Monday, December 28, 2009

A Beach Outing and Christmas Celebrations

Good afternoon and a late Merry Christmas to you all. I hope that you all had a chance to celebrate the birth of our Savior with family and friends. Christmas was more simple for me this year. Although I dearly missed family and friends, it allowed me to meditate on the meaning of Christmas without a lot of the distractions and busyness that the season can sometimes bring.

The past two and a half weeks have been very exciting. Here´s a quick snapshot:
--Made latrine holes and floors for two houses

--Finished the seasonal calendar for one community

--Began work in a different community, havnig a general meeting and then walking up to the springbox

--Hosted the regional leader for a day, when we walked the acueduct line, had lunch, and a small interview to see how I´m adjusting to the Peace Corps lifestyle. She remarked that my spanish has improved--I was surprised she could tell!

--Met with a previous Peace Corps Master´s International student, who returned to Panama and is now married and expecting her first child

--Enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Story drama with my community

The highlight of the past couple weeks was heading to the beach near Remedios with my host family just before Christmas for 2 days. We walked for two hours and then rode on the back of a farm truck to the beach--I felt like I was on the Jurassic Park ride as I was looking at all the animals from the back of the truck.

The next day we hiked to the mangrove forest, where we climbed up and down tree roots to find conch shells hidden beneath the tree roots. After getting thirsty, my host dad climbed up the coconut tree to get fresh cocunuts to drink. Returning to the mangrove forest, we went crab hunting. The process is to blindly stick your hand in a crab hole until either you grab the crab or the crab grabs you.

The day was rounded out by finding iguanas in the trees and then killing them with a rock flung by a slingshot. My host father missed the first one, but got the next four on his first shot. In case you were wondering, the meat tastes surprisingly like chicken.

Highlights for the next month include celebrating New Years, visiting with my environmental Health Director, and awaiting the arrival of my fiancee in February.

I wish you all a new year full of family, health, hope and new beginnings!
    1 Peter 1:3
    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Second Month on Site

Good evening!

I hope this entry finds everyone well and in good spirits. It´s hard to belive Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas is on its way. I´ve missed entirely the changing colors of the leaves, the family Thanksgiving dinner in Wausau, and the arrival of snow on the ground and christmas songs on the air. I´ll have to celebrate the season with you all via internet this year!

Since I wrote to you all last, I´ve spent a few more weeks working on site and also managed to attend a Thanksgiving celebration, both of which I´ll detail through words below and through pictures on the right margin.

1. Life on Site

Here are some tidbits that may give you a better idea of what I´ve been up to in my site lately.

Community Activities

House visits--drew maps of current water taps and latrines

English class--I´m teaching a class of about 20 students of mixed ages once a week. Topics this week included contractions, what is this?, and the numbers 1-10.

Church--I´ve attended church Saturdays between 9 and 12 in the morning. They´ve even asked me to help lead bible study and sing in a quartet!

Community Analysis--I´ve helped lead activities like gathering census data, writing down their community history and stories, community maps, and daily schedules.

Work days--I helped clean the cemetery before their Memorial Day and also helped clean the acueduct line with my good ole machete. They´ve told me that nothing is safe when a machete is in my hands, as I accidently chiopped down a neighbor´s bean plant.

Settlers of Catan--You read this right. I taught my counterpart how to play, so next is getting a full group of 4 to play.

Dominoes--My community gathers at my host family´s house to play dominoes a couple times a week. They better look out--I´m beginning to catch on to the strategies.

Phone Calls

Sarah--We´ve been able to talk through a bible study chapter and a Sacred Marriage chapter every week. Phone calls to her are definitely a highlight of my day :)

Family--It was sad not to be with them on Thanksgiving, but I look forward to their visit next year. Emily comes back in less than a week, so at least they´ll have one more kid back in the house for Christmas!

Jon--We chatted over Skype--Panama to Uganda! I´m envious of his household internet connection.

Nate--Chatting with him brought back fond memories of late night conversations in Chadbourne 811 sophomore year.

