Thursday, January 4, 2018

Mjekësi popullore

When I first started to investigate Albania after my Peace Corps invitation, I found an old tourism video on Youtube. What fascinated me was the casual mention of Permet as the center of Herbal Medicine in Albania. I asked my Albanian contact about this, and he forwarded me a link to a report from USAID on the economic feasibility of Herbal Medicine in the post communist Albanian economy. As a practicing naturopath and acupuncturist, the prospect of learning herbalism while in Albania, I set my hopes on being assigned either near Permet or another region where herbalism was prominent. Being placed in Berat was an architecture admirers dream come true, and I was determined to see if this beautiful part of Albania also had an herbal tradition I could explore.

During my first week at my assigned school, I was introduced to Demokrat Keli. I was told he was a Mjekësi popullore, which is loosely translated as “folk healer.” In the States, we would call him a medicinal herbalist. My director and counterpart thought because I was a Mjekësi popullore from America, Demo as he preferred to be called, would have much in common with me professionally. With my broken Albanian and nearly three decades of herbal teaching and practice experience, Demo and I were able to communicate. He was anxious to start teaching medicinal herbalism in the schools in Berat. He was from Berat and has an active practice both in Permet and Berat. As I started my project for a school garden, I incorporated him into the initiative. I felt it was a way for him to not only share his knowledge, but get a foot in the door so to speak in terms of teaching herbalism to the children.

As I started to spend more time with him, I learned his personal story, and was intriguing. I asked if a friend could serve as an interpreter for a more formal interview and drew up a list of questions for him to review before our appointment. We met at the Berat Library, and an amazing biography that paralleled Albania's recent history emerged.

Demo was born at the beginning of the Hoxha regime. As a child, he was part of the Pioneer Youth movement, which for him in Berat involved hiking in the local mountains, summer camping trips learning survival skills and plant identification. It was during his summer days as a Pioneer scout, he started to fall in love with the local flora and fauna. As he will tell you, he knows the local mountains like the back of his hands. 

Demo is educated as a chemical engineer with an emphasis on textile dye and design. Berat is home to a textile mill that was part of the Hoxha economic plan where workers were given housing and work in a centrally located factory. Demo was a manager at the textile plant in Berat during this time. The isolation of the Hoxha regime resulted in limited availability of pharmaceuticals and few medical doctors. There was little awareness or concern for toxic exposure from the dyes from the central government, and any sort of complaining or documenting of problems could land one in a work camp or worse. Demo noticed a trend with the textile employees. One of the side effects of working with the dyes was increased kidney problems. From infections to stones, the worker’s kidneys seemed to be the leading cause of illness and lost productivity in the plant and surrounding community, with no options for any sort of treatment. As a caring person versed in the local flora and fauna, Demo turned to historical books he found at the local library as well as the traditional knowledge regarding herbal medicine to help his workers. He was so successful, he was considered “the Kidney man,” by locals. Demo boasts that there are no kidneys he has not treated in the Berat region. As a regular on local Berat TV after the fall of the communism, Demo has educated the public on his skills. According to him, he has earned the ire of local physicians who view him as harming their business when it comes to helping the people of Berat with regional medicinal herbs.

I had the deep honor of joining Demo on several walks in the local mountains to watch him in action. Demo travels with what I call a “magic bag” when he gathers herbs. He pulls out various clippers, a scythe and climbing tools from his bag while explaining the local plants. During one walk, he told me he had special secret locations he did not want others to discover where he collects various plants. His most successful method is to put a very realistic rubber snake across the path, which seems to deter hikers from following him into a hidden enclave. The other things Demo pulls from his bag were an herbal snake bite kit (an antique looking glass bottle with a dark herbal antidote and a tourniquet) and dog repellent fire crackers. Demo also has a long rope with which he lowers himself down cliffs to pick certain delicacies. 

On another occasions, I was able to visit Demo’s flat where I got to see his library and his home medicinal herbal artisan kitchen. He had numerous potted plants, tinctures macerating in large glass containers, and a closet filled with dried herbs. He told me he has clients from all over Albania and Greece, where he creates signature dried herb tea blends for various health issues. These wild crafted herbal formula's are wrapped in white paper packets, with the directions for dosages hand written on the surface. During larger artisan gatherings and festivals in Berat, Demo can be seen in the town center educating locals on his skills and selling herb teas. In the Summer months, he is a weekend regular amongst the artisans, selling his teas in the city center.

 A typical conversation between us entails him saying the Albanian vernacular for a plant. After very slow and difficult conversation trying to find something we understand, I will ask him what the Latin binomial for the plant is, to which he dutifully gives me an answer. I then try to decipher the Latin pronounced in his Berati dialect and repeat the name with an American accent, writing it out, to which he agrees this is what he is talking about.  During my interview, I asked him what his favorite herb was, he told me it was, (literal English translation) “snake bush.” After our now familiar language exchange, I figured out he was talking about Hypericum, for which the rest of the English speakers know as “St. John’s Wort.” When I asked him why he liked this plant, he said it was because it was so effective. He uses this plant for people who are depressed or stressed, as well as for trauma. Demo told me that the plant was used by the Illyrian physicians successfully for battle wounds. He said that “snake bush” was so effective, it actually helped the soldiers to get back into combat quickly, and was the secret to their battle successes. 

Demo has taken the medicinal herb garden project at the High School as the culmination of his life’s work. He plans to have the garden designed into six zones reflecting the different regions in the area of Berat. He is leading weekly lessons at the High School and regular walks in the local mountains showing the students the plants in their back yard so to speak and how to use them. One of my favorite visuals was after class, Demo was surrounded by students asking him questions regarding certain health issues. He was writing down suggestions on a stack of hand torn business card sized papers he keeps in his pocket, and inviting the students to join him on a walk.

Democrat Keli is part of a proud and ancient healing tradition in Albania. It is rewarding to see him interacting with a new generation. As the garden comes into reality, it will be interesting to see this new generation of herbal practitioners carry on this heirloom practice into a bright future.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

When I first was invited to join the Peace Corps in Albania, one of my concerns was being placed in a predominantly Muslim country. Not that I have any issues with Islam per se, but Christianity is part of my fabric, and I thought I might miss the presence of the religion of both my ancestors and my choice for two and a half years. I had an odd experience when I was in China, which was at the time still quite overtly communist and absent of anything other than some hints of Taoism and Buddhism through things like Temples and museums. I stopped dreaming and praying, which for me is quite unusual. I realized when I tried to analyze the situation, it was because for the first time in my life I was in a land that was not saturated with historic Christianity. For me, this was novel, and to be honest, very uncomfortable. Because of this, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to expect from living in a nation that I was told was so different from my own practice. What has met me here in Albania has been quite a  different mystery on all levels in terms of approaches to spirituality and religion. It is also something I feel Albania has to offer our world in these days of increasing tribalism and inter-religious strife.

