September 14, 2003
Greetings from an official Peace Corps Volunteer! I swore in as a volunteer on Friday and am now (so they tell me) official. I even have my Peace Corps ID to prove it! The ceremony was in the late afternoon in a small theatre and was attended by our host families, community partners, some ministry officals, the other PCVs, etc. I had to promise to uphold the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Hmmm... The Charge d'Affairs administered the oath to us (she is the US embassy representative on Grenada). The 7 trainees (no longer trainees though!) had to sing the Grenada national anthem as well as good ole Star Spangled Banner. The Grenadians in the crowd joined us for their anthem and we did a respectable rendition of "Hail Grenada". Unfortunately, the "banner" left something to be desired. Does that mean we are already acclimating to Grenadian culture?
The week leading up to the ceremony was a good one. On Monday, I met with Merthilyn, who is the principal of the St. Andrew's School for Special Education. She is a neat woman and I'm excited about working with her. She seems intelligent, motivated, caring and dedicated to the school. She's been there over 10 years and has a degree in Special Ed from Jamaica. On Wednesday, I got to go to the school and meet the teachers and students. I walked in and was instantly reminded how much I had missed having kids--especially kids with special needs--around me! The school is small--probably about the size of the 2 ILC rooms at CMS for those of you who are familiar. There are 45 students and 6 teachers as well as some teaching assistants. The teachers all seemed warm and very caring. Only 1 other teacher (besides Merthilyn) is a trained special ed teacher and 1 other is a "qualified teacher" (a 2 year degree). The others plan to go for that certification soon. There are no special ed teacher training programs on Grenada, only in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies. The classes are grouped by ability level--usually groups of 6-8. The kids all have mental impairments and/or physical impairments. There are no kids who use wheelchairs at the school and most of the kids seem to have mild to moderate impairments. My understanding is that the more severely disabled children do not go to school because there are no available programs.
In talking to Merthilyn this week, it sounds like, in addition to doing training at the school, they would like me to help with their outreach program--working with parents both in and out of the home as well as doing some community awareness and advocacy. I sent home a survey with for the parents to try to assess their interest level in classes/support groups/assistance, etc. My impression and understanding so far is that Grenadians as a whole are not very educated about disabilities and the issues surrounding it. It's an interesting mix though because there is a true sense of community here and "family" is defined quite broadly. People tend to take care of each other and watch out for each other. So, on some levels, disabilities are not as much of an issue because they're are just accepted as part of the norm of a community. At the same time, there doesn't seem to be much understanding of the need for special education, accessibile buildings, transportation alternatives, etc. In addition, I will be meeting with the four Grenville-area primary school principals in the next couple weeks (as well as possibly a few other schools) to assess their need for special education within the public school. The idea is not for me to go provide the services, but to help the principals find ways to do it within their school. Initially, I think that will mean me getting to know the students and working with them, and then hopefully identifying staff in each building to train to take over.
Speaking of community, this was clearly illustrated to me the other day. I was on the bus on the way back from St. George's. Let me give you a little background on busses here if I have not done so already. Busses are all privately owned and run. They are actually like a small van with 4 bench seats (which seat about 3), 4 jump seats (foldable) and a front seat. Some busses have conductors whose job is to take the money, open and close the door as we stop and to fit as many hot stinky bodies as humanly possible into the bus by throwing cushions down and calling it a seat. 19 is the most I've had in a bus in my experience so far, but I'm sure a pushy conductor could fit 21 or 22. There are no designated bus stops. Instead, you knock on the van above the window to request a stop. Typically, this requires about 5 people to pile out to let the knocking rasta in the back out. Anyway, the bus ride from St. George's is about 50 minutes. Since school started, there's been number of school children who ride the bus alone to or from school, but most of them seem to be in pairs or at least old enough to remember their number. About 25 minutes into our ride back, I saw this small boy, probably about 6 or 7, on the roadside waving the bus. We screeched to a stop and he hopped in. The guy (with great dreds!) by the door lifted the boy and set him on the raised section behind the front seats, so that he was facing the other passengers and we headed off. I was watching with curiousity thinking for sure the driver knew this child or someone did. As we rode, some people were talking to him and eventually he dozed off (not at all uncommon on the ride!). After about 20 minutes, we started getting closer to Grenville and people were getting on and off. The boy was looking outside and the driver said something to him which I couldn't understand. A minute later, he asked him where his stop was and the boy told him, but the driver couldn't hear him. A couple other passengers repeated to the driver what the boy had said. Eventually, the boy said "Here!", the driver stopped and the boy hopped out. As he left, I realized that he did not know anybody on the bus and had just ridden on his own for a good 25 minutes--and that more importantly, the whole bus was looking out for this child. From the moment the driver stopped to pick him up, to the man lifting him onto the bus, to the other passengers helping him out with his stop. It really gave the words "It takes a village to raise a child" new meaning for me. When I asked Liz about the situation and if it was common, she told me "Oh yes mon!" It's very safe and very common--Grenadians look after their children.