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March 20, 2005

Much Belated Update

Oh yikes. 5 months and no updates on my website! The continued lack of a home telephone (6 months, 13 days...but who's counting!) and subsequent easy access to the internet has been my primary excuse (and some serious computer problems), but the reality of why I haven't written much is more complicated I suppose. Hurricane recovery has been an exciting, exhausting, encouraging and discouraging activity all at once. My emotions fluctuate daily and I am working really hard on taking it one day at a time. In addition, personally I have reached the 1 1/2 year mark in my service. This is significant in that I am now thinking of wrapping up my time here but as I do am feeling more and more at home and comfortable here. I think that comfort has led me to lose some perspective on the peculiarities and differences of this culture to my own, which is beneficial in my day to day life, but has caused my website musings to suffer! So, on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, I will pledge to be better about keeping this thing updated until I leave here this summer!

Life in Grenada is an odd mix of normalcy and major natural disaster recovery. Some schools are functioning full days but with rooftop tarps still flapping. Children are leaving crowded homes in full school uniform only to go home to pans catching the raindrops through punctured roofs. Cruise ship passengers are welcomed onto the island and shuffled into the tour busses just as normal to visit the beautiful waterfalls right along with the ruined rain forest. Businessmen and women travel to work and go about their normal routines, waiting to hear about that loan program the government has been talking about that might revitalize their business. Community members continue to debate the government's programs, how to access international aid money and how the newly imported St. Vincent breadfruit compares with Grenada's own (long gone with Ivan).

I have been getting involved in a number of different projects since October. About half my time is spent continuing work in the area of special education and the other half is assisting in relief and recovery projects. I am now officially placed at the Ministry of Education, working as the coordinator for special education efforts there. As you might imagine, the Ministry's shift has completely changed towards reconstruction of schools, as most were damaged if not destroyed. There has been tremendous effort from local, regional and international groups to assist in this process and officials have been organizing the resources as well as they can. Unfortunatlely that process takes a lot of time and although many schools have become functional, very few have actually been repaired to good condition. My work has mostly been in visiting schools, providing assessments, doing school-based workshops, advocating within the Ministry and participating with the Task Force on Special Education in the Ministry to determine the "way forward" for Special Education during this time of recovery. I have been working with a two young brothers with Autism at a primary school as well as doing some staff training. The services available for these students are negligible and much of the work is simply sensitizing the staff and parents about the basics of Autism. It is frustrating to see young children with such severe needs without any appropriate educational services. If nothing else, my time here has taught me to be amazed and astonished by the wonderful education available to students "back home". I can only hope that my small steps here might lead to a time when children will get what they need, regardless of disabilty or ability. In addition, I have started working with a family of a 15 year old boy with severe mental impairments. His mother and I have been trying to get him basic medical attention to address his behavior problems, connections to get him involved in some meaningful activities during the day, as well as to assist them in accessing housing assistance to rebuild their hurricane-damamged home. I might have come here with big dreams, but now realize that truly touching 1 life can be a huge reward in and of itself.

As far as hurricane recovery projects, I have gotten involved with a local organization called St. Andrew's Relief Organization (SARO). My involvement with them right after the Hurricane was limited, but has grown with time. This group is a grassroots effort by community members and leaders of my area with the intent of providing relief and recovery assistance to residents of St. Andrew's. They realized shortly after the hurricane that there was a gap in assistance needed and provided, so they formed to fill that gap. The members are an incredibly committed group of men and women and have become my good friends that have taught me a lot about Grenada, St. Andrew's and self-sacrifice. I was thrilled to be able to facilitate the collaboration of International Salvation Army and SARO. Along with the Christian Relief Organization (CRO--of the Mennonite Church), the 3 organizations have started a housing repair project who's goal is to fix 150 houses. As of last week, we had completed 37! Along with that, we have distributed hundreds of mattresses, food parcels and some school uniforms. Salvation Army has been able to raise funds for the building supplies and other donations and has relied on SARO to distribute the goods. The CRO has provided work teams since December to complete the actual repairs which has also been coordinated by SARO. It has turned out to be a great partnership and despite some minor bumps in the road (availability of supplies, political interference, etc.) has brought some immediate relief to area residents. My role has been to assist in project planning as well as with the adminstrative tasks of the project. There are two main contacts who collect the materials lists from homeowners. My job is to take all the scraps of paper and transcribe them onto a readable format. I have discovered about 12 different spellings for "galvanized" as well as learned about things like "Rabbit & Spring" "Groove & Tongue" and rough and dress Pitch Pine. Who knew? I was also able to donate $1000 EC ($375 USD) to SARO from the very generous donations of my friends and family that came with the school supplies drive coordinated by my parents in Sept/Oct.

