A Headache and a Half, or, The Story of My Grant Project

“I just get on the mic and spit it.” — Eminem 

I try to avoid talking about the Peace Corps as an entity on this blog. Technically, they’re my employer (or sponsor? over-seeing body?), and writing publicly about an employer is probably not a wise move. In all honesty, I have had a decent experience in my dealings with the Peace Corps. However, my grant project has been nothing but a headache from start to … haven’t finished it yet.

Peace Corps has a pool of money intended to fund grant proposals made by volunteers. To get funding, volunteers must write a formal proposal, submit it before the grant cycle deadline, and have it approved by the small-grants committee. I don’t know how this committee is structured in other host countries, but in Kosovo, the small-grants committee consists of selected volunteers and is overseen by Peace Corps staff.

My grant proposal was for about 1,600 Euro to buy sports equipment for my school. This proposal had been started by my site’s previous volunteer, but due to banking issues, never came to fruition.

After talking with my school, I decided to re-submit the project. I tweaked the original grant proposal and submitted it before the March deadline. I expected this process to be easy, since the project had received prior approval.

The months following turned into a quagmire. The small-grants committee would send me requested changes, I would make them and re-submit them, and then the committee would think of something new to change. After something like the 6th draft, I wrote an email to Peace Corps staff. I was professional in my email, but the gist was basically, “What the hell is going on?” I said that I would be willing to submit one more draft, but if the committee had changes after that point, I was going to drop the project.

A staff member offered to sit down with my grant adviser and me, and we hashed out the last round of changes. This was in May. Finally, my grant received approval.

Next, my counterpart and I had to set up a joint bank account. This process was also a bit of a quagmire. We had to go to the bank on two separate occasions. My host father had to come and sign a document stating that I live in his house. Then, the bank wasn’t satisfied with that document, so my host father had to go to the bank again and sign another document.

I then received word that the grant money would first be deposited in my individual bank account. I did not consent to this. The whole point of setting up a joint bank account is to add a shield from liability for the volunteer. But by the time I received word of this unsettling development, the money had already been wired.

Once the money landed in my account, I tried to transfer it into the joint account. It turns out, the joint account hadn’t been activated. The banker who helped us set it up had gone on a two-week vacation. I don’t know if this caused the delay or was just a coincidence, but in any case, it took another two weeks for the joint account to open. Then, I had to go back to the my bank to schedule another transfer.

When my counterpart and I went to withdraw our money from the joint account, she didn’t have to sign anything. I am not sure what happened there, if she is actually on the account or not, but I have concluded that banks in Kosovo don’t understand what a joint bank account is.

Anyway, this process has been tedious. I have follow-up paperwork to do in the months ahead. I am just glad my school finally got their sports equipment, after nearly two years of waiting.

gym at a school in Kosovo
This is the “gym” at my school, just a classroom.
gym equipment storage
New equipment
setting up soccer football net 2.JPG
Physical education teacher
setting up soccer football net.JPG
Setting up the soccer/football goal
soccer football in Kosovo.JPG
Soccer
volleyball in kosovo.JPG
Volleyball

I was talking to another volunteer and we agreed — a grant project is an easy thing to point to when people ask what you did in the Peace Corps. It is much harder to quantify relationships you’ve built or the impact you’ve had on students, but in the long run, those things are far more important.

I also feel like, as “the American,” I get a lot of credit from the school and community for bringing this project about. But, I share the credit with many people:

  • Our physical education teacher, who was the catalyst for the project
  • The volunteer at my site before me, who started the project
  • My counterpart, for being a huge champion for the project. Also, since she speaks both Albanian and English, she often got stuck with the role of translator.
  • My project adviser
  • The small-grants committee. Even though I hated working with them, the project wouldn’t have been funded without their approval.
  • The local municipality, who gave us an additional 250 Euro for funding
  • The store where we bought the equipment, for giving us a 20-percent discount on our entire purchase
  • My host father, for going to the bank twice
  • The students and other teachers, who helped set up the new equipment
  • Our school director, who allowed us to host a “Day of Health”
  • the Peace Corps itself

Well, now I can add “grant writing” to my resume, even though it is something I never want to do again.