If the historians are to be believed, the ancient peoples of Albania, the Illyrians, are the most antiquated of all Western civilizations. They are famed to pre-date the Greeks, and to be the authors of what we typically attribute to Greek Mythology. What is unique about the Illyrians in terms of documenting their effect on world history, is a glaring lack of written evidence, either through tablets, scrolls or an abundant repertoire of artistic objects. I am coming to learn that during the Greek and Roman times, there were thriving Jewish communities throughout what is modern day Albania, with major centers of learning and worship in Durres as well as my site of Berat. It is thought that because of the strong network of Jewish communities in the region, that the Apostle Paul was actually preaching to the Jews of the day, not the pagans. There are roads in Elbasan recognized as his foot paths for evangelizing in the first century after the Christ Event in Palestine. There are places in Berat that are also famed to be locations of some of his sermons to have been delivered on his tour. We learn through the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, that Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor and the Balkans. We hear often about initiatives in Macedonia, and I have seen the plain in modern day Macedonia called the “Paulruci” as evidence of his mission in the area.

Albania claims some of the first Christian communities on Earth. It was part of the Byzantine empire and ultimately fell under Muslim Ottoman rule in the 15th Century. The local Sultans and Imams had a rather tolerant practice of Islam, and allowed the indigenous population to maintain their religious practises, but for a price of higher taxes.   Many Albanians at the time converted to Islam mainly for business reasons. Albania also welcomed many of the expelled Jews from Spain and other nation’s pogroms, contributing to the thriving communities along the coast. Throughout Albania's bloody history, locals had to band together to fight various invaders. I was told by a tour guide that fighting in so many conflicts, the populace did not have the luxury of separating themselves along religious communities. The banding of religious groups fighting common enemies resulted in centuries of inter religious coexistence and support.

When Albania came under the Hoxha dictatorship, he ultimately instituted a harsh form of forced atheism, destroying most of the Mosques in the nation, and a large number of Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Churches that survived were made into either storage facilities or military barracks. I was told by one of the Albanian Peace Corps staff, that Hoxha targeted specifically the Muslims and Catholics, killing most of the clergy, because he considered them to be smart and educated, but he left the Orthodox alone, because he considered them to be stupid and harmless. What followed the  purges was two generations of non-contact with the outside world, and the supplanting of religion with worship of the dictator and the state. My sector leader told me that during those times, the markets would stop selling items like nuts, eggs and sugar in mid December. These foods are traditional Christmas ingredients. After the New Year, the items would come back onto the shelves. If a person was fasting, they would be suspect of celebrating Ramadan. Another friend of mine informed me that while Christmas was basically obliterated for 50 years, the dictator did like the tree aspect of the holiday, so New Year Trees were allowed instead.

To be honest, I have appreciated not being inundated by the crass materialism that Christmas has come to represent in America. I have enjoyed, actually enjoying Autumn, without all the oppressive blaring of Christmas carols and red and green everywhere starting in mid September. No pumpkin spice latte in red and green cups here, no sir re, just a glorious Autumn ripe with harvest produce and all the glorious orange, red and gold that gets lost in the endless push to get one to buy stuff for December 25th. I had no idea what to expect when it came to Christmas.

Since I live in the Southern Part of Albania, it has a larger Christian population, mostly Orthodox and heavily influenced by Greece, which has been helping to restore the destroyed churches and educate new clergy since there are no seminaries left in Albania. Much to my surprise and delight, decorations started to appear mid December in shops, cafes and city centers. This, I thought, is perfect, just right in terms of timing. 

At my host families house, it was fun to watch Ibrahim, a Muslim, dig out the Christmas tree and lights and watch him decorate the deck in front of my room. Slowly, more lights started appearing throughout the city as the days progressed on peoples windows and porches. Sarah, my host mom, has red Christmas balls on her kitchen cupboards, and a wreath on her front door. Poinsettias were at the florists, and fake trees sold everywhere.

The center of Berat erupted into a mish mash of customs all in twinkling lights. Since the sun sets here at 4 pm, it allows for a long viewing of decorations. What I found most adorable was the tree in the center of the square, next to a Santa hut and lighted sled the reindeers. 

People could take pictures with a Santa (quite thin my American standards) during regular hours. There was also a Nativity scene, done in Orthodox Byzantine style where people also posed for pictures. It wasn’t set up for that, as there were ropes placed to keep people out of the Nativity house, but people basically stepped over the ropes to pose in the center, between Mary and Joseph, but completely blocking the Christ Child. Such images reminded me somewhat of the donor paintings we often see in terms of religious images, but it was fun to watch all the same. I found it most amusing that everyone’s selfie pose blocked the manger as a “selfie” sort of supplanting themselves in place of the baby Jesus. I am sure there are profound psychological and spiritual underpinnings of such actions, for me it was just really interesting to watch.

Another aspect of local Christmas and New Year’s traditions is the consumption of Turkey or Gel Dita as this bird is called in Albanian. What I found particularly entertaining was the opening of the Holiday Turkey Market (my name, not anything formal) in front of one of the Mosques on the main road of Berat. Throughout the year, one can see flocks of turkeys roaming about the countryside, tended by what I would call “turkey herders.” In the Spring in the larger marketplaces, one can buy baby turkeys in large boxes, that one can take home and fatten up all year leading up to the holiday season. Starting in early December, the local turkey ranchers bring their birds to this one corner in front of the mosque. It was rather darling to  watch the turkeys strut their stuff in the front lawn of the Mosque, and observe people carrying the birds off after a bargaining session. I kept thinking of the holiday specials in my markets at home, where you buy $100 of groceries and get a free turkey, I was wondering what the marketing ploys were here in Berat. I was also wondering if this was some sort of fund raiser for the Mosque, again just my speculation but what goes through my mind as a pass these sorts of events as walking home from school. 

