Meeting Everyday Challenges in Ethiopia Head On: The Development of a Peer Support Network
Looking forward, looking back
By Teri Enomoto (Emdiber 09–11)
THE BEGINNING OF THE NEW YEAR is time to make resolutions and take a personal inventory. As many of us emerge from the holiday-induced haze like zombies from a horror movie, we begin to re-assess our lives. We put 2011 to bed as we look forward to new experiences, habits and personal growth.
I find that while I am looking to the future, I also have one eye on the past. For many recently returned RPCVs, this is the time when the finality of two years of experiences coalesces and there is nothing that can be altered to that chapter of life on Ethiopian soil. It is not only about saying goodbye to one’s Ethiopian friends, family and town but also about a very distinct part of oneself; it is also about making peace with the experience by reconciling the good and the bad. It is a time to reminisce about what may end up being a very defining part of one’s life.
As I ruminate about my own Peace Corps experience, there are many things that I wished I could do over again: things I wished I said, people I wished I met and events in which I wished I participated. While I may have a few regrets, there are some events that fundamentally changed who I am in positive ways. One such experience was my involvement with the post’s Peer Support Network (PSN).
The Addis staff decided that some form of peer support was needed because the number of PCVs doubled while the staff size did not. There were nine of us who were elected: four Volunteers from Group 2 (2008–10): Karen Simms (Fitche), Mike Mallon (Debre Sina), Peter Buonincontro (Fincha) and Rich Gelicame (Hawassa); and five from Group 3 (2009–11): Aimee Uchytil (Bichena), Laura Copeland (Quiha), Raymael Blackwell (Mizan Terefi), Sher Vogel (Mertolemariam), and myself. We underwent an emotionally intense three-day training in October 2010 with Daynese Santos, the Peace Corps Medical Officer in Swaziland. We learned about supporting fellow PCVs through active listening and communication skills, as well as identifying common service challenges, red flags and grief resulting from loss.
After the training, we had several long meetings where we collaborated on what we envisioned PSN to be. I recall the shortest meeting lasted six hours. We elected our officers with Karen as President, Rich as Logistician, Laura as Secretary and Sher as PR Coordinator. Our first step was to create an internal structure. We crafted a mission statement that reflected our aim: “To provide, with integrity and confidentiality, a supportive, non-judgmental, and safe environment that will endure and evolve to meet the diverse needs of every Peace Corps/Ethiopia trainee and volunteer.” We also drafted a constitution. Once we understood what our mission would be, we came up with a calendar of events that consisted of trainings and PCV support events (e.g., encouragement cards, care packages, etc.).
Rich devised a detailed budget based on the calendar of events. We proceeded to set upon the task of developing a framework for the trainings. We wanted to make these sessions systematic so that it would be sustainable; future PSN members would be able to facilitate training content because the topics would be preset and recorded in written form (e.g., pre-service training would involve diversity and resiliency issues while in-service training would deal with sharing community integration suggestions and experiences). We split up the content and each of us devised specific goals, objectives and activities for the sessions. We then reviewed and edited the content as a group and Karen formatted it into a working document that we called our Internal Manual. In addition, we began the process of establishing a manual that we would send to newly sworn in Volunteers with coping strategies, as well as identifying physical and emotional wellness issues. Each member was assigned a few topics to write.
We each contributed a photo and an inspiring quote in December which Mike used to create a color calendar for Volunteers and Staff. It included PCV birthdays and holidays (American and Ethiopian). He also sent congratulatory emails to Group 2 Volunteers who finished their service.
During the spring of 2011, we continued to work on the development, testing and modification of our training content. When Karen finished her service, we added Jess Miner (Assella) to supplement the team with the technical expertise of an art therapist. Sher completed the editing and layout process for both the Training Manual (formerly the Internal Manual) and the New PCV Manual. Emily DiGiovanni (Konso), Libbey Brown (Goba), Nancy Sturtevant (Wondo Genet), and Seth Kammer (Sebo) were elected from Group 4 (2010–12) and went through a PCV-run PSN training orientation.
I learned so much from the individuals on PSN. Each person brought such a unique personality and set of skills to the table. It was, and continues to be, a collaborative environment. I can honestly say that I have never been part of a group that was as hard-working and supportive as PSN and I may never be again. I would come out of our marathon meetings exhausted, overwhelmed with the ideas and options but satisfied with the work we were doing. As I look forward to the post-PC phase of my life, I will bring the skills I developed during this time with me as a thoughtful reminder of what can be achieved.