Saturday, May 19, 2012

Inauguration of the Bottle Classroom

We finally did it! I´ll admit, I was a little worried that I wouldnt be able to see the end of this project but my community pulled it together at the last minute and went above and beyond all of my hopes and dreams. The inauguration was a huge success and completely overwhelming emotionally in a very good way. Over 10 Peace Corps staff members and volunteers arrived on May 11th, 2012 along with 4 representatives of the NGO hug it Forward from Guatemala and loads of parents, students and teachers to take part in the best inauguration I have ever been to. Thanks to the donations of friends and family, the hard work and persistence of my community members and the support and donations of Hug it Forward, we were able to make this project turn from just a dream to a reality. This project was something that my community had been dreaming of doing for 7 years and we were finally able to make that dream come true. Since pictures speak a thousand words, I thought I should let them speak for the magnitude of this amazing experience that I was so blessed and fortunate in which to participate and be a part.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Newest Pictures from Bottle School Project

Hey Everyone!

Just wanted to update you all since I havent written in a while. We as Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed into the capital anymore unless we are there for med reasons, so I havent been able to update adn post pictures for some time, sorry about that. But I am here for a day and thought I would just post the most recent photos I have. We are actually even more far along than these pictures show but I need to get around to organizing the pictures. We are almost finished with the plastering of the walls and now are working on putting down a little walkway outside of the classroom for the mud/rainy season and then we will be painting and putting in the electricity! We have also started a school garden project behind the bottle classroom so that the students can add new fruits and veggies to their school lunches!

Thanks to all of you who read this and thanks so much to all the donors who helped make this project a reality! Will post more pictures next week when I am in the capital to wrap up my PC service. But dont worry, the project WILL be finished before I leave (May 12th!).

Friday, March 9, 2012

Update on the Project

Just wanted to quickly update of all you who might be reading my blog in order to keep up to date with how my bottle school project is going. The good news: we are almost finished! We basically have about oen more walls worth of bottles to fill and put into the infrastructure and then we ar egood to go. After the bottles are in place and that final wall is plastered over, the only thing left is to put in the electricity, windows, door and paint the classroom. These last couple of weeks have been a little frustrating because we are so close to the finish line and people are starting to lose their ganas or will to finish the project out. Luckily we have a lot of support from the local schools in the area to help us collect the plastic trash we need to stuff the bottles we already have. I got the only high school and largest school in my municipality to fill around 300 bottles for my school in a competition to see who could fill the most bottles in 2 hours. There were three different classes and the winning class got cookies and a group photo which I will include here in this blog. The HIF (hug it forward) chiefs came to visit my community as well and we had a fabulous time talking about the project and the possibility of future bottle school projects in El Salvador, which was really exciting for me since I have been crazy about the idea of bottle schools ever since I first heard about them. I am now known as the Bottle School PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) for El Salvador by all my bosses and peers. I got a superlative from my training group that was ¨most likely to build a Taj Mahal our of bottles.¨
I was gone this week from my community for a Spanish class but I will be checking in on the project as soon as I get back this afternoon. My school director informed me that she is organizing cleaning campaigns in other schools to get all the plastic trash we need and then next week we will finish filling the bottles. We will see if all that was actually done or not. Either way, the project will be finished this month so I am trying to just be patient and enjoy the entire process. But I will say that for future projects schools will have to fill at least half of the total number of bottles they need for their classroom(s) before we even break ground because thats the most time consuming part of the entire project. Also, if you give the community a starting point and that cant complete that first part, then that is probably a pretty good indicator that they wouldn´t be able to see the whole project through because they are actually not committed enough to the project AND it gets the community to take ownership of the project from Day One.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

January 23rd

We have finally placed the first bottled onto the school!! This is the moment I have been waiting for since May of 2011 when I first saw pictures of the Bottle Schools in Guatemala by Hug it Forward. It is such a cool, new, interesting idea to use bottles stuffed with trash instead of bricks. Yes, it takes a lot more time and energy to stuff bottles with trash (as my community members often remind me) than it is to put down bricks onto wet cement. But I think people in my community are finally starting to get the idea behind the bottle school that we are building in my school. Now that they are getting to see the progress of the construction and see the bottles finally being put up, they can see that it is a real, concrete thing and not just a couple of pictures and drawings on a piece of paper. They are also starting to get really excited about the classroom and have already started telling me what they think the classroom should be used for, which is awesome because they are starting to think of the bottle classroom as their own. I have been wading through tons of doubt and questions for almost two years now warming the community up to the idea and convincing them that a classroom build with bottles won´t simply be blown away by the wind. Now that they can see the whole process happening in front of their eyes, they are now proud that we are the first school in the entire country and the first community to embrace the idea of a bottle school and actually build a classroom. It´s super exciting to see their enthusiasm and hear them tell people who aren’t from the community about their bottle classroom, especially those who were the biggest critics of the project at the beginning.