The schools went all out with Christmas programs, mainly singing secular popular American Christmas songs, which I found quite intriguing. Antonio, Erik and I hosted a Christmas party for the High School. We had Christmas card crafts, cookie decorating, and watched “Home Alone.” After a while, one of the teachers put on traditional Albanian folk music and the teens broke out into circle dancing. I had the honor of attending my schools Christmas Teachers luncheon, which was at this really amazing new restaurant in Berat. I had baked cookies for the teacher, my go-to-American cultural exposure of Oatmeal Raisin. I baked banana bread for my counter part and my director for their Christmas gifts.

One of the volunteers from a Northern Site decided to visit me for Christmas. We found that the Christmas Eve services were at 4:30 and 6:00 pm that night at the main cathedral. We went to the earlier service, not knowing what to expect in terms of public transport. crowds and local revelry. We were part of the six faithful at the service, and watched throughout the liturgy, people show up, go behind the screen, and come out in robes just in time for that part of the service such as carrying the Bible. I also found amazing was how the choir assembled in the same manner. It started with one lone cantor, and more people joined as the evening progressed, expertly arriving when their part of the liturgy was to be sung, and then leaving if it was over. The music was so beautiful, it reminded me of the Aramaic early Christian music I had heard from ancient Arab Christendom. At the end of the service, the Priest, a very tall man with salt and pepper hair and the countenance of what I would call a surfer from California, wished us all a happy Christmas.

The next day, I hosted the Peace Corps Volunteer from the North (Chris) and a French Volunteer (Priscilla) for a lasagna Christmas lunch. It was a quiet day of good conversation and reflection. I made crepes in honor of Priscilla. Persimmons were ubiquitous here, and I had also made a variant of persimmon bars, which helped me feel somewhat at home since this orange pulpy fruit was part of my childhood due to our prolific tree in Santa Ana. I was able to talk with friends via Facebook and called my parents.

It has been interesting watching TV and the ads regarding Christmas, as well as the news coverage. I got to spend New Years in Tirana and enjoy the Christmas Market in the city center. It rivals anything I have seen in tourism promotions for other European nations. Another truly Albanian moment occurred in the middle of the evening revelry of the Christmas market. Kenny G Christmas toons were blaring and the square was all lit up with lights, precisely at 6 pm, the main mosque in the square started the call to prayer. Only in Albania I thought to myself, as I looked at the Mosque which was next to a parliament building twinkling in Christmas lights. I am off to Macedonia to visit relatives and partake in Orthodox Christmas with them. I am sorry to miss however, an Epiphany celebration in Berat where a flaming cross is thrown in the river Osmi, and locals swim to retrieve it. I hope to learn more about this custom.

So this has been my first Christmas in Albania. It was full of surprises and I must say, quite fulfilling. There was just enough “jingle” and Santa to make it fun, and at least from my perspective (I do not watch much Albanian TV, nor go shopping in the larger cities) not the crass materialism that nauseates me in the States. I miss my Church dearly, and the contact with my parents. For some reason, memories of Christmas past have been quite present in my thoughts and dreams. Maybe it is part of aging, or maybe it is due to being in a foreign land, it also might be part of watching the America I knew disintegrate with the gleeful hatchet of corporatist, I long for the days of warmth and caring of my youth. What I have found though, is a deep caring and hospitality of my new home, which at times almost hurts because it reminds me of what I have lost in these last few years. I reflect back to the haunting music of Christmas eve, so reminiscent of the first Christian communities on earth, which might actually be from those very first on this land. I am inspired by how people here all celebrate each holiday, regardless of religious affiliation. Here it seems they learned a painful lesson of what it means to be forced into atheism. Now, it does not matter how you worship or celebrate Divinity, only that you do in what ever manner you find comfortable. I honestly think this is the message of Christmas, of Divinity coming to humanity, to be intimate and whole. I think my experience of Christmas here in Albania is probably the closest to what I think was intended by the first Christmas. 

Gezuar Krishtlindjet!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Garden

Peace Corps Volunteers Weeding

On paper, Peace Corps Volunteers have to meet numerous well titled goals. We are to be a representative of the United States of America, we are to share our culture as well as immerse ourselves in the culture of our host country. We are also to share our host culture with Americans. Peace Corps Volunteers are to lend our expertise to the people of our host nation. While these goals are laudable, they are by no means easy to meet, and often require great ingenuity and perseverance to  uphold. 

Depending on the sector where one is serving, there can be what are called “secondary goals” to be met. As a Health Sector Volunteer, my primary goal is to provide health education within my assigned school. Secondary goals are often met through service projects in the local community. Since I am serving in Berat, I have the good fortune of having several other Volunteers in my community, as well as Volunteers who are a short bus ride away to draw upon for projects. Anywhere in the world, one can find numerous opportunities to help communities improve. Here in Berat, a United Nations World Heritage Site, the opportunities are unique indeed.

When I arrived in Berat, I was immediately contacted by the two existing volunteers from the class before me. They are both involved in the Community Organizational Development (COD) sector and were working with the municipality and social services department in Berat. Both volunteers had been working on garden based projects, and asked me if I wanted to contribute. After learning about the specifics of one of the gardens, which was to be part of a community center within the Castle Village, I set to designing a program incorporating the concept of the “Edible School Yard” project, my school and the community center in the Castle Village. I brought in one of my pre-service-training classmates who was an architecture student in undergrad. She had a program on her lap top that would produce visuals for the garden design. I compiled research on the need for nutritional education in Albania. After writing up a proposal and including the very slick visual design from my fellow volunteer, I went about presenting it to the community center municipality representative, as well as an Albanian regional director of a German NGO for agricultural development in rural areas.

The director of the German NGO’s name is Qamilla. I had met her earlier in the Summer at a Cherry Festival in one of the villages near Berat. She was with an organization called “Women in Sustainable Agriculture.” We had an excellent first conversation, and both vowed to try to coordinate our respective efforts in the future. Qamilla really liked my proposal and responded by telling me she would do everything possible to help this project along. The appeal for her and her organization was the proposal to create School Garden curriculum which included classroom visits by local farmers to educate children on where their food comes from, and who grows it.

