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 Kevin.D.Orner@gmail.com. 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!!


  1. Hey Kevin! It's awesome to read what you've been up to, and what you WILL be up to in the coming months! I look forward to reading. Hope all is well!

  2. We are so happy to have you in the family and immensely proud of what you are doing. We look forward to hearing about your adventures and look forward even more to your visits home! Be safe and enjoy!
    Cheryl and Paul Holmes

  3. Travel well, Kevin. Peter would be so proud of you. And I know I am! (A little jealous, too . . .)

  4. Hello Kevin,
    My mom is a friend of Cheryls. I am serving in the peace corps right now. Going into my second month of training in my community here in the province of Herrera. I enjoyed reading your blog. Didnt get to read all of it bc my time is coming close to running out on the computer but would love to hear from you. my emails is cccates23@gmail.com. I need to create a blog too. But I havent the time. good luck,

    Caroline cates
    Community Environmental Conservation Sector

  5. Yes, Kevin! Peter would be so proud of you! I know he too so enjoyed those Thursday evenings with you and Jonathan as you three together could share a passion for how engneering gets used in this world. So glad we could spend some time with you and Sarah this summer. Best wishes on your study and work in these days ahead.