Speaking of the school supply drive...I know many of you contributed to that and for that, on behalf of Grenadian children and teachers I want to express profound thanks. The supplies finally arrived about two weeks ago here on Grenada! My 2nd bedroom is now filled with boxes of pencils, erasers, sharpeners, chalk and notebooks. It makes me smile every time I walk in to think of the generosity of good people back home (although some days, that smile is followed by a bit of an overwhelmed grimace at the task ahead)! I have already distributed to a few schools and am currently procuring transportation from teachers, community members, other Peace Corps volunteers and my soon-to-be-visiting parents in distrubuting the rest of them.

In addition to SARO, I am assisting a local primary school, St. Mary's RC School, in getting funding for repairs to their pre-school and library-to-be. The buildilng was damamged by the Hurriane, in addition to the pre-existing repairs and upgrades needed. The school's dream is to turn the upstairs into a school and community library/resource center for this poor rural community. Currently there is nothing like it in the area and it would be a welcomed addition. USAID, in conjunction with US Peace Corps, sponsors Small Project Assistance (SPA) Grants for Peace Corps Volunteers and their community partners of up to $5,000 US. After the passage of Ivan, $50,000 US was allotted for SPA projects in Grenada alone. The principal of St. Mary's and I worked on a grant proposal and were given the $5,000 to do necessary repairs and upgrades. We will be working along with the local Lion's Club as well as members of the community to finish the work. The project is currently stalled however, as the Ministry of Education has just announced that they will be doing some repairs on the building. We need to wait to see what they will fund and then fill in the gaps with the money we acquired. School repairs are a different business here than in the states. I would assume that damages to schools in the US from a hurricane or other natural disaster would be covered by local, state or federal agencies. In Grenada, upgrades and repairs often fall to the community or school itself. It was not uncommon at all before the Hurricane for schools to do fundraisers to raise money for paint for their classrooms. Post-Ivan, due to lack of committment from the govenment, it also became the responsibility of the school to establish funding for their school's repairs. What seems to be happening lately though, is that the Ministry is finally getting around to organizing outside donors and so there seems to be some overlap in assistance being provided. I don't think that any of this money is a waste, but rather, might finally get the schools to a condition appropriate for learning and teaching.

There's a number of other "random" projects I have been involved in including "Return to Happiness", which is a UNICEF initiative that is being implemented in the primary schools in Grenada. It is a 3 week program incorporating play therapy to assist children in dealing with trauma. I was a volunteer at Tivoli RC School and had a great time. The program was short-staffed, which led to some frustrations, but overall was a success and beneficial for the children. In addition, I also continue to be involved with LaBaye Folk Group. We're practicing for a folk opera that we hope to put on in May (keep your fingers crossed!). Although committment from members to this group tends to wax and wane, it remains a great way for me to stay connected with my Grenadian friends and learn more about the folk culture. I have also been assisting the local Society for the Blind in organizing a Braille training workshop for teachers. The goal is to train teachers at 12 schools to read and write Braille to alleviate the tremendous need for transcribing by students with visual impairments. Currently that is done by 2 itinerant teachers for 14 students at those 12 schools and the simply don't have the hours to do all the transcribing necessary. We are hopeful that we will be getting some funding from one of the divisions of USAID here in Grenada that is focusing on training.

Personally, I am doing well here. As I mentioned before, I am on the home stretch of my service here. I expect to finish this summer after school's let out and will return home to Michigan for a bit. Amazingly, my travel bug has already been re-ignited and I am planning a 2 week expedition through western Europe with my sister, Kristina, and then will head to Spain for 1 week with my mother. After a couple more weeks of soaking up my beautiful nieces (They're 2 and 4!) I'll be moving to Nashville, TN (yikes!) to attend Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. I will be working on my M.Ed. in Special Education. Thanks to some wonderful funding, I'll make it through there with minimal loans (probably better as I recall Special Education isn't the most lucrative of careers!) The program is a year and a half, so I should finish by the end of Fall term '06.

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