Albania is like the rest of the world in that the newer generations are moving off the land and into the cities. Traditionally, the majority of the Albanian populations was involved in agriculture. While this is still true in many respects, as economic conditions improve and education is more widely offered, the younger generations are choosing the professions. Another issue is the younger generations are also choosing to leave Albania due to the lack of economic opportunity, in many cases to work in agriculture in neighboring countries. Qamilla felt that such a curriculum, combining school gardens with classroom visits from farmers, would be helpful in presenting agriculture as a viable vocation, as well as increasing awareness of healthy nutrition. She also noted that Berat used to have a vocational High School for Agriculture, that had been closed over a decade ago, and there really was no opportunity to present educational opportunities to students in this very important economic sector. 

My proposal included bringing chefs in addition to farmers to the classroom, so children could be exposed to this career as well. The chefs would present cooking techniques and skills in combination with what ever crop was being featured for the lesson. I asked Qamilla if she would be willing to introduce me to the director of the Culinary School in Berat. She laughed quite heartily, and said she was happy to do so, since the director was her sister. They both came over to my flat on July 4th for an American style Fourth of July celebratory supper (vegetarian red lentil burgers however, along with three bean salad, potato salad and of course apple pie.) A very lovely exchange and dedication to future projects ensued. 

French Scouts Peace Corps Volunteers Enjoying Lunch Together

After this collaboration, a group of French Scouts came to Berat for a two week service project. In addition to Albanian language lessons and enjoying both the natural and cultural beauty of the region, the volunteers participated in numerous events designed to beautify Berat. Picking up trash around the castle was one activity, helping to prepare the community center garden was another. Weeding, removing large dead bushes and tilling soil filled up the morning. I called our local Peace Corps volunteers to come and assist in the endeavor. After the work, they all came to my flat for a “California and Albanian Fusion Cuisine” luncheon. It was a very sweet event to see three sets of volunteers, Berati High School Students, French Scouts and Peace Corps Volunteers chatting away  over lunch after a long hot morning of gardening. One of the Artisan leaders from the Castle Village kept remarking on how clean my flat was, and how well organized the food presentation. What can I say, years of catering and also of living in very small apartments with tiny kitchens obviously paid off. I told her the key is to clean as you go, since there is no place to pile up the dishes. I now have the high respect of the Castle Artisan community because I know how to cook regional dishes and keep a very clean and orderly kitchen. I must say this is refreshing, since my own culture does not value me because I am older and do not look like Samantha from “Sex and the City.” It is rewarding to know one can be appreciated for things other than youth and looks.

Part of the garden project was to feature an herb garden. I had met what is called in these parts a Mycksi Popullar, which translated means “Folk Medicine” Another way to understand this term is “herbalist” or “folk healer.” He had been at my school trying to get hired to teach the children about herbalism, and we became fast friends. I knew he wild crafted herbs from the local forests. I thought his expertise would be useful in designing an herb garden, and also be a way for him to showcase his knowledge and hopefully lead to some sort of position in the school. 

I also had plans to have a series of raised garden beds featuring how agriculture has evolved in Albania with each wave of conquerors. We planned a Medieval garden to show what Albania's were growing and eating in the Middle Ages, an Ottoman garden showing the influence of the Turks on Albanian agriculture (cherries  for instance, were brought by the Ottomans and have been cultivated widely in the region ever since) and a modern garden with items such as Tomatoes and Corn, which as we know came to Europe after Columbus.

Several weeks after the combined volunteer work party, I attended a meeting with Qamilla, the municipality and representatives of US AID on the project. To say it was a roaring success would be an understatement. I returned back to my flat from this meeting in the Castle with a very warm satisfied feeling in my tummy. Not twenty minutes after I entered my flat, I got a phone call from my Peace Corps Volunteer partner who began the conversation with “are you sitting down?” My heart sank, that is never a good way to start any conversation. After a few minutes of explanation, he told me that somehow the community center property that he had received grant money for and had been working on for over a year, a higher level official informed him that the proper paperwork had not been completed to use the property. (It had actually been properly filled out by his counterpart on the project, who had proposed it in the first place and asked for his help in executing it.) He was told that the property (a closed school with no electricity, running water or easy access for tourists) was to be sold. It seems on examination, that the recent elections put a different power structure into the municipality, and this particular official was being let go due to party affiliation. As an act of personal profit and spite, he was taking away the permission for the project that had been granted last year. I have come to learn this is standard procedure here in Albania and is a leading cause of the young and ambitious for leaving the country.

Luckily for me personally, I had not submitted my grant proposal before this shattering development. I had, though, worked quite hard at researching, developing, designing, networking on the proposal for the entire Summer. To say it was deflating is an understatement. My greatest sorrow was for the Castle Community, to lose such a great project, and for my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Miguel, who had worked much harder than I for the entire length of his service. As my previous life experience had taught me, it was time to pivot, re-invent and go in a different direction, and let my mystified rage at the situation be tabled for a later date. 

One of the reasons I incorporated the Castle Community Center in my garden project was that my school had no place to grow a garden. It is completely paved, with a basketball/ volley ball court and a play yard. I thought the community center would be ideal for a garden plot where the children could learn and also bring foot traffic to the Castle. A leading educational trend for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is incorporating what they call “urban gardening” into local and regional food policy recommendations. More and more people are leaving rural areas for cities. To meet the food demands of an exploding global population, there are concerted efforts to educate people to start growing food on roof tops, apartment terraces, in container gardens and in small spaces of land that cities offer. I also noticed that the High School I was working with had a couple of plots of mostly barren dirt in their courtyard. I thought, well, we can do container gardens on the roof of my school and small plots in front of the High School and it would be quite difficult for any future disgruntled municipality official to rescind the land for the gardens. So I had to re-write my proposal and set a new budget that included lumber and old oak barrels for container gardens.

In the process of all of this, I signed up my school to be part of the Edible Schoolyard Project based in Berkeley, California. While mostly in the United States, there are member gardens of Edible Schoolyard throughout the world. I noticed there were none in Albania, and of course made everyone know that my school gardens would be “The First In Albania,” or as I call it “FIA.” FIA is a great selling point to the locals. I also made Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley aware of this, and they were quite enthused about the prospect.

