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Jumping right in

From alumna Stephanie Phipps, who works for the Peace Corps in community health in Nicaragua:

The first 11 weeks once I arrived in Nicaragua were devoted to a rigorous training program to get us ready to venture out on our own.  I came in with a group of 24 Peace Corps trainees and we were separated by our language level and placed in "training towns."  There we lived with host families who cooked us traditional Nicaraguan meals, helped us with our Spanish homework, and introduced us to life in Nicaragua. 

Each day we had formal Spanish classes in the morning and then the afternoons were devoted to applied Spanish and health training.  We were expected to form a youth club and begin giving them health talks on subjects like self-esteem, goals for life, and sexual health.  We struggled as we tried to absorb all of the health information given to us by our trainers, advance our own Spanish speaking abilities, and meet our project requirements.

My site now is La Villa 15 de Julio in the hot northern province of Chinandega.  The town was named in commemoration of the date in which the Sandinista party took over the region.  My first challenge was integration into the community.  My Spanish was passable but the Spanish got harder to understand the farther I got from the capital of Managua.  I was placed with another host family and was introduced to the Health Center where I would be working for the next two years.  I jumped right into a youth dance club that practiced at the Health Center and started teaching at the local school.  I started by just trying to be as helpful as possible in any way that I could doing odd jobs.  Sometimes I would help in the lab doing HIV and syphilis testing, or I would tag along to visit other communities to go give a talk on a health issue. 

After five months here I have gotten myself a full workload of a range of different things and I feel fairly integrated into the community.  I am the only person charged in the local Health Center with youth development so when we received a psychologist who said that she wanted to help me with my youth groups I was thrilled.  So now I am working closely with her as we are establishing two teen pregnancy groups to meet once a month to educate them on everything from fetal development, nutrition, and birthing plans.  The psychologist also helps with my Youth Health Club where we teach teens about topics including self-esteem and puberty. 

I just formed another dance group, in addition to my pre-existing Dance Club that is exclusively for teenage boys and I have also been asked to teach Hip-Hop to another youth group of the local high school.  In addition to the dancing, I continue to give monthly workshops to the community leaders on how to respond to health situations in their communities.  I have also become a "go-to" volunteer to give HIV talks at billiards tournaments where we try to target the male population. 

The challenges that are presented here are unlike any that I have ever faced.  The biggest is working in a different cultural setting.  Approaching any project here with preconceptions of how it is "supposed" to go leads to great disappointment.  From an outside perspective it is easy to see problems and solutions but it is another matter entirely instilling changes that are sustainable.  And although I may not be able to see great leaps and bounds of progress within my village I am sustained by the kids that love to come out of their houses to show me the pictures that they have drawn, the teachers deciding to make soy hamburgers for their class after a nutrition talk that I gave, my repeat visitors to my house for advice on how to go about projects that they want to do, and the youth that love to dance their hearts out every week with me. 


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