It’s past 9 am. The event was supposed to start at 7:30. I’ve been here since 6:30. I don’t really mind. For the first time in months muni staff is doing more than sitting around twiddling their thumbs and I’m being included. I feel good about this administration. Two of my favorite people from the past administration have been asked to stay so I have people that understand my spanish and who I can turn to without embarrassment with questions. Meanwhile, those that are new seemed to have been briefed on my role in the office. Many of them have taken the time to reiterate how much they appreciate me being there and how they’re committed to collaborating with me on my projects. My bottle school is on the architect’s to-do list.
The event begins and it’s pretty standard: national hymn, introduction of special guests, lots of clapping and then palabras (words) from every single person on the stage. It’s an event to inaugurate the new school year so most of the palabras are about the value of education and about everyone’s commitment to the children. The mayor gets up to speak and goes through the process of acknowledging everyone assembled. And then he says my name. He spots me in the crowd and thanks me for my commitment to Santa Cruz. He tells me that they are all there to help me and work with me and that he is sure that together we are going to do great things for the community. He says this in English. This isn’t more campaign propaganda, these aren’t words to make him look good to people who didn’t vote for him. These are words that only I can understand. This is a promise to me.
I spend all day putting together a survey to collect data for a baseline analysis of the state of women in the community and to assess their needs. We’ll then use the results to form office objectives and a strategic plan. This is finally a chance to use some of those Evans School skills and will, hopefully, form part of my Degree Project to graduate. Really though, I’m just happy that I’m finally getting a chance to pass along some skills beyond how to better use Microsoft Office. I’m excited to help the office start utilizing management and evaluation tools, tools that will help them better serve the community and improve the lives of women in ways that they can then measure. It’s an opportunity that I just didn’t have with the last administration.
I’m a little overwhelmed, of course. I’ve been sitting around for months and am now being told that they want to start carrying out the survey Monday. But I feel exhilarated and like maybe all those past volunteers were right: the second year is when things happen, the second year is awesome.
I come home and check my email and there it is, an “Important Message” from the country director. I’ve been waiting for this. We’ve all been waiting for this.
I’ve mentioned that volunteers in Honduras were evacuated earlier this month and that due to security concerns in the northern triangle of Central America that Guatemala, along with El Salvador, was “under review”. No one knew what this meant. I even went to a meeting with the director of Peace Corps last week and, while I left reassured that they weren’t shutting down PC Guatemala, I still didn’t really know what was in store. Just that “big changes” were on the way.
Volunteers have become frustrated with the vague emails and uncertainty. Every answer begets a barrage of new questions. They’re confused and worried and angry. But this email, this is the big one:
- No new training classes this year.
- Enforced early COS (close of service) for the volunteers that were supposed to finish in March and July.
- Clustering of volunteers in the Central Western Highlands with site changes or early COS for those currently serving outside of those areas.
The volunteers meet in Xela next week at a mandatory all volunteer conference to get the details. But what is clear is that I won’t be allowed to finish my service here in Santa Cruz.
The months of building relationships, creating a life here… I don’t even know what to say. I put in the work, I was patient and just as things seemed to finally start to fall into place it was torn apart. I made promises to this community and I won’t be able to see those through. I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to the mayor, to my youth groups, to the friends I’ve made here… It took me 15 months to get to this point and the opportunities I am losing can’t be regained or reconstructed.
I get it, of course. Safety is number one and Peace Corps is doing what it feels is best for us. They’re still trying to manage the backlash of last year’s 20/20 report and reeling from several very scary incidents involving volunteers around the world. I don’t envy the Peace Corps staff whatsoever. But it’s become increasingly possible that the crusade in the name of volunteer safety is going to drive out more volunteers than it keeps safe. It’s going to render many months of work and sacrifice basically meaningless.
I know, this all sounds terribly dramatic and I really shouldn’t say much more until after this conference next week when we get more information, when I can start figuring out what comes next. But for right now I’m mourning the loss of my service as I had envisioned it. And it sucks.