Lauren Breland, 126 YinD, Recipient of the 2016 John F. Kennedy Service Award
I was asked to write a few words offering antidotes and reflections on my service, and/or speak to your expectations. I had submitted two drafts. They were witty, clever and picturesque. Then the wave of emotions I was riding folded before I could land on sand. I am no longer feeling ‘clever’ or ‘witty.’ I took my service as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, very seriously, and that is the only way I can truly share it with you.
Three years ago, preparing to leave PST for my service site in the south as a YinD volunteer, I could not have been happier. PST was a trying experience from many different variables, salvaged by eating lunch and developing relationships with the people at the SAO we used for training. I even bruised my ass riding a boy bike seat through roughly 4 KM of rice fields, so I was transported for 2 weeks.
While driving up to get me, my Nayoke and Counterpart had an accident, totaling his brand new truck. Yeah. So during the conference, they were distracted arranging a ride home, insurance for truck repair, managing aches and pains, all while trying to participate in activities. I did not speak Thai beyond asking for a bathroom, food or about family. They did not speak a lick of English past, “hello” when answering their phones. Segway to a ten-hour ride in a rented van, arriving in my village at four in morning.
Temporary arrangements were made at the Nayoke’s house. The bed in the guest room was covered in gecko waste, the bathroom was filthy, and the Nayoke’s wife kept pressing me to teach their grandson English every night. I always asked, “What did you learn in school today?” *snicker* My CP, not paying attention during conference or reading papers, thought I was to STAY there 3 months instead of 3 days while choosing a permanent home – my 1st call of many in the coming weeks to PC office for translation assistance.
I soon began the rounds to meetings with a written intro speech. My low-level language skills misunderstood my CP’s introduction of me. Eventually—a year later—I comprehended. He had no clue what I was here to do. I was at every affair a camera could capture, but no meetings or events I could work on or improve to meet their request for life skills projects for youth drug prevention. My CP was and is still fairly unhelpful. While working, he’ll interrupt to show music video or pictures of soldiers (he is prior military), to make a joke – anything but work. To this day I am unable to work with him in a way that is very productive.
Know what, though? I learned how to get around, over, under – hell, even hurdle if necessary to get my projects completed. I rode my bike everywhere and spoke to everyone. I even clucked at the chickens and barked at dogs! Customer Service 101: Greet everyone with the same respect and courtesy. I developed relationships, with people who understood my work, offered advice or a ‘go to’ for help, support, supplies or money. I created and kept info sheets in Thai about all programs and events planned for youth. I attended most village events – if I saw lights flashing and people, I pulled my bike over to check it out. I was seen everywhere whether it was on my own or with SAO/community members.
Service is not about highs and lows, it is about planning and plotting. If you possess the desire to learn about your community, you can accomplish a lot in spite of whatever obstacles you face along the way. If you’re unfamiliar with village ‘nuances’ your perceptions may be off the mark. Here’s an example, I live in a grove based economy. From June through October, all focus is on our fruit harvest. This is essential information to consider when crafting activities. I learned the community’s mindset about certain things; who shows up, who is the last minute call, who reserves the wat or school, who is covering expenses for lunch. Who always does the announcing at functions? Develop an understanding to get your events promoted during community functions. Network and observe. Meld into their energy.
Hey! People are the same all over the world. For every [insert characteristic] in America, there is an [insert characteristic] here and everywhere else. Nice people, mean people, chatty people, never-smile people, and everything in between. Study them, knowing how different people operate will help you become a little less puzzled and a lot more diligent in how you handle things.
By the way, I was and am still the only English speaker in my SAO Office and all three of my primary schools. We have no secondary schools—M 1-6 students attend up to 8 different area secondary schools. I had no Youth Council and the SAO staff was small with no training in building community-based programs and seemingly no desire to learn from me. We all have challenges. Life-Life. Use your resources, grit, heart and vision to see through to the next day.
I touched and tasted as much as I could about the LIFE CULTURE in my village. You have to know who you are helping before you can figure out how. Stick around for things, hop in the car, smile for all pictures, answer 10x in 4 minutes, “Chan gin pet,” look your community members in the eyes and smile on first greeting. Assure them of your intentions to respect their village.
I will always advise anyone on this venture, find everything fascinating. If you came here to volunteer, you don’t need any wish of luck. Enjoy your journey in Thailand. Grow, learn and give. Carry this mantra, chanting as needed “Toward Forward” because forward is the only direction you should ever look. Much love/Rak Mak Mai.