Marcia--It was nice to chat with Marcia and remember Peter Bosscher together. Conversations at the Bosscher household are a big reason why I´m writing this blog post from Panama today.

Grandma Lorraine--She said, ¨Your voice is so clear it seems like you´re next door!¨I miss chatting with my grandma on a weekly basis!

Daily Study Material

David C. Cook Bible Lesson Commentary

Un Pueblo en Marcha: A Study of the Book of Numbers (Bible)

Ngabere Indiginous Language Training

ArcGIS Computer Program Training

Books I´ve Read Recently

Participatory Analysis for Community Action, Peace Corps

Classroom Management Idea Book, Peace Corps

A Handbook of Gravity Flow Water Systems, Thomas D. Jordan

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Yann Martel

The Tailor of Panama, John LeCarre

Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas

up next: The White Man´s Burden, William Easterly

2. Thanksgiving

A group of veteran Peace Corps volunteers organized a group get-together for Thanksgiving in Cerro Punta, in the western mountains of Panama, north of David by about 2 hours. The air was fresh and cool--I finally got to use my treasured hooded sweatshirt. Strawberries, coffee, and stories were in abundance.

I was able to catch up with quite a few other volunteers about their first months on site and was comforted to know that our stories of adjusting to a new lifestyle, stomach pains included, were common to us all. I managed to fit in 3 games of Settlers of Catan in during the two day trip, somehow winning all 3.

After a morning hike and a reward of strawberries and whipped cream, the Thanksgiving dinner finally arrived at 4pm. There was much rejoicing. Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, the meal included turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, bread, butter, apple crisp, pumpkin pie, and more. I won´t say how much I ate, but if I was counting calories, it may have passed the 5000 mark. After eating rice three times a day for a month, I was definitely very thankful for a wonderful Thanksgiving meal among my Peace Corps family.

Things I´m Thankful For

An all-powerful God, who has done and will do more than I can ask or imagine

A wonderful, loving fiance

A caring, supportive family

Good health and sufficient food on site

Friends and family spread across the US

The ability to serve God through the Peace Corps

A great host family and training experience this past August through October

The ability to maintain contact to loved ones through cell phones, blogs, and pictures

A welcoming, eager group of people to work with on site for the next two years

A fellow Christian to study the Bible with during training

The ability to serve in the Peace Corps and get a Master´s degree, all the while enjoying the experience

A church to go to and Christians to support me on a daily basis

The ability to explore God´s creation here in Panama, the sunsets over the Pacific, the fresh taste of strawberries, the birds soaring overhead, the true joy and laughter of people living in material poverty

YOU, for supporting me in my journey

Luke 1:46-57 says

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior

for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant...

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down the rulers from their thrones, but he has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things, but he has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful

To Abraham and his descendents forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

Blessings to you this holiday season,


Thursday, November 19, 2009

1st Month on Site


I apologize for the long delay in blog posts. I´ve added some photos and captions to Picasa, which can be accessed here:

I´ve really enjoyed my time on site thus far. My community is situated within biking distance of the beach and is up in the hills a bit, so I can call back to my wonderful fiance and have a wonderful view at the same time! My house is without electricity, but has a water tap, pit latrine, and a bucket shower. The people here speak Spanish and the indiginous language Ngabere, so I´m working on two languages during my time here. They´ve even given me a Ngabere name: Idoli Gudubu (Idoli from Gudubu, the community name in Ngabere).

A normal day for me is waking up around 6:30am, showering, praying, reading the bible, having breakfast, and studying Ngabere. I´ve been attending the church and they gave me a spanish bible and daily reading material, which has been helpful to keep studying the bible and to expand my spanish vocabulary!

The days are spent between three communities, where I have been walking around visiting the families and talking to them about latrines, acueducts, and teaching them some english words. I´ve met with the communities to draw some community maps, which helps me understand how they see their own community and helps me find my way around as well. I am currently in the process of writing down their census data, history, stories past down from the older generations, daily activity schedules, and yearly schedules. I´m also giving some presentations on latrine use, how to address acueduct problems, and will be giving my first english class this upcoming weekend--should be exciting!

The evenings are usually spent having dinner with my host family and then playing dominoes, talking, calling my beautiful fiance, or reading a book. I´m in bed most nights by around 10pm or so--that´s late!

I really appreciate the kind messages of support, so keep them coming! Thanks for keeping in touch!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Week 10: Swear-In today!


I am in the last week of training here in Panama City. Everyone in our group of 36 volunteers has stuck it out through training and is set to swear-in this afternoon. We will be presented to various ministries here in Panama during a ceremony with the US Ambassador. There are some rumors about some special guests from the Panamanian government as well.

I thought it would be a good idea to give you a glimpse at what the next few months will have in store for me. The first few months are geared towards integrating and understanding the community, thus you won't see too much in the way of building physical things. The work done now in knowing and understanding the community will be very beneficial later as we start more construction-related things.

1. Peace Corps Volunteer Swear-In: October 22

2. Settle in to site: October 25
---Basic needs
---Observation, journaling, listening, appreciative inquiry

3. Community Introduction--Proyecto Amistad (Project Friendship)
---Environmental Health Project Presentation
---Initial Needs Assessment

4. Community Mapping with guides and counterparts

5. House visits and informal presentations

6. Group-based informal presentations

7. Regional Governmental Organization (GO) and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) introductions with Peace Corps Regional Leader

8. Community Analysis with guide and community partners

9. Finish Peace Corps Volunteer housing arrangements

10. Regional Leader Visit: November-December 2009

11. Associate Peace Corps Director Visit
---Work plan visioning
---Project Management and Leadership
---Technical follow-up

12. Regional Meeting: End of January

It is hard to believe all the information I've learned and the places I've seen in the past two months. I'm sure there will be plenty more adventures to be had in the next couple years. I'm excited to get settled and slow the pace down a little bit. I'm still working on getting enough calories in my diet.

From here on out, my posts will be about the experiences with my community, so I anticipate talking less about extensive lists of events and more about growth and experiences in my community, but we'll see.

In my comments section, feel free to write suggestions for what you would like to know more about of my Peace Corps experience. It is sometimes hard to recall what things you would most enjoy reading.

Until next time,


P.S. I've added captions to all the photos in my two photo albums. The links are below.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weeks 6-8 of Training


I apologize for my lack of posting the last few weeks. Training is quite busy and the time to post seems to get less and less.

Firstly, I´ve posted some photos on Picasa. The links are below. I´ll be adding captions in the future. I´m still trying to figure out how to rotate the photos.

Secondly, I´ve received my new post office address.

Cuerpo de Paz
Entrega General
San Felix, Chiriqui
Republica de Panama

During week 6, our group of Environmental Health volunteers went to a city in the far west of Panama near David for our technical week. We got to build two pit latrines and two composting latrines that will be used by the students in the school. We also got the chance to build some rainwater catchment systems.

Week 7 was probably my favorite week so far. We had a married couple come in to teach us about acueducts using a teaching tool called the ¨macueduct¨. Using household items like a 5 gallon bucket and clear tube they were able to display the theory behind how the acueducts work and what the air and water does in different situations. I´m considering expanding this teaching tool during my service here.

Week 8 we got to visit our sites where we´ll be for the next two years. Lugging all my stuff to the site was a challenge as I acquired quite a few books and educational material during my training. I met my guide Roman at the site preparation conference and talked about our expectations for each other and the community and how the next 5 days of the site visit would progress.

Arriving around 1030 last Tuesday night, we found all taxis up to my site done for the evening and everyone in bed and not answering their phones. Walking behind the closed store, we knocked on the door of the owner´s house and she allowed us to sleep on her porch for the night. We had some companions that night--two roosters who serenaded us beginning at 3am in the morning. The next day I found out that inside the house where we slept was a previous Peace Corps Master´s International volunteer who returned to Panama after her service. I had even watched her defend her thesis--what a surprise!

The next few days I was able to visit the three communities that I will be working with the next two years. There will be a variety of capacity building in the area of latrines, acueducts, and committee development. There will be plenty of work in building, improving, and maintaing acueducts as well as building composting latrines. They also mentioned that their bridge of cables and rotting bamboo could use some improvments as well.

