Service has always been a big part of my life. From being involved in community projects as a Girl Scout to working with Interact, a high school version of Rotary Club, serving others has meant a lot to me. My passion for traveling and exploring other cultures really came from a service trip I took to El Salvador with Interact. There we built houses and for the first time, I was able to see concrete results of my work and realized we really can make a difference, with heart and hard work.
In college, I was fascinated with anthropology, sociology, and environmental science classes. With the assistance of professors and mentors, I went on to create my own interdisciplinary major of environmental sociology, the main focus being how people affect and are affected by the environment. I spent my summers working on organic farms up and down the east coast to fulfill my love of gardening and growing things. My interests in others cultures, agriculture, and something deep inside saying “There is more out there!” led me to my job with the Peace Corps.
I was assigned as an agribusiness developer in Vanuatu, a geographically isolated archipelago consisting of 83 islands in Melanesia in the South Pacific. The people of Vanuatu are agrarian, with most living their lives with what is around them--making houses and boats out of bamboo and trees and eating only crops they can grow. About once a month the women from each village would travel to the main market of the island to sell their harvest. Different villages are known for growing the best sweet potatoes or bananas, and the village I lived in was famous for their oversized mangoes. In general, the villages would sell similar items, making it difficult to get any real profit. I worked with a group of farmers to develop products with increased market value and intent to diversify the market. Since we were known for our mangoes, we cooked and sold mango jam. A few families had an enormous crop of manioc, often called yuca in the Americas, and I worked with the country's Department of Agriculture to build a small drying bed where the manioc could be cut, dried, and ground into flour which could be used for making bread.
I lived and worked there for a little more than two years. I spent most of my time listening. During my initial time learning the language, I made efforts to get to know each family in my small village. I quickly found that my key to success would first lie in creating relationships. I had to understand how the village functioned before I could come in and proclaim my presence and what I thought I had to offer. I had to establish trust with the chief because without him on board, nothing would be sustainable. I spent many mornings washing clothes in the river and cooking with the women, hearing about their lives and their perspectives. I spent my afternoons walking deep into the forest gardening alongside the men and listening to their experiences. Before dinner, I would play with the children and see life from their sunny side. My point is I spent a lot of time listening and learning what the community really wanted and needed.
Over time, my job evolved and I spent more time in the classroom. Children gathered in a makeshift, single-room school and silently review outdated and often already written in workbooks. It is uncommon for children to continue schooling past the fifth grade and the idea of attending the one university in the country is so far-fetched most don't even try.
It took some detective work to figure out the true role of school and value of education. People of Vanuatu speak their local village language, distinct even among villages just 20 minutes away, and most people speak Bislama, the common language uniting all of the islands. The high schools are far away from many villages and university classes are taught in English. To many, attending school long-term was an obstacle, as they were learning and communicating in Bislama and most children had only ever seen parents and relatives in agricultural roles. I began teaching English through afternoon story lessons, gathering under mango trees on woven grass mats a group of youth and I began an exploration of learning outside the classroom.
Not quite finished with traveling the world, I was connected through a fellow Peace Corps volunteer to go on to teach English in Beijing. I began to experience a different kind of culture shock, and faced a language barrier as I struggled to grasp Mandarin. Throughout this time I truly reflected on literacy and basic communication skills--and how they can affect a person’s survival, self-esteem, involvement in community, and economic opportunities. As I earnestly developed my own Mandarin skills, I made a decision to dedicate myself to literacy.
I saw how the lack of literacy opportunity narrowed Vanuatu's choice of continued education and career and I felt very personally the experience of being a “stranger in a strange land” in China; I didn’t know whether the note that was posted on my apartment door was an eviction notice or a friendly advertisement. Over the years in China, my world opened as I began to break through restrictions of language--communicating with the bus driver, at the store, at the bank, making friends. I finally understood what a key literacy and language can be in enriching one’s life.
Four years later, I returned to Virginia to realize I can finally repay all the kind people who have welcomed me through my travels, who have shown patience, and who have helped me along with life's simple tasks when culture didn't make sense and language was an abstract painting. Blue Ridge Literacy is this kind of place. It is a place where we listen to the life goals of learners and create opportunities to meet them where they are. BRL is a place where people come to feel warmth, see a smiling teacher and be treated with respect and patience. BRL is a place where learners gain real world connections between language and culture and where learners can discover ways to tell their story.