Saturday, June 4, 2011

Things Just Can't Get Any Better!

If Monday was the best day ever, Wednesday was certainly my proudest day in country!
About two months ago, modeled after the club of a more experienced volunteer, my students, Stephanie, and I started a volunteer club. Lately, most our clubs have been particularly game-oriented. The kids are restless, as they are in any country with the arrival of summer. We’ve been playing games and creating projects for them. Our games and projects are focused on leadership and team-building. A couple of months ago, when the weather was still too cold to be outside, I posed a number of different questions to the kids. I wanted to start a volunteer club, but I wanted the kids to come up with the idea. I was not expecting much at first, but as has come to be expected of my remarkable students, they surprised me once again. I started asking them about Balakan, about their community – what did they like about it, what were they most proud of. These conversations took place over the course of a couple of weeks. After that, I asked them what they would like to see improved in their communities – what were the biggest problems facing Balakan and how did they think they could help. At first, they did not believe that they could contribute to improving Balakan in any significant way, being so young. So, we took it back a few steps, asking them what their strengths were, what their greatest skills were. After quite a bit of encouragement, they finally began to recognize that they each had unique skills. We talked about sharing those skills, about teaching them to others. They started getting excited! We got back to the idea of helping our own community, Balakan. Suddenly, ideas started flowing. Some wanted to teach children Russian, or English, or baseball, UNO, or the piano, others wanted to assist the elderly, and a couple of boys even said they wanted to create a water system that brought fresh water to the most remote villages in the area (a little lofty for a couple of 8th formers, I think).
From here, well, you can see how it progressed. I had ideas, keeping in mind the facts that we have no money and that some of our kids do not come on a consistent basis. I knew what I wanted to do, but I had to be patient and let the ideas come from them. They wanted to read to elderly people and help carry their groceries home – wonderful ideas, but there is no nursing home or anything like that here, so helping the elderly was something they could do on their own in their own neighborhoods. We talked about building things: bird houses, fresh water systems, playgrounds, all things that would require money and further planning. Moving on, we returned to the idea of  teaching. Most of the kids I work with are fairly well-off. They are smart, motivated, engaged, and their parents are committed to giving them the best education possible. This is one of the reasons they are allowed to spend so much time with the Americans! However, there are a lot of kids who are not so well off. They don’t go to school very often, if at all, because they must help their parents work, or they go to a school in a small village and are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to testing. Surprisingly, my kids were very perceptive to such inequalities, completely aware of how fortunate they are. I knew we were getting somewhere when we began discussing this. All of the sudden, from the back of the room, a young girl spoke up, “Maybe we can help the Internat School.” The exact comment I was hoping for! 25 light bulbs simultaneously went off in the room. The Internat School is an orphanage/boarding school on the outskirts of town for underprivileged children and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict with Armenia in the south. I had been wanting to work here for quite some time, but also did not want to over-extend myself and abandon my students in the city who had a true passion for learning. I wanted to find a way to combine working with them and helping out at Internat; this was the perfect opportunity. Every student was immediately on the same page and the excitement in the room was palpable. A clothing drive was a way to get everyone involved without a budget. The children would have to show some initiative by going out and asking for used clothes, toys, books, and shoes from family members, friends, and neighbors. Additionally, the people donating these used items would learn about this volunteer project without us having to explicitly advertise it. It seemed like a near perfect idea, I again just wanted it to come from the kids. It didn’t take long, I asked them how they wanted to introduce themselves to the teachers and students at the school, and how they expected to gain their trust. The used clothing drive idea followed soon after!
From there, I went to Internat and met with the director. She was ecstatic, and asked if we would be able to collect enough items for all 96 of her children. That was a lofty goal, but I told her we would try our best. The following week, we got to work. About 40 students showed up to our first official meeting. Stephanie and her artistic ways took about 30 of the students and had them design deposit boxes to be brought to all four of the schools in the city. I took another ten and came up with a name and description for the club, to be distributed by students to community members as they collected things. For me, it was slow-moving at first. The kids were quiet and expected me to do all of the writing. I sat back and told them that I would type it up for them afterwards, but that I would have no part in creating the name or description. I left the room often, pretending I was busy with other things in order to encourage them to try it on their own. The results were amazing! Not only did they come up with a name and a five sentence description of the club and its goals, they also came up with a slogan…and it rhymed! The məkdaşlıq Təşkilatı (Cooperation Organization) is now a regular club, or should I say organization, on our summer work schedule and its slogan, “Birləşək, Kömək Edək!” (Together, We Can Help) is inspiring other kids to join everyday!
Within a week of creating and distributing the boxes and fliers, my office was filled with bags of used items. Kids showed up to clubs lugging huge bags of items they had collected in their neighborhoods. People were stopping me on the street promising to bring their used items to my office the next day. I was completely floored by the support we got from the community, as well as the students’ commitment to seeing this project through.
This past Wednesday was International Children’s Day, as well as the first day of summer, a fitting day to deliver our collection to the Internat School. We all met at 10am at my office. At 1030, we each grabbed 3 or 4 bags (15-20 kids came on the trip) and made our way to the bus stop to catch a “marsh” to Internat. My colleagues Turan and Sefer from the Ministry of Youth and Sport met us on the corner. They have given us huge support throughout this project. We put all the items in their car (it filled the car completely) and took a bus to the school. At the school, most of the students had already gone home for the summer. The students are given lodging during the school year only. The only students remaining were IDPs who now live at the school with their families full time. We met the teachers and the remaining students. Some kind words were said by the school director, and then my students handed off the items to kids from the school. We took some photos and made arrangements to return in July to spend some more time with the kids who live there year-round. Our students want to teach them baseball!
As a celebration of this tremendous achievement, we went to the park for the day to have a picnic afterwards. It was so nice having an afternoon of completely unstructured time with our students. Trey and I sang the Star Spangled Banner to them, at their request, and they sang us their national anthem in return. We threw around a Frisbee and football, ate ice cream, and even discussed religion with some of our more advanced English-speaking students. It was such a rewarding day, for all of us. The kids were so proud. This feeling of accomplishment stayed with them throughout the afternoon. I lost track of the number of high-fives given, the number of pictures taken, and the number of other volunteer project ideas that were told to me.
For now, I am going to relish this moment, this project, this day. For all the days that I feel aimless, lost, questioning why I am here, it is days like this that get me back on track, remind me of my purpose here, and make me excited for the days to come.
At my office getting ready to leave
Loading up the car
The exchange

The Cooperation Organization and Internat School
Celebrating afterwards at the park
O Hey!
So proud of them


  1. Hi Jake,
    Now that I have found your blog, you can ignore my post on facebook asking what you do. Wow! This is amazing! You have been very successful, it seems. I have only started reading your blog and am so inspired. Thank you.
    Kathy, AZ9

  2. I am so proud of YOU!!! I miss you!! Looks like you are doing great work. Went to the beach with Liz last weekend and basically we both agreed we miss you and are obsessed with you. that's all.

    Love love love

  3. Jake, I can't tell which one you are in the pictures...can you be sure to label them better? Thanks :P

  4. Hello Jake.I am Samira.I read your blog and I really liked it.I want to say that we are proud of you too.But I am not agree with you about one thing and you know what is this.See you!

  5. What is it Samira?! What do you not agree with?