Monday, July 16, 2012

The Story of ABLE

I recount the following experience with great pride and accomplishment, not just for me, but for the PCVs and Azerbaijanis who helped make this year’s ABLE camp possible.
As I’ve likely described to you before, ABLE camp is the Azerbaijan Boys Leadership Experience, a weeklong, sleep away summer camp for boys between the ages of 14 and 16. The camp focuses on the ideas of leadership, community, gender equality, teamwork, and volunteerism. Last year, I played a minor role in the planning process, helping to arrange the daily guest speakers. Once camp commenced, I played a rather large leadership role. I stayed the entire week of camp and helped lead the camp curriculum. I also worked on the evaluation committee to create a critical evaluation of the camp for our sponsors; that report wound up being about 50-60 pages long. The camp was such a wonderful experience, for both my student Muslim and me that I knew I wanted to play a larger role in the 2012 version.

I took on the role of project manager and have spent that past 12 months working alongside a select group of PCVs and Azerbaijani counterparts tirelessly trying to make ABLE 2012 the best edition yet! My job as project manager was to oversee the daily responsibilities. With a budget close to $20,000 USD and about 20 PCVs and Azerbaijanis helping to organize the camp in various capacities, from finance to curriculum, applications, location, supplies, marketing, evaluation, and such, I was tasked with making sure deadlines were met and everyone had the support and resources they needed. It was an incredibly time consuming job and I spent hours every week on the phone and by my computer. We came up with a new logo and slogan (Are you ABLE?), started securing local partners and even some Azerbaijani corporate sponsors. Things seemed to be going so well. There was just one problem.

Every year, for the past 6 years, we were given a rather large grant of about $15,000 USD from the same commission. Because of the success of the camp and our extensive evaluation report, made famous by volunteers from previous years, we could always count on the grant. This past year, we submitted the grant application by the deadline as per usual. No red flags were evident. Then, we started getting requests from the commission to adjust certain things. At first, we thought there were weaknesses in our grant. But after extensive reviews, we couldn’t find any weaknesses. We went ahead and adjusted the application and resubmitted it, anyway. We remained optimistic, but feared that our requested amount would be cut back significantly. It seemed as though the commission was looking to go in another direction.
So, we braced for the cutback and submitted numerous other grants to replace the potentially lost funds. To our great surprise and dismay, our grant request was completely denied. Our amount requested was not decreased, it was turned down. We went from an annual presumed budget of at least $15,000 USD to 0 overnight. You can imagine how disheartening this was. Everything was perfectly in place, save for the money – just a minor detail. Without it, however, no matter how strong the curriculum or guest speaker line up, the camp had no funding and would not go on.
There was nothing else we could do but wait. Without money, the camp was not going to happen, so we had to wait and see if any of the other grants came through. In the process of waiting, we found out that the commission we usually received funds from had been given a new directive, one that did not include finding summer camps for boys. It had nothing to do with our application. Unfortunately, the commission did not consider the fact that cutting off our funding completely, despite a new directive, would severely endanger the continuation of the camp.
Weeks and months past. Grant by grant, we were denied. No one was looking to fund our kind of project. Thankfully, the PCVs I work with are an incredibly persistent bunch and we did not give up easily.

To make a long story short, we wound up being able to scrape together enough money to fund the camp through small grants and donations from local businesses, as well as an increase in camper fees we had hoped to not have to implement.

So, here I am writing to you on the evening of July 16, in the middle of ABLE camp. Unfortunately, I am not at it. To reduce costs and keep the integrity of the camp intact, we made the selection process harder, chose fewer kids (50 to 35), and went to a smaller, cheaper camp site. By doing this, we had fewer spaces for PCVs to stay, unlike last year when the space and money was plentiful. I have been at the forefront of the planning process for the past year. I know what it took to persevere and make this camp possible, and I am so proud of all those PCVs for sticking with it. Most of that inspiration to keep on trying came from seeing the camp firsthand in 2011. I know that every PCV in my group who worked night and day to make ABLE 2012 happen did it because of what they saw in 2011, by seeing just how much it impacted the boys of Azerbaijan. I got to experience the magic of it last year, and that’s what prevented me from giving up this year. So I, along with a number of other PCVs in my group reluctantly gave up our spaces in this years camp so that newer volunteers could experience that same magic, so that they too will be inspired when it comes time to organize ABLE 2013, regardless of the roadblocks they may face along the way.