Friday, January 20, 2012

January 19th

My hands have finally been destroyed. As I am a do it yourself type of gal and a very hands on learner, I decided to learn how to use a mallet today to break up concrete and brick in order to get the floor of our classroom ready to be leveled out. We had to build our classroom around where an old water tower was located and though we have moved the water tower, the supporting ¨feet¨ are still in the ground and need to be broken down. I have decided that the mallet is my favorite worst nightmare. On the one hand, it is great exercise for your entire body (more on that later) and it really lets you get all your anger out by constantly beating down concrete. These past two weeks have been really stressful and so beating and breaking down concrete today and yesterday has really helped me get my anger out in a more constructive, if somewhat destructive way. On the other hand, its hard, long, tedious work that makes you feel as if you are never making any progress (kind of the same feeling I get sometimes managing projects!). It is also dangerous and should never be attempted without safety goggles and a med kit on hand when the inevitable strikes and you end up smashing your hand instead of the mallet against the concrete.

A little more on how working a mallet can be great exercise (feel free to skip this side note but it entertained me while I was ¨malleting¨ this morning). My Peace Corps girlfriends are always complaining about how skinny I have gotten over my service, and while I know for a fact that it has little to do with what exercise I have done and more to do with the numerous times I have gotten amoebas and giardia (a water borne illness, not an STD), I have to admit that construction work is really great for building and toning muscles. So I would like to introduce what I call the ¨Shawshank Redemption Workout¨:

Shawshank Redemption Workout (You Know, Because That’s What Prision Inmates Do is Break up Large Pieces of Rock with Mallets in Their Free Time)

All you need is a mallet and some concrete. Oh, and some safety goggles! No weights and weird gadgets that make your body do strange things required. Basically you need to square your body off to whatever piece of concrete you are aimed at destroying and turn your toes out so that when you knees bend they go over (but not past) your toes. This will keep your knees in line and safe from getting strained or injured. Once you are in this squat position you may start swinging your mallet using one hand or both repeatedly against the concrete. I find that aiming for angles on your block of concrete works better than simply beating directly down on it since you will break off more bits more quickly that way. Please note: this is a one man job. If anyone else moves in to start some concrete destroying, move out of the way because you will most likely be hit by a large piece of concrete (and yes, this has happened to me and is a big joke between the foremen and myself….more so for them).

This workout will give you great toned arms, strong legs and a lot of blisters J

But enough of that and more on the project: Today was a great day. We had three of the five representatives of the parents show up and we are now putting up the final, horizontal column all around the classroom. We have made so much progress in so little time that I think I can safely say, barring a natural disaster, etc. that we will finish the classroom by the end of February or early March! One of the teachers also showed up today (classes start this Monday) and informed me that the first week of classes isn’t really for the kids to learn anything but to get the school in working order and thus the teacher s will be making the kids stuff bottles for me. I have kind of refused to stuff any more bottles and have yet to fill one this entire week. I think part of my brain died a little in the past two weeks sitting for hours on end stuffing trash into plastic bottles so this news is like a message sent from heaven for me. It also makes me a lot less stressed about the project because it means that we will definitely be ready to put the bottles up for this coming week and the following week, so that makes life even better. I also cheated on my ¨diet¨ that my doctor gave me while I am taking my amoeba meds and had coffee this morning, which always makes me feel like the colors are brighter and the world is just a happier place to be in. But this wasn’t just any coffee; its my secret stash of Starbucks instant coffee from Columbia (medium strength) that my bestie Kara gave me from her package that her mom sent her from the states. A day that starts with Starbucks coffee is always a good day (Note to my parents reading this blog: you may send me this coffee whenever, if you like).

Oh and one last note: make sure to always have a med kit on site. This may also seem like a no brainer but while my foremen and workers have gracias a Dios never been hurt, I have (not badly but I have nicked myself quite a bit and I am accident prone). But either way its just a good idea and a good investment.