The School Director of 22 Tetori, English Teacher and a High School Student preparing for a Skype Call to Edible School Yard Headquarters in Berkeley

I set up a skype meeting between the project managers in California and my director and one of the English teachers. With the time difference, the meeting was at 6 pm at my flat and 9 am in California. We made contact and conducted our introductions via skype. I must say, it was probably the most moving thing I have witnessed here in Albania, this connection between Americans and Albanians via the internet, in real time, collaborating to create opportunities for children to grow and eat nutritious food. To say the Albanians are were on Cloud Nine, would be an understatement, it was more like Cloud 378 and rising. The Californians were unfamiliar with Albania, so it was a unique opportunity to spread one of our Peace Corps Goals of sharing our host nations culture with Americans. We are now on their radar, and it is very possible that one of the Edible School Yard staff will come to the opening of our garden in March of 2018. I also informed the US Embassy of this development, and the Public Affairs official is on board to cover the event from that angle. In an attempt to spread Albanian culture, get some publicity at home and create other partnerships, I asked the director of California's Roots of Change for some assistance, but he told me he has other priorities, and can not use any favors to help out, apparently writing an email on our behalf was too “expensive.” So I learned that it is not always disgruntled Albanian municipality staff that are unwilling to help out in great projects that assist farmers and children. 

At present, I am awaiting approval of the grant. It is an interesting and informative exercise to apply for these sorts of things. I have never applied for a grant from a US agency before, and it is a very laborious and thorough process. Luckily, I had my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Miguel to basically sit next to me and answer questions on how to fill out each aspect of the application. He did this graciously, while he designed the visuals for the gardens at both the grade school and high school. We were sitting in the municipality together for several days, trying to lobby for the castle community center in a last ditch effort to save the project, but alas, we were never given the chance. Miguel has now experienced what it is like when your project gets pulled because of “circumstances beyond our control.” He is busy returning unused funds and trying to find eligible parties to donate the equipment already purchased for the project. Since several children at my school are members of the Castle Village, we are hoping some of the equipment can be given to 22 Tetori.

Meanwhile, the Herbalist, Demo, is absolutely chomping at the bit to teach herbalism at the High School. He had his suspicions that the Castle Community Center would not happen, so he is very intent that the opportunity through Edible Schoolyard not fall through. After lengthy conversations, often with an interpreter so there are no misunderstandings, and my carefully hand written notes in Albanian telling him about the process and need to wait till the grant money comes through to start our collaboration, I get almost weekly surprises from him. One morning, I got a phone call from Antonio, my fellow volunteer who is teaching English at the High School where one of the gardens is proposed, asking me if I was planning to attend a function at his school that day. I said no, and he told me, “Well, Demo (the herbalist) is giving a presentation to the faculty and students at 1 pm today, and there is supposed to be a local television station covering it, we have to come because it is a Peace Corps event.” 

What was problematic about this specifically, was that the week before, after lengthy meetings and agreements with the Berat Municipality chief of city park and grounds keeping to help remove dead trees and bushes from the High School garden, he (the grounds keeper) informed me a group of children had insulted him. He called the head of the school district to complain and nothing was done. He was so upset, he had to go to the doctor to get medication to cope with the stress of the incident, could not sleep for an entire weekend (the incident apparently happened on Friday afternoon, and our meeting was the following Monday,) and upon careful reflection, while he loves his country and is very grateful to Peace Corps for wanting to help the children, he will not be involved in anyway. He did invite us to dinner at his olive grove, though. So, once again, back to somewhat of ground zero in terms of how to prep the land for the garden. Having the Herbalist present to the students and local television media, when I was in the midst of yet another setback was extremely problematic, especially when representing Peace Corps in the process. 

I quickly emailed my director and sector director, because Peace Corps wisely has media policies with which we must adhere. I frantically typed on my laptop, while trying to fix my wet hair and put on make up, “I was just informed of this, what do I do?” My sector director immediately called me and on conference call with other staff members gave me excellent talking points on how to manage things, mainly because the project had not yet been approved by Peace Corps. I was to calmly say that Peace Corps was in support of Demo. We all laughed that I remarked how I was glad I had washed my hair that morning so as not to appear greasy on Albanian TV, (no small feat in these cold damp days with no heat.) I showed up to the gathering where there were about 50 students and 6 faculty members present. Thankfully there was no media, and I fully supported Demo in his announcement of the garden and his desire to teach herbs.

I met with him a few days later, again with an interpreter and a carefully written four page note in Albanian explaining the status of the grant, the upcoming winter holidays and how I could not guarantee anything, and it might be wise to wait till January. He smiled at me, gave me an incredible curriculum which included a class on Christmas Day for teaching herbs and a design for the herb garden according to regions in the area of Berat. He was going to start teaching anyways. He promptly walked over to the school director, who gave him permission to use the community center hours to start his herb classes. Obviously, I am a bit annoyed that I go to all this trouble to communicate with him as to the realities of the grant. But then, this ultimately is not about me or even Peace Corps, it is about him and the school, and if he wants to take on this project by himself, it is actually the ultimate goal of any Peace Corps initiative, to foster independence and sustainability in a project. Most volunteers complain they can not get projects going, this man has taken the project and ran with it, which in the end is actually a relief and truly a wonder to watch evolve. He is a gifted practitioner with immense knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He also has a lifetime of experience, and will be an asset to the community in numerous ways. In a certain way, this entire process is actually about Peace Corps goal of giving expertise and assistance to the host nation. I am certainly doing this, and the project obviously evolves in spite of my efforts and setbacks. What keeps me going is that essentially everyone in happy, and that it will actually happen in ways I had not imagined.

The ultimate goal of the Edible School Yard project in Berat is to collaborate with teachers to create an Albanian centric curriculum that can be implemented in any school in Albania. The teachers I am working with will help design both the curriculum and teacher training seminars. This has the attention of the School District Superintendent as well as the Curriculum Director for the Berat Region. For me personally, it gives an opportunity to address what I see as a glaring problem of rapid industrialization in Albania.

On the one hand, the problem of trash is just heartbreaking to witness here in the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful land. The lush pristine countryside is strewn with trash, mostly from packaged junk food and sodas. The waste from these foods carpets every school I have ever visited, and keeps the janitors quite busy in terms of picking it up. The eating habits of the younger generation are contributing to “first world” health problems of obesity and diabetes, while many children are malnourished due to poverty, eating only cheap packaged junk and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Agricultural traditions are being lost due to the movement into the cities, specifically Tirana. In a country of 3 million people, over one million live in Tirana. How can this be sustainable in terms of food production and access? 

