Tae Soo Do. Maybe it wasn't something that would fill up a metric or leave a bunch of check marks on a page, but I believe human beings are some complex we cannot always just be boiled down to a check mark. I felt like I was making a different in people's lives.

One time after conducting class, with my students tired from good physical training and kneeling on the hard concrete, I began to lecture. I began to speak about the importance of trying in life and how within that failing exists. Someone who has no failures in life is probably not someone you want to emulate because they likely are not tobe trying anything at all. (Ironically, as I write this, I see how it ties into my own fears).

At the end of the lecture, between my Spanish and the students being about 12 years old, they message finally got through. I saw one young girl nod her head as the message suddenly clicked and had meaning to her. This was a powerful sight for me and it's not something I can put on my Peace Corps trimester report. I've learned this doesn't make it any less important.

After moving to San Blas I wanted to continue to teach Tae Soo Do, but in a bigger town I felt lost. I didn't know everyone here and I never would. How would I promote the program? Where would I do it? Who would actually participate?

I got in touch my martial arts instructor from back home, Grandmaster Taejoon Lee, to run some thoughts by him. It was the first time someone had got on my case in a while, but I needed it. What I wanted to do had no focus, no direction.

From that conversation grew El Camino del Guerrero: Desarrollo Personal a través de Hwa Rang Do (The Warrior's Path: Personal Development through Hwa Rang Do). It's a year-long program that, through martial arts and education, will provide academic scholarships for its participants to go to college. Preference will be given to participants who come from economically difficult situations.

  • The program is only available to kids in their last 2 years of high school
  • Applicants must have intentions of going to college
  • There are only 14 spaces available (7 boys and 7 girls)
  • In order to apply it's like applying to college:
    • A minimum GPA of 8.0 with official transcripts
    • A letter of recommendation from their school's director
    • A one page essay describing why they want to study what they want to study
    • A filled out application from
    • A letter of consent from their parents

Since the program is about personal development, we will focus on:

  • Tae Soo Do
  • HIV prevention
  • Nutriton
  • Exploration of Mexican literature (in order to create more pride)
  • Community service projects (in order to foment teamwork and leadership skills)
  • School (they must raise their GPA to 9.0 by the end of the 2011-12 school year)

Yesterday I finished speaking with approximately 350 kids between the 2 high schools in town. Out of that group, 122 people (34%) requested applications for the program.

Applications are due in a week and a half from today: Monday, November 21st.

Who knows how many people will actually apply. But I've learned that being ready for success also means being ready for the let down of failure. If I am let down, I will pick myself up and try again.