Wednesday, September 27, 2017


I left Dominica on Saturday afternoon, August 19, after an amazing 27 month term of service in the Peace Corps. I love the people in my village and the overall beauty of Dominica. I had survived Tropical Storm Erika, which had wrecked the island two years ago. Dominica was still recovering from that storm, with temporary Bailey Bridges and off-road detours still being used on the main road when I left.
Little did I know that less than a month later, my wonderful island would be pummeled by a Category 5 hurricane. What had started as Tropical Storm Maria quickly spun up to the highest level hurricane in about 24 hours, leaving little time to prepare (or evacuate). It hit last Monday, and I still have not been able to contact my friends in the village of Thibaud. It took five days for telecommunications to be re-established to our isolated location after Erika, so I'm not surprised that it is taking more than twice that long after Maria. The first aerial photo I found of my village is shown above. Since communications are so difficult, one reporter has been allowing Dominicans to write brief notes to friends in her notebook, which she then takes photos of and posts online (an example is shown below) in an effort to provide connections to loved ones. This demonstrates how bad it is there--using pen and paper to get the word out.
One of the conversation starters I used with older people in Dominica was to ask them their memories of Hurricane David in 1979 (as described in this previous story). It appears that Hurricane Maria is much worse than Hurricane David. Unfortunately, I'm sure there will be plenty of stories coming out of this tragic event.

So far, I've heard second hand stories that there were no deaths in Thibaud. However, aerial photos show lots of damage to buildings. The photo below is one example. The green circle at the left side shows the school. The blue circle shows my house. At the bottom right, you can see the dark hole in the rock cliff that is our bat cave.

Below is another photo showing a closer view of the middle of the village. The green arrow points to the Catholic church. I can see that there was roof damage on my host family's house, where I spent my first month in the village.
A couple of days ago, a boat from Guadeloupe made a delivery of supplies to the beach at Thibaud. Villagers waded out into the ocean to carry the supplies to shore, as shown in the picture below. That is the only outside help they have received (that I am aware of), and the villagers were obviously very grateful. Hopefully the village spring is providing enough clean water for everyone, as it did during the aftermath of Erika. I'm certain they lost most of their crops, except for root vegetables, but those will only last so long. I'm hoping they can work together and survive during these tough times. I have faith that they can, because Thibaud is a very special place. I can hardly wait to return someday.

Some of you might be interested in reading the account written below by the Peace Corps Director for the Eastern Caribbean. She is based in St.Lucia, and tells the story of rescuing my Peace Corps colleagues (including my replacement), who had been "consolidated" into the Flamboyant Hotel in downtown Roseau (as I had been during Tropical Storm Grace). Had the storm come just one month earlier, I would have been caught up in it as well. Rather than copying the photos she references below, just imagine some of the worst pictures the news has shown of this tragedy. Here is her story (shared with her permission):

These photos show Dominica - an island so beautiful, and then so destroyed when Hurricane Maria tore through on Monday, going from a Cat 1 to a Cat 5 in less than 24 hours, far outpacing any forecasts. The freakishly quick intensification of Maria that happened more rapidly than virtually any hurricane meant we could not get our Peace Corps Volunteers and visiting HQ staff off the island before the storm hit as no planes or boats were running, we could only watch in horror as the weather intensified so dramatically. We consolidated them in Roseau, and were able to be in touch with them through text and WhatsApp until 12:30 that night, along with two of our three Dominican staff, then the eye passed over and nothing. No communication coming out from anyone. Maria wiped out the island's communication system, leaving the rest of the world in the dark about the fate of Dominica.

Our Volunteers and the two visiting staff from DC worked together, and with one amazing Dominican who was the manager at the hotel, to make it through the hurricane and 3 1/2 days in a building that was heavily damaged - though much less so than the other hotels nearby that lost entire roofs, all windows and were partially collapsed. They did a phenomenal job of making the best of a very tough situation, all the while so concerned about the families in their home communities. Thankfully they had the PC SAT phone with them - it was our lifeline to them.

Peace Corps was determined to get our Volunteers out as soon as we could. We were able to contract private boats to take us to the island. My colleague and friend Christine S. and I arrived at the marina at 1AM on Thursday, boat captains searching for word on the seas between St. Lucia and Dominica, finally green light to go at 3:30AM, and we were on our way at 4:00.

Eight hours later we approached the southern tip of Dominica - and what we saw broke our hearts. Trees tossed like matchsticks, the ones left standing completely devoid of foliage. The "Nature Island" stripped of its beautiful, beautiful natural habitat. Motoring up into Roseau we saw debris everywhere, landslides, houses without roofs, the main waterfront street every building impacted, stacks of uprooted trees on the shorelines, the vibrant fishing boats piled on each other, cruise ship pier destroyed, ferry terminal compromised, and swells in the ocean preventing us going ashore.

Our Volunteers saw us come in to the area and immediately were in touch to ask for the plan. We had told them that would be devised once the boat captains could see firsthand the situation in Roseau. We told them what we were seeing - and they know the country so well, they steered us a bit further north to the main cargo port. Our local Associate Peace Corps Director came up huge for us - she was able to get to town and shuttle our Volunteers and their suitcases to the port. Meanwhile we were still searching for a way to find a place they could board the boat. And then came the news the gate to the port had been locked by police who had then left and told workers no one could get out to the port without going through Immigration - but no one was there from Immigration. What ensued was something out of a movie, with me demanding the boat to get up to the pier so I could climb on, running to see our Volunteers and local APCD and beginning to work with anyone on that pier to let them in, while Christine revved into fierce mode to stop the boat captains from leaving and heading back to St. Lucia without us. Eventually after SAT phones call with PC Washington and US Embassy Bridgetown - both so helpful in the crisis, especially the team in IAP PC HQ - and begging/cajoling/talking with finally someone who could make a difference, Christine pulling out all the stops to prevent the boat captains from leaving, and our Dominican APCD going to the police station - driving through checkpoints - talking to the Immigration guys, finally two of the kindest Immigration people I have ever met showed up at the port and treated us all like solid gold. We were able to get the Volunteers through by 3:45PM, shaving close to the 4PM curfew in place.

