Volunteer Resiliency and the Lifecycle of a Volunteer

January 2015 Guidepost to Wholehearted Living
Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness

Volunteer resiliency is a common topic at Peace Corps trainings. We’ve already received a few charlas (trainings) on the topic and will continue to receive them over the course of our service. Sometimes called “The toughest job you’ll ever love,” service has its ups and downs, as cultural integration and the slow process of change can be difficult. There’s even this timeline written by a group of COS-ing (Close of service – meaning they’re getting ready to leave) Volunteers in Senegal in the mid-80s that is still used world wide in PC trainings because the experiences PCVs feel at certain times in their service are shockingly similar.

During this Integration period of the first few months at site, there tends to be some numbing and powerlessness. We don’t know many people. Our more easily identified work (for TEFLeros – teaching in the public schools) has yet to begin. We’re trying to navigate our new homes, build relationships from scratch, and set up the rest of our service for success. It can seem a bit overwhelming. We can want to stay in our rooms and read/watch Netflix/ play music/ [insert-your-PCV-I’m-bored-time-passer-here].

Cycle of Vulnerability

These feelings have certainly been true for me on and off for the past few months, which is why ACCESS Camp was such a pick-me-up and I felt like a real volunteer for the first time. But I also know that there are little things that are harder to think of as work that we’ve actually been doing here. Those little things are also part of being a real volunteer:

  • Establish routines, create a sense of “I”: We’ve been taking this time here before school starts and our schedules fill up to build routines for ourselves. From yoga to running, cooking and cleaning, journaling and blogging – we’ve sought out ways to decompress that also build us up. We’re striving for a balance, and finding ourselves in the process.
  • Establish links: NGOs, services, counterparts: Having counterparts over to dinner. Stopping by to say hi to various services and organizations as we walk around town. Taking people up on their offers to host us for food and fun. Taking people out for coffee. Being invited over to people’s houses for coffee. Never saying no to any coffee that is offered to you. More coffee. All of these small steps, talks, calls, texts are a part of building our rapport and establishing connections for the future (as well as making genuine friends!) are incredibly important even if they are hard to quantify.
  • Hobbies to do in public: Yoga studios, dance classes, sitting in the coffee shop to do some email work instead of at home, basketball, hiking, eating. All things we love to do that can be done out in public and often with the company of others.
  • Language study: Chatting it up with native speakers, listening to Spanish pod-casts, writing in my planner in Spanish, reading Harry Potter…it all helps. It’s still poco a poco, but every bit of language study helps.
  • Visit peers, other PCVs, host PCVs: While every site is different and has its own unique perks and challenges, it’s also been really helpful to see that we’re not alone in trying to figure out what it means to be Peace Corps Volunteers in Nicaragua. Visiting other sites and showing people around Estelí has helped remind us that we’re all in this together.

As I mentioned in my ACCESS Camp reflections – we know the road to real impact is long and slow. But the steps we’ve taken above help us not feel so powerless. Our work here is very different from the every-30-minute-block-is-filled-in-my-planner-busy-life we lead back in the states.

This past week, we had the opportunity to spend a few days for PC training in Selva Negra, a beautiful nature reserve in the department of Matagalpa. Connecting and sharing about the topics above and volunteer resiliency with our fellow TEFLeros brought me a good deal of comfort. When we got to sit down with our new boss (welcome to the team Alyssa!!) to talk about these first few months, she was very affirming of the small, yet important work we’ve been doing. She is an RPCV and has also worked for Peace Corps in the past. She gets it. Our typical work is not as flashy as camp, and it’s a great deal slower. But we truly believe that it’s just as important.

As we transition into our first semester of teaching in Nicaragua, we’re thankful for the challenges this time of Integration has brought us. May this new phase in which we are about to embark bring even more challenges and successes. In the midst of confusion and uncertainty, may we continue to find and create a resilient spirit.

We would love to hear what you think about this guidepost:  
+ In what ways do you experience numbing and powerlessness?
+ How can you cultivate a resilient spirit?

Read/join the discussion here.


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