Other highlights included attending the church service over the weekend (all 3 hours of it!), meeting kids at the school, and checking out the house where I´ll live the next two years. Pictures of my house are included in the Picasa link above.

The plan is to Swear-In next Thursday as an official Peace Corps volunteer. The presentation will be at the US Ambassador´s house.

Hopefully I´ll be able to update the blog a little more regularly and add some captions to the pictures as well. If any of you have any questions about my experience here or are possibly interested in coming to visit, please let me know! I would be glad to help share my stories and experiences.

Love you all!


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fifth Week of Training: Culture Week


I hope you are well. It has been a challenging, encouraging week. Three of us who will be stationed in the Comarca Ngobe Buble, a large plot of land set aside for two indiginous groups, spent a week living in the community of a current Peace Corps volunteer, Andrea. She stationed us with our own host families and then organized some language and culture classes throughout the week.

God has shown me His beauty in the beautiful views, sunsets, and the beautiful people He has created. He´s forced me to rely solely on Him, being sick on Wednesday on the top of a mountain in the rain with a host family from an indiginous culture who I´ve only been with for less than a week.

I´m encouraged even as I write this because my host brother Efehemio, a host brother who´s in 5th grade, saw me reading my bible and pulled out his own bible and read a chapter together in our own languages. How cool is that!

It´s been a joy to be with my family this week. Efehemio is 13 years old and so eager to learn. He teaches me the indiginous language Ngabere every night and then I teach him some english. The family has also taught me some of their traditional dances. The family has two parents and 13 kids, ten of whom live with them. They have a palm roof with wood walls and dirt floors. They don´t have electricity, but use a kerosene lamp to light up the house for a bit after the sun goes down. They listen to lots of Christian music, often at 2 or 3 in the morning when they can´t sleep. The father is fairly quiet, the mother a bit more outgoing. They talk to me in a mix of Spanish and Ngabere.

As Efe continued his dances, his brothers and sisters joined in as I took some pictures. Eventually, I started to dance too and then they all started laughing as I tried to learn the steps.

Showering has been quite an adventure. There is a path down the hill to the creek where they have a small bucket. It´s kind of fun showering in the jungle, but the water is actually quite cold.

Sleeping is a bit of a challenge. There is plenty of time to sleep as the sun goes down around 7pm, but my bed is just bamboo rods with my sleeping pad on top. It gets quite cold up here in the mountains, so it gets fairly cold at night. I´ve worn pants, sweatshirt, and socks to bed every night.

Every morning we walk over from our host family´s house to Andrea´s house, where we have some lemon grass tea from her yard and then catch up on our host family experiences. We usually spend a few hours learning Ngabere each day and then have some type of field trip in the afternoon.

On Friday, we came back to my host family´s house, where we learned how to shuck some fibers from the plant to make rope to make a chakra, a type of handbag that can be dyed a variety of colors. My host dad also was working on a sombrero which he will sell later. He works on it for 3.5 days and sells it for around $25 down in San Felix. We also toured the vegetable garden of one of the men in the group.

Other fun activities this week included hiking to the top of the town, where we could see down to the river valley, out to the Pacific, and up to the tallest mountain peaks. We´ve learned about the history of the Comarca, typical family foods, typical family responsibilities around the house, and other helpful bits of information.

I hope you have a bit of an idea of what life is like and I will try to post again after my upcoming technical week.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fourth Week of Training and Site Announcement

Hey everybody,

Today is a very exciting day--our group got to learn our sites for the next two years! I will be in between the cities of David and Santiago on the Pacific side of western Panama. It seems like a great fit. I will be following up a previous Master´s International volunteer who did a great job of setting the stage for a future volunteer. Word on the street is that they already have a house built for me!

Here´s a bit more information on my site given to me by the Peace Corps:

Tucked into the rugged foothills, you will discover the multi-faceted culture of the indiginous group Ngabe. You will find traditionally-styled homes of penca (dried palm leaves) and bamboo, steep ridges covered in corn and yucca, green and blue loros (birds) flying in the trees, women wearing the iconic clothing of their predecessors, travelers hauling goods in multicolored chakras, and friendly neighbors ready to share a totuma de cafe with you. You will be welcomed everywhere in the valley. It is a community of 300 people concentrated near the banks of the river. The central playing field, school, and church form the hub of the valley.

The community has carved their life out of the surrounding hills and valleys. The community relies principally on traditional agriculture for subsistence. Modernization has accelerated changes in this region since a main road was paved. The nearest town is about 45 minutes away and has a post office, supermarkets, and beach access. Improved access to town has allowed the neighbors to pasear (talk with other families) with ease, connected more students to resources, expanded businesses, and brought in more tasty goods for the small, local stores to sell. They are excited to work with Peace Corps Volunteers and invite you to join the community.

Here are my primary tasks:
1) Build trust, friendship, and work partnerships by listening, observing, and participating in meetings, work days, trainings, or any behind-the-scenes planning going on in the community.

2) Facilitate a participatory community analysis with your work partners or counterparts.

3) Facilitate strategic and action planning with individuals, groups, or organizations while utilizing participatory tools.

4) Design and carry out planned Environmental Health activities with partners.

This will include operation and maintenance of one acueduct system, an improvement of a second acueduct system, and possible design and implementation of a third acueduct system. Other projects could include building latrines and conducting Environmental Health charlas (interactive presentations).

5) Evaluate the success of activities based on previously set objectives and measures, as well as lessons learned for the future.

6) Report out to stakeholders and celebrate progress!

7) Follow up with partners through individual training, mentoring, and troubleshooting.

I eagerly await my time with my future community. It seems to be such a great fit--great people to work with, great projects to work on, close to the pan-american highway, close to the beach, and close to the mountains for some great hiking.

If you are at all interested in visiting my site or Panama in general, I would love to help you in whatever way I can. I would love to show you around my site and give you an idea of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and the lives of people in my community. I can start having visitors in February, so let me know!

On Sunday we will head to our culture week near the city of Santiago, but up in the mountains a bit. We will learn about the food they cook, the indiginous language they speak (in addition to Spanish), as well as how they make a living.

That´s all from Panama!

Dios te bendiga,


Friday, September 4, 2009

Third Week of Training

Hey everybody,

Blessings to you all! I just finished up classes today and got a bit of time to post. This week we returned from our volunteer visits with plenty of energy and confidence that we will in fact be able to integrate into the culture in a couple months. We´re starting to be comfortable presenting in spanish class now, which will be quite necessary very soon.

Next week on Wednesday we should find out where our sites will be, so after next week I´ll have a greater vision for what the next two years will hold. I continue to enjoy hanging out with my host family, learning how to cook new foods, and watching intense thunderstorms in the afternoons. In the coming weeks we´ll have culture week and technical week, where we get to spend a week in two different locations to get a greater focus on the cultural and technical skills we´ll need on site.

I hope all is well back in the States.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Second Week of Training


This Monday through Wednesday was the same routine of Environmental Health class in the morning and Spanish class in the afternoon for four hours each. Before class I usually run, shower, eat, read, and then head to class, which starts at 8. This week in class we talked about various activities that might help you analyze a community, including a community map, daily schedules, yearly schedules, and a community history.

On Thursday, each of the volunteers had a chance to go visit a current volunteer at his or her site. I got to head east from Panama City to visit my volunteer. He met me at the bus stop and proceeded to walk about 2.5 hours with my stuff on his horse to his site. He is currently working on installing a turbine and generator by a waterfall in his community to produce electricity, since the community doesn´t have that yet. Our task was to hike out to different waterfalls around the area to see how high they were in order to get an accurate estimate of power production. This meant that we got to put our swimsuits on and swim and hike to about six different waterfalls, climbing up them if necessary. I also got to learn how to cook garlic bread, sugar bread, stir fry, lintels, etc. I already find out where my official site will be next week, so that will be exciting.

