Sometimes you never know until you ask. I´ve come to learn that this holds particularly true in San Francisco, Peru. We often joke that in SF one must learn to battle not only boundaries that exist for newbie gringos in an unfamiliar country, but also challenges for those unfamiliar with living in ¨the country¨. The vast majority of SF residents have been living side by side with the same friends and family their entire lives. That is to say they are familiar, or as they are so fond of phrasing ¨accustomed¨, to certain faces and ways. One of the things they certainly are not accustomed to (even after six months) is coming right out and telling the young goofy-gringos just what is on their minds.
For this reason, it is important to remember that extending a little extra effort in order to encourage folks to share themselves is necessary. We learned this lesson in a major way during our last week in San Francisco.
We decided to wrap up our final week conducting a series of interviews and questionnaires with both our students and their families. This time was used to not only get feedback, but to also fill in both parties about the exciting next steps to come from MEJOR. This was our first chance to share that our trash collection program had been approved and would begin sometime in the next few months–the students and community were thrilled! We also informed people about the new group of volunteers who would be arriving to resume both classes and projects once the rains ceased. This news was met with such enthusiasm that several families went as far as to offer up housing for the new group once they arrived. Learning that MEJOR was willing to stay committed and follow through on their promise of investing in a project, really put a smile on everyone´s faces.
The most rewarding part of our final student/parent visits came from the feedback we received. I´ll be honest, up until our final week, I had some mixed feelings as to the overall impact of our six months of work. These feelings were partially the result of my own insecurities, but mostly because we´d never really taken the time to ask anyone what they thought of the work we´d done. Amongst tests, gardens, trash collections, community meetings, workshops and everything else, I´d forgotten one of the most important things… to ask for feedback. And trust me, in this type of situation, a little arm-twisting is necessary if one wants feedback.
Once we asked, we were shocked. Every single parent reported that they had been speaking to their kids regularly about classes. As a result, each household was now washing their hands regularly, many reported drinking more water (much of which was now boiled), mothers were now striving to provide their children more balanced meals, and each parent reported proudly that their child had become more confident in the community. Anecdotaly, the youth’s surveys proved even more insightful. Classes we thought held little interest turned out to be favorites. Kids who originally interpreted our classes unenthusiastically were now requesting new project responsibilities for the future.
The general sentiment from the student/parent feedback (again, once we asked for it) was pure excitement for what had been acheived and for what is still to come. Valerie, Carly and I were touched by the outpouring of warm thanks. Throughout our entire experience we have felt appreciated by both our class and community, but it wasn´t until our final week that we felt truly accomplished as well.
Our last day and night were spent hosting a graduation ceremony and farewell party. As each student received his or her diploma, I felt a sense of pride wash over me. I am proud of this charismatic group of students, who chose to participate in something so radically different than what they have always known. I am proud of the community of San Francisco for being so open-minded as to welcome three strangers with open homes and hearts. And I am proud of MEJOR, Carly, Valerie and myself for having achieved so much.
Thank you San Francisco, MEJOR, family, friends, my fellow volunteers and everyone who has contributed to this marvelous experience.