While growing gardens seems like a leisurely pass time, knowing how to do so is actually one of the most powerful counters to rapid industrialization of the food system and increasing diseases related to this process. What I have also learned is that school gardens were part of the curriculum during the communist era, a sort of “Victory Garden” initiative. Students cared for and competed with one another in terms of their gardens. With the fall of communism and rapid industrialization, the gardens disappeared. The enthusiasm I meet whenever this project is proposed shows that memory of communism at least in this respect will not thwart it’s development. My experience with the children over the summer, providing healthy snacks as part of healthy living, was very successful. When they have fruits and vegetables presented to them, they eat them. It is a simple concept actually, but the basis of the Edible School Yard in general, and here in Berat specifically. 

I feel there can be a sustained process of education long after my service is over to make the newer generations of Albania as healthy and resilient as possible in this time of transition. It has been exhausting and informative along the way, but I also am very blessed to be working with excellent teachers and community members. I look forward, with cautious optimism that all will be well, and our first seedlings will be planted in March. I know for sure, that the Herb Garden will be carried through, and I have a good feeling about the curriculum development.

Stay Tuned, it actually might be on Albanian television!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Albanian Volunteers at Water Station during Service Project at the Grand Park Tirana

The word service has seven definitions. Ranging from maintenance of machines to religious rituals, the word “service.” in the case of Peace Corps matches the Marriam-Webster dictionary entries of “the action of doing work for or helping someone,” and “an act of assistance.” Our training to become Volunteers was called “Pre Service Training” and keeping with the theme, we just finished an “IST” or “In Service Training” to equip us for our assignments.  Before the “IST” we had an “AVC” or “All Volunteer Conference” where the classes of the year before mine, and my class of Peace Corps Volunteers gathered to hear one anothers stories and participate in a first of its kind in Albania, multi agency service project.

Cooking up After the Fourth of July BBQ at the US Ambassador's Residence

Every year, the United States Ambassador hosts a “post Fourth of July” party for Peace Corps Volunteers at his residence. This year was no different, and our Country Director decided to combine an All Volunteer Conference (AVC) along with a joint service project in Tirana. 

(Sorry about all the letters, this I am learning, is basically how PCV ((Peace Corps Volunteers)) speak with staff and the CD (Country Director,)) apparently staff is not shortened to (S,) for obvious reasons, and saying titles is well, so not PC ((Peace Corps and not Pericardium, Post coitus, Pancreas or Politically Correct.)) I am not sure this has to do with trying to conserve breath by eliminating extended syllables, save ink on print materials or a way to create a tribal language that only we in PC (see above first definition) can decipher, but if one wants to get with the program here in Albania ((HC or Host Country)) one has to learn what these letters mean in addition to the HCL ((Host Country Language.)) With my medical background, I can assure you it is utterly confusing to have all these letters flung about in conversations and memos, I am thinking they are talking about medical tests or pathological states, which in some cases are actually more descriptive that the intended phrase………)

Back to the AVC…… What was unique about this effort was to bring the entire corpus of volunteers together in once space. We A20’s (The 20th Albanian Peace Corps Volunteers class) Had yet to meet all the G19 (Group 19, the name was changed with my class) It was so inspiring to meet all the faces behind the names, and hear about their respective projects. It was also a shot in the arm so to speak to see that volunteers had served before us, lived through the experience and were there to tell their stories.

The focus of the gathering was on “service,” a term our CD likes to infuse in most of her addresses to the volunteers. In fact, she always signs her emails “in service.” Our first speaker was via Skype from the USA. Retired Senator Harris Wofford. Harris was in President Kennedy’s administration as Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Senator Wofford also worked with Sargent Shriver to found the Peace Corps and later collaborated with President Clinton to help create AmeriCorps. Our Country Director was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and worked in developing and implementing AmeriCorps. Americorps is a governmental service organization similar to Peace Corps, only based and executed on American soil. It was very inspiring to say the least to be addressed by Senator Wofford. He worked to found the Peace Corps as well as carrying out the goals of King, and urged us to keep the flame going, especially during such dramatic social and political times in the USA. Wofford also spoke of how central youth and students were in the creative enthusiasm both for the formation and implementation of Peace Corps. He charged us to carry on that spirit that is so necessary during our challenging era.

PCV and Tirana Parks Department helping Trees at the Grand Park, Tirana

The next day was spent collaborating with the Tirana Parks and Recreation department and a newly formed Albanian organization “Different Weekend,” or as the natives would call it “Fundjavë  Ndryshe” There is a Facebook page of the same name, please “like” it to keep abreast of their impressive activities. We American volunteers were rewarded for our work with tee shirts commemorating our 20 years of service in Albania. Donning the shirts, sun screen, hats and garden gloves, we all went to  the Grand Park of Tirana to help mitigate the effects of the drought that was affecting Albania. What was particularly impressive was the extreme heat in which our service project was conducted. I can speak for myself in that I looked like I had jumped into the lake after the mornings activities.

Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, Grand Park Tirana

The Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, is a progressive visionary who was initially inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers when he was a school boy. He has initiated numerous projects like a plastic bag ban and tree plantings. We were charged with helping the young trees this vibrant mayor had gotten planted in the park. As anyone who has been part of a city wide tree planting knows, the planting is the easy part, it is the care and watering that makes it sustainable. Due to lack of funds and basic drought conditions, the Parks and Rec department of Tirana has had difficulties in tending to the trees as well as basic fire abatement in this very beautiful and well loved park. Along with the Green Shirted Tirana public works employees, Peace Corps and Different Weekend volunteers worked shoulder to shoulder helping to loosen dirt around the young trees (which at times might have been better served with jack hammers the ground was so dry and dense.) We cut weeds which in some instances were about 3 feet high, watered and basically made the place look quite spiffy. We were told by the Mayor during his press conference that our combined morning efforts would have taken the park employees weeks to accomplish. 

Clean Up Crew at Grand Park Tirana Service Project

While we Americans are used to such volunteer efforts, this collaboration was a first in Albania. It has been about a generation since the fall of communism. While the nation is still reeling and adjusting to this event, one thing that has taken this long for the economy and civilians to become stable enough were the concept of volunteerism from the natives has become an acceptable, even an enthusiastic reality for the people of Albania. 

