LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Final Thoughts (7/14)

So, I was the first person to blog about this trip to Paraguay, and now the trip has ended and I’ll share some final thoughts.

I started off this trip with fear, passion, and excitement. And now I am ending this trip with those same feelings.

First, my fears. Well, if I told you all of them you might never want to leave your house. So, I will tell you a few. One of my biggest fears was being kidnapped and sold to rival gangs for organ use. I just saw “Get Out,” and I felt like this trip was way too good to be true. I thought they were going to kill me and send another Avery back home. That’s one of my silly fears. 

But my true traditional fear was just like everybody else’s. Fear of being away–not from my mom, but away from the United States in a foreign country that doesn’t like the United States. I was away from the protection and benefits awarded for being a US citizen. But Paraguay eased all of those fears because of the passion and the love I was shown from all parts of the country. People smiling, waving, saying hi. And the care, kindness and acceptance from my host family–especially from host brother, Juan–alleviated all my fears and destroyed the stereotypes I had of this unknown country.

I have done so much in Paraguay in such a short period of time. It truly destroys me that this time has ended. I will never forget my time in Tobati and Santa Rosalia, Asunción, Santa Ana and all of the other places we visited in Paraguay. I will never forget all that I have learned from Domingo, a social entrepreneur, community leader, an innovator and motivator. I won’t forget the passion and selflessness shown by Po, a social business that creates inexpensive prosthetic hands for those without hands or fingers. Po is incubated by a larger social business called Koga.

I especially won’t forget Santa Ana/Tobati. All my fears coming into this trip stemmed from the homestay there. What would it be like? Would they like me? Would be able to communicate with one other? Would they truly accept me? And, well, they did, but who wouldn’t? These experiences shaped me in a way I won’t realize until I set foot back into Washington, DC. Back in the land of seeding social innovators.

I want to take my experiences from Paraguay and do something with them. I want to teach. I want to inspire. I want to change my city.

Avery W., Thurgood Marshall Academy

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Andrenae’s Words of Wisdom (7/13)

This was one of the best trips I have ever been on. I got to have fun as well as experience several things that will change my life forever. On this trip, we planted trees, went hiking, stayed with host families, and explored shantytowns as well as the “Uptown or Northside” aspects of Paraguay which consist of museums, big malls, big stores and streets with lots of lights. We fell in mud holes, but lastly, and most importantly, we made huge impacts on people’s lives (in their homes and their businesses).

Before coming to Paraguay I had a certain mindset that was made by the people around me. My friends and family were telling me to be careful with the people in Paraguay and to watch my bags so people wouldn’t snatch them (the basic awareness of my surroundings), but the perspectives my friends and family had on Paraguay were definitely wrong. If you actually spend time in Paraguay and get to know Paraguayan culture and communities, you will see that people are loving, caring, and shows selfless characteristics under many different circumstances.

During our last week, my group spent time decorating a pre-school. It might sound simple, but I assure you it isn’t. Hard work, time, patience and a little grit were definitely needed to make the project successful. In 5 days we put together something so beautiful that now gives the kids an open space to play, relax, and enjoy their school in more ways than just through academic learning.

We also participated with a group called Partidi which used fútbol (or soccer, as we call it in the United States) to interact with kids and develop their social and emotional health.

My group recently had a debate about whether or not Washington, DC has the same connections, programs, or genuineness as Paraguay. Here’s my opinion. What causes you to say Washington, DC doesn’t have what Paraguay has? I feel compassion from a lot of people with whom I interact, whether it’s at school, in my community, or just with strangers. My school and community have a ton of programs that children can participate in and, I can’t speak for anyone else, but my family definitely has a good culture. People tend to assume and judge everything just by one glance. But if you haven’t opened up your thoughts, your heart, and your mind to new people as well as new things, you will never fully experience the opportunities, whether far (like in Paraguay) or near (in the DMV) given to you.