This upcoming week will be more spanish class, project management training, and a community analysis for our training community.

Blessings to you!


Sunday, August 23, 2009

First Week of Training

Good afternoon! We have the afternoon free so I´ve finally got some time to write up another entry. It looks like Brett Favre just signed with the Vikings so I´ve missed some big news since I last went on the internet!

Last Sunday we traveled from our retreat to our host community, where each volunteer lives with a different host family. I´m living with an older couple that has quite a bit of family in the houses next door. Their daughter has an 8-year old boy and two 3-year old girl twins that come by to play whenever they can. We´ve already played some frisbee outside in the yard. When I arrived on Sunday we had some chicken noodle soup, the chicken fresh from their yard a couple days earlier. It was a bit nerve-racking seeing the volunteers being dropped off one-by-one, but living with the host family has been a great opportunity to learn more about the culture, family life, FOOD, etc.

Monday through Thursday was spent going to Spanish class in the morning and then Environmental Health technical classes in the afternoon. We have only three students in our session, so it is a great environment for learning the language. Our first homework assignment was figuring out the family tree for our host family. In our Environmental Health (EH) classes we´ve been learning about what EH volunteers do in the field and about different roles of the volunteer (learner, teacher, co-facilitator, etc.). The highlight of the week was yesterday as we had a rainforest tour, learned about different local materials for effective composting, learned how to care for and operate a machete (which I now own), and built a concrete floor. Today we had a quick tour of Panama City before some free time this afternoon.

Next week we will have more spanish and technical classes through Wednesday before heading out individually to meet up with a current volunteer. It will be exciting to spend a few days learning about what life is really like as a volunteer.

I hope you are all well. I would love to hear more about what´s going on in your life so feel free to send me an update of your life to .

Blessings to you,


Friday, August 14, 2009

Staging and the First Days in Panama

Good morning!

I hope everyone is doing well. I just wanted to recap a bit my staging experience up in Washington, D.C. and then my first couple days here near Panama City.

On Sunday I woke up early and said goodbye to my parents very early in the morning and flew down to Orlando with Sarah. After waiting for some late luggage to arrive, we got to take some engagement pictures by the beach and with the animals at the barn. We had a very nice family get together with her family and friends Sunday night and then got to spend some time together on Monday before I left Tuesday morning for Washington, D.C. for staging.

Staging is a one day event where you turn in all your medical forms, receive your passport, get to know all the other Panama volunteers, and learn more about who the Peace Corps is, what their mission is, and how the volunteers fit into that mission. I choose my last meal to be an all-you-can-eat salad and meat restaurant downtown--delicious!

There are about 36 volunteers in our group, mostly from environmental health and business backgrounds. We have two married couples in our group, a few older adults, but the vast majority are students who just graduated from college.

Wednesday morning we left Washington, D.C. for Miami and then on to Panama City. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Marcus, a five year-old who loved to look outside at all the big planes and then look down as we took off to see all the houses getting smaller as we flew higher. Two Peace Corps volunteers who were sitting behind me commented on how we both had the same childish wonder as we were looking down at the buildings and cars below. Sadly they didn't serve any food on the flight, so I had to wait until we arrived at our lodging before we had dinner. I was quite hungry!

We are currently lodging at the City of Knowledge in Panama City, an old army base that is now the home of many NGOs and university offices. We will be here through Sunday as we learn more about the Peace Corps, take some initial spanish language tests, and get all of our health and banking needs in order. We have a tv, wireless internet, and air conditioning, but that will be about to change as we head to our training site on Sunday. Last night we had a bit of free time so we played our first game of Settlers of Catan. I also got to talk to Sarah for a bit as she prepares to start her last year of school.

The food has been very good so far. They serve everything buffet style, which means that I can go back for seconds! Breakfasts have been pancakes, hashbrowns, cooked banana, and juice. The other meals consist of rice, beans, cooked banana, and some type of meat. They say this will be the best food we'll get in quite a while!

I also learned that a few of the volunteers have played some ultimate frisbee in the past. I'm hoping to get a game started at some point when we have free time. There are also a couple guys who are wanting to get a bible study started, so I look forward to meeting together with them.