One more note (sorry): Make sure when you are writing up your work contract that you discuss whether the workers will be working all day every day including days when they normally go to church because that is important and something that should be added to your work contract. I know people here tend to think that even though the work contract says 7 am to 4 pm are the work hours of every day, they can still go to culto and leave work at 2:00 pm. I am not going to raise the issue now with my foremen simply because it would be offensive to them for me to suggest that they miss going to culto during the week for the entirety of the project. But if you are starting your project out, talk about religion from the get go if you think you will be upset if people miss a couple hours two to three times a week because they need to go to church or culto.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

January 16th

I´m sitting here after a pretty hard day with a green tea face mask listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and laughing to myself about how different Peace Corps must have been for the original PCVs in the 60´s. In today´s day and age of Peace Corps, some volunteers have internet access in their homes (I just got a kindle and get free if sketchy wireless internet access in my house!), running water, indoor sinks (like my friend Katherine in La Palma) and nice beds.
Today was hard simply because we are hitting a sort of wall as far as parents coming to work on the building the classroom. Only one person came and last Saturday only one person came as well. Peace Corps El Salvador is also going through a hard time and everyone is really stressed out. It´s also the time of the year when everyone is cutting maisillo which is what they use to feed chickens and pigs here. It looks like little, white pin heads if you have ever sewn before. If you grind it up you can make amazing flour for cookies that my host mom makes that are pretty good for breakfast. I think as soon as the kids start school the parents will also start showing up in droves. At least that is what I keep telling myself. Everything will get better because once you hit rock bottom there is only up to go. At least we are still on or ahead of schedule. We are putting up the wood for the molds for the upper half of all the columns and should have them done tomorrow. Then the only thing left is to make the upper horizontal columns and then put in the bottles and put the roof up!
Tomorrow I have a meeting at the Agriculture University called La ENA to talk about another Bottle School project – they want to build a classroom for a vocational training center. So I will let you all know what comes from that meeting with them.
At least once school starts I can get the kids to fill bottles with me during their recess time.
Some ideas that I have if parents don’t come to help fill bottles or come to work: make a ton of party invites and make a work slash party day for everyone to come to. This way people can see all the progress we have made and how much there still is left to do. During the party, which doesn’t cost too much to put on, you can make speeches about the importance of collaboration and remind everyone when their work days are.
I am also going to make a huge poster to put up at the school which shows everyone who should be coming which dates to work and who has actually come to have more transparency and accountability. People are a lot more likely to come to work if they know everyone is watching to see whether or not they show up.
A suggestion for anyone wanting to replicate this project in other communities or countries: Always make sure you have a good, reliable source for water. This may seem like a no brainer but in a community like mine where we get all our water for our work from a single faucet (or from the river) this is something that we always need to keep in mind. For the past one and half work days we were without water and had to haul water from the river which luckily is pretty close by. But now we know that we always need to make sure that we have a large trash can or some receptacle full of water in case the water gets shut off due to a broken pipe, etc. For those of you who are wondering why would we need water: you use a lot of water to make cement but even more importantly (maybe) you need to water down the cement that you already have hardened because if you don’t water it every day it will crack and you will have ruined all the work you have done up to that point.

January 6th through 14th

I actually missed two whole days this week due to getting sick while I was in the capital for some med checkup stuff so sorry not to have updated in a little while. This week was a rough week for our construction process. We are definitely still on track but we are losing a little momentum as far as parents coming to help out. We had about 1 person per day as an average this week, a little worse than last week. But I am confident that once the children start school again (the 23rd of January), we will have a lot more help and at least we can get a ton of kids to fill up bottles, help which we desperately need. I have had a couple of kids come by and help me fill bottles this week but we only have about 62 bottles that are completely ready to go for the classroom. We have a ton of bottles that are halfway or partially full, so I am not worried about collecting more bottles, it´s just filling them that has me a little worried. But I am trying to keep thinking positively and having positive manifestationsJ.
We have finished half of all the walls for the whole classroom minus putting up the chicken wire and the bottles of course. We are finishing the very last horizontal column that goes as a supporting beam that goes in the middle of the walls today and next week we should be starting to put up the chicken wire and putting on the bottles! The chicken wire is the part that I am most interested in seeing since it is a totally new concept and the key point of this project that makes it so unique and special. For those of you who don’t already know: for this classroom we are substituting plastic bottle stuffed with plastic trash for bricks and in this way are helping out the environment and building a classroom at a more than 25% lower cost than a traditional classroom. We have to put chicken wire on both sides of the walls, which are secured with metal pins that are laid into the columns before the concrete is even poured and then we tie the bottles one by one to the chicken wire. Once one side is done and the bottles are secured, we place another piece of chicken wire on the inside part of the wall but we use metal pins and a metal rebar that is weaved (as far as I know) into the chicken wire to have it sit snug against the bottles. I will be including pictures next week so don’t worry J. I am super excited for next week because I have been waiting to see this step of the construction process in person since May of 2011 when I first started talking to the NGO Hug it Forward, which came up with this whole amazing idea. More to come soon!