Our Volunteers headed on the 1/2 mile or so walk down to the pier with such joy to be getting on the boats, and such sadness to be leaving Dominica in a state of massive destruction. I don't think there was a dry eye on either boat as we motored down the shoreline and slowly slipped away from the battered Dominican coastline into the open sea. Five hours later we pulled into St. Lucia.

This experience is unlike any other in my life. The deep sadness to see a beloved place so changed by the force of nature, incredible gratitude to the Dominican hotel manager and local Peace Corps Associate Director for what they did in a time of natural disaster in their country for our Peace Corps Volunteers, fierce determination to get our Volunteers back to safety, deep respect for the resiliency of our PCVs in how they handled this unsettling to terrifying situation, thankfulness for "Thelma to my Louise" kick ass Christine, and a renewed faith in woman/mankind.

We are working with our evacuated PCVs into this week and so I'm limited on my FB and any other time to talk or respond to messages of concern, but I wanted to share this as many of you have asked how we are after Maria.

Holding Dominica in our hearts as they work to rebuild their beautiful country.

Finally, on a lighter note, I thought I'd share this little parody song that some of the Peace Corps Volunteers created to describe their experience during Hurricane Maria. I think it gives you an idea of what they went through, and also their strong desire to return. [The acronym "HOR" stands for Home of Record, where all these PCVs have been sent until a decision is made as to whether they can return to Dominica or be sent to other islands.]


"[Sing along to Toto's "Africa" to get a glimpse into surviving a Category 5 hurricane:]

I hear Maria echo in the night
and she is making a real hot mess of this island
Making landfall 6:30 tonight
Powers gone but Bananagrams keeps me from going crazy
I brought my bags down just in time
for the windows to blow out all over the Flamboyant
Megan turned to me as if to say, “I left all my laundry on the line…”

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hurricane or two could ever do
I’m going back to Dominica
First going back to HOR for 45 days

Car alarms cry out in the night
as we get restless lying on some tables in the basement
I know we’re in for a long night
as sure as Waitikubuli rises above the Caribbean Sea
I seek to find a dry pillow, frightened of this thing beneath my head

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hurricane or two could ever do
I’m going back to Dominica
First going back to HOR for 45 days


It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that hurricane or two could ever do
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
First going back to HOR for 45 days

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One More Bat Chat

After the Courts for Kids project wrapped up, I was able to coordinate a visit to Thibaud by two bat scientists (one Canadian, one British). They had come to Dominica for the summer to work with a fascinating program for college students called Operation Wallacea (OpWall). The picture below shows them deftly using a net to capture one of the bats near the entrance to the cave. [By the way, new readers might want to see my previous articles about our bat cave by clicking here.]
After that first capture, they started working their way deeper into the cave. I should mention that bat caves aren't known for smelling good, due to the waste products that accumulate on the floor of their caves. [You can't see the face of the nearest scientist in the photo below due to the glare from her headlamp.]
In the picture below, taken after I had come part-way into the cave, you can see one of the scientists near the back of the cave. The light from the other scientist (who is hidden behind large rocks) can be seen on the ceiling further ahead.
They carefully handled the bats they captured for closer inspection.
Here they examined the wing structure.
In the photo below they were pointing out the nipple on the chest of this female, because bats are mammals just like humans.
The scientists quickly recognized that there were two varieties of bats in the cave, with smaller bats nearer the opening and larger ones occupying the back. They told me the names of the two species, but I waited until I received the email below so that I could share the information properly (along with the links that were included).

"There were two species in the cave.

The smaller one was Tadarida brasiliensis (commonly called the Brazilian Free-tailed Bat or the Mexican Free-tailed Bat), which eats mainly insects. They usually mate in March and it takes ~90 days to give birth.

The larger species was Brachyphylla cavernarum (Antillean Fruit-eating bat), which mainly eats fruit but also eats insects and pollen. The reproductive cycle is not well known but estimated to give birth between late May and early June and young cannot not fly until two months old.

The scientists were impressed with our bat cave, and with the new bat cave trail that was completed recently. However, they expressed hope that the easier access and resulting increase in human activity does not cause these two bat colonies to abandon this sea cave. They were particularly concerned with limiting access during the reproductive season, as mentioned in this part of the email message:

"As for recommendations, I would highly recommend blocking off the path to the cave around the last corner to the cave so that people can’t go in there. As I mentioned it could cause stress to the bats, and it is particularly important that no one goes in there during the reproductive season. If females become too stressed when they are pregnant they can abort their fetuses, and when the young are born they can abandon them. So, I would build a barricade just around the last bend and perhaps put up a sign explaining why the barricade is there, and that is especially important during the reproductive season. Some people will likely not follow the rules, but usually if people understand why it is blocked off and have a sign to read about it they will respect it. They can still stand back and watch them emerge, and that is how I would sell the tourist part of it, as an emergence viewing not a cave exploration. As the reproductive season is not well known in the Antillean Fruit-eating bat, I would give a range on the sign for that (April to July) to be safe.

I hope this helps and it was great to meet you and explore the cave. If I am back next year I will try to make it back to see how the colonies are doing."

I do hope they come back next summer (even if I'm not here), and perhaps bring their students to my village for the day!

Watching them explore the entire depths of the bat cave made me want to conquer it before my departure. Thus, I recently made my way into the cave (with some youngsters waiting outside for me), armed with headlamp and flashlight, and slowly worked my way to the back of the cave. There is a bit of a left hand turn near the back, so I had never known for sure how far back the cave went beyond what is visible from the front, but it turns out that it ends shortly after that turn. Here is a view towards the mouth of the cave from about half-way in.

