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.

Monday, July 17, 2017


Well, I got to cross another item off my bucket list. I finally got to try "swimming with the fishes" using a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus—better known by the acronym “scuba.”

I learned that Dominica would be celebrating DiveFest this month, and that on Saturday, July 15, anyone could show up at Purple Turtle Beach and get the chance to strap on an air tank and “blow bubbles” underwater. I alerted the other Peace Corps Volunteers on the island, and one of them chose to join me. However, he wasn't the only person I knew who was present.

Because I enjoy giving my students new experiences, I brought along one of the sixth graders. He had recently scored the highest on the sixth grade national exam, so this was a reward from me for his efforts. He is also the best swimmer among all my students, and had already started doing snorkeling and free diving with some of the teenagers in the village. I felt he would enjoy this unique opportunity that he otherwise would never have had the chance to try.
Another reason to only bring along one child is because there was a second offer on this day (which, with more students, would have become very expensive). At Purple Turtle Beach, you could learn the basics and then go into the water, but you were only swimming in shallow water maybe six feet deep. The bottom was all sand, so it was devoid of interesting scenery. However, if you enjoyed the free introductory session on the beach, for $50 EC (about $20 US) you could go over to the Cabrits National Park and do a longer session off their pier. The scenery is much better over there!
All three of us—the other Peace Corps Volunteer, my student, and myself—enjoyed the introductory session, so we decided to do the $50 deal (meaning I paid a hundred, but it was worth it—the more you give, the more you get). We were given some additional training before we were suited up and taken out to the pier. Unlike at Purple Turtle, we were all in the same group, so no one was able to take pictures. Thus, all the pictures in this story came from the beach dive (along with one above showing my student learning the basics of CPR, which was also being demonstrated at a beach gazebo as part of DiveFest).
I was the first to jump in from the pier where big ships dock, such as the Sea Cloud in this previous story. Following the instructions from our instructor, I placed the arch of my flippered feet on the very edge of the pier. Holding one hand on my regulator and mask, and the other on my weight belt, I lunged one foot forward to jump in the water. Once everyone was in and ready, we went down maybe 20 feet to a large flat patch of sand in the midst of the boulders and coral under the water.
A huge school of gray fish watched us with seeming curiosity as we descended. Our instructor, using sign language, told us to sit down on our knees on the bottom, as he demonstrated a few of the instructions we had covered before coming down (how to clear water from our mask, how to purge the regulator if it came out of our mouth, etc.). It was so bizarre to be kneeling on the sandy bottom of this underwater world, yet still breathing relatively effortlessly!
The tricky part of scuba diving is the need to equalize the pressure on your eardrums as you go deeper. Our brief experience in the shallow waters on the beach was not deep enough to cause any problems. However, in deeper water, you need to pinch your nostrils shut and force air into your Eustachian tubes to counteract the increasing pressure of the water. I was able to do it well enough to get through the dive, but I don't consider myself a master of this technique. Just like most things, I'm sure with more practice, this standard technique becomes quite easy.
I enjoyed exploring the sea bottom, with its incredible variety of life. I saw some of the same fish I described in my previous blog post about snorkeling. However, this time I was able to swim at their level, rather than simply gazing down from the surface of the water. To be breathing underwater while free to move around was a surreal experience. I'm very glad I was able to add this to the list of adventures I have enjoyed while serving with the Peace Corps on the Nature Isle of Dominica.

With this little excursion completed, my focus has shifted back to preparations for the Courts for Kids project. The 23 Americans will be arriving in the village this Friday. I hope it turns out to be successful!

Friday, July 7, 2017

My July (so far)

This month has been epic so far, with several significant events. Allow me to give you a brief glimpse of my past week.
It started on Saturday, July 1, when the Peace Corps Volunteers in Dominica gathered at Mero Beach to celebrate America's Independence Day. We had to do it on July 1 because obviously July 4th is not a holiday here—it was just another school day. Mero Beach has been described as the most “American” of Dominica's beaches, so it was appropriate to gather there. Below is a picture taken of our group (which included some special local friends who were also invited to join us).
On Sunday afternoon (July 2) in my village, the preschool held its graduation ceremony at the Pentecostal Church. It was so packed that I had to watch through the windows from the outside. These little children were so cute in their graduation robes. In the picture below taken on the front porch of the church, the leader of the preschool is organizing them for their entrance into the building.
Monday was a regular work day, albeit the first day of the last week of school. Tuesday was busy after school, as I had back-to-back committee meetings. The first was related to the Courts for Kids project, followed immediately by the Village Feast committee meeting. I've kept very busy with Village Council, credit union, and other committee meetings outside of the school day. I've had some weeks where there was a meeting each night. However, I enjoy staying busy, especially when comes to helping the good folks in my village.

After the second meeting concluded, I could finally meet up with the kids in the village to celebrate America's Independence Day on the actual Fourth of July. Fireworks are a big part of July 4th in America. In Dominica, I have not seen the kind of fireworks we have back home. What Dominica calls fireworks is much simpler—a steel wool pad tied to a string, which is then lit and twirled. The speed of the rotation adds oxygen to the smoldering steel wool, leading to a hotter burn and sparks being ejected by the centrifugal force.

While I was home for my daughter's wedding, I decided to improve on the basic concept. I brought back a small wire cage that my dad had used for putting suet cakes on the bird feeder. It holds the steel wool much better than a simple string. The photo above shows a girl twirling my firework cage by simply holding the short chain that attaches to the door. However, it didn't take long to discover that the best sparks came from rotating it with a full arm, windmill effect, especially if you lightly grazed the concrete street surface to bounce off more sparks, as shown below. It was a great way to celebrate America's 241st birthday!
Wednesday was graduation day. Last year my school did not have any 6th graders at all, so this was my first experience with their primary school graduation ceremony. It was held at the Catholic Church, the largest building in the village. There were numerous awards, a keynote speaker, a state-of-the-school report from the principal, special music, and much more.
The photo at the very top of this story was taken by one of my students as we prepared for the ceremony (notice the necktie I purchased here--it is a traditional Creole design). The picture just above this paragraph shows one of our four 6th graders exuberantly “dancing” down the aisle, celebrating her last moments as a primary school student, during the recessional at the end of the ceremony.
I want to share the pictures of these two wonderful students. The boy above scored the highest on the 6th grade national exam. The girl below won the “Most Outstanding Student” award (shown with her teacher, Miss Thomas, who is an excellent instructor). Both students are great kids. If I had extended for a third year, I would dearly miss all four of these 6th graders next year!
Their big day was not over yet for these four graduates. The staff (along with some parents) took them to a “graduation party” at a nice little restaurant on the island that features a small swimming pool. I was the only adult who jumped in the pool to swim with the kids (as shown below), and we had a blast! I think they will remember their graduation day for a long time!
On Thursday, most all of the students participated with our school field trip. We piled onto two large vans and went to the southern tip of the island. I've written before about Scotts Head, the unique southwestern tip of the island, where a narrow strip of land separates the Atlantic from the Caribbean. I took the picture below as we hiked up the hill.
Later, I tried to take a group picture at one of the old cannon placements, but most of them were more interested in the incredible view.
Then we headed over to the Soufriere church, which I previously wrote about here (and it became one of my most popular stories). This time, since no one was there with me, I went up the steps and snapped this photo from the balcony.
After eating our lunches in the shade near the church, we headed to the hot sulphur springs at Soufriere. Below is a picture of the children (and some parents) frolicking in the mineral-laden water.
On the way back home, we stopped at a local convenience store (called the 7-11, but it is not related to the American chain). I contributed towards ice cream cones for all the children as a grand finale. It had been a big day! Then, as we passed the small airstrip known as the Canefield Airport, I snapped this picture of the sun setting into the Caribbean (a view we never get on the Atlantic side of the island).
Friday there was no school for the students, but staff reported to work. It was bittersweet for me, because I am realizing that I may not see some of my coworkers anytime soon (I'm the only one who lives in the village). They have meant so much to me during my two years here. I owe much of whatever small successes I have had here to their support. They don't have a lot to work with, but they work very hard. I'm proud to have served with them. Plus, I will always have this keepsake scrapbook of wonderful pictures that they made for me and presented at the graduation ceremony this week. They said they wanted me to always remember them, but I assured them that I will never forget my time here!

P.S. I'm also very proud of my friends who made contributions to my Courts for Kids project. Altogether, you contributed nearly $2000 US dollars for my village, which will help us finish our court as well as make other smaller community improvements. When converted to Eastern Caribbean dollars, it is over $5000—a big help that will truly make a difference.

While I won't post names, I thought I would list the initials of each donor below. If you tried to donate but don't see your initials listed, feel free to contact me to see if your donation got assigned to a different project (I worry about the Dominican Republic getting confused with Dominica) or if something else went wrong. And once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart!