Urbex in Librazhd

Urbex: urban exploration.

I have always been an adventurous girl – wanting to push boundaries and discover the world.  Albania is full of uncharted explorations at my fingertips.  So when my friend Brendan suggested that we investigate some abandoned buildings in Librazhd, I was ready for the adventure.  In Albania, you can see derelict structures in almost every city and village.  Many of these structures were abandoned and destroyed during communism, while other buildings were simply never finished because of a lack of funds. In my opinion, there is something extremely beautiful and intriguing about discarded places.  It makes me ponder questions such as: what kind of life was once here, what memories does this place hold, why and how it became deserted? On Sunday morning, we hiked up the road in the rain to a yard full of neglected buildings waiting to be explored. There we found these gems.

Color my life with the chaos of trouble

Color my life with the chaos of trouble

Oh Brendo.

Oh Brendo.

And of course we found a bunker

And of course we found a bunker

Staying cool in the rain with our rainbow umbrella

Staying cool in the rain with our rainbow umbrella

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An old school

An old school

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Brendan - a natural teacher

Brendan – a natural teacher

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The city of Librazhd

The city of Librazhd

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Brendan making a fire to help warm up his house.

Brendan making a fire to help warm up his house.

This is how I feel about how cold it is inside.

This is how I feel about how cold it is inside.

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Visiting my Host Family and Language Refresher

I have not visited my host family in Pajove since the end of Pre-Service Training, so a visit back to my little host-village was long overdue.  I decided to pair the trip up with our Group 16 Language Refresher conference because the conference was taking place in Elbasan and Pajove was along the way.  I left my site Tuesday afternoon to have dinner with the family and spend the night.  I made it Pajove in a little over an hour.  The village is actually relatively close to my site.  Once arriving in Pajove, I was ushered into the kitchen and offered chocolate candy and coke.  So much for eating healthy.  Albanians are always extremely hospitable offering guests something to eat/drink when arriving in the home.  After the initial candy and coke, I presented the family with some gifts that I had for them.  I got some pictures printed out from our times together during training and they seemed to really appreciate those.  It was nice to give them something to remind them of all the fun times we had together.  I also gave the neighbor children next-door some gifts.  A hat for Arman and some princess posters for Siderela.  My host-brothers fiancé, Lela (my second sister really), received some fun earrings from America that she really enjoyed as well.  It was nice to finally give them something back!  For dinner we had the usual Albanian meal – a plate with homemade bread, cut up tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, some soup, and pilaf.  It was amazing.  I didn’t really appreciate my host-families cooking enough when I was living with them, but it is so simple and delicious (definitely a lot better than some of the random things I try to cook for myself).  Of course, after dinner however, I felt about 5 pounds heavier because of all the salt, oil, and butter that is hidden in EVERYTHING.  We also danced around the kitchen – I showed them the dance routine I have been working on in my dance class.  And we even practiced some ways to work out in the home for better health.

The visit was everything I could have asked for and more.  I was able to communicate with my family in only Shqip and we didn’t even need to use the dictionary once! They kept complimenting me on how much my Shqip has improved and how skinny I look.  It was very nice! It made me realize how much my language really has improved the last six months, even though sometimes it feels like I can barely speak a word.  And of course I am bound to be a little bit skinnier now that I am not eating mounds of bread everyday.  😉

The next morning I met up with a fellow group 16 volunteer Amber, for a reunion coffee in our old spot in Pajove.  It was extremely nostalgic to be there together again eight months later in our service.  Sometimes I can’t believe that it is coming up on a year that I have been living abroad.  After our coffee, we caught a furgon to Elbasan for the training.  And of course, being the two sexy ladies that we are, we had an admirer who happened to be the furgon attendant and had no shame in trying to chat it up with us.  Not to sound cocky, but this tends to happen a lot.  We finally made it to Elbasan and Amber dodged giving the guy her phone number.

There were several aspects to the training, but all of the sessions included the component of language.  All of the volunteers were split into group based on language level and how much Shqip their classes would speak.  I was placed into the 70% Shqip/30% English group and I felt good about that decision.  I really enjoyed working with different volunteers again and learning together – plus my group was pretty awesome.  My best friend Dan was in the group, so that was definitely an upside.  In our classes we focused on Albanian culture and language.  We had sessions about the famous Albanian poem “Mall” by Kadare, real life situations, unemployment in Albania, volunteer reflections on learning Albanian, the popular Albanian song “Nën një portokalle,” Mother Tereza, grammar, and different dialects.  The training was extremely informative and really boosted my desire to continue my language learning at site.

Besides the sessions, the conference also allowed our group time to catch up.  This was the first time we were all together since leaving our host-families during training.  We got to go out to dinner together each night and just have some fun.  Our group also put on a pretty amazing talent show one of the nights! It was awesome.  Some volunteers put on comedy routines, plays, dance performances, and guitar and flute performances. We really do have a talented group if I do say so myself.  I also did a little something for the talent show – hoop dance! It was so much fun and it was one of the first performances I have ever done live.  I loved the energy that I felt from the crowd, music, and my hoop.  It really was something special for me.  You can check out the video of my performance here. During the down-time I also met with all the committees that I serve on including: the Volunteer Advisory Committee, the Anti-trafficking Committee, and the Outdoor Ambassadors Committee.  I learned more information regarding the GLOW Outreach program that I hope to begin at site with Kate over the summer.  It was a great time full of information, learning, friends, and fun!

My host brother and neighbor

My host brother and neighbor

I love her

I love her

Messing around

Messing around

Kisses for Arman

Kisses for Arman

Hanging around in the kitchen before dinner

Hanging around in the kitchen before dinner

Such cuties!

Such cuties!

She is getting so big. Last time I saw her she couldn't walk and now she is running all over the house alone!

She is getting so big. Last time I saw her she couldn’t walk and now she is running all over the house alone!

I got her to smile!

I got her to smile!

Having coffee with Amber

Having coffee with Amber

Of course we were the only girls in the place

Of course we were the only girls in the place

Amber and I on our way to Elbasan

Amber and I on our way to Elbasan

More street art :)

More street art 🙂

Pajove reunion!

Pajove reunion!

Getting ready for the talent show

Getting ready for the talent show

One of my favorite ladies

One of my favorite ladies

Getting my "talent" on - hoop dance!

Getting my “talent” on – hoop dance!

Our Annual Health Fair

One of the major components of a health education volunteer’s work in Albania is to help their health centers run successful health fairs in accordance with the Ministry of Public Health.  The Ministry sent out a notice to all the D.Sh.P’s across Albania on October 30th instructing all the centers to hold health fairs between November 1st and November 15th. Thanks for the two-day notice, but then again TIA (this is Albania – a token phrase used amongst group 16 volunteers here).  It is very common for things to be last minute here and often times not much planning is done ahead of time.  This can often be difficult for us Americans because we are brought up with planning being an important step in the process for implementing successful activities.

After our notice to hold a health fair my colleagues and I decided to hold our health fair on Thursday November 14th.  We felt it was better to have it later rather than the first week so that we could get all our materials ready.  After deciding our date, I made fliers to help advertise our health fair.  Once we printed out all our fliers our director informed us that we would need to change our date to Wednesday November 13th.  Surprise surprise, everything is rarely correct the first time.  So we changed all the dates on our fliers with permanent markers – ska problem (no problem).  After the date was correct, my counterparts and I went around to different schools, coffee shops, and popular places to post the fliers.

Last year many of the Health Centers across Albania received materials and supplies from Peace Corps, as well as World Vision, a NGO that works here in Albania. This year the funding wasn’t available to provide materials or supplies, so each Health Center had to work with what they already had available. At my Health Center that meant we had brochures.  Brochures are a primary source for health education and promotion here in Albania. To get ready for the health fair I simply made about 10 copies of several of the different brochures that we already had in the office.  I also helped my counterparts create new brochures in Microsoft Office.  A lot of my job over here includes making new materials for my counterparts to use, not exactly what I thought I signed up for, but these initial interactions are imperative to gain the trust of my coworkers to do projects in the future together.  I wanted to have some interactive stations at our health fair, so I also made a Body Mass Index (BMI) poster to help participants recognize if they were underweight, overweight, obese, etc.  It took a while to make the BMI poster, but with the help of one of my coworkers we were able to make a BMI poster and several other posters for healthy nutrition.  It is always nice to have colorful, eye-catching materials for the community members.  After getting all of our supplies ready the day of our health fair finally arrived.

I arrived to the D.Sh.P early to help set up everything and we were extremely lucky that weather was on our side that day.  We set up about 6 tables in the courtyard of the D.Sh.P. I wanted to move our health fair near the treg (second-hand market), so that we’d get more traffic, but my counterparts felt that would be too much unnecessary work. It ended up working out though because we had a good amount of people come throughout the fair.  We had the BMI station, a dental wellness table with demonstrations, several people taking blood pressure, a doctor taking blood glucose levels, and lots of information/posters for participants to learn from.  We also had students from the local high school and elementary school come down to check out the fair.  My tutor’s daughter even saw me there. She told my tutor how beautiful I am, but asked why I don’t speak better Shqip (STORY OF MY LIFE HERE).  Also, two of my great friends, and fellow volunteers from Durres, came to help out with the health fair and I was so excited to work with them again.  We became good friends during training and I always respect and value their work/opinions.  They are doctors (a hot commodity here in Albania) from no-other than good ole Grand Junction, Colorado.  They helped with taking blood pressure and with the BMI station. Overall, it was really great and I was happy to stay busy during the fair.  After holding a successful health fair this year, I am certain that we can hold an even better fair next year! I already have ideas on different ways we can improve and other activities we can implement.

Setting up for our health fair.

Setting up for our health fair.

We had some observers while we were setting up.

We had some observers while we were setting up.

My counterparts giving info about healthy nutrition.

My counterparts giving info about healthy nutrition.

Giving dental demonstrations.

Giving dental demonstrations.

Some of the high schoolers getting info.

Some of the high schoolers getting info.

Checking the director's BMI.

Checking the director’s BMI.

Here, take a brochure.

Here, take a brochure.

My main counterpart giving blood glucose levels.

My main counterpart giving blood glucose levels.

My BMI station.

My BMI station.

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So many brochures

So many brochures

Blood pressure

Blood pressure

Paul giving blood pressure.

Paul giving blood pressure.

Speaking with members of the community about healthy eating.

Speaking with members of the community about healthy eating.

Some of the younger participants. The far left is my tutor’s daughter and the one in the purple is in my English course.

Even some members of the roma community came out to the fair.

Even some members of the roma community came out to the fair.

Some more high schoolers.

Some more high schoolers.

Celebrating after the health fair with my site-mate.

Celebrating after the health fair with my site-mate.

Exploring my Site

I have a lot of down time while volunteering here.  My average day consists of me going into work or tutoring around 8:30am, hanging around the office and convincing people to work with me for a little bit, around 10:00am maybe going with my counterparts to take pictures of their lessons for about 30 minutes, and then more sitting around the office until I decide I want to go home.  Now that it is starting to get colder, the office is a nice warm place to hang around and get committee work, blogs, health promotion materials, and other work finished. Did I mention my house is FREEZING and that I do not have central heating or a wood stove?! Then in the afternoons I have my extra-curricular activities – an English course and a dance class at the cultural center.  In January, I will also be starting an Outdoor Ambassadors group.  Usually my working day is finished anywhere from 11:00am – 3:00pm.  This leaves me a lot of downtime to do whatever I please.  Most days I work out with Blogilates and do some yoga or hoop-dance, maybe do a bit of reading or catch up on whatever TV series I have decided to marathon watch.  But when it is not raining I enjoy going out for the occasional bike-ride or adventure around the city.  Kate (my site-mate) and I have been hearing about this mysterious lake for far too long and we have both always wanting to find it.  One day I set out with finding the lake in mind and I finally found it, along with some other beauties of Kavaje.  I rode my bike up into the hills of the neighboring villages and farmlands and I found a gorgeous spot to picnic, along with the lake!  I didn’t end up getting too close to the lake however, because I was not sure if it was part of someone’s property.  That is something to explore later with Kate.  When coming back to my house, I ran across some rowdy boys whose goal was to run me off the road, oh çuns.  They were still cute though, just had to ride fast to lose them.  I also came across some more boys kicking this cute puppy, that one of my neighbor’s owns, outside of my apartment.  I stopped them and we ended up hanging out for a while with the pup.  Things started to get a little unruly and the boys began throwing food at the dog (and me) and food later on turned into rocks.  Annoying – sometimes children here do not realize the correct way to interact with adults (but that is honestly seen everywhere in the world).  I tried to use it as a lesson for better behavior, but sadly my language skills aren’t up to par yet.  Since the boys did not stop throwing rocks I decided it would be best to take the puppy up to my house. It needed a safe haven!  And I also just really wanted to play with a puppy.  I miss animals and my cat Kleo so much.  So I just borrowed the dog for about 15 minutes, enough time for the boys to find something else to do, and then I leave it back outside my apartment where I found it.  Later on some teenage boys came to my door to ask where the puppy was.  I told them that I put the puppy back outside.  Now I am probably seen as the crazy American girl who stole the dentist’s puppy.  Whoops, I guess there are worse things to be seen as.