Tirana Park Workers, Grand Park Tirana

With the fall of communism, there was a rush from both America and the European Union to help modernize and stabilize Albania. USAID, the European Union, various religious organizations and Peace Corps came to help fill the void left by nearly 50 years of an isolated dictatorship. It has not been a smooth path of recovery, but the combined efforts of effective aid, diplomacy and the resiliency of the Albanian people has resulted in dramatic advances. In the early days of post communism, volunteerism was seen as something foreigners did to and for Albania. The word volunteer (vulnetar) had bad memories and connotations, as a misnomer for enforced work camps and slave labor on behalf of the government. It is also difficult for a people who are struggling to feed themselves and combating corruption to have the energy or time to volunteer. Thanks to great efforts in no small part of the Embassy of the United States and the efforts of our Ambassador, corruption is being cleaned up and sustainable businesses are being set up. As my pastor used to say, one has to be in a place where they can help others, the “put your own oxygen mask on before you help your children on the air plane” analogy. The people of Albania are now ready and very willing to help themselves. I saw this miracle of transformation in action on that steaming hot morning in central Tirana.

Panel at Univeristy Hall

After our fire and drought mitigation activities in the park, we were treated to a panel discussion in the very hall at the University of Tirana, where the students had started the uprising that led to the fall of the communist government. One of the leaders of that historic event was present on the panel. Blendi Gonxhe was a student during the fateful days of late autumn of 1990. He is now the Parks Director for the city of Tirana. He was joined by the US Ambassador Donal Lu, Arber Hajdari, founder and director of a Fundjavë  Ndryshe/Different Weekend, Manjola Gega, teacher from Rreshen and founding board member of Girl Scouts of Albania, Enrik Deda, student from Rreshen and Girl Scouts Volunteer, Gillian Richter, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni, Michael McLemore, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni and Ola Keci, college student from Shijak Albania and Fundjavë Ndryshe Volunteer. 

We listened to how Blendi Gonxhe described the fateful events leading to the collapse of communism, and how he has experienced his nation since those dramatic days. Ambassador Lu shared that he too, was a Peace Corps Volunteer and how that shaped his desire to serve in the Foreign Service. Manjole Gega spoke of how she along with Peace Corps Volunteers created the environment for Girl Scouts Albania to thrive. Fundjavë Ndryshe founder Arber Hajdari and fellow volunteer Ola Keci gave us details of how they started this organization and had raised over 2 million Euro from Albanians within and abroad in just two years to help the most needy citizens of this emerging nations. Projects ranging from help to pay hospital bills, to repairing houses, weekend service projects and recovery from natural disasters are quickly addressed by Fundjavë through its efforts. The American Peace Corps volunteers shared how both their Americorps  and Peace Corps inspired them to give back to their communities at home and abroad.

What struck me as I listened to the stories was how Albania had been exposed to Peace Corps Volunteers for most of the time since the revolution that had occurred in the hall where we were sitting. The mayor of Tirana was served by Peace Corps Volunteers as a boy, and the director of the park services in Tirana had by his actions made it possible for everything to happen since the Autumn of 1990.  Gonxhe was asked why he did not run for public office. His response was that he felt he could do more for his people outside organized government. From what I was witnessing through the panel, it seemed he had a point. In my own humble opinion, the mayor of Tirana is the new face of politics in Albania, one inspired by public service as demonstrated by his programs to plant trees, bring healthy food to school children and ban the ubiquitous plastic bags that are choking Albania's beautiful landscapes. It struck me that through the long process of consistent service in this emerging nation, Peace Corps had inspired a new generation of public good.

Fundjavë  Ndryshe Volunteers, Grand Park Tirana

I think it is profound that the service organization I am involved in through the United States government is called the “Peace Corps.” It is fitting that what we do is called “service.” As Kennedy and so many presidents after him often say, the United States does not wish to go to war. War in and of itself is often a quick way to solve disputes and address certain injustices, but the lasting road to what I would call deep diplomacy and global citizen ship is through peaceful service. The creativity, passion and in many cases long slog of Peace Corps Volunteers under seemingly insurmountable odds in many instances actually does pay off in the long run. In our own way, we paved the road for the service project that day, of both governmental, local and international volunteers to come together to address the drought and help the people of Tirana have a safe, beautiful place to rest, exercise and contribute to their fresh air. It was a first ever in Albania, and I for one was proud to be part of the service to this emerging nation of incredibly resilient and generous people. 

The people of Albania love their country and are eagerly working to make it better through Fundjavë  Ndryshe and other organizations. It was a grand weekend at the Grand Park Tirana indeed!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Choosing Life

Throughout Pre-Service Training, we trainees were exposed to all sorts of sessions on various topics related to how we could best serve the people of Albania. As Peace Corps is constantly reviewing and revising, it was determined that more of an emphasis needed to be placed on youth development, and my training reflected this orientation. Special focus was placed on cultivating youth through projects such as camps, clubs and events. Two of the three sectors in Albania are school based, Health Education (HE) and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), the other is Community Organization and Development (COD), which often involves youth organizational endeavors. Since we have been released to our site assignments, most of the Volunteer efforts I am observing are reflecting the emphasis in our training.

As I watched quite a bit of television with my host family during training, one recurring segment of the evening news had caught my attention. There seemed to be an on-line interactive game sweeping the planet, including Albania, that was a teen suicide challenge. According to the reports, Eastern Europe was especially hard hit with this wave of Internet game inspired deaths. It had claimed the lives of young people across the globe, and was alarming public health and educational officials in Albania enough to where strategies and warnings were filling the evening news. The game is called "Blue Whale," and is enough of a phenomena that it has earned a Wikipedia page (eerily informative if you ask me,) and numerous on-line chats and YouTube videos from mental health professionals seeking to stem the threat of this deadly game.

Blue Whale is the name chosen because of the tragic phenomena of whales beaching themselves, seemingly to commit suicide. The game was originated by a 20 something Russian man, who felt the world needed to be rid of stupid people, a creative eugenics one might say, so he designed the game to have a 50 day/step process where he would interact with willing participants and invite them to do increasingly dangerous and scary things ultimately resulting in a social media documented suicide. The Russian court system apprehended the Blue Whale designer, and he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced, but the game persists and has morphed into similar challenges under similar names.

During my practicum and at my site school, I encountered a frequently asked question by the 12 - 15 year old children. After the basic questions of where I am from and my age, I was always asked about the Blue Whale. What did I think of the Blue Whale? I would respond that any thinking person would not listen to or do what the Blue Whale asked, the Blue Whale does not care about you, no one who cared about you would ask you to hurt yourself, the children agreed, but the questions persisted. I also felt my 15 + conversations about this horrible phenomena were woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. How could one convey on a large scale to match the Blue Whale, for youth to choose to embrace life and nurture themselves? What could compete with this carefully crafted program that increasingly lured otherwise normal youth to hurt and kill themselves?

