In 2013 Peace Corps held the first “Blog It Home” competition to reward volunteers for doing a great job promoting Peace Corps third goal through blogs and social media. The first year the organization chose four blogs that were nominated by their country directors. This year they continued the competition, but improved and learned from the previous year. In 2014 volunteers from all around the world were asked to submit their own blogs, rather than having country directors nominate one volunteer per country. Over 350 blogs were submitted from the 65 countries that Peace Corps is currently serving in. Once the blogs were submitted they went through an intense vetting process by employees in the 3rd goal office in Peace Corps headquarters. They narrowed down the blogs to 90 in the first round and then down to 20 finalists. After the best 20 blogs were selected, Peace Corps turned it over to the public for a voting contest on Facebook. Whichever blogs received the most “likes” on Facebook helped decide the final winners. Many of you may have received annoying messages asking for your help to win the contest. After several (long and excruciating) days the voting was over and I felt like I had a pretty good chance. Then I received the congratulatory email.
I was ecstatic! Nine volunteers from eight countries were chosen to represent Peace Corps in the Top Bloggers Tour in D.C. All of the other bloggers are amazing and you should definitely check them out: Keith and Heather in China, Bronwen in the Dominican Republic, Anna in Cameroon, Sara in Guinea, Erika in Senegal, Christine in Thailand, and Julia in Uganda. Now I didn’t mention earlier, but the prize for winning this contest was an all-expense trip to our nation’s capital to help promote goal three, our Peace Corps country of service, and to have the opportunity to network with some of the best and brightest in Washington D.C. I was so excited to be able to share some of the wonderful things that I have learned about Albania this past year and a half. Plus burritos. Chipotle was definitely my first stop back in the states #noshame.
The week was a whirlwind of activities, professional development, and Peace Corps promotion. I arrived on Monday afternoon after 15+ hours of travel from Albania and immediately met my roommate, a volunteer serving in Thailand. It was really interesting to chat with a volunteer from another country because we were able to connect and relate on many different levels, despite the fact that we serve in communities with very different cultures. We ate burritos (did I mention that I LOVE burritos) and then I passed out at a completely unreasonable time, damn jetlag!
The next morning we started bright and early at the Peace Corps headquarters. I met the other winners and the staff that helped bring us all the way back to America. When we arrived the room was FULL of snacks – peppermint patties, cookies, chips, candy, etc, etc. WOW! It was overwhelming. I wanted to eat it all, but sadly my stomach did not agree with that sentiment. We received information about the week ahead, had time to develop the final touches of our presentations, toured the Peace Corps office, and ate delicious food trucks. In the afternoon we toured Voice of America, which is an american radio/television broadcast that serves many communities across the globe. Voice of America is actually pretty popular in Albania (I had no idea) and is shown on the national news on Channel 24. Much to my surprise, Voice of America Albania wanted to interview me for the program. Immediately I was nervous and a bit apprehensive about how much I could really explain in Shqip, but I mustered up my courage and did the entire interview in Shqip. I probably sound like a 3-year old, but hey, at least I tried!
On Wednesday we were all off to the White House to meet with two representatives working with White House social media and other pertinent projects. The first person we spoke with was actually a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Washington D.C. has the highest population of returned Peace Corps volunteers in the country) with an amazing story following his service. He stayed in his host country and actually developed a sustainable phone company with members of his community. Now the business is run by the host country nationals who helped develop the company from the ground up. Truly an amazing Peace Corps success story. After that I met with senior staff members of both my senators from Colorado. I explained my story and talked with them a little bit about Peace Corps. Currently Peace Corps is not receiving much funding in comparison to many other government programs, so it’s important to try and give a face and real-life story on why we should continue to fund these sorts of programs. If you would like to see Peace Corps receive more funding from Washington please sign the petition here to help our budget increase. In the evening we were back to work with a group presentation at the Martin Luther King library followed by an hour of break-out sessions at individual tables. I borrowed some supplies from other wonderful volunteers in Albania and was able to have a pretty impressive display. I wore a traditional costume from the Miredite region and had several dolls to show some of the traditional dress from other areas of the country. I also brought maps, mountain tea, wedding decorations, postcards and personal pictures, and of course the wonderful flag. I spoke with all different sorts of people, some of them were also interested in possibly joining the Peace Corps. During the evening I even taught a mini valle (circle dancing) lesson. I am not the best at valle admittedly, but I definitely worked it.
The next day was my favorite day of the week because we gave presentations at local inner-city schools. I gave presentations at Jefferson Academy Middle School and at Hendley Elementary School. It was so great to be back in the classroom setting. In total I gave 8 individual classroom presentations to over 150 youth. It was amazing to be back in my element. After the school visits we had another presentation for the youth in the evening. Peace Corps hosted an event for the Girl Scouts in D.C. Hundreds of girl scouts came to the event to hear all our stories. This format was similar to the event at the MLK Library the night before. During this event I focused more of some of the amazing gender development work that volunteers in Albania are working on right now, especially the GLOW “Girls Leading Our World” program which was piloted in several cities across the country earlier this year. It was a really special event and when discussing with the other volunteers we could really feel the positive energy from the girls. Who knows, we could be the reason some of those girls chose to join the Peace Corps in the future. I know I was definitely inspired when I heard from a returned volunteer while I was in high school.
The last day we gave a presentation to Peace Corps headquarters about our favorite blog post and how blogging has helped us develop as volunteers and as professionals in today’s world. I spoke of the random viral success that my blog received and how that changed the way I blogged from that point on. I also met the congressman Mike Coffman from my district in Colorado. We ended the week in typical American fashion with happy hour at this hole-in-the-wall bar next to headquarters. It was such an amazing and special week for me. It is still hard to believe it actually happened because it all went by so quickly. I can’t wait to take this new energy into the next eight months of my service. Thanks Peace Corps and thanks to all my avid followers! This wouldn’t have been possible without your help.
The 3rd goal team left us with the week in numbers if you’re curious:
- 350 blogs submitted and narrowed down to nine winners
- 9 bloggers traveled 70,000+ miles to present in D.C
- Volunteers spent four days in D.C for the Top Bloggers Tour in which there were:
- 16 congressional visits
- 5 Voice of America interviews in local languages reaching millions across the globe
- 2 White House meetings
- 5 D.C public school visits reaching 450+ middle and elementary school students
- 6 professional development sessions
- 1 library presentation
- 95 Girls Scouts Global Action Awards earned
As you can see, Peace Corps kept us busy, busy, busy.