On Sunday we will head about an hour outside of Panama City, where we will spend ten weeks of health, culture, language, and technical training. We will spend our evenings and nights with a host family, where we have the opportunity to learn more of the language and get to know the people better.

I hope you are all doing well and wish you a blessed weekend!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The First Post

Welcome to my Panama Peace Corps blog! This will be a way for me to initially communicate some of the details of my upcoming experience but eventually will be full of updates and stories from Panama. If you want to learn a bit more, I’ve included a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section below.


1. Where are you going?
I will be serving in Panama (see map on right hand side). I am not entirely sure where in Panama just yet. I will spend a little more than two months of intensive language, technical and cultural training about an hour away from Panama City where I will live with a host family. When I pass training I will receive my assignment for the next two years. I will most likely be placed individually in a remote, rural area/village.

2. When are you going?
I leave August 11 for Washington, D.C. for two days of "staging" (briefing on PC, logistics, and vaccinations) and then we depart for Panama.

3. What language do they speak?
Panama is largely Spanish-speaking but there are a number of native languages which I may have to learn.

4. How long will you be there?
Peace Corps service is 27 months (3 months of training and two years of service). There are options to extend service for an additional year or more.

5. What will you be doing?
My official assignment is an "Environmental Health Extensionist"; current volunteer projects include water committee formation and training, water system design and construction, community sanitation projects, household landfill construction, composting, and grey water disposal. Other projects could include forming and training health committees to educate community members on disease transmission pathways and related barriers to transmission, vector eradication, nutrition, first aid, or disaster preparedness.

The projects I am involved in will depend entirely on the needs of the community. Volunteers also participate in secondary projects in addition to my primary assignment, which could be teaching English or coaching a sports team (like Ultimate Frisbee!). Moreover, I am part of the Peace Corps (PC) Master's International (MI) program at the University of South Florida (USF). This is a very unique program that combines the PC and a Master's degree in Civil/Environmental Engineering. I spent the past year taking courses in environmental engineering, anthropology, and public health. Throughout my Peace Corps service I will need to conduct research for a thesis. I will finish and defend my future thesis at USF when I return to the United States.

6. What will your living conditions be like?
As stated in the first question I will most likely be placed in a rural community. Transportation will be limited but PC does provide volunteers with mountain bikes and helmets. I will most likely not have electricity, cell phone, internet, and running water in my "house" . I will have to shop and cook for myself. I will be able to travel to the capital or nearby "major city" to use internet cafes to update this blog and answer e-mail. This will be on a limited basis possibly every three weeks but maybe shorter.

7. How do you contact me?
My mailing address, for training only, will be as follows:

Kevin Orner
Cuerpo de Paz/Panamá
Edificio 104, 1er Piso
Avenida Vicente Bonilla
Ciudad del Saber, Clayton
Corregimiento de Ancon
Panamá, República de Panamá

The mailing address is only good for my first three months of training. (August 13-October 22). I will let you know what my more permanent address for the next two years of service will be as soon as I know. The primary e-mail I will use is Letters, e-mails, and packages are welcome and much appreciated!! I really want to stay connected to everyone to the best of my abilities (thus, letters are probably better).

8. Why are you doing this?
I probably should have begun with this question but I thought I would get the logistics of PC service out first.

My friend from my dormitory, Laura, invited me on a trip to Guatemala with eleven others from the University of Wisconsin-Madison over Christmas break my sophomore year of college. I admit up until that point I had lived a fairly sheltered life and did not fully appreciate all the things I was blessed with. I didn't really know what I would learn going on the trip, but I knew it would be well worth the cost.

With a mixture of fear and excitement, we arrived in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala to begin our work. Even in the eighty-degree weather, we were told to always wear jeans. That was a wise decision as we were told to haul rocks and soil the majority of the next few days. In the following days we would also bend rebar and visit people around the city.

One of my favorite memories of the trip was an invitation to dinner with a Guatemalan family. Even though their home was one room and they made very little money, they brought our team of twelve "gringos" over for a great meal of chicken and other homemade items. Despite their poverty, they were willing to give up their home and their money for people who possessed so much more. Their generosity overwhelmed me; never had I seen such a loving act. The joy of that family even in the midst of poverty surpassed that of many families with far more material possessions.

Besides giving me a stronger hold on the Spanish language, the trip changed my perspective in many ways. I have a much greater understanding of my many blessings and a much greater acceptance and appreciation of other cultures. After my trip, I changed my major from mechanical engineering to civil engineering to better work with people and improve the lives of others. One of the first civil engineering professors I had was Professor Peter Bosscher, whom I had remembered from my freshman year of college. He spoke at a gathering of various student organizations campaigning for students to join their club; most boasted of great connections and free food. However, one of these presentations, made by Peter, was different. He talked about using engineering to make a difference in the lives of others. That intrigued me, but that idea did not mesh with the NASA career I had in mind at the time.

Taking Peter Bosscher's Engineering Sustainability class was one of the best decisions I made in college. He talked about the importance of a worldview and our own motivations for making the world better. He emphasized acting not as a possessor of the world, but as a caretaker in awe of creation. After talking with Peter in his office one afternoon, he spoke of an organization with an active chapter at the University of Wisconsin called Engineers Without Borders, an organization that lived and breathed the sustainability topics we talked about in his class. Though I felt totally unqualified, I soon found myself the project manager for the El Salvador project.

Peter's health greatly declined that spring semester while I was in his sustainability class. Realizing that his time was drawing short because of kidney cancer, I found a sense of urgency to hear as much wisdom as I could from Peter that summer. Most Thursday nights, my good friend Jonathan (who is also in this program) and I would bike to his house and soak in as much as we could regarding our Engineers Without Borders project and beyond. I look back at those evenings with great joy.

Responding to our inquiries about various Civil Engineering Capstone courses to take that upcoming spring, Peter told us of a recent project of his—a water supply system in Ecuador. Having gone down to Otavalo in June 2006, Peter was hoping to return to finish the project sometime in 2008. Foreseeing that the kidney cancer would prevent a return trip, he handed off the project for us to complete.

Peter unfortunately passed away November of 2007, a week short of his 54th birthday. He was unable to see the results of our El Salvador trip this in January 2008 or our Ecuador trip in June 2008. It was an honor to carry on his legacy by completing his projects.

In El Salvador we installed 500 meters of PVC pipe, which will connect two communities to an existing wastewater pipeline. With continued construction throughout the next year, the hope is that the two communities will see improved health and sanitation as the wastewater will enter the PVC pipe rather than collect in the streets.

During the Capstone water supply project in Ecuador in June, more than one kilometer of PVC pipe was replaced with larger diameter PVC pipe, allowing increased flow to five communities. Additionally, a more equitable water system was created by installing water meters at the entrance to each community, which offers the ability to monitor and control the amount of water entering each community.

Inspired by these experiences and encouraged by Peter's recommendation, I applied for the Master's International program in Civil Engineering at the University of South Florida and am excited for my time in the Peace Corps.

9. Who else is going?
PC sends a training class once a year to Panama. We will all meet at staging August 11th. I will know people in the country but I will be serving in a community individually.

10. What have you been up to this summer?
Sarah came up to Madison this summer, so it has been great showing her around Madison and spending time up at the cabin. Additionally, I have been working on a research paper based on leadership training for undergraduates, which will be published later this summer. I have also been umpiring baseball and playing in an Ultimate Frisbee league twice a week.

11. Do you get to go home?
PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) get about 2 days a month off. You can save those days and take longer vacations. If you want to go home you need to pay your own way.

12. Are you paid? We are paid at the standard of living of those in Panama which is sufficient for food and transport.

13. How do you get funding for projects?
PC, other government agencies, and non-government organizations provide funding for small projects. Your community is also required to raise a percentage of a project.

14. What do you think you will most miss?
I know I will really miss Sarah, my family, and friends.

Thanks for reading! If you received the link to this blog please respond with your address and the best e-mail address to contact you!!