Friday, November 5, 2010

Camping Trip with Youth Health Promoters

Since the beginning of my service I have been cooperating with a non-profit organization in my community called Plan International. Plan operates in communities in 48 developing countries working to promote children’s rights, and increase the quality of life of the world’s poorest children. They also have a child sponsorship program. Specifically, they focus projects in education, health, water and sanitation, domestic violence, economic security, emergency relief, youth civic participation, and HIV education.

For a year and a half, Plan has been working in my community training youth sexual and reproductive health promoters. They started this project at about the same time I began my Peace Corps service, so it has coincided nicely, especially since one of the Peace Corps community health project’s goals is the education of youth and adolescents in HIV/AIDS prevention and teen pregnancy prevention. Ten youth (ages 14-19) were chosen to be trained in sexual and reproductive health promotion from five of the villages in my municipality – I helped in choosing some of the kids, asking local leaders and teachers about who would be best. Some came from rural areas; others livedin the urban center. All were identified as potential leaders among their peers. Below: the promoters and I at their "graduation" ceremony.
Throughout the training program organized by Plan, the youth have been trained to be competent sexual and reproductive health educators. They go to the departmental capital city monthly with the forty other promoters from nearby municipalities for training from Plan staff in self-esteem, human rights, civic participation, youth development, leadership, HIV/AIDS, STDs, teen pregnancy, anatomy, and condom use. Each promoter has to form their own youth group of ten kids and replicate these learned topics to their group. I help the promoters in perfecting their presentation techniques, helping them research topics, lead meetings, and of course play games.
I have seen the ten promoters from my town grow and learn throughout this project – they have increased their self-esteem and are now more likely to participate in their community and take on leadership roles. One young promoter was so shy at the beginning of the project that she couldn’t even say the word “condom” out loud in public, but after undergoing youth promoter training and being around other self-confident peers that aren’t ashamed to talk about these topics, she has increased her knowledge and self-assurance and those days of shame are long gone.

It’s not all work, however. Plan also gave sports equipment to each of the youth promoters to play volleyball, basketball and soccer at the youth group meetings. Kids won’t come to meetings if they know they will only be working – these meetings are supposed to be different from school – more fun and engaging. The promoters organize energizing games throughout the meetings to keep the kids attentive and interested.

The project is coming to a close now – all of the meetings have been held, and each group has written a community action plan; identifying community needs and how they can meet them using local resources. To celebrate the finalization of the project, Plan organized a four day leadership-building workshop trip to a camp in the mountains of the department of Jinotega (“heen-oh-tay-guh”). Below: "Welcome to Jinotega. The best business for Nicaragua is food production." (Jinotega is an agricultural hub of the country - on the bus I saw cabbages, carrots, potatoes, peppers, coffee, and beans growing and for sale on the side of the road). The promoters from my department came, along with promoters who were doing the same project in the western department of Chinandega. In total, there were 130 kids. Another Peace Corps volunteer from Chinandega and I were invited to chaperone and help facilitate the camp.
I had never been to Jinotega before and was surprised at the cold climate. During our stay, the temperature varied from the low 60s F (perhaps even the high 50s!) to the low 70s F. The showers (unheated of course) were the temperature of ice water. The constant presence of rain, clouds and fog – rather than depress me (as it did to the kids) – actually made me think of my hometown in Alaska. I felt like I had been transported back to Sitka for a few days and enjoyed not sweating for a change.
The retreat was held at the VidaJoven (YoungLife) Nicaragua ranch. YoungLife is an American non-denominational Christian organization that works with youth. YoungLife exists in my hometown, but I was unaware they worked internationally until going to this Nicaraguan camp. A common practice for the youth members of YoungLife is going to a ranch retreat (either in the U.S. or abroad to do a volunteer project) in the summertime to build leadership and spirituality. The ranch in Nicaragua has a small lake with canoes, hiking trails, ropes course activities, a baseball field, basketball court, and auditorium. Needless to say, the Plan promoters were thrilled to be there.

I was in charge of a dorm room of 15 girls – so it goes without saying that I didn’t sleep much. Many of these youth had never left their home overnight before. These kids were very different from one another; some were relatively well-off, living in the urban center – they wore newer clothes, had lip gloss and perfume, and fancy cell phones. Others came from more rural areas and wore patched hand-me-downs, spoke with the rural accent and were more reserved. Some of the boys were openly gay, some promoters were very young (13), others were on the older side (22). However, despite their differences the kids formed a strong bond during those four days. I remember being so amazed at these young leaders – I hardly remember what I was doing at 15 years old, but it sure wasn’t talking about HIV, condoms, and community action in front of my peers! Below: each community made a mural, this one says "Adolescents and youth for a different generation."
The days were busy, but we still found time for fun. During the retreat, a “radio station” was formed by a few kids and they provided the soundtrack for our meals and were DJs at the dance held on the last night. A talent show was held one night and the kids danced traditional as well as reggaeton dances, recited poetry, sang, and did theater. One day we split into groups to tackle the outdoor maze and ropes course leadership activities. I was assigned a group and wore myself out as we raced through the challenges to be the first group to finish: running through the hiking trails, getting lost in the maze, climbing walls, pushing oxen carts, and paddling canoes. None of the kids had ever been in a canoe before and it was entertaining watching them figure out how to steer the boat – bumping into the lake shore and going in reverse more than forward.
The promoters shared ideas, strategies for community action and made fast friendships. When it was time to say goodbye there were several tearful goodbyes and exchanges of e-mails and phone numbers. The experience empowered the youth to keep working, hopefully even after organizations like Plan or Peace Corps leave, and the funding dries up. Looking at every one of those 130 youth, I could see that each one had a special kind of leadership. I am happy to be a part of this project and see each one of the promoters from my town grow and learn. I know I have learned as much from them as they have from me and hope to keep in touch with these kids far into the future – they’re going places!

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