When it's warm, Kate and I can get coffee at the beach 15 minutes away by furgon

When it’s warm, Kate and I can get coffee at the beach 15 minutes away by furgon

Kate at coffee

Kate at coffee

Sippin on another makiato

Sippin on another makiato

A puzzle I tried to start, but then got bored...

A puzzle I tried to start, but then got bored…

Afternoon walks, hanging around in tunnels.

Afternoon walks, hanging around in tunnels.

The sunset in the center of my city.

The sunset in the center of my city.

Found this memorial on one of my bike-rides.

Found this memorial on one of my bike-rides.

Pictures can't do it justice.

Pictures can’t do it justice.

Beautiful spot for a picnic.

Beautiful spot for a picnic.

Another mosque - they are all over my city.

Another mosque – they are all over my city.

Some of the little rascals trying to run me off the road

Some of the little rascals trying to run me off the road

Sa bukurrrrr

Sa bukurrrrr

Why, hello there ducks

Why, hello there ducks

Sunset... at 3pm

Sunset… at 3pm

I like puppies

I like puppies

But I don't like boys messing with puppies...

But I don’t like boys messing with puppies…

Little troublemaker

Little troublemaker

So I "borrow" the puppy... and people think I am crazy

So I “borrow” the puppy… and people think I am crazy

Special Olympics

For those of you back home who know me, you know that I have always had a special place in my heart for people with disabilities and that they are one of my favorite populations to work with.  I have worked at schools with people with disabilities and at camps as well.  So when I heard about Special Olympics in Tirana, the capital city of Albania I knew that I had to take part in that!  Since I have previous experience with these populations I was asked to be the Peace Corps contact person for next year’s event, which is quite the honor.  I am very excited to take part in the activity again next year!

The event was four days and it started on Saturday, but I was unable to make the first day because of previous commitments.  On the first day, there was an opening ceremony with a bike ride around Tirana, introductions, etc.  I arrived early on the second day and was assigned to team Pogradeci.  There were teams from eleven different cities around Albania and some cities had two teams.  Some teams were from special schools and other teams were from community centers.  My team was from a community center, so there were mostly older adults on my team.  Each team was assigned several volunteers, usually two-three Albanian volunteers and one Peace Corps volunteer.

There were several different sports that the teams took part in including basketball, pin-pong, bowling, track, and soccer.  I watched my team play soccer and several games of basketball.  For the participants who did not participate in sports there was a DJ and a big dance party everyday.  The whole event was honestly one giant dance party, but it was a fun dance party. Gotta love circle dancing! And I think that I have FINALLY figured it out.  Vallë aka circle dancing is very simple, but for some reason I have had a really hard time picking it up (funny since I am the “dance teacher” for my city).

Several of the PCVs who were volunteering at the event stayed in the hotel, but since I had to miss the first day of the event I stayed with another volunteer who lives in Tirana.  It actually ended up being a blessing in disguise because I got to know the city a little bit better and we even went out to eat for Chinese food one night.  It was a pretty big deal because I haven’t gone out for Chinese in over half a year! Tirana definitely has some Americanized food that I have been craving, had some bagels for breakfast one of the days too! Yummy!

The event was so much fun and I really enjoyed getting to know the members of my team, as well as many of the Albanian volunteers who are students at the University.  It was nice to meet some people my age who are more liberal.  Volunteering still isn’t a big thing in Albania, so it was inspiring to see these young Albanian volunteers working side by side with each other and members of their teams.  The event would have been nothing without their help!