I’m guessing you thought that was the end of my blog, right!? But I still have so much to say so continue with me.

One thing I learned on this trip is that background doesn’t make you, life does. Creating your own path in life makes you unique. When the time comes for you to make a decision about what you want to do with your life, you’re going to have so many thoughts going through your mind. Often your opinions and perceptions about things are based on something you may have seen on TV or read in a book or heard from a loved one, and you’ll decide not to do something because of a negative thought. But don’t let those ideas hold you back. Try that something new! And then try more things! And don’t stop. You may have read my blog to try something new, and I’ll just say it feels amazing because as I’m in the middle of typing it I feel amazing, so you should too!

I’m just about done so bear with me for a little longer. I’m sitting on the plane and to the right of me is Grace and to the left is a complete stranger. I am sitting here and thinking about this circumstance, and I decide to make a new friend and start a conversation with the stranger. But it’s not just any old conversation… it’s a conversation in Spanish! And just a heads up… I don’t know Spanish. But I made it work and, to my surprise, she knew English. It all worked out great. It’s kinda weird though because we didn’t really talk about us. We ended at watching the exact same movie at the exact same time so we were laughing and spoiling the movie for each other. Life has a funny way of showing you things, and I’m glad about that. I can’t wait for the plane to land so that I can share all of these things with you guys, as well as my family and friends. Thank you for listening (and reading) and I hope you enjoyed my post.

Andrenae B., Ballou High School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Lessons Learned from Paraguay (7/11)

This is my last day in Paraguay. Today we are traveling back to the United States and it feels like we just landed in Paraguay yesterday! While I am very sad to be leaving my new friends and family that I have made, I am excited to see all my friends and family back home. Before we left on the trip Chris Cole, LearnServe’s intern and ambassador, told us about his experience after coming back from his trip to Zambia; he said that he saw the United States in a different way. He said that he couldn’t continue to be friends with some people because he noticed things about them that he did not notice before. I worry that I will experience the same type of realization when I get back to the United States. I don’t think that this will happen just based on how well I know my friends and their awareness of others’ experiences, but the possibility is always there.

I am most excited to see my little brother. I haven’t been away from him for more than 3 or 4 days and this was a much longer time. I was initially worried about him and how he would do by himself but when I called him he seemed great! He was the responsible older brother to my younger siblings rather than a little brother to me. I was relieved! This time away gave me a glimpse into the future when I go off to college in a couple of years.

This trip not only taught me a lot regarding myself and how I operate in new and different environments but also how my family and friends operate with such a drastic change like my being away. This trip has definitely affected my perception of my own life, my community, as well as the people with whom I surround myself. I learned that despite scary or stressful situations, I can persevere and keep the main goal in mind; this allows me to focus more on what we are doing to help other people rather than the conflicts we have with people. Throughout my life this experience will forever be in my memory, affecting my decisions and viewpoints for the rest of my life. Che Rohayhu Paraguay!! (“I love Paraguay” in Guarani)

Morgan M., Northwood High School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Facing My Fears (7/11)

Reflecting back on my time in Paraguay I realized I overcame many fears. I was scared and worried about many things such as the water, food, and sleeping.

Paraguay is so far from home and we were going to be gone for a long time. First, I was really scared of sleeping. This time in Paraguay was the longest I had ever stayed without my parents. Until this trip, I had not been away from my parents for more than two days, so two and a half weeks without them was a big deal. I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep because at home it usually takes me awhile to fall asleep and I really didn’t want to have any sleepless nights during the trip. I’m scared of sleepless nights and being awake at night by myself. It seems like a lonely feeling. I know I’m grumpy without a good night’s rest and I knew that during this trip we would be interacting with a variety of people. Being tired and grumpy and meeting new people do not mix. As it turns out, I actually never had an issue sleeping. I was so exhausted at the end of each day that I had no trouble sleeping.

I was also scared that the food and water in Paraguay would make me sick. I did get sick once in Tobati because they fed me a lot of food and I drank tap water when having terere. Even though I was sick, I felt better during the rest of the trip. I was able to eat everything with the exception of a couple of foods, such as tomatoes, lettuce and some dairy products. Our trip leaders did a good job of making sure we had good food and water so we could stay healthy.

I had a great time on this trip and smiled a lot and I know the positive experience was partly because I felt so comfortable and faced my fears instead of being anxious.

Jack M., Walt Whitman High School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Staying Open-Minded (7/11)

I don’t want to write this final blog post, but I have to be open-minded about it.

After leaving the campo of Santa Rosalia, I struggled to maintain an interest in the trip. Asunción just wasn’t kicking it for me. I was mostly bored throughout the second week of the trip.

Unfortunately, I was forced to do the things I didn’t really enjoy and sometimes I just wanted to… stay in the transportation van. For example, after we left Santa Rosalia but before we headed back to Asunción, we stopped in Tobati for a hike. I had a terrible headache and wanted to go back home to Washington, DC on that day. Nothing was sparking any interest, and even worse, I had to use the bathroom which made me easily irritable.

Despite having bad experiences and being forced into participating in unwanted activities on the daily, I persevered. Some days I resisted the urge to throw on shades and take a seat, and I participated in the activities with my group. Other days, I took care of myself and threw on the shades as a sign of needing some alone time. Having to participate in group work gave me time to think about what I was doing here. A lot of people didn’t understand what was going on in my head and just assumed I was being a jerk. For example, in Santa Ana, we were planing a lesson about tooth brushing for the pre-school children with whom we were working. We designed a poster, created a skit and came up with a clever jingle to show the young children how to properly brush their teeth. Since I was not feeling well that day, I, naturally, didn’t want to participate in planning with the team. One of our trip leaders asked me to draw my feelings since I’m not comfortable sharing them verbally. That process helped somewhat and I was later able to stay engaged and work with the daycare center children to paint a mural on one wall of their building. 

There was a lot going through my head during this trip and it was difficult for me to process so many things and most of of the things on my mind were unrelated to the trip. I found out my dog was depressed without me and I couldn’t get my mind off of her and, in addition to that, I still had Santa Rosalia on my mind. I felt comfortable and connected to that community… I didn’t really communicate my feelings to others but whenever I was told to tell someone so that they could understand, I’d usually forget and if I remembered, I’d have a hard time speaking up.

Apart from work, leisure activities never failed to take my mind away from the small problems I faced. The parties we had at the hostel and the moments of fun always made me happy and now that I think about it. I enjoyed being part of this group.

Overall, this trip to Paraguay and traveling, in general, were things I had never experienced before. Throughout the experience, I have learned to suck it up and stay open-minded and to communicate my feelings in nonverbal ways. When I return to Washington, DC I will use this experience to open myself up to new experiences, environments, situations and friendships.

Jovanni R., Capital City Public Charter School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Independent Surprises (7/10)

I surprised myself on this trip and I am pretty sure my mom will be amazed and impressed by how I have grown in the past two and a half weeks.

This was my first time on a plane. And I was going to Paraguay, of all places!! Before our plane took off, when it was not moving, I thought the plane ride was going to be like a car ride. It was going to be easy, and I wasn’t really worried. Then when the plane started to move, my heart dropped and I got so scared. The second time we had to get on the plane in Panama City, I already knew what to expect. I felt calm and really got to enjoy the views. I love window seats!!

Before the trip I was worried about missing my mom and that I was not going to enjoy the trip. I thought that I would think too much about my family and that I was going to cry every night. I didn’t think I was going to make it for two and a half weeks without calling my mom.

I also was nervous for my sister because I am the oldest sibling and I am always with her; we have not been apart from each other for more than 4 days and she depends on me a lot. I didn’t think she was capable of taking care of my brother and socializing with other people without me. But, boy did she surprise me! My friend from church posted a video with my sister in it; my sister was performing a skit with a group of people! So I called her after I watched the video to ask her about it. She sounded great – happy and confident. She seemed much better than I thought she would be.

