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!

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