Even though the event was fun, there were still some aspects that I hope to help improve for next year.  This year Peace Corps did not have a role in helping out with the planning portion; we just had volunteers come for the actual event.  I hope to help out more with that process in the future alongside my country director. I want to implement more group activities during down-time so that people are not sitting around for several hours between activities with nothing to do. Parts of the event were a big disorganized and events were often not held at the correct time.  The final ceremony was over two hours late.  This was somewhat frustrating for me, but these situations continue to teach me more and more about my patience and how having a good attitude really makes or breaks a situation.  The event meant something to everyone involved and even though the schedule was not correct, it was still an amazing experience.

Some of the PCVs at the event.

Some of the PCVs at the event.

The PCV who helped make this whole event happen. Thanks Sarah!

The PCV who helped make this whole event happen. Thanks Sarah!

Jen and a member of her team! So cuteee.

Jen and a member of her team! So cute.

Dance partayyyy.

Dance partayyyy.

Trying to make the Olympics symbol (my idea)!!

Trying to make the Olympics symbol (my idea)!! Can you find me? *Hint I am in a red shirt.

The torch!

The torch!

Having chinese food in Tirana.

Having chinese food in Tirana.

Grupi Pogradec!

Grupi Pogradec!

Karaoke

Karaoke

Football (soccer)

Football (soccer)

Handing out with the boys.

Handing out with the boys.

Lori, my Albanian side-kick and back bone of the Pogradec group.

Lori, my Albanian side-kick and back bone of the Pogradec group.

Down-time activities.

Down-time activities.

My girls. :)

My girls. 🙂

We had fun taking photos. My girly!

We had fun taking photos. My girly is rockin those shades.

Another group photo.

Another group photo.

Vallë!

Vallë!

Our team volunteers!

Our team volunteers!

Basketball

Basketball

Team love.

Team love.

There was lots of dancing!

There was lots of dancing!

More circle dancing!

More circle dancing!

Episode 2: Mito eats a cheeseburger.

Episode 2: Mito eats a cheeseburger.

Messing around.

Messing around.

Pin-pong!

Pin-pong!

My dance buddy

My dance buddy

Some of the voluntees!

Some of the volunteers!

The final ceremony.

The final ceremony.

Setting up for the final ceremony.

Setting up for the final ceremony.

Team Elbasan pumping up the crowd during the final moments.

Team Elbasan pumping up the crowd during the final moments.

Our final ceremony performance. So amazing!

Our final ceremony performance. So amazing!

Some of the awards!

Some of the awards!

AND THE WONDERFUL VOLUNTEERS WHO MADE IT ALL POSSIBLE!!

AND THE WONDERFUL VOLUNTEERS WHO MADE IT ALL POSSIBLE!!

Gëzuar HALLOWEEN!!

Work hard, play hard: this has always been my motto.  I am a hard-worker, but I also like to enjoy my free time and hang out with my friends. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays back in the states. I love dressing up crazy, carving pumpkins, handing out candy, and going to Halloween parties.  It was weird spending my first Halloween outside of the states because usually I would go out to several parties, probably hit up the bars, and go to a concert.  My best friend Kayla even sent me some Halloween decorations in a care-package that I am probably going to keep up all year long. Did I mention that I love Halloween?!

Luckily, I was able to celebrate my favorite holiday here in Shqiperia too! One of the volunteers held a Halloween party for all the volunteers in his city.  It was really fun to catch up with all volunteers and just hang out.  We also had a pretty good dance party going on, even included some vallë (aka circle dancing – a major Albanian dance at most functions and festivities).  At the volunteer Halloween party I dressed up like Daisy Buchanen from the Great Gatsby.  If I have short hair, I may as well rock a costume that works well.  So 1920s hottie ended up being the perfect bet.

Kate buying some flowers for her DIY costume.

Kate buying some flowers for her DIY costume.

Oh so coooool.

Oh so coooool.

I have such beautiful friends.

I have such beautiful friends.

The furrrr coats.

The furrrr coats.

The high school in my city also put on a party for all the high school students on the actual night of Halloween.  Since I am friends with some pretty important people (aka my wonderful site-mate/high school teach) I was able to attend the party as well.  I dressed up as mother-earth for this party.  Kate let me borrow her poison ivy costume and then I added some daisies from my apartment – mother earth! Some of the students had some really great costumes, but face paint and masks still seem to be more popular than a full on costume like in America.  The high school party was actually the best dance party that I have been to in Albania thus far.  There were lasers, an actual dance floor, and almost no space to move. Just like some concerts back home!