This trip to Paraguay has helped me be more independent which was exactly my hope for this trip. I didn’t think it was going to be possible but it was. I surprised myself! I only cried for my mom on the Fourth of July because I knew my entirely family was together and I was missing the gathering. I missed my mom and family but not to the point where I wanted to go back home as quickly as possible.

My family is from El Salvador and we speak Spanish at home. Knowing Spanish helped out a lot in Paraguay. It was not only useful for me to understand the language so I knew what was going on, but I was able to help translate for my friends. I felt like a leader because I got to share an important skill with friends. I was also able to explain games, instructions, etc. to the kids we interacted with at the high school in Santa Rosalia, the daycare in Santa Ana and several other places. I didn’t really realize that being bilingual was so useful.

The teacher chaperone on this trip is my 9th grade biology teacher, Ms. Chadda. Just today, she told me that I was one of the students she was worried about the most because I am so close and attached to my family and have not ever left them for a long period of time. But I surprised her and I was actually the person she worried about the least. I quickly found a good group of friends among my LearnServe group and became super close to them. If I needed anything, they were there for me. I was also so comfortable in any situation, from the home stays to working at the daycare center, with which we were faced.

My mom was so nervous about letting me go on this trip and it took a lot to convince her that I would be safe and that this was an experience of a lifetime. But, as it turns out, Ms. Chadda and my mom didn’t need to worry. I am an independent, confident leader and excited about my next adventure!

Jhoana D., Capital City Public Charter School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: A New Me in Santa Rosalia (7/10)

I will never forget how much I laughed when I was together with the people of Santa Rosalia. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life.

Arriving to Santa Rosalia was weird and shockingly awkward but luckily we were able to break the ice easily. After arriving from that plane, sleeping two nights in Hotel San Diego and two hours of driving from Asuncion to Santa Rosalia, just outside of Tobati, and the moment I got out the car I heard welcoming cheers in the distance behind a gate. Walking past that gate it became clear that many people were awaiting our arrival. The girls of the Colegio Nacional de Santa Rosalia performed and afterward we were invited to try their foods. The food was prepared by the community, and even though it was cold by that time, I had a smile on and gladly accepted it.

During the ceremony, we listened to a few speeches and then met our hosts and headed to their homes. My host brother was Santiago who is fairly quiet and an interesting character. He and I seemed really nervous at first but, as it turns out, we were very well alike – quiet, humble, strong, understanding and funny.

Santiago walked me to his home. I was wearing some casual shoes and the roads were extremely sandy. My choice of shoe was a big mistake. Along the way to his house I saw a ton of chickens and malnourished animals such as dogs, cows and cats. Many of the dogs had small wounds or scratches, fleas and dirt. No matter where you looked, you’d undoubtedly spot a chicken or some other animal.

We have now arrived at Santiago’s house and my shoes are full of sand. I met Santiago’s his mother, Perla, and his father, Santiago, and his brother, Enrique, who is a really cool guy. I gave my host mom an awkward hug but it wasn’t until later I actually started calling her mom. She showed me around and the house wasn’t exactly clean or perfect but I didn’t mind. It was perfect to me.

I got a tour of their house. The family dines outside and washes their hands outside in a little birdbath-like sink. At night, I brushed my teeth using the same sink under the countless stars and the sight was amazing. I found myself brushing my teeth for longer than usual just to spend more time under the stars. The kitchen was very dirty, the food and pots weren’t organized and the dogs of the home walk in and out freely. I named the nameless stray cat that stays at their place Nieve which means snow in Spanish because she is white.

For lunch, my host mother made Bori-Bori, a typical Paraguayan dish with potato pasta, chicken, corn husk and a lot of cheese. I ate it with steamed yuca and bread, and it was delicious! Afterward, we went back to the school…went back home and ate dinner then went to sleep. I showered in really cold water and slept with Santiago and his brother on the first night.

In the morning the chickens woke me up at 5:50, and they would not shut up for three hours. And for four days straight I would wake up, drink Cocido, go to the colegio, and enjoy the day.

During my time at Santa Rosalia, I did many things. I met new people and bonded with them. I had never experienced such connection with other people. Everyone I met played an important role to my experience in Paraguay. I followed Santiago around and, with him as my guide, I felt more comfortable walking around the town. Sara and Tamara made it a lot easier to talk to other people. At first, I was nervous to talk to anyone but they opened up to me and I have never had that happen to me. Throughout the five days with the students of Santa Rosalia, I had teenage high school experiences–such as being invited to a party, playing volleyball and getting a back rub from a girl I don’t know that well–that I have not had yet in Washington, DC. With my host family, I killed chickens, which we eventually ate for dinner, and made cocido, a popular Paraguayan breakfast drink. I participated in all activities, got to know new people (complete strangers who are now friends) and acclimated easily to a new culture and environment. I embraced everything about Santa Rosalia and became a more open-minded and mature version of myself.

Jovanni R., Capital City Public Charter School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: For the Children (7/10)

Hello it’s me, Jose, again. I’m now writing to you about my thoughts on the daycare we visited this week. The little kids are so adorable and cute. When I was playing and dancing with them it made me so happy and I felt like a 5 year old again. Seeing them laugh and smile made me feel so warm in the inside. When I was with the kids, I also felt bad for them because they suffer a lot.  They lack wealth and money and their town is affected by natural disasters, primarily flooding. When I heard that we were helping out by painting their  school and building them area area to play, I was so excited and ready to work for the next morning.

When we arrived at the school the next morning, we got straight to work. Everyone was excited to finally be doing some physical work and it was all for the kids. We planned what colors to paint the walls and also cleaned up the mess they had behind the school. It looked like a jungle back there! Underneath the weeds and dirt piles was a lot of trash, glass and other random things that should not be near small children.

We designed a mural to paint on a wall that was a blank canvas. Our first day at the daycare center was a lot of prep work, but it was on the second day when we really started to see the change we were making on the daycare center. The children and parents from the community come up to us to thank us for the work we were doing. That gave me more motivation to continue on with the project. 

Fast forward to the final day of the transformation. We were finishing the final paint jobs on the mural, walls and tire playground. Many of the kids were so excited and joined in on the painting fun. Some children were running around and jumping on the new playground we made out of old tires and sand. Seeing the smiles, joy and excitement on the faces of the children made waking up early in the morning, being tired and  back pain and body aches from the manual labor all worth it.

This whole experience has made me realize how much we take things for granted back home. We don’t appreciate of how well the government cares about our needs and education while people and children in Paraguay suffer from flooding and lack of resources. Their government doesn’t help as much as ours and it seems like it’s up to the younger generation of Paraguayans to make positive changes in their communities. Seeing all of this and helping even in the smallest way possible made me feel so happy to know that I gave back to a community that needed an extra helping hand. To see the smiles on the kids’ faces when we told them they had a new playground to use was the best moment of my life. My time in Paraguay changed me a lot and my point of view in the world. I’m ready to make a similar impact to my communities in Washington, DC.

Jose O., Paul Public Charter School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: Staying Strong and Making Memories (7/10)

Today is my fourth day with my host family. It’s going way better than a few days ago. Thank goodness. The first few days were emotionally exhausting and it took some time to adjust to living with strangers, to communicate without really knowing the language, and to get acclimated to the culture and the way of life here in the campo (countryside).

The food is amazing but they gave me very huge portions which I’m not used to. I felt like I was expected to eat all of the food so I didn’t appear rude and offend my host family. It’s also unusual that the water is so cold. Many of us have struggled with taking showers in ice cold water. And the bugs. Oh, those bugs! When bugs are around, my host sister doesn’t really pay attention to them. But in Washington, DC, people are quick to swat annoying flying insects away. There are so many differences between Paraguay and Washington, DC.

It’s now Saturday and we’ve been in Paraguay for almost a week. Today we are leaving Santa Rosalia, the campo, for Asunción, the city. When we said our goodbyes, everyone cried and it was a bit sad and heartbreaking. As we were exchanging hugs and numbers, I reflected on the memories I made during the last 5 days in Santa Rosalia. At the start of the home stay, I remembered crying a couple of times because I was so frustrated about not knowing Spanish well; I felt like an outsider with regards to the language. But, as the end approached, I began to get comfortable. My host family threw me a party to make me feel welcomed in their home and a part of their family. In Paraguay, people are genuinely interested in what you have to say. I was surprised how much they cared about my emotions, background, personality and interests. They wanted to know about my day.

Since the trip started, I have been overwhelmed. But, gradually, I have pushed myself to be strong, to step out of my comfort zone and to keep moving forward and do what’s best for me mentally, spiritually and emotionally. I have loved learning about and experiencing the food, culture and people of Paraguay.

Andrenae B., Ballou High School

LearnServe Paraguay 2017: My Impact on Two Paraguayan Communities (7/10)

Before we got to Paraguay we met several times to discuss what we would be doing on our two and a half week trip. We knew that we would be doing home stays and building things, painting and doing other community-building activities. That was supposed to happen in the countryside at Colegio Nacional de Santa Rosalia outside of Tobati, but nothing went as expected.

Our home stays were supposed to be in partners so the communication would be easier on those who were not fluent in Spanish, but that didn’t work out as planned. Our solo home stays were not the only “surprise” moment during the week in Santa Rosalia. During the week, we painted some chalkboards and planted trees and, through conversations with our host siblings, learned about the needs of the students at the Colegio. We expected to do a lot of hands-on projects but ended up with more downtime than originally planned. During that time, we played games with our hosts, sang and danced and learned about each other. And some of the tiny trees we planted were run over by cars which was tragic. Many of us were a bit restless because we felt like we weren’t  getting accomplished and weren’t making as big of an impact as we thought we would. I was concerned that the Santa Rosalia community would think we were lazy and only came to their town to have fun. But, as it turns out, we made a bigger impact than we realized.

I didn’t realize we made an impact until we were about to leave Santa Rosalia. When we were saying our goodbyes, our host siblings and their families started crying their eyes out. It sunk in that we didn’t have to redecorate the Colegio or do physical labor projects to impact the community. We had made a lasting impression, both mentally and emotionally, on them by just being there. Our presence, conversations and the time we spent together was enough. Many deep emotions were exchanged over the five days and we didn’t have even know that was happening. I know the community of Santa Rosalia will never forget us and that we have made a lasting mark on their hearts and minds.

After leaving Santa Rosalia, we went back to Asunción to help the community of Santa Ana, but I was not quite sure what we would be doing there. To my surprise, Santa Ana was where we would finally being doing manual labor. We were asked to make the preschool in the town more enjoyable, bright and cheerful for the children. I ended up using a shovel, a hammer, a pick-ax and my hands to dig through the ground to create trenches. We then placed tires in the trenches to create a play space for the children. We painted the tires red, yellow, blue and green and we also painted the outside walls of the center bright colors. On one of the long walls along the perimeter of the daycare center, we painted a colorful cartoon mural.

I wasn’t sure how our work would impact the children but when we went back to the school the next day, we saw that the children played all over the tires and had a blast while doing it. It made me see that what we are doing can have a lasting impact on the children’s lives and will bring light to a dark situation. I am so glad that I came to Paraguay, and I hope what I did here will touch at least one person’s life. I am want to say thank you to everyone who helped me get here; this experience has truly changed me.

Natalya N., Parkdale High School