Outdoor Ambassadors Go Green Talent Show

My students in Outdoor Ambassadors, a youth group focused on environmentalism and leadership skills, decided to hold a talent show to fundraise money for community projects and future activities. We have been discussing and planning this show since the beginning of the school year in September. The show was originally planned for the beginning of January, but the students did not use their time correctly over the winter break to plan so we had to postpone the show until February. My site-mate Chuck and I wanted this show to be a student-run operation, so we gave the students some guidance, but left most of the decision making, planning, and preparation up to them. They wrote the program, found performers to partake in the show, made and sold tickets, decorated the auditorium, and coordinated with everyone to make sure the show happened. We helped push them along the way and make sure that they were adhering to deadlines, but in the end the students ran the entire show.

The show was focused on promoting environmental awareness in our community. The performers spoke with the audience about the importance of throwing away garbage, reducing pollution by riding bikes or walking, the effects of smoking on the environment, etc. We also had several other performances such as singing, bands, and dancing. It was a very dynamic show with fourteen different acts. The students really put in a lot of work to make sure the show was interesting for the audience. I also created this video to show the garbage problem in our community to persuade people to begin taking an active role in keeping their city clean.

It was quite the learning experience for all of us. The students got a taste of new and different leadership roles; they did not have prior experience planning and running a show. Not going to lie, much of the planning was chaotic. The students were confused about what roles everyone had and who were supposed to do which tasks. This meant that things often did not get done when they were originally planned. They ended up pulling it together with the proper amount of direction and time.

They began holding rehearsals several weeks before the show. The first initial rehearsals consisted of a lot of confusion and arguing, but things began to have more of a flow and consistency after a few tries. Still things were a bit rocky all the way up to the day before the show, so the students decided to hold one last rehearsal before the final show today and that is where the true madness begins…

Here is a breakdown of the day.

9am: Students begin arriving at the auditorium for rehearsals. Most of the students do not arrive until around 9:20am. Some other random students decide to skip school and attend the rehearsals as well.

9am-9:30am: The group starts decorating the auditorium with balloons. The balloon project does not get finished until around 10:30am. We had less than 40 balloons…

9:30am: Still waiting for most of the student participants to arrive. The power in all the building goes out. We have no lights in the auditorium.

10am: The power is still not back. The students are starting to panic. Everyone is using their phone lights to navigate through the pitch-black room. People are trying to change into costumes, put on makeup, and practice before the performance.

10:20am: The lights are still out in the auditorium, but power has come back to the rest of the building. We try to figure out what the problem is with the lights in the auditorium and supposedly the lights in the auditorium are connected to a separate generator that is part of a different breaker of a surrounding village. Very confusing situation.

10:40am: Still no power. Haven’t been able to start rehearsals. Now students who bought tickets begin to show up… over an hour early. They expect to be let into the auditorium, but I refuse because we still do not have light and still haven’t begun rehearsals.

11:20am: No lights still. The show is supposed to start at 12pm. The students (and myself) are really starting to stress out. The students who aren’t stressed are messing around in the darkness. People keep saying “Inshallah” or “God-willing” in hopes that the lights will return soon.

11:30am: The students from the high school are let out from school early. Over 300 tickets were sold. Hundreds of kids are standing outside the auditorium and trying to get inside. I was afraid there was going to be a stampede.

11:40am: The police arrive to help control the crowd. People are getting anxious all around. I am running around trying to calm everyone down and get everything together for when the lights come on. They tell us the lights should be back soon. They have been saying this for a while.

11:50am: The lights come back on!!! We begin letting students into the auditorium. It’s madness. Students without tickets are trying to enter and some of the Albanian adults are letting them in anyways, despite the fact that they don’t have a ticket.

11:55am: The auditorium is completely full – past capacity. Everyone is running around backstage trying to get everything together to start.

12:05pm: We begin the show without any rehearsals or preparation. The show must go on! Everyone was a bit nervous, but began to calm down as the show started.

12:15pm: I helped backstage with the music and technology. Sadly, since we did not have time to check the sound before there were some problems. The music was on way louder than the microphones, but everyone still did a great job. I accidently played the wrong song at first for the first singers, whoops.

12:30pm: The students’ energy backstage was so cheerful. All the students were cheering each other on and taking videos/pictures. Everyone practically forgot we didn’t even get to rehearse.

1:30pm: The show finished and I could breathe again. We celebrated with a big group cheer and group hug after dancing the finale to the “We are the World” song. It was a very happy moment.

Despite all the problems that we faced throughout the day, the students pulled off a wonderful show all on their own. They planned it. They implemented it. They did it all. I can’t explain how proud I was the moment that it began. It was such a crazy day, but totally worth it. The students made close to $400 for future community projects with the youth center and our city. They are such amazing leaders. I don’t know how I will ever leave them…

During rehearsals

During rehearsals

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Waiting for the lights to come back on

Waiting for the lights to come back on

The full auditorium

The full auditorium

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

An anti-smoking skit

An anti-smoking skit

Another great singer

Another great singer

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Our great narrators and directors of the show

Our great narrators and directors of the show

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

The entire cast during the finale

The entire cast during the finale

Me and the valle group

Me and the valle group

Part of the group after the show

Part of the group after the show

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Our First Fundraiser!

Several weeks ago our Outdoor Ambassadors youth group decided to hold our first fundraiser. We wanted to begin raising money to do different projects in the community like garbage cleanups, community gardens, planting trees, and painting trash cans to beautify the city. The students felt other people in the community would be interested in a movie, so the club voted to play the second film in the Hunger Games series.

During the initial planning phases of the fundraiser many things went awry. Luckily, since working in Albania, I have become accustomed to working last minute conditions. In order to have the fundraiser, there were several steps we had to take in order to have the activity. First, we had to get permission from the Mayor and the Culture Center to hold the activity without a venue fee. The students wrote a short proposal for the mayor outlining what kind of projects we will use the money for and then the mayor agreed to let us use the venue. It took several days for us to receive permission and this made many of the students nervous because we did not want to start promoting the activity before receiving the proper go-ahead. We finally received permission to have the fundraiser two days before the event.

After that, I spoke with some of my community connections to find us a projector and the other necessities for the fundraiser. The students found the movie with Shqip subtitles online and did all the promotion. Much of the promotion was done through social media. The students created a Facebook event and endorsed the event in different Facebook groups. We made two big posters and hung them up in town, but sadly the posters were torn down within a day. The club also made fliers and hung them up last-minute. I am not sure if it was that helpful to hang the fliers an hour before the event, but it definitely didn’t hurt either.

The students were very hesitant throughout the planning stages of this project and were constantly arguing about small details. They wanted to cancel the event because of all the last-minute planning, but I put my foot down and forced them to continue on with the event. In the end, the event was absolutely amazing and a BIG success. It was definitely worth all the drama beforehand. I set my expectations low for the event because I didn’t know what to expect, but the students blew me expectations out of the water. In the end, the club raised over $200 and over 100 members of the community came out to support the event.

Even though the event was a success in my books, it is noteworthy to mention that the participant’s behavior during the event was absolutely horrid. Many students were talking loudly during the whole film. People were shining their phone lights all over the theater. There were several incidences of profanity directed towards me. Students continued to try to smoke inside the theater (which is common in Albania – people smoke everyone, including inside schools). And someone ended up unplugging the projector during the middle of the film.

The event made me realize how patient I have become since working here. None of the incidences above even fazed me. I was just so pleased that the students put in all the hard work and in the end had something to be proud of. Nothing like this has ever been done, by students in my community, before. After the event, all the students were smiling from ear and ear and I was genuinely so impressed and proud of them for pulling it together despite all the difficulties. This fundraiser has been the highlight of my service thus far and I am looking forward to having more events, such as this, in the future. These students are the voice of the future and give me hope for this wonderful country.

The students selling tickets before the show.

The students selling tickets before the show.

Our lovely Outdoor Ambassadors youth group.

Our lovely Outdoor Ambassadors youth group.

The president of our group.

The president of our group. I don’t know why I am wearing those glasses…

Some more awesome club members!

Some more awesome club members!

The boys setting up all the technology before the showing.

The boys setting up all the technology before the showing.

So many people came out for the show!

So many people came out for the show!

Trying to get everyone's attention... wasn't that successful.

Trying to get everyone’s attention… wasn’t that successful.

Celebrating our success after the show!

Celebrating our success after the show!

How Social Media Completely Changed My Peace Corps Service

Growing up as a Millennial, part of Generation Y, technology has almost always been a big part of my life.  Once I hit middle school, I began spending copious amounts of time on AIM, Myspace, and other social media outlets. The constant connection to people through technology and social media continued into high school when I received my first Facebook in 2004. Facebook was originally only a social outlet for college students and then it opened up to high school networking. When I first joined Facebook, users had to be invited to join and you could not join without an invite from a current member.  Oh how the times have changed! Technology and social media have been a central part of my life; I have almost had Facebook for half my life. That being said, I have always been connected to these sites, spending hours chatting with friends, posting photos, and catching up on the Newsfeed. I probably like Facebook and social media a bit more than your average person (or I can at least admit my time-consuming love). Sometimes social media is somewhat of an addiction, but it is what it is. I was initially worried when I applied to join the Peace Corps that I would not be able to stay in contact with my friends and family back home, but luckily I was sent to Albania – where internet connection is prevalent and there is an opportunity to get wireless internet set up in volunteer’s homes through the local internet providers.

After I finished Pre-service training in the village, I moved into my own apartment and had the opportunity to set up internet in my home. At first I decided to not have internet because I didn’t want to use it as a crutch for my boredom (which I definitely do at times – it’s inevitable).  After a couple weeks without internet, I caved and set it up. It was definitely a good choice because a lot of Peace Corps communication is sent via email and since I am on several committees we also use email and the internet to do most of our communication. Being in Albania, two major social media outlets have completely changed my experience here for the better: WordPress and Facebook.

WordPress: My Blog

At first my blog was just a small attempt of updating my friends and family back home about my life and adventures here in Albania. When I first began writing the blog it was very mundane and just followed my daily happenings in the community.  It was hard to update my blog during pre-service training because I did not have consistent access to internet in the village while living with my host-family.  After writing blogs mainly about my daily routine, I decided to describe “50 Unique Observations about Albania” based on my initial impressions of the country and my small travel experience abroad. A lot of my observations that seemed unique to Albania, can actually be seen in several parts of the Balkans. However, at the time I had only traveled outside of the United States to Mexican resorts with my family, so I didn’t really have much experience abroad under my belt. Sometime in the late summer that blog post went viral and received over 50,000 views in under a week. Super overwhelming, to say the least. At that time I was still in culture shock, having a hard time adjusting to living and working on my own in a completely different culture.  There was nothing that I could do to stop the attention. People had gotten a hold of my blog and began sharing it on Facebook, and then their friends shared the link, and so on until I received thousands and thousands of views per day. Some people were mad; others found my posts inspirational and eye-opening. Can’t please them all.  Since my blog went viral, I have used my presence on WordPress to educate people back in America about my experiences abroad, as well as Albanians within the country. Several publication companies, including the Tirana Times, a newspaper in the capital of Albania, have contacted me to publish pieces. Pink Pangea, an online community for women abroad, published the most recent piece regarding sexism in Albania. Now over six months later, I still continue to receive hundreds of views a day. Just the other week, I was stopped while traveling outside my community by a nice Albanian woman who is an English teacher in Tirana. She recently read my blog and was using it in her classroom as a discussion topic! Hopefully, sometime during my service I will be able to guest lecture in one of her classes.

My blog acts as an avenue for discussion about Albania today and how we can all work together to improve this beautiful country for the better. I am so happy that I decided to begin writing a blog because this experience will forever be a part of me, even if my bad-memory persists. I will always have this journal of my time here and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful to all the Albanians and people around the world that do read my blog and continue to praise me for my work and time spent here. All of your comments really do fuel my fire and help me feel better about the work that I’m doing here. I am glad that I can serve as an inspiration and fresh perspective.

Facebook

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After my blog went viral I decided to set up another Facebook account under my Albanian name Xhilli Xhastin (it is how you spell Jill Justine in Shqip). This Facebook account opened up so many new doors for me because it became a way for me to network with Albanians all across the country.  Students from national Outdoor Ambassadors events, followers of my blog, other volunteers I met through Special Olympics, people in my community, and anyone who adds me is welcome to be my friend and get an inside look at some of my experiences in Albania.

Through this Facebook account I created a health promotion page called Këshilla për Shëndetin Shqipëri (Advices for Health in Albania).  The page posts information according to annual health calendar distributed by the Ministry of Public Health.  I post information in Albanian about health advice, community health events, and basic health information.  My Albanian counterparts help me with the page through translation and identifying pertinent information. As of now, the page has 497 likes and I hope to have at least 1000 likes on this page before I finish my service. Hopefully, after I leave Albania, this page will become sustainable through the work of other health education volunteers in group 17 and their Albanian counterparts.

I am also in charge of several other Facebook pages including ATIP Albania, Outdoor Ambassadors Albania, and Outdoor Ambassadors Kavaje. These Facebook pages follow the work of Peace Corps volunteers and students in their community. The ATIP Albania page focuses on the anti-trafficking efforts in Albania through the Peace Corps anti-trafficking committee. The Outdoor Ambassadors Albania page highlights the work of environmental youth leadership groups across the country and the Outdoor Ambassadors Kavaje page shows what activities the youth group in my area is working on.

Having Facebook pages has been a wonderful way to promote my service in Albania, as well as a great way to promote the work of awesome Albanians and other organizations in this country. Along with Facebook pages, Facebook groups have been a wonderful way to communicate with students in my community.  These groups allow for Peace Corps volunteers and students to discuss youth group initiatives, homework help, etc. We use a Facebook group to plan Outdoor Ambassadors projects and community work in my site.  It is an easy way to communicate because a lot of the students have a Facebook app on their phones.

Facebook has been such a great way to keep in contact with Albanians and people back home. It has also introduced me to another aspect of Albanian culture, because Albanians LOVE Facebook.  Observing how Albanians use social media and Facebook has really given me another insight into their culture and has allowed me to become better friends with people that I wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise. A big thing that I have noticed about how a lot of Albanians use Facebook is that they love to “like” everything. I will post a photo and within the hour it will usually have 20+ likes and some photos even have over 100 likes. Especially selfies, most Albanians love selfies. I enjoy using Facebook and having another account has vastly improved my service. My online persona is just as important, if not more so, than my persona within my own community.

So, if you haven’t already, please add me on Facebook and follow these Peace Corps pages. Peace Corps Albania is even hopping onto the social media buzz and we are the first Peace Corps country to have our own Facebook page. Social media is a powerful tool and using it to my advantage has been an integral part of my time here.