During training, we were given a session on dealing with the "post communist mentality." We were encouraged to conduct leadership trainings with youth to encourage them to think in independent and creative ways. I had some deep conversations with my health sector trainers regarding the challenges the younger Albanian generation was facing. If we are honest, when communism fell in Albania, a large segment of the population was living in the same way they had lived for hundreds of years. At the time, Albania was existing much as North Korea, completely isolated from the outside world and held in a constant state of siege/panic mentality in fear of both the government as well as the rest of the planet. Considering that youth of today in developed countries are having difficulty coping with modernization and technology, it was daunting to imagine how much more difficult it was for the youth of Albania to adapt in such a short amount of time to the stresses of modern materialistic life within one generation.

Another challenge is the competing attention between a secular culture and the reintroduction of religious life after two generations of enforced atheism. Religion gives context to life, as well as rituals surrounding transitions such as birth, marriage and also the entry into adulthood. Confirmation and Bar Mitzvah are examples of ritual initiations for youth entering adulthood. In Aboriginal cultures, we see elaborate initiation practises requiring youth to go out into the wilderness and face their fears through various exercises. In these practises, youth are pushed to their limits, face conflict and learn to overcome using their ingenuity. Modern secular culture does not offer such initiations, so youth, in attempt to mark the great tumult that accompanies the stage from puberty to adulthood,  "initiate" themselves.  We see this attempt at "self - initiation" in modern gang culture, in the exploration of sex and mind altering substances, participation in the military, most dangerously in the flocking to terror organizations.

Teen "self-initiation" is a major factor in the obsession and compliance with on-line games such as "slender man" and now the Blue Whale. The evil side of confronting and challenging the self is seen in all aspects of these exercises. There is a pledge to an over arching principle or being, a series of challenges that go beyond the normal day to day activities, resulting in the transformation of the individual. Tragically, in these games as well as terror organizations, the transformation is physical death as a badge of courage. Young minds lack the physical mechanisms, full Frontal Lobe brain development to be specific where reasoning is conducted, to discern the full implications of their decisions to participate in such deadly endeavors. The deep question is how to meet the realities of a very disheartening world, constant technological media distractions, the physical limits of adolescent brain function and the need for healthy initiations to offer alternatives to video captured suicides.

The purpose of the Blue Whale is to damage the participants, to scare them and overtake their decision making process to the point of willing compliance with directions to harm and kill themselves. When we consider the initiation process, we can understand the attraction on a certain level. Obviously, participation in these cult like behaviors is a cry of pain and disorientation, a desire to transform into the next phase of life. It shows a lack of modern cultures ability to meet it's youth, there is a void, so the question is how does one fill that void?

I was talking with a group of children from my Summer Camp about the Blue Whale. It seemed that the game held all the thrill of my own youth filled memories involving telling scary stories round camp fires until we were terrified to sleep that night out in the wild. I asked the children what they thought of the Blue Whale. I then introduced the concept of an alternative game. I asked them to vote on a color, and then another ocean mammal. We decided, very democratically I might add,  on the "Purple Dolphin" which would be the name of a game where participants would do healthy activities. One of the girls who was interested in science, chimed in, "Oh that will be the antidote to the Blue Whale." Check, she got it, first step achieved.

I started asking my health sector classmates to help coordinate the project. I got some great ideas, and invited a volunteer who is a nurse from another site to brainstorm, compile and design the Purple Dolphin. This volunteer has experience in Psychiatric Nursing, so her input and experience was invaluable. What resulted was a forty-step program compiled into a booklet with activities designed to foster healthy habits, self esteem and positive interaction with the community. Where the Blue Whale commanded that gamers watch horror flicks in the middle of the night, the Purple Dolphin invited participants to watch NASA television exploring the galaxy. The Blue Whale commands gamers to cut themselves and post on social media their bleeding limbs, the Purple Dolphin invites children to do a Yoga Pose, pick up trash, help to cook a meal, offer a complement. Other Purple Dolphin activities follow the Albanian Ministry of Health guidelines for subjects such as Oral Hygiene, Nutrition and Exercise. Purple Dolphin also aims to create a happy sense of self for its participants. When appropriate,  gamers are to post pictures of themselves doing various activities on social media. Each step needs to be signed and witnessed by a caring adult. When the forty-step cycle is completed, the final stage is to promise to choose to do things that will foster a healthy rest-of -their-lives, which they are invited to post and document through social media. The final step is in direct contrast to the posting of a youth falling to their deaths from windows or bridges.

Visiting a local pharmacy on the dental health scavenger hunt in search of tooth paste and dental floss

We created a series of lesson plans that subsequently were used in a one-week summer camp that circled around the concept of the Purple Dolphin. In the beginning, we created pledges with a Purple Dolphin on the page. The children had to stand, raise their hands and promise to choose to live a healthy life. We then used face paints to paint purple dolphins on the children's forearms. This exercise was in direct contrast to the demand that the Blue Whale gives for children pledge loyalty to it, and to create a razor cut image on their forearms or thighs of a whale. The oral hygiene lesson featured a tooth brushing and flossing exercise, a dental health scavenger hunt where the gamers went out into the community to find where tooth paste was sold and were to find dental floss. We had the children go to pharmacies and ask the pharmacist for help, requiring them to list names and prices of these items. Next it was to find a local dentist and list the address, and finally go to a fruit vendor and list the different kinds of apples and what they cost. When the children returned from the hunt, there was a lesson on snacks that do not harm the teeth: carrots, cucumbers, nuts, apples and water. One of the later lessons was on self esteem, where children made "self esteem flowers" writing their names on the center of a paper flower and putting things they liked about themselves on petals to create the picture. We ended the lesson with reading to each child what they had listed, and telling them they were special. At the end of the experience, we had a party and a ceremony where they received certificates of participation.

Learning the delicious joys of healthy snacks that do not harm the teeth

We plan to release the project through a club format at the beginning of the school year. Depending on how it goes, we hope to share the project and have some simple trainings for teachers who would like to have the project in their communities. Another plan is to have a Face Book page where children can post their Purple Dolphin Task pictures, in addition to having them share on Instagram with the hashtag #PurpleDolphin.

Self Esteem Flower Activity

The goal is to shape those frontal lobe brain synapses to choose to live and choose health. With practice, such behaviors as "eating a vegetable" or "giving a complement" become habits