Our logo
My boys coaching softball at the orphanage in a neighboring region

Rasul: heart of gold (also my hat and sunglasses)

Loved this shot

The whole group after a great softball training

The coaches (plus Trey and I along for the ride). What an amazing group of boys!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Just A Couple of Complaints

I have not been writing consistently lately, but I wanted to share a few thoughts with you. Life has been pretty wonderful recently. It’s summer time, and I feel like a kid again. Maybe it’s because I wear shorts and flip flops all day in the sun and have been very active with clubs. Or, maybe it’s because I only ever hang out with kids anymore. Seriously, with the exception of Trey (and there can be a good case made for the child in him), I’m not spending any time with adults. Any adult friends that I have are either married, busy, MIA, or in Baku where most adults migrate to in search of real work. I understand and don’t blame anyone. At first, I thought it was bad that I had no real local, adult friends, somehow upsetting even. Actually, it’s so refreshing. I get to spend my days immaturely joking around with kids and discussing subjects completely uninteresting to most adults. During the days, I feel like I have so much energy. On the other hand, at night I’m terribly sore and exhausted. It’s not easy keeping up with them!

I’d like to spend the next two paragraphs picking a bone with Azerbaijan!
First off, dogs. As in many countries around the world, stray dogs litter the streets. These flea-infested, garbage-eating balls of clumpy hair are certainly not cuddling material. But, I’d like to ask: “How did they get this way?”
People are terrified of dogs here. They’ll cross the street just to avoid them and feel no remorse over throwing rocks at a dog getting a little too close. What saddens me most is that none of these dogs pose any threat. I know this because most of these dogs are not afraid of me and look forward to seeing me as I pass by, giving them a brief pat on the head and tummy rub before I rush home to pour bleach on my hand. All it took to befriend them was a few days of soft hellos and the occasional kneel, just letting them adjust and eventually come to me. The other night I got scolded by a neighbor because a pack of dogs of wonderful cute, playful orphans followed me home from Trey’s.
I voiced my lack of regard for his concerns and made my way inside, alone (I’m a dog lover, but I certainly won’t be letting any of those mutts in my house anytime soon!).
I don’t bring this up with adults, but I tell kids it everyday when we encounter dogs when walking around. Don’t be scared. Most dogs are more terrified of you. Especially since it’s pretty customary here to keep a puppy for about 2 months and then throw it out on the streets when it gets too big and ‘uncute’. No wonder they bark and are terrified of humans. They’ve been abandoned and treated worse than my childhood stuffed animals. How would you feel? I’d be a lot meaner to Azerbaijanis than they are if I were a dog.
So, here’s my message: If you’re afraid of dogs, get over it! They are such sweet animals. If you still can’t get over that fear, stop adopting puppies only to abandon them mere months later. And, I realize no one here had the good fortune of watching Bob Barker, but spend a little extra to neuter or spay your animals, PLEASE!

Lastly, the ‘24/24’ sign that litters almost EVERY convenient store in this country! What does that even mean? 24/7 is definitely a thing. 24/24? Not.
In this day and age when even people towards the bottom of the economic spectrum have cell phones and access to cheap internet, if you’re going to start a store, and put all of your hard earned money into it, do a little god dam research!!! 24 hours a days/24 days a year? The 24 days a year part may be pretty accurate in this country, but you’re definitely not open 24 hours a day! My late night journeys to find a store that is still open have proved that!

That’s all. I’m done complaining!

Picking cherries with my little buddy Davud
The second mural is finally finished!
Balaken Summer Camp 2012!