Saturday, April 12, 2014

Full Circle: Healthy Living in the Peace Corps

"Has the assault changed your service? Do you think that your life is on a different trajectory than it was one year ago?"


At the time it was challenging to respond to the well-meaning question without a touch of sarcasm in my voice. Of course my service and my person were fundamentally changed, how could they not be? Can anyone pass through a traumatic experience unscathed? If you cut me, I bleed - but that's not the end of the story.

Later in the day, I met with members of Peace Corps staff and Volunteer representatives to discuss the plight of volunteers facing medivac, the term used for sending volunteers to the states for treatment or recovery for a medical reason, as well as addressing similar hardships faced while remaining in Morocco. The meeting went smoothly, but it felt like the majority of the committees were stuck in the mud of turnover and bureaucracy. Nearly a year after my assault and medivac, I was still receiving calls about volunteers whose experiences paralleled my own. Volunteers who were isolated in Rabat, volunteers who felt their mental health concerns were diminished and volunteers who returned to site without a follow-up call or way forward.

Peace Corps staffing and training depended on approval from Washington, budgets and bureaucracy. Having voiced my concerns multiple times, I decided it was time to stop waiting for Washington to catch up and act on my own. Turning my focus from staff concerns to volunteer-to-volunteer action, I began working on the first "Health Living Workshop." Collaborating with Melanie, an insightful volunteer who is well-versed in dance therapy and mental health, we began discussions on the gaps in volunteer support and where our knowledge and passion could be utilized.

Workshops inspired from our shared experiences and struggles began to emerge. Incorporating yoga, meditation, art therapy and group discussions to the curriculum, we set our intentions beyond mental health concerns and focused on the overall well-being of the volunteer. After several months of preparation, we concluded that the focus of the workshops would be to :

  • Learn techniques to maintain health and manage stress
  • Provide support to volunteers through shared experiences across training groups
  • Raise awareness about how to navigate mental health issues in Peace Corps Morocco
  • Help volunteers find joy in Peace Corps life, not just ‘get through it’

Retreats took place in Tissint and Foum Oudi, reaching volunteers from various training groups, mental health backgrounds and life experiences. Together we acknowledged the painful moments which led us to participate in these workshops, our current struggles and motivated each other to move past the hurt and into a better version of ourselves. We cried together, breathed together and encouraged each other. 

I have been blessed by these retreats - it feels selfish that I get to continually benefit from the keen insights of my resilient friends and co-workers. They inspire me to leap forward, to smile more and to never stop believing in the beauty of the volunteer experience. My cup runneth over. 

After two successful rounds of workshops with volunteers in Tissint and Foum Oudi, it was clear that this retreat was beneficial to the Peace Corps community. Encouraged by the volunteer testimonials, we created a curriculum that was passed on to the next group of facilitators in a 'training of the trainers' workshop in early April. It was bittersweet to watch the new facilitators to plan their first retreat; I felt proud that my workshops would continue to improve the lives of volunteers, but saddened that I wouldn't be part of the process after April 30. 

"Has the assault changed your service? Do you think that your life is on a different trajectory than it was one year ago?"

Yes, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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