Near that point, I took this picture to show how far the water enters the cave. There were logs and other flotsam that the waves had pushed far back inside the cave.
Here is a view looking back towards the mouth from the left turn just before the end of the cave.
I'm glad I made the trek inside the cave, but it was smelly, slippery, and difficult to traverse. One time was enough for me, and I don't really recommend it for others. Plus, I didn't like disturbing the bats, many of whom were flying closely all around me (some even brushed against me). However, I'm content that I have now explored the entire cave—in addition to most everywhere around my village. It's been a great two years here!

On an unrelated note, I thought I'd share this picture taken recently at the Dominican Broadcasting System, where I was part of a panel from the Peace Corps for a 90-minute radio show. From left to right is our Peace Corps Director for Dominica, the station manager and program host, a Peace Corps Volunteer from last year's class, a Peace Corps Trainee who will be sworn in soon, me, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who preceded me, but who extended for a third year. Thus, each of the four most recent classes of Peace Corps Volunteers on Dominica are represented in this picture.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Leaving Isn't Easy

In the famous final episode of the “M*A*S*H” television show, B.J. Hunnicutt has a hard time saying the word “goodbye” to his friends. Despite Hawkeye's urging to say the word, he refuses. However, as a final farewell to his best friend, he spells out the dreaded word in rocks near the helicopter pad, so that it can be read by Hawkeye as he flies away. [By the way, a friend from college recently visited the site where the M*A*S*H series was filmed, which is now Malibu Creek State Park—after seeing his pictures, I'd love to visit this site someday, too.]
Just like Dr. Hunnicutt, I'm finding it hard to say goodbye to my village—especially to the children, who have become my de facto grandchildren. Most of my age peer group have grandchildren, and frequently talk about them. Not having any grandchildren myself, I didn't fully understand their fascination. However, after spending two years working closely with the children of the village (including younger siblings who aren't yet in school), these children have won my heart. I now have a far greater appreciation for my peers who are constantly going on about their grandkids. I will miss their hugs!
This is just one of the many life lessons I have learned during my 27 month tour of duty with the Peace Corps. Below are nine more life lessons (in no particular order) that add up to my “Top Ten” list of what I learned while serving:

2.) The more you give, the more you get! I knew this basic tenet before I left the USA, and tried to practice it, but I saw it in action more than ever down here. Call it karma or God's blessings or whatever, I constantly found myself the recipient of someone else's generosity, often when I least expected it. I also have to thank all of my friends, some of whom I haven't seen in many years, who donated to the Courts for Kids project, or mailed “care packages” to me, or who donated school supplies at my class reunion, or supported me in other ways. Whether it was as simple as mailing a bunch of fancy address labels that I could give to the children as stickers, or as sophisticated as donating airline miles towards my flight to attend the high school reunion, I can't thank you enough for helping me (and my village)!

3.) I can't over-emphasize how welcome and appreciated I feel here. The folks in my village may not have much in comparison with Americans, but they have huge hearts. I am convinced that I am much safer living in my village than I will be when I return to America (with the growing drug-fueled crime wave). I feel in some ways as if I'm leaving Andy Griffith's Mayberry only to return to a divided, dysfunctional, and even dystopian America. As our president often tweets, “Sad.”

4.) A positive attitude makes life much easier. Again, this is another belief I held prior to my arrival here, but I believe it was a key ingredient to whatever success I had here, and thus I hope to continue holding onto it. There is a restaurant in a touristy village on the Atlantic side of the island ran by a Canadian man. His nickname, and the name of his restaurant, is “POZ.” He got the nickname because of his positive attitude, and I hope to continue carrying a POZ attitude throughout the remainder of my life.

5.) Americans tend to think they are the only ones who give foreign aid to needy countries around the world. Little do most Americans realize how much other countries (especially China) are providing. Besides China, I have seen signs around the island touting the involvement of Great Britain, France, Canada, Iceland, and others. Cuba provides many healthcare workers, and gives scholarships to Dominican students for higher education. Venezuela discounts oil to the islands. Heck, even the Mediterranean island of Malta, which is about half the size as Dominica (but Malta's population is more than six times greater that Dominica), donated the huge black plastic water tank on the roof of my school, so that when the public water system inexplicably cuts off, we can still flush the toilets and thus not need to cancel school. This list doesn't even include all the special assistance this island received after Tropical Storm Erika from countries like Argentina and Barbados.

6.) As a former WVU-P adjunct instructor (plus to a lesser extent my eight years on the Wood County School Board), I thought I had a little bit of an idea of what teaching was like. I will tell you that after two years here, I have a whole new appreciation for teachers of the early elementary grades, especially those trying to help children to learn to read. I found that personally, I much preferred teaching the older students than the younger ones. I love them all as my grandchildren, but there were times when they were quite a challenge in the classroom! [I forget where I copied the painting below of a Caribbean classroom, but I could certainly identify with the teacher on some days.]

7.) Humans are humans, regardless of the amount of melanin in our skins. Having just spent two years as the only white person around, I have a renewed vigor about the equality of all humans—color doesn't matter. I wrote a blog story to this effect, but given recent events in America, it can't be stressed enough. Also, along the same lines, I will admit that I have a new found respect for the beauty of black women. One of the amazing high school students who came down to help build the playing court had started a club in her school called YPB, for Young Pretty and Black. Its purpose was to promote self-confidence and provide support to black females at her school. I want to tell all her club members that they indeed are beautiful, and they shouldn't allow America's overstoked media machine to let them think otherwise.

8.) I'm surprised at how easy it has been for me to live here on the equivalent of $10,000 American dollars per year. I have a view of the ocean from my porch, and swim at the beach whenever I want, hike countless trails without worrying about snakes or ticks, and have plenty of good food to eat. Of course, there are many luxuries that I don't have (e.g., car, television, microwave, washer/dryer, dishwasher, blender) which many Americans could not live without. But for me, the simple life is the best life.

9.) As a follow-up to the last point, I've learned how despite the fact that Americans have so much more stuff, I would venture that they are not as happy with their lives as most of the folks in my village. Americans have a wealth of choices, lots of luxuries, and countless opportunities, but many of them choose to complain and overlook the bounty that has been bestowed upon them by virtue of where they were born. Unfortunately, even the smartest students in my village have very limited options for them to achieve the success they would have had if they had simply been born in the United States. Americans should realize how good they have it.

10.) One of the cultural traditions in the Caribbean is that everyone greets others with a “Good Morning” or a “Good Aftanoon” (as it tends to be pronounced here, where the “r” sound is often dropped) or “Good Night.” If you walk into a bakery, even if you don't know anyone in there, you proclaim “Good Morning” just to announce your presence. Likewise, if you are boarding a bus (van), you had best say “Good Morning” to your fellow passengers or you will be seen as someone without manners. It is a good habit that used to be done in rural areas like my beloved West Virginia, but it has evaporated over the years. I know some folks will think I am crazy, but I hope to try to continue this social practice when I return to the states.

The bottom line is that serving in the Peace Corps has been one of the most significant things I have done in my entire life! I feel like I successfully crafted the perfect escape from a career in the bureacracy. It has been a great way to transition into retirement. I'm not exactly sure what the next chapter of my life will be like, but it will not be easy to beat the joy the last two years have given me.

Plus, I was finally able to “repay” the Peace Corps for “having my back” during my law school years. If I had quit or flunked out of law school, I had planned to join the Peace Corps as a back-up plan (which I explained in the very first story on this blog). As it turned out, I didn't need to invoke that alternative plan, but I always appreciated the discussion I had held with a Peace Corps recruiter in the Mountainlair (WVU's Student Union). They were ready to pick me up if I had fallen down, so it felt good to finally help them out after all these years.

Also, I trust that by serving 800 days in “his” Peace Corps, I've finally paid a personal debt to the late President Kennedy. As I explained in the second article I wrote for this blog, one of my vivid memories of the aftermath of his assassination was that I wasn't able to watch the cartoons I enjoyed at that age. Perhaps now I don't need to feel bad about that anymore.

Thus, in closing, I'm glad I took the plunge (click here to read the story of the picture above), and feel blessed that I was assigned to Dominica. I'm able to depart from this beautiful place content with the feeling that I am leaving it in a better situation than it was in when I first arrived. It has been a wonderful experience and I will be returning over the years—I need to come back to check up on my grandchildren!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

New School!

In my waning days in Dominica, I'm feeling good about closing various “chapters in the book” of my service here. I'm thrilled with how the Courts for Kids project went, as the court (and the new soccer goals) are getting used a lot each day (thanks especially to those of you who donated towards this project).
The annual Village Feast (which requires a lot of hard work to produce) ended Monday night. This year's celebration saw us go from an emotional high of a very successful Saturday night, to an emotional low with the tragic deaths of five young men when their car plunged over a 400 foot cliff. No one was in the mood to celebrate the final two nights, so the decision was made to not charge admission (thus negating my job selling tickets from behind the burglar bars at the school). Indeed, the sadness still lingers on in this tight-knit community. Hopefully the final numbers will at least allow the Village Council to break even on the finances of this year's event. [The nearby village of Penville, home of the five who died, made the decision to completely cancel their upcoming village feast out of respect to the deceased.]
Yesterday, I was able to participate in a meeting that hopefully will lead to the closure of another chapter of my experience here. Eight years ago, the decrepit old school building in my village was closed and demolished, and a nearby community building (originally built primarily as locker rooms for sports teams competing on the adjacent playing field) was temporarily converted into a makeshift school building. When this decision was originally made, it was thought to be a one-year, temporary quarters until the new replacement school could be constructed. No one dreamed that we would still be crammed into this little building eight years later! However, various competing government needs (including Tropical Storm Erika recovery) kept pushing our project onto the back burner. Nonetheless, the staff of our school has worked hard to overcome these difficult conditions.
Now, with less than two weeks remaining, I was able to get a glimpse of the future school planned for my village. A public presentation was made at the current school yesterday afternoon. It included the Minister of Education and about half a dozen top officials from the Ministry of Education. It also included a couple of architects from the Ministry of Public Works. They laid out the plans they have developed for the new, two story, reinforced concrete school that will built upon the site of the original school (located at the base of a hill adjacent to our beautiful playing field).
The new classrooms on the upper floor will be double the size of the current classrooms. As with other new schools the government has been building in recent years, an early childhood learning facility (pre-school) will be added on the lower floor. An indoor cafeteria is included, along with a modern kitchen. A library and a technology lab, which potentially can house as many as 20 computers, will also be built. It all looks beautiful!
I've interspersed in this story some of the architectural drawings that were shown yesterday. There were a few “tweaks” that were discussed in yesterday's dialog between the officials and the locals. Personally, I am interested in seeing how the retaining wall around the edge of the playing field might be used for spectator seating at sporting events held there. I also hope that the clear water spring that emerges on the hillside between the school and the health center might be enhanced for usage during water outages.
The officials will take the feedback they received yesterday and make some minor changes. Then they will work on getting the project tender ready to go out for bidding. That will take several months, and once the project is announced, the procurement process will take several more months. Hopefully before the end of the upcoming school year, construction will finally begin on this long overdue school. It will be an important component to the overall health and vitality of our village.
I'm looking forward to someday coming back and roaming the rooms that I first visualized in these drawings. It makes it easier for me to leave knowing that good things are happening for my school and my village!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Tragic Feast

I'm usually not a “night owl” type of person. However, this past Saturday night/Sunday morning, I didn't get home until after 4:00 AM (nearly as late as the previous night). The only reason I'm staying up to such late hours in the night is because this is our annual “Village Feast.”

Months of planning and hard work culminates in a massive holiday weekend party on the beach. I'm in charge of selling wrist band tickets from the safety of our school building, with its burglar bars protecting the front porch. A couple of us lock ourselves in, accept the admission money through the bars, and affix the designated color wristband for that evening. Dominican parties such as the village feast continue long into the night.

So after falling asleep at around 4:30, I was awakened this morning by an incoming text from the school principal. She was alerting us to the tragic deaths of five young men, including a sports teacher who often came to our school. My Facebook feed was soon filled with my Dominican friends expressing shock and sadness over this tragedy.

It wasn't just Facebook where this sadness was evident. One of my students stopped by my house to tell me about this graphic details. The car had hurdled off one of the most precarious cliffs along the main road around the north of the island, crashing into the edge of the ocean far below.

Many pictures from the crash site were appearing on social media. [I got the pictures above and below this paragraph from Dominica News Online.] With the prevalence of cell phone cameras, that seems to be a common happening down here (even on St. Lucia when I was there for training). Apparently some of the grisly crash scene pictures were also circulating, but thankfully none of my friends had posted them—only their written reactions to those horrifying pictures.
I have written about this particular cliff (and overlook) where the wreck occurred in the past. In fact, just two weeks ago, it had been included as a stop for the tour bus carrying the 23 American volunteers who had come to Dominica with the Courts for kids project. I couldn't help but remember how these Americans had marveled at the view from that overlook, which now had claimed five promising young lives.

Indeed, all five of these men had attended our village feast that night—I may have sold them their tickets to enter. I may not have really known them, but I probably had crossed paths with all of them during my years here. For example, one was a government health inspector, and I had attended the food handler training session he had given prior to the village feast for the vendors who sell food at the event.

More importantly, although none lived in my village, there is such a small population here that it seems that everyone is somehow related to everyone else. Many of the good folks living in my village lost friends or relatives in this deadly crash. Five new holes will be dug by hand in the uneven ground of the cemetery. Today there was a pall hanging over the village. You knew that this sad news was on everybody's mind. But the feast will go on tonight. Life goes on.

Life is so tenuous; you never know when it might end—and life can be hard living on this volcanic rock jutting up from the ocean. All that one can do is to try to make the most of the time we are given. That is one reason why I joined the Peace Corps, and it has paid off for me. As my term of service comes to an end, I am grateful that I undertook this life-changing experience.

P.S. I'm happy to report that the half-court line and the foul lines were painted on the court today (look close and you might be able to make out the green lines on the new court). The concrete has had time to cure, so I'm glad that at least these minimally required lines were completed. I'm indebted to a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who came to help with the village feast and to give me a hand with the final touches on the Courts for Kids project.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The State of the School

This blog post is different than most, and may not be of interest to everyone. However, some of my friends involved in the field of education might enjoy this.

During my first year, our school did not have any sixth graders, so we didn't have a graduation ceremony. This year, we did have a 6th grade class, so I got to experience my first primary school graduation ceremony in Dominica. A big part of the program was a speech given by the Principal, reviewing the school year—sort of a “State of the Union” speech about the school for the large audience of parents, family members, and others. She agreed to share her speech with me as long as I removed some specific reference to student names (plus I made a few other very minor changes to make it more readable by Americans).

This speech provides some insights into the education system down here. There is a huge emphasis on the Grade 6 National Assessment, and when the results are announced, it is covered by all the media outlets. A radio was brought to school that day so that we could listen for the results.

While none of our students won scholarships based on their test results, we did get some good news based on this and other testing. Our school is no longer “on probation” (resulting in an asterisk beside the school name, which she references towards the end of her speech) for low test scores! That was considered a major victory, as she describes below.

Thus, I provide this speech as a good review of my last year working at my school. It was the best job I've ever had! As an added bonus, I'm throwing in a picture of my new hairstyle (at least for awhile). Now the back of my head really is my best side!


"The heights that great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they while their companion slept
Were toiling upward in the night."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Indeed, this has been the mode of the journey for us as a school in the 2016-2017 school year, and before that! We have toiled and we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we will reach the heights for which we yearn!

The Thibaud Primary School started the 2016-2017 school year on September 1. Staff engaged in a two-day planning session during which we looked at (1.) “The Qualities of a Good Teacher,” and (2.) “Teacher Behaviour,” among other things.

There was, as usual, that famous pattern of change of staff—a situation that seems to be part of the school life at Thibaud Primary. Staffing was as follows:

Jacintha Marcellin (Principal)
Miss Nicaela Thomas
Miss Christina Poponne

The term started with two teachers and a principal. Miss O'Brien did not report. Forming part of the teaching team, however, were Miss Tara Joseph, a Teacher’s College trainee, and Mr. David Kurtz, who was on his second year as Peace Corps volunteer.

Students reported for classes on September 5, 2017 with 27 boys and 7 girls. Miss Nicaela Thomas was assigned to Grade 5 and 6 and Miss Poponne to Grade 4 and 5. Miss Poponne, however, held Grade 1 and K until a replacement for Miss O’Brien arrived. The Principal decided to work with Grade 3 while Miss Joseph assisted with Grade 4 and 5.

On Monday September 12, 2016, Miss Jewel Honore joined the staff as a substitute for Miss O’Brien and was assigned to K and 1 while Miss Poponne took up Grades 4 and 5. On the 23rd of September, 2016, Mr. Darnil Pierre-Louis joined the Thibaud Primary School as an additional member of staff. My request for an added teacher had received a positive response! Doctor Jeffery Blaize, Acting Chief Education Officer, must be thanked for his support and consideration. Thibaud Primary School could better share the work load having four teachers instead of three. Mr. Pierre-Louis was assigned to Grade 3.

Workshops, sporting activities and in particular ill-health among staff continued to affect classroom instruction and school management as was in previous years. None-the-less, every effort was made to provide pupils with quality instruction and quality time!


In Term 1, our school participated in the National Youth Rally as well as the Northern Youth Rally planned by the Portsmouth Town Council. Students presented themselves well. Students also participated in the Independence Athletics Meet. Students were able to secure first and second places. Our school also observed Creole Day with the usual Creole Lunch and Creole activities.

Community Day of Service was a First Term Highlight! School embarked upon some landscaping and yard beautification. The major project of the day, however, was the mounting of lunch benches that were sponsored by the National Cooperative Credit Union—NCCU. Forming part of the work crew was a team of 15 American college students from the Sea-mester program which had stopped in Portsmouth for the day. These students worked tete-a-tete with school, mounting the tables, scrubbing the pavements and painting tyres! The American students were treated with a buffet style lunch of breadfruit and salt fish, vegetable salad, and fruits while coconut jelly was an added treat. It was amazing to see the college boys attempt to break coconuts.

Also on Community Day of Service, Thibaud Primary was also favoured with the presence of the United States Ambassador and two other officials. One of our girls dressed in our national wear had the privilege of presenting the Ambassador with a gift, and sharing a photo-taking moment with her! It was a memorable occasion indeed!

Permit me to highlight the efforts of Miss Nicaela Thomas and Miss Tara Joseph, as well as Cindy Letang and Mr. Paul for their tremendous contribution towards the success of the day. The ladies, in particular, worked tirelessly in the kitchen. Of course none of these would most likely have happened had it not been for the influence of Mr. David Kurtz, our friend and Peace Corps Volunteer.

In November we received reading books and other teaching and learning resources from Hands-across-the Sea and from friends of Mr. Kurtz. Through Mr. Kurtz’s effort our school has been made richer and more self-reliant!

Also in November we held our first ever Book Fair. This was spearheaded by David. Parental support was lacking. However, a few parents (the usual) came to visit the fair. Thank You for your support. Forming a special part of the Book Fair were Mrs. Catherine Francois, our PTA President, and Mrs. Deborah Fabien who came to read to the pupils.

School reopened for Second Term on January 7, 2017. Dr. Jeffery Blaize, Acting Chief Education Officer and Miss Bernette of the Ministry of Education, facilitated a workshop on “Roles and Responsibilities of Teachers and Principals.” It was timely, informative, and meaningful. Miss Bernette expressed deep pleasure for being at Thibaud Primary and described our school as quote “It’s homey here!” unquote.

School officially opened for students on Monday, January 9, 2017. Staff remained unchanged. School plunged into teaching and learning immediately. On January 12, 2017, we were once again visited by the U.S Ambassador. She actually spent about 15 minutes reading aloud to the students. She presented us with four reading books.

In February our boys participated in the North-Eastern District Football Festival, looking great in their new football uniforms. Thibaud Primary made it to the semi-finals and losing only to Calibishie in the finals. Later in the school year, five of our footballers were selected to form part of the District Team. The North-Eastern District won the tournament. Mr. Sango had this to say: “Your boys made me proud!”

During the month of March, another team of American students with the Sea-mester sailing program came to visit us. Much could not be done due to rain, but it was a well-spent day. Some of the students assisted in writing sight words on the school wall while others spent time with the students.

On March 13, school observed Commonwealth Day. Every class presented on a selected Commonwealth country. It was a meaningful and learning exercise.

On March 15, school participated in French Spelling Bee and placed 2nd among eight schools, losing by one word. We owe this performance to who presented herself excellently. Our four Grade 6 students were privileged to go on a sailing trip along the Cabrits-Toucari coastline. From all reports it was a memorable experience. Students were given the opportunity to learn marine science, get a feel of sailing, and have fun. Thanks again to Mr. Kurtz and his American friends, the Howards.

School also observed Math Week. The week was a bit low keyed but students were engaged in Math games on the last day of the Math Week. It was a fun, as well as learning exercise.

Term 3 opened as before with teachers experiencing ill-health. The days seem to fly! None-the-less, as a staff we worked hard to do what was necessary to help our students experience success. School engaged in several activities such as district netball and cricket festivals, and joined the local health team in an Immunization March. There were field trips and other in-school activities. The term was a packed and demanding one.

It was a year of the usual assessments and competitions. During the months of October students of Grade 3 did the Grade 2 National Assessments while Grade 5 did the Grade 4 National Assessments. Students were tested in Mathematics, Reading, Writing and Speaking. A few students of Grade 5 performed at the A level in Reading and Writing but the Grade 3 results remain a major concern! There is a great deal of work to do. Students must learn to read and write at the A level.

On May 25 and 26 four of our students sat the G6NA. (This will be highlighted later.)

Students of K and 1 did the CBM – that is Curriculum Base Measurement. It is an assessment that tests students in areas of Mathematics and Reading measuring how quickly and accurately they count, say letter sounds, recognize letters of the alphabet, and read simple passages. We will know how our students performed in the new school year.

School engaged in several activities such as 4H Festival under the leadership of Miss Honore. We placed 1st in the 4H / Agriculture Quiz and 2nd in the Public Speaking Competition. It was an ego- boosting performance.

The Thibaud Primary School continues to maintain a school feeding programme. There is a House system in operation and an active 4H Club. With the help of Mr. Bernard Bontiff we were able to harvest lettuce which was used in our school kitchen.

Results of the G6NA were not what we had expected and worked towards. We waited eagerly for the results but when the results came we were truly disappointed, not necessarily in our students or ourselves as teachers but in the fact that our hard work seemed not enough!

In 2014, our theme was “Preparing for the Harvest,” in 2015, “Making Every Obstacle a Launching Pad for Success.” In 2016, “Staying Focused: Looking Straight Ahead.” Today we celebrate the 2016-2017 school year and look forward to the 2017-2018 school year under the theme, “Realizing Dreams and Aspiration Despite Difficulties.” We did not get the Bursaries or Scholarships for which we yearned and towards which we worked so hard, but we have achieved something of which we should be proud. From 2011 and maybe before that and up to 2015, the Thibaud Primary Schools has had one or two asterisks place after the ‘l’. We hated to see it for it was another way of saying ‘Poorly Done!’ For five years in a row we saw these *. Today they are not there. This was one of our aspirations!

The * is placed by schools with 30% of students receiving 85% or less. Our average score was 97%. It should have been much better still but we are proud that we have removed the asterisks. Our students got scores in Science and Social Studies that helped us rise above the national average. Hats off to them!

Today as a school we do not bow our head in shame, nor walk with shoulders stooped. We may have felt disappointed but we are not deflated. We are not discouraged. We have work to do and next year is going to be better than before.

As the apostle Paul stated in Philippians 3, verse 13-14 “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead I press toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Indeed it is a waste of time and energy to cry over what should have been. There is work to do! Let us as a school continue pressing towards success no matter how difficult the journey!

The teachers alone cannot make it happen. The Thibaud Primary School needs your support. If you listened to the Press Conference when results were released you must have heard the Chief. Parental support is very important to student success. The students need homes to which they can go for help, parents who take time to work with them or seek help for them. Primary grade students cannot make it on their own! Today I want to challenge you (parents and villagers) to change your approach to your child’s education and change your attitude toward the Thibaud Primary School. Be positive! Be supportive!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Courts for Kids

Nearly a year ago, I first learned of an American charity called “Courts for Kids” (CFK). We probably need new bridges, road repairs, or other items in my village worse than we needed a basketball court, but after talking with some Village Council members, I decided to put in an application and see what happened. [The photo below was taken during our lobster dinner explained further below, but I wanted to begin by showing off my shirt for the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps first coming to Dominica.]
To my surprise, this charity liked the application I sent, and wanted to work with us. They provide $5000 US dollars (about $13,500 Eastern Caribbean dollars, which will be used for the remainder of this story), which is about half the cost to build a court (thus local money must be raised to cover the costs, but assistance can also come from donations to the project by American friends). Plus, CFK provides the revenue for feeding, lodging, and transporting (once they reach the island) a group of volunteers that they assemble and send down for a week. The volunteers (often school or employee groups) live in the village and eat what residents eat (including local delicacies such as pig snout and sea snails)—in essence they sign up for a no-frills working vacation in order to experience another culture. Building a big concrete slab is a project that doesn't require a lot of construction expertise, but does require labor. The CFK concept is a brilliant way to bring Americans into contact with the people in developing countries, and ends up being somewhat like a one week Peace Corps experience.
A lot of work and planning went into our project. The total amount of money from CFK was about $27,500 EC. I solicited funds for the remainder of our construction costs from a variety of sources, and thankfully a few responded. Many of my friends made contributions to CFK (I appreciate what you did so much!), which added another $5000 EC. The government of Dominica kicked in $9000 EC to support us. The National Cooperative Credit Union (NCCU) gave $500 EC, plus provided us with their distinctive blue and gold paint (which resulted in their initials being added to the backboards). NCCU also loaned us fans and water dispensers for the week. The Peace Corps let me use a few extra water filters for the week, too. The Office of Disaster Management permitted us to borrow cots, plus the Sports Ministry allowed us to borrow mattresses for the week. Many of the villagers donated food, as only a few could donate any cash. When you consider the money spent on the island by the work team (some of whom vacationed on either side of our work week), this project was approaching a $50,000 impact.
But there were other factors far more important than the financial impact. First, this will be a nice enhancement for the community. Not only will school children (and other villagers) be able to play basketball there, we also set it up so that netball, tennis, and volleyball can also be played on the court. Since we never had a playing court in the past, it will bring a big improvement to the sports skills of those who use it. Plus, to further broaden the appeal to villagers, we also used this project to enhance our football (soccer) field with new goals and nets, which were badly needed.
The court will also provide a setting for outdoor events such as the annual Ross University health fair and the village council inauguration ceremonies, which previously were held under temporary tents on the grounds of the playing field (which became muddy if it rained). There is already talk of holding concerts and dances there. I'm sure there will be other uses over the years ahead.
However, the court itself is not what is important with this project. The true essence of this amazing collaboration is that 23 Americans flew to Dominica to live in a local village, rather than in a nice hotel. They worked alongside the community members to build this court. They interacted with them, learned how they live, ate what the typical resident eats, and realized what an incredible place this truly is. My village welcomed them with open arms, and the love was quickly reciprocated. It was beautiful to see. Many lives were touched.
Not only did the love grow between my village and the volunteer group, but it was also interesting to see this diverse group of volunteers bond together. There were nine students plus a teacher from Xavier High School in Appleton, Wisconsin. Two other classmates from a school in Portland, Oregon, met a mother and her high school aged daughter from nearby Vancouver, Washington (located across the state border from Portland, Oregon) at the airport, and the four quickly became friends. There were seven employees from Kaiser Permanente health organization, some of whom had participated in previous CFK projects (see them in their matching shirts below). Finally, to bring the total to 23, there was a young woman and her boyfriend (a civil engineer) who served as the representatives for the CFK organization. She had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and had won a CFK grant for her community a few years ago. These two especially were an immense help to me.
It all got started on Saturday, July 15, when the two CFK representatives arrived. They came early and stayed in Roseau to explore the southern end of the island before the work started, but I went with them from the airport to Roseau so we could strategize. Then on Thursday, a couple of the workers came a bit early to explore. Finally, on Friday, July 21, the bulk of the crew arrived. [Unfortunately, a couple of the suitcases did not make it on their flight, and those affected had to wait until the next day.] Upon arrival, they moved into the two “dorms.” The boys lived in the old pre-school building, while the girls lived in the new pre-school (which are directly across the river from each other and easily accessible.
Their first work day was July 22. Some helped with setting up the worksite, while others worked on a beach cleanup. We also gave them an orientation to the village, taking them to the bat cave, l'islette, and the spring. We also demonstrated how to cross the narrow I-beam bridge across the river (shown above). It was a day for most of these strangers to get to know each other better. At dinner that night, they were treated by a concert by the Paix Bouche Drummers, a cultural group from a neighboring community.
Sunday morning they attended the Catholic church service, and were very impressed with the Caribbean style music. After a delicious brunch, they loaded onto the large bus, and got a tour of the northern part of the island. We drove through the neighboring town of Vieille Case, checking out the church and the Prime Minister's home. We stopped at an overlook that provided a view of one of the locations used in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Then we hiked up to the Bwa Nef waterfall. They had a good time in the falls, and marveled at the two boulders that precariously straddle the walls above the waterfall.
The bus then drove through Penville before starting up a long, long hill, before finally crossing over the lip on an old volcano crater. Once inside the crater, we visited the Cold Soufriere, where sulfuric gases still bubble up inside this dormant volcano. The students, who were amazed at the road up the slope of the crater, nicknamed our driver “Mr. Frizzle”--after the teacher in the popular “Magic School Bus” books.
After the Cold Soufriere, we drove to Cabrits National Park (shown above), where they enjoyed exploring Fort Shirley (I had arranged for free admission for our group at all the national parks because of the good deed they were performing for us). We finished Sunday by watching the sun set over Douglas Bay. It was a good introduction to the island.
Monday morning was a hard core work day, as the mixers started, the wheelbarrows rolled, the shovels flew, and the cement was poured. By the end of the day, we had completed more than half of the court. Monday also included a visit by some of the other Peace Corps Volunteers from around the island, along with the Director of Peace Corps for the Eastern Caribbean, who wanted to see this project. One of the other Peace Corps Volunteers from nearby Bense brought along the dance group from her school to perform at lunch (shown below).
After a hard day of work, the volunteers joined the local kids for a swim in the ocean (which became a daily practice). My students loved this!
Monday ended with dinner, which included a visit by Captain Don (he captains the sailboat I've gone on a few times, plus is a scuba instructor) and a couple of his scuba diving friends. They had caught about 30 pounds of lion fish to donate to this project. They also gave a talk to the students about lion fish, an invasive species (which began as an aquarium fish) with no natural predators that is hurting the coral reefs. Just as we were leaving that night after dark, some locals were eager to point out the baby turtles that were hatching and heading to the sea (yes, that is my hand shown in the picture below, but I had learned how to handle turtles during this previous story). How fortuitous for this rare occurrence to happen during their visit!
Tuesday was another hard work day, but the good news was that we finished the slab in two days (our court was a bit smaller than regulation, so that it didn't impede on the cricket boundary). Everyone felt good about the progress we had made. We celebrated with Dominican fireworks (burning steel wool that is twirled to give it more oxygen to burn hotter, with sparks flying off from the centrifugal force).
Wednesday was an easier day, after two very hard days. We worked on the backboards, the poles, and other chores. Some landscaping was done at the school as well. The volunteers also painted a nice “handprint” sign on the river wall near the court (shown near the end of this story). More baby turtles hatched in the afternoon, adding to the excitement. After dinner, the Americans threw together a “thank you” party for the community volunteers. The love was growing!
Thursday was their designated tourism day, to see some of the more famous sites in the southern part of the island (where the cruise ships dock). It meant a lot of bus riding, but they seemed to enjoy the day. It started at beautiful Emerald Pool, then went to Freshwater Lake, to Trafalgar Falls, and to a hot sulphur spring spa.
The day ended with a fantastic lobster dinner as we watched the sun set into the Caribbean at Sunset Bay (where my picture at the beginning of this story was taken). The high school boys enjoyed skipping flat stones across the tranquil Caribbean as they watched the sun's last glints.
The last work day on Friday saw the backboards and hoops installed. We finally got to take the first shots on the new court. The new soccer (football) goals were also painted and put up, with the new nets connected to them. The big bag of Courts for Kids balls was opened, and soon everyone was playing on the court and on the field. It was great to see the American volunteers playing with the locals! Everyone was so happy to have this project completed. The week ended Friday night with a bonfire on the beach.
This project required a lot of work on my part. I could have “coasted out” once school was completed, but instead I was extremely busy (even now after the volunteers have left, as I work to return borrowed items and generally wrap up the project). There were times, especially before the volunteers arrived, when I wondered whether this was going to be worth the hassles. However, the court is already getting heavy use, as is the new football goals and nets. The school received several improvements as well (including uprights for a tarp to provide a sun shade over the picnic tables). These physical improvements will mean a lot to my village.
But these physical improvements pale in comparison to the good that came out of this cultural exchange between the visiting Americans and the people of my village. In just one short week, these Americans could tell what a fantastic community this is. I feel as if I hit the Peace Corps jackpot when it comes to assignments! Community spirit is strong in this progressive little village, as evidenced by our upcoming village feast, as well as our own carnival celebration, community service day, and more. Perhaps the biggest example was the amount of work this village did following Tropical Storm Erika, by proactively digging out landslides with shovel and wheelbarrows rather than awaiting the government to arrive with heavy equipment (as most other places did).
It is the cooperative and welcoming spirit of my villagers that really made this project such a huge success. I hope that some day in the future, these American volunteers make a return trip to Dominica and visit this particular village to see the court they helped build. I bet they will be greeted with open arms by the same villagers who befriended them this past week. The word will quickly spread throughout the village that one of our American friends has returned for a visit. The residents here will never forget the week when their village was “invaded” by benevolent Americans. It was truly beautiful, and well worth the few hassles. I'd highly recommend that other Peace Corps Volunteers, as well as any Americans interested in service travel, check out Courts for Kids.

P.S. You might enjoy seeing these videos made by two of the American volunteers during our trip.