In exactly a week I will be headed back to Sofia for my final close of service activities - mostly signing off on documents. However, this is also a time for reflection. I filled out my final Volunteer Report Form and my Description of Service recently, and this has put into numerical terms (no easy task) the things I have done here. It is exceptionally hard to number what I have done here. The Peace Corps has told us since day 1 that, as youth development volunteers, we will most likely not see most of the fruits of our labor.
That is especially true with my work at the Detski Yasli (Preschool) here in Preslav. My last day at the Yasli was today, and it was representative of my entire experience there. The children there can call me by name (Bati Greg - "Brother Greg"), and are excited when I play with them and spend time teaching them basic skills. However, when I leave it is as though I am a non-person. The children do not need me there, and yet I still have had some sort of impact on their development.
Youth development, by nature, is a very vague and immaterial assignment. We YD volunteers often joke about "developing the youth," as if that were a concrete and specific task to achieve. In reality, we just do what we think is best for the children. In this country, there is a severe lack of motivation among child care workers. Many times people are employed at child care institutions because it is available and "easy" work, rather than out of a sincere desire to work with the children. For these workers, "developing the youth" is often the last thing on their mind, which makes our work all the more frustrating.
At the Yasli, this was especially evident. With a background in child development I was eager to teach the children there some basic reading skills and some other things. The employees all but laughed at me the first time I brought the subject up, telling me that since they are so little they can not achieve or learn anything. In fact, it is at this stage of development at which the foundations of development are formed, making this time one of the most vital stages in a child's life. I have had some success in teaching basic skills to the children there - namely teaching the children how to count and in some social skills. It was when I started doing this that the staff perhaps realized that spending the time to teach the youngest children (rather than simply watch them) might have a positive impact.
In my opinion this is what youth development is really all about. Not only are we assigned to help the youth, but also to help develop the capacity of the people who work at these institutions. A large part of my work here is uncountable, since it is mainly in just having conversations with people about the abilities and strengths of the children I work with. Even a chance encounter with a neighbor is a "youth development activity," as the subject of the children I work with is inevitably a topic of discussion. People are often surprised when I tell them about how a preschooler I work with can count to ten and sing the alphabet. They are similarly surprised when I tell them that not all the kids I work with at the orphanage are criminals, and are in fact very nice children who perform well in school.
Much of my last week here at the orphanage will be spent in the same way I have been spending my time throughout the past 2 years. I will still be convincing the community members and staff that the children are capable of achieving wonderful things. This is evident in that I was able to teach several illiterate children (some as old as 5th grade) how to read and write, or how to do basic math - something that was never a focus before. Now, some of the orphanage workers have started working with the children one on one to catch them up. It is this achievement that I am most proud of, but the one that is hardest to describe in words and numbers. How do you put in numbers the fact that because of your work, some people might have a more positive view of at risk children and may be more willing to work with them?
I will post my Description of Service here later in order to try to show what I have done here to you all, but really they are just words. I cannot put into words the feelings I have had here and the things I have learned. How do you express in words the feeling when a child says, "You are like a father to me." This coming from a 10 year old child who hasn't seen his father in 5 years, and to a guy who has never had any parenting experience outside of a class in college. I can't tell you the emotions I went through when he told me that. The same day, another boy spit on me and threw walnuts at my face. It is because of this that I have such a hard time talking about my time here.
Perhaps someday I will be able to sort it all out, but for now all I have is the memories. I am forever a changed man for having experienced what I did here. I can only hope that I have been a positive force in the kids' lives.
Sorry that this has been a somewhat jumbled and disjointed post. As you can tell there has been a lot on my mind as I wrap up my service. I hope to write a more cohesive post soon.