Guest Blogger, Chelsea Coombes: Loneliness

Hello, readers! You might remember my friend, Chelsea, who has written two other guest posts for this blog. Here is a third post from her. -April

I really value April’s blog. It’s a great glimpse inside a single story of a Peace Corps Kosovo TEFL volunteer. I also think her idea of guest bloggers gives it something extra so you, her readers, get different sides to the many stories here. When April and I talked about my guest blog post it was originally supposed to be on my many thoughts regarding the term “posh corps.” However, I have been feeling this overwhelming sense of loneliness lately and since I myself don’t have a blog, I thought I would selfishly use April’s blog to unload my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

Peace Corps is one of the scariest things I have ever done. I moved across the world, away from my family and friends and dove into another culture. Learned a new language and threw myself into a profession I had absolutely no idea about. All in the hopes that, I could potentially make an impact on a life, while yes, learning something about myself. I won’t lie, I am in this for self-growth just as much as I am to make a difference. I applied to the Peace Corps wide-eyed at the age of 23. I knew nothing about the world, let alone myself. But, let me tell you, learning about the world is easy. It’s learning about yourself that is the hard part. I live in a pretty remote area. A mountain town that is underdeveloped and has limited transportation to and from the area. It can feel very isolating, especially in the winter. My daily routine is to go to school, teach, maybe grab a coffee with my fellow teachers, struggle through conversations even though I am pretty good at the language, come home, struggle through more conversations, and then head to my room where I lesson plan and then it occurs to me … Chels … you are alone. No, really, for the first time in 25 years you are ALONE.

I know what you’re thinking. Twenty-five, girl you’re too young to be this self aware and existentially crazed. I thought so too. The first six months were incredible, I learned so much about myself! It truly was the first time that I only had to worry about myself, that I was able to look within and take the time to get to know myself. But, then month seven rolled around and I was like, enough already, I get it!

What I mean is, there is only so much self-growth you can do so fast and when you’re in Peace Corps it truly is the first time you are experiencing loneliness. You call home and even your conversations change. You find you are relating less and less with friends and family back home. And that’s OKAY, it’s just different. So much in my life has changed. I have changed. It’s not good and it’s not bad, it just IS.

The time difference between Kosovo and Home doesn’t help. When I do find time to make a quick call to my mom she is at work or asleep, or vice versa. We will spend time on the weekends playing catch up and it’s really hard not to feel frustrated when I hear big news through social media. Or miss family events, deaths, births, etc.

We are over a year into our service. If I look back on that year I think it’s safe to say I have learned more about the person I am in that short amount of time and I don’t think I could have ever learned so much about her, so intimately, had I not been so lonely. Had I not learned what lonely truly is.

I’m looking forward to learning more about her, and where she might fit in when she goes back home. But I guess I have time to grow into that and reflect on that this winter. Wish me luck!

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

 

Friday Gratitude: Mid-Service Conference

Hello! I’ve been spending the week at a nice hotel, for a Peace Corps conference. We have four conferences during our service. This one was number three. The next one won’t be until May.

It has been rejuvenating to get away, spend time with my friends, and re-focus a bit. It has also been helpful to talk about and understand that everyone goes through a “mid-service crisis,” which I have definitely been experiencing as of late.

To give you an idea of what a Peace Corps conference is like, here is the list of sessions we had:

  • Intercultural Competecies
  • Personal Leadership Development
  • Project Check-in with Program Managers
  • Exploring Secondary Projects
  • Working in a Post-Conflict Setting
  • Open Forum with Local Staff
  • Opportunities to Work with Gender Focal Points
  • Volunteer Resiliency Strategies
  • Updates on Peace Corps Policy

We did a team-building exercise where we passed around sheets of paper and wrote down words to describe one another. Here is my list. 🙂

IMG_7145.JPG

It is always interesting to learn what others think of me. I don’t consider myself particularly witty, so that was nice to see.

I am now participating in a second, optional Peace Corps conference, this one focused on youth development. I will be heading back to my site this afternoon.

A care package from my parents arrived yesterday, and PC staff brought it to the conference for me. I am excited to open it when I get back!


Media Consumption this week:

  • I read Born to Rock, which was okay. It’s a quick read about a teenager who discovers his biological father is a famous punk rocker.
  • Goodreads suggested I try The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket. Though I like Jim Carrey and Neil Patrick Harris, I’ve never been able to get beyond a few minutes of either of their screen versions of this story. The book was better, though I’m not interested in reading the rest of the series.
  • I started on season 3 of Broad City, after not watching the show for months. Lately, I’ve needed a laugh.

Happy weekend!

My Thoughts About “the Posh Corps”

The newest cohort of Kosovo Peace Corps volunteers recently swore in. I’ve slowly been getting to know them. Over dinner, someone asked me what I think of the term “the posh corps.” It was a thought-provoking question.

“Posh corps” is a term that’s been used to describe what serving in the Peace Corps is like today. I have mixed feelings about the term.

Several members of my best friend’s family served in the Peace Corps back in the 1960s, when Peace Corps had just begun. The stories they’ve shared with me are pretty hardcore. My BFF’s aunt served in the Philippines, and was only able to call home on Christmas, because phone calls were expensive. My BFF’s uncle used to walk 25 miles to work every day. I compare those experiences with my service in the Peace Corps now — I live in a house with wifi, which allows me to post regular blog posts. Thanks to modern technology, I am able to call, email, and message my friends and family whenever I want to. Letters and postcards are novelties, rather than sole means of communication. And I don’t have to walk 25 miles to get anywhere.

I don’t know what service is like in every Peace Corps host country, but as technology continues to evolve, I would imagine life in all PC countries continues to evolve, too. As a result, I would imagine that today, even volunteers serving in locations more remote than Kosovo are having much different experiences than volunteers who served in those same places fifty years ago.

So yes, I will say, life in the Peace Corps is more posh now than it has ever been. Add to this that I chose to serve in Eastern Europe. I live in a house with wifi, running water, and central heating (though, central heating is a rare luxury in Kosovo).

But on the flip side of things, I think referring to the Peace Corps as “the posh corps” dismisses the service of volunteers. No matter how evolved technology becomes, serving in the Peace Corps will be difficult. Leaving behind a familiar life experience to move to a foreign country, learn a new language, and live in a new place is stressful. Constantly having to adapt behavior is tiresome. Being seen as an “other,” even if it is a positive other (Americans are typically highly regarded in Kosovo), can be anxiety provoking on a daily basis.

Unless technology advances to the point where Peace Corps volunteers can spend the day working in their host country and then “beam home” at night, it will never totally eradicate the psychological difficulties of service.

I had a good life back home, one I did not have to leave. I chose to leave it, because I thought it was the right thing to do. Joining the Peace Corps was not a decision I made lightly. Based on research, I chose the experience I thought I could best handle. I didn’t sign up to serve in an African country (hot weather = no) because I knew I would likely quit. I couldn’t see the point in setting myself up for failure.

For me, the purpose of my service really hits home whenever I walk into one of my schools. My classrooms are equipped with only chairs and tables and a chalkboard, nothing else. Some of those chairs and tables are badly broken, yet students still use them because there is nothing else to use. Half of my students didn’t have textbooks last year. (Forget about studying or doing homework … how could they, without a textbook?) Rooms are poorly heated in the winter, and teachers and students alike stay bundled in winter coats and boots all day. The school day is divided in half (mornings for older students, afternoons for younger students), because there isn’t enough money to expand schools or pay teachers for longer days. That means students in Kosovo receive half as much education as students in Western Europe or the United States. In fact, Kosovo has been assessed as having one of the world’s worst education systems.

Every time I walk into one of my schools, I know why I am in Kosovo. I may have more “creature comforts” than Peace Corps volunteers in the past, or Peace Corps volunteers serving in more remote locations. But that does not mean Peace Corps service is not needed in Kosovo.

If you think serving in the Peace Corps sounds easy, I would offer you a smile and say, “Try it.”

Friday Gratitude: Gearing Up

Last year, the K2 cohort took us newbies on a hike in Peja. This year, Rachel and I did the same thing for some of our new people.

p hike.jpg

Since this has been my last week off school, I’ve spent some time crocheting. Remember my Betty Boop mermaid? I decided to give her some plastic surgery:

crocheted mermaid
Before
crochet mermaid
After

Media Consumption … this is an accumulation of the past few weeks:

  • A friend told me his favorite book is Where the Red Fern Grows. I had never read it, so I downloaded it from the library. It was a good story, but as my friend said, very much geared toward boys. I later pointed out that none of the sisters in the book have names … they’re just referred to as “the younger one” and “the oldest one,” etc.
  • I found The Perks of Being a Wallflower on my Kindle (I have lots of mysterious books on there, thanks to other people). The story was well-written but again, as someone who did not have a typical high school experience, I have a hard time relating to teen stories. I mostly just read this because I didn’t have anything else to read at the time.
  • A blogger I follow gave a great review to We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. It is a collection of essays written by Samantha Irby, a Chicagoan. While I got a few laughs out of this book, I had a much stronger reaction to her descriptions of life in Chicago. (She used to live in my old neighborhood.) When she mentioned restaurants and streets and el stops, I could feel the knife twisting in my heart. Chicago was my home for 12.5 years, and there are times when I miss it terribly.
  • A friend recommended The Kill Artist, which was a fun read about international spies.
  • The Silver Linings Playbook was another mysterious Kindle find. I had seen and liked the movie. The book was good, too, though a bit different from the movie.
  • I finished my binge re-watch of Breaking Bad. I had different perceptions of it this time around.
  • I finished watching Game of Thrones! That zombie dragon, though!

***

I am so thankful to have the time to write. I took a break while I was helping with the film festival the week before last, and when I got home, I just had words pouring out of me. I couldn’t sleep because I had so much on my mind, and so much I wanted to share.

I got a very sweet email recently, from someone who told me he was inspired to apply to Peace Corps Kosovo after reading my blog. That’s all I could ever really ask for from this blog — I try to provide information that is thoughtful, and useful, and hopefully inspiring to others.

Through this blog, I’ve also “met” several Peace Corps volunteers from other parts of the world. I recently got this postcard 🙂 :

Happy weekend! I am looking forward to getting back to school next week. I am someone who appreciates structure and a purpose for daily life. This summer has been feeling really long, and not in a good way …

A Boring Adventure

I once heard Peace Corps described as “a boring adventure.” I can’t think of a more apt description. That’s exactly what it’s like.

When I was preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, I was thinking of how many tedious things have to happen before embarking on any adventure. If you’re an adult ensconced in a real, adult life, there is a lot that must be undone if you choose to leave that life.

I had to quit my twos jobs, pack and move my belongings, cancel my utilities, find someone to adopt my chinchillas, and move my cat into my parents’ house.

And there was the paperwork. So much paperwork. Medical and legal clearance and a slew of other stuff to prepare and track and submit.

Now that I am serving in the Peace Corps, I have to submit a quarterly report about my activities. It’s not like Peace Corps turned us loose in Kosovo and said: “Have fun in Kosovo! See you in two years!”

I have no idea what happens to this report once staff reads it … I don’t know if it gets filed away somewhere in D.C. I’ve had to submit so much paperwork at this point (like all of my medical records) that it is a little scary.

[When my group first arrived in Kosovo, we were given (surprise!) more paperwork to complete. One form was about our recent medical history. They actually asked the question, “How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” I was temped to be a jerk and write, “SIX HUNDRED.” (Who in their right mind would answer that question?) But then I realized I probably didn’t want the U.S. government to be in possession of a document that says I slept with six hundred people in a year. (Not true, btw.) Instead I wrote, “Declined to answer.”]

So, yeah, the government has all kinds of info on me. And I don’t know who has access to it or what happens to it. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I’ve decided to share some of my answers from my recent report on this blog. Because … it’s my report, and why not?

Below is a slightly edited version. As I’ve said, I try to be respectful of others’ privacy, so I have removed some of what I wrote about my home life and school.

How could cross-cultural and language training be improved to support effective cultural integration?

I do not think training needs to be improved. My issues with cultural integration center around being a woman in a small village, and having limited opportunities to interact with local people. Spending time in the few cafes in my village is not an option, since it is not culturally appropriate for women to visit cafes alone. I sometimes shop at the small market or the bakery, and interact with local people working there. However, my interactions there are limited as well: “Miredita.” “Sa kushton?” etc. Therefore, most of my interactions take place in my host family or at my school.

What challenges have you faced in your project or other areas of your Peace Corps experience?

Living with a host family has by far been the most challenging part of my service. I feel as though I walked into a situation where expectations of who I was and what our relationship would be were already set. I continually have to set boundaries with my host mother, who very much expected us to have a mother-daughter relationship. She was not prepared to live with an independent, now- 36-year-old American woman.

What lessons have you learned about yourself, your community, or your project?

I have learned that, “Wherever you go, there you are.” My living circumstances have changed, and yet I am still the same person I have always been, with the same interests and habits I had in the United States. Living in Kosovo has prompted me to consider my own unique skills and gifts, and think of how best to use them in this context. I am never going to be the Most Outgoing Volunteer, or the Best at Language. And yet, that does not mean I cannot use what I have to be of use to my community. I am good at listening, I am good at observing the needs of my students, and I am creative, just to give a few examples. I bring all of these skills with me when I enter my classroom.

Finish this sentence: One thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is …

that appearances can be deceiving. Despite the fact that Pristina, for example, appears very modern and “Western” in many ways, life there is very different from life in a small village. Poverty rates are high where I live, and education and health care systems are poor.

How successful has your integration with your host family been?

I am unsure how to answer this question, to be honest. I would say I have a good relationship with my host family, in that we generally get along. I eat all of my meals with them, and will sometimes go with them to visit neighbors or other relatives. I am included in family events, like engagement parties, etc. However, as I mentioned previously, my relationship with my host mother is my biggest source of stress.

My relationships with my host father and host brother are much more easy going. Both of them are quiet people, as am I, and so we don’t actually spend a lot of time talking with one another. Meals are very quiet in my household. I also try to give my host father and brother a good deal of space. My host father is not old enough to be my real father (he is 51; I am 36), and I am aware of how inappropriate it would look if he and I were close. I feel the same way about my host brother (age 21). I want to state that I feel safe in my house. My decision to give the men in my household a wide berth has more to do with awareness of perception and cultural expectations than anything else.

What opportunities have you had to build relationships outside of your host family?

Regarding my actual community of [redacted], I have had very little opportunity to interact with locals. My village is small, and again, the culture dictates that I spend my non-working time at home. I have more professional contacts in the larger, nearby village of [redacted], thanks to my site mate and her counterpart. I have also met a good number of professional contacts who live in Pristina.

***

So, there you have it — an honest look at my life in Kosovo so far.

Friday Gratitude: Anibar Animation Festival

August 14-20 was the best week I’ve had in Kosovo. HANDS DOWN! I volunteered at the Anibar Animation Festival in Peja, Kosovo.

The Anibar Animation Festival began eight years ago. It was founded by my friend’s counterpart, when he was only 17. (What was I doing at age 17? Certainly not founding international film festivals.)

My friend had asked me if I would be the festival’s Jury Coordinator. I told him I would think about it. The next thing I knew, I was having a meeting with his counterpart, where we discussed my role as the Jury Coordinator. I walked out of the meeting thinking, “Wait! Did I ever … agree … to be the Jury Coordinator?”

Anibar Film Festival Peja Kosovo 1.jpg
It was the end of the week, and we were still smiling …

I’m not going to lie, I was dreading the whole thing. I pictured a bunch of high-powered Hollywood types who would call me in the middle of the night to make strange demands. Turns out, I was wrong to be so worried.

The jury was comprised of five lovely people who came from Spain, Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands, and the United States.

2017 Jury Anibar Peja Kosovo.JPG

I met many new people from all over the world. At one point, I was at lunch, and all four of us spoke different native languages (French, Chinese, English, and Albanian). I love that my native language is the one used to facilitate communication between people who speak other languages.

I also saw many films. The festival had two theaters, plus two screens they set up in a local park.

Anibar Animation Festival

Anibar Peja Kosovo

I loved some films, and hated others. Below are two of my favorite films shorts that were shown at the festival. (Warning: Don’t watch these if your boss or your kids are in the room!)

Volunteering at the Anibar Animation Festival also meant I got to spend time in Peja, which is my favorite city in Kosovo. I mean, would you look at this view?

Peja Kosovo.JPG

Even the weather cooperated, by backing away from the 100-degree mark.

I miss the little routine I developed every morning, where I bought iced coffee (!!!) and went to the Anibar theater to hang out with my friends (and the newly rescued theater kitten) before the start of the festival’s daily activities.

theater kitten.JPG

It was a week full of friends, film screenings, workshops, talks, a gallery opening, and free food and drinks.

Puppet Anibar.JPG

The pouring rain on the night of the closing ceremony forced people to abandon the after-party at the park and stay at the theater. Group karaoke broke out across the theater’s stage and balcony. The night ended with a group of people dancing in the flooded streets of Peja.

Yeah, it was my best week in Kosovo …

Anibar
Thanks to Todd and Stephanee for this pic. 🙂