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
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Physical education teacher
setting up soccer football net.JPG
Setting up the soccer/football goal
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Soccer
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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.

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.”

Guest Blogger: Charlie Lowe (Faces of Kosovo)

Hi Hello from Kosovo, my name is Charlie Lowe, long time reader, first time poster. I was invited by April to write about a secondary project that I’ve been working on for some time with some friends of mine called Faces of Kosovo.

Faces of Kosovo

This group of awesome Kosovars and Americans have been working together to try and share true and interesting stories of members of our communities to show our friends and family what life in Kosovo is REALLY like.

Chester and Charlie
Chester Eng and Charlie Lowe, two of the founders of Faces of Kosovo

I truly struggled for a long time trying to find a genuine way to tell the stories of people here without sounding like a “white savior” coming to a different country and bragging about the people I’ve met (while at the same time patting myself on the back for being a good person). So I decided to flip-the-script and with the help of some great volunteers, both American and Kosovar, we started our Facebook page.

Faces of Kosovo

It wasn’t easy, and it took hours of planning, discussions, review, and debate, but ultimately I’m very proud of what we put together. This page seeks to connect people both here in Kosovo and back home in America with impactful and meaningful life stories of people living in this place. Their stories are told in their words (and translated closely into English, Albanian, or Serbian depending on the interview) so to be as truthful as possible. And yes, I know, Faces of Kosovo does sound a lot like Humans of New York. It’s not an original idea, but in this place at this time, it is a new and important one.

Shok V1

Kosovo is a place that is facing very real and very serious existential questions about its identity as a state. Will Kosovo be a Western state or are they Eastern? Will it be religious or secular? Will it be a state where diversity is accepted, imposed, or rejected? What does it mean to be a partially recognized state? The answers to these questions often may be contrasting and complex, so to flush out people’s real stories and experiences, as well as their hopes and dreams for their futures, Kosovars and Americans may better understand the peoples’ will for the future of their country.

Faces of Kosovo 2

All in all, building this page has taught me a lot about the importance of stories and of the personal growth and self-reflection that they demonstrate. Come check out the stories we’ve shared so far and stay tuned, as we have many more to come.

Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FacesofKosovo/

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

Narrative Writing Workshop at KosovaLive

“The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone.” — Toni Morrison

My friend, Valeriana Dema, and I had the honor of leading a narrative writing workshop at a local NGO, KosovaLive.
Our workshop focused on how we tell our stories. How do we choose what we share? How do we frame our experiences in order to find meaning?

I asked our participants, “How many people here have ever been on a date? How many people have ever had a coffee with someone new?” I pointed out that storytelling is not some lofty, academic thing. It is something we all do, every day, in order to build relationships with other people. We share our stories and tell who we 

Val found this video of Toni Morrison giving a commencement speech at Wellesley College, titled “Be Your Own Story.” If you have time to watch the entire video, I recommend it. (For our presentation, we began the video at 18:34.)

Next, we passed out an abridged version of this article from The Atlantic, titled “Story of my Life: How Narrative Creates Personality.” We allowed participants time to read the article to themselves.

After reading the article, we posed a few discussion questions to the group. Our participants shared some experiences from their own lives.

We then moved on to a group activity called “Overcoming Obstacles.” Participants divided into groups. We gave each group a slip of paper with three obstacles. We asked group members to come up with ideas of how each obstacle could lead to a positive outcome. (An example: “You failed a university exam.” Possible outcomes: You study more the next time. Or, you realize you aren’t interested in that class, and switch to a topic you would rather study.) Afterward, groups were asked to share their answers with the other participants.

For our last exercise, we gave our participants the chance to write a narrative of their own, and share it with a partner. Val and I each shared a story from our own lives to begin. You can read my story here: For KosovaLive.

Also, here is a link to our PowerPoint presentation: Narrative Writing Workshop

We closed with a few brief remarks and thanked everyone for coming. Val and I had a great time leading our workshop, largely because our participants were so engaged and eager to share.

KosovaLive5
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

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Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

KosovaLive
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

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Photo courtesy of Valeriana Dema

KosovaLive
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

I Followed a “Hajde,” and I Don’t Know Why

Teaching has been fine, but lately, I’ve really been missing social work. I’ve settled for listening to The Social Work Podcast.

Tuesday was a beautiful day, so I decided to take a long walk and listen to a podcast episode. I headed south on the road leading out of my village. I was about halfway through listening to the show when I heard someone say my name.

I stopped walking and turned around, coming face-to-face with a young girl on a bicycle. I am not good at assessing people’s ages, but I’d say she was about 12. She said something to me in rapid-fire Shqip (Albanian). I didn’t understand any of it, except she mentioned my Shqip tutor’s name.

“Sorry, what?” I asked, pulling my headphones out of my ears.

More rapid-fire Albanian, along with my Shqip tutor’s name again.

Nuk kuptoj (I don’t understand),” I said.

The girl shook her head. “Hajde (come here),” she replied, and gestured for me to follow.

We went up, up, up a steep mountain road. Eventually, we stopped at a house that was nestled between several other houses. The girl went inside and came out with a woman who I correctly assumed was my tutor’s mother. (My tutor and I meet for lessons at a restaurant, so I had never before met her family or been to her house.)

Then, the girl abandoned me. I was left standing in the woman’s yard, trying to explain why I was there.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t exactly dressed in my finest. I was wearing sneakers, hiking pants, and a windbreaker. Beneath that I was wearing my ugly khaki Peace Corps t-shirt.