The high school party.

The high school party.

Kate and me at the hs party.

Kate and me at the hs party.

The DJ

The DJ

Some of Kate's students that I was with on the Breast Cancer march.

Some of Kate’s students that I was with on the Breast Cancer march.

We ran into some of my neighbor's on the walk home.

We ran into some of my neighbor’s on the walk home.

I also attended another party at a restaurant in Librazhd as a pin-up girl with some other volunteers.  This party was a lot of fun – a lot of circle dancing and dancing in general.  I definitely danced my heart out for Halloween and it felt so good!

Vallë aka circle dancing in Librazdh!

Vallë aka circle dancing in Librazdh!

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

The month of October marks Breast Cancer Awareness month, not only in America, but also in Albania as well.  I have many good memories with family and friends participating in breast cancer fundraisers and runs back home, which is one reason why I was so excited that we implemented several activities within my city and the surrounding villages.

My counterparts had worked on breast cancer activities with the previous health volunteer, so they already had the ideas of what kind of activities they wanted to execute.  They decided they would like to have a small march/walk around town with some of the girls from the local high school.  I was so excited that they wanted to do an actual activity along with different lessons in the community!  They also partnered with the local hospital to allow women without health care in the community to come into the hospital for free or reduced-pay breast exams.  Along with that, they gave lessons to women in the surrounding villages on breast cancer and how to give self-breast exams.  Sadly, I was not included in on those lesson plans in the village or with the hospital, but I did help provide the breast exam model from Peace Corps.  Next year I hope that they allow me to participate more in the other activities besides the march.

The march was a blast though! It has definitely been the highlight of working at the Health Center thus far.  We spoke with the director at the high school a few days ahead of time to ask if we could borrow some of the girls from their class to participate in the march.  In my city, when we do activities or projects we end up interrupting whatever class is already in session.  Sometimes we will give health presentations in English, Math, Science, whatever class.  I think we stole the girls from a Science lesson that day, but I am not totally sure. Before our march I also made several posters for the girls to carry and we printed out some brochures to pass out to people along the way.  There were some other things we probably could have planned or figured out before the activity, but planning things ahead of time is definitely something that we are still working on here.  As we were walking to the school the morning of to pick up the girls, my counterparts were buying last minute supplies like balloons, etc.  I have been trying to instill the idea that simple planning ahead of time really is instrumental to implementing successful projects, but avash avash.

Once we picked up the girls from school, we brought them back to the DShP to put on breast cancer t-shirts, pin pink ribbons on their shirts, blow up the balloons we bought ten minutes before, and tell them what they are supposed to be doing (walking around town and passing out brochures/talking about breast cancer with women on the street).  After all the basic logistics were figured out, we were off!  I enjoyed this activity so much because I was finally able to have one-on-one conversations with several of the girls in the high school.  I have been wanting to meet more high school students before started my Outdoor Ambassadors group, so this was a good way to begin to get to know some of the students.  It was also nice to do an activity with just the girls because boys are often the trouble-makers during activities here.  We march around town, took a bunch of photos, and gave out some information to the community.  Some of the girls were really great and even took the initiative to go inside individual stores and speak with the women inside about breast cancer awareness.  The youth really are the future here; things are changing – slowly slowly (aka avash avash).

The whole crew, such a fun event.

The whole crew, such a fun event.

Handing out brochures.

Handing out brochures.

Starting the march.

Starting the march.

Giving info to some ladies at a local fast-food restaurant.

Giving info to some ladies at a local fast-food restaurant.

The Ministry of Public Health gave my city this sign to promote the month.

The Ministry of Public Health gave my city this sign to promote the month.

Happy birthday balloons?!

Happy birthday balloons?!

Trying to make our bodies into the breast cancer ribbon, didn't exactly work haha.

Trying to make our bodies into the breast cancer ribbon, didn’t exactly work haha.

My counterpart giving some ladies at the treg info about breast cancer.

My counterpart giving some ladies at the treg info about breast cancer.

Giving out more info to vendors inside of the treg/second-hand market.

Giving out more info to vendors inside of the treg/second-hand market.

Me and some of the girls!

Me and some of the girls!

Taking over the town!

Taking over the town!