“Hello! I’m a poorly-dressed American who decided to invite herself to your home.”

I introduced myself and tried to explain, in my broken Shqip, what had happened. “I was walking … the girl told me hajde … we came here …”

The woman was my tutor’s mother, and she knew who I was, too. She called my tutor (who was in Pristina) and passed the phone to me. I explained what happened, this time in English. “I think the girl thought I was lost on my way to your house,” I said.

My tutor laughed. Then she told me her mother wanted me to stay for coffee.

Hospitality is a big part of Kosovar culture. I followed my tutor’s mother inside and was presented with a glass of Coke, a Turkish coffee, and a plate of cookies. A short time later, my tutor’s sister arrived. Though she claimed not to speak English well, we had a pleasant conversation (about 70% was in English, and 30% was in Shqip). Afterward, they insisted on driving me home.

I think this story perfectly illustrates what it’s like to serve in the Peace Corps. I leave my house thinking things will go a certain way, something totally different happens, the language barrier gets in the way, but in the end, everything turns out fine.

Guest Bloggers: Todd and Stephanee Smith (Serving as a Married Couple in the Peace Corps)

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Antoine De Saint-Exupery

stephanee-and-todd

Thanks to April for asking us to be guest bloggers on what it’s like to serve as a married couple in the Peace Corps. As one of two married couples in our cohort, we are probably having a different experience than our fellow volunteers.

Some background: We’ve been married over 20 years, no kids, and left behind steady, comfortable jobs. We were both ready for a life and career change. It was a decision that we took very seriously, and worked through the pros and cons together. We think that when you serve as a couple, you both need to be all in because if one person has reservations, it’s going to be a difficult experience for both of you.

Pre-service training (PST) was the biggest challenge of our service. Peace Corps required us to live separately (different home/different village) for our first 3 months of training. We knew this going into our service, so it didn’t come as a surprise. And while it did allow us to have our own, separate experiences while developing our own identities within our cohort, it was definitely a very challenging experience. PST has a lot of ups and downs and when you are used to sharing those types of life experiences with your partner, and he/she isn’t around, it can be difficult. While not being able to see your partner whenever you wanted was difficult, we will say that the PST set-up did allow for a lot of interaction. Our villages were only a few miles apart and there were plenty of hub days or sector training that, for the most part, we were able to see each other in person more often than not.

Once we finished PST, however, a sense of normalcy returned. We resumed living together, cooking for ourselves, having similar schedules and just a feeling of being a married couple once again. Some advantages of serving together is that you always have someone to hang out with, whether it’s at the café, at home, dinner, or simply riding the bus. We are in the same sector so we have that in common, and we even share tutoring lessons. We always have a travel partner. Loneliness isn’t as big of an issue as it may be with other volunteers. In the winter, the advantages are even better—never underestimate the power of body heat in an unheated bedroom.

However, there are some disadvantages as well. Our language learning isn’t progressing as quickly as we would like as we always have someone to talk to in English. As a married couple, our host family gives us plenty of privacy so we probably don’t have as much interaction as many other volunteers may have with their families which also hampers our language skills. We also sometimes feel that we probably haven’t formed as many close relationships with our cohort due to the fact we have a “built-in” friend. Of course, that could be because not only are we a married couple, but we’re also older than most everyone in our cohort!

Despite some disadvantages, being a married couple has only enhanced our experiences. Neither of us can imagine trying to go through this adventure alone. We rely on one another to get through our struggles and are able to enjoy small successes together. So far, our experience in the Peace Corps has been pretty much what we expected. Some ups, some downs; but all made easier by having someone to share it with.

April’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day! If you’d like to read more from other guest bloggers, here are some links:

Guest Blogger: Sam Green (A Single Story)

Hi, Everyone. I asked my friend Sam if he would write a guest post for my blog. Sam is not only the first man I’ve asked to post, he is also the first person to write about Peace Corps Kosovo’s Community Development program. Enjoy! –April

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A Single Story

In Peace Corps there are several phrases that are repeated so often during training that they become ingrained. The one that’s stuck with me is “single story”. During training they refer to single stories in a few different ways. Primarily in the context of the recent conflict in Kosovo, and that when you hear a story of what happened in the war whether from an Albanian or a Serb, it’s key to remember that you are only hearing one perspective. But they also use the same term when talking about how each member of our cohort will have a completely different experience from the others.

I have been realizing how very true this is, as we have started at our different sites and organizations. I will be getting a unique experience. I am the first volunteer to working with a Roma organization, and I am living with a Catholic host family in a predominantly Muslim and Turkish melting pot. The languages on the street range from Albanian and Romani to Turkish and German.

In addition to the English teachers we have in Kosovo, like the amazing April, we also have Community Development volunteers. The community development sector in Kosovo has many wide-ranging goals, but at its essence we are here to help build capacity within NGO’s and civil society organizations. I’m currently facing the challenges that will come with working and living within two different minority communities. I’m excited to see Kosovo from their perspective.

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Photo by Sam Green

The largest challenge I’ve faced thus far has been language barriers. No one within my organization speaks English and my Albanian skills are sub-par. I’ve been taking Albanian tutoring and this week am starting with a tutor to learn the Romani language. It has been very hard to express myself to my counterpart, when trying to speak about vision or strategic planning through my limited Albanian and Google Translate. In an effort to do something meaningful with the rest of my time, I’ve started an English club with some secondary school students. I am daunted by the challenges ahead of me, but I look forward to overcoming them and can’t wait to be able to tell my single story.

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Photo by Sam Green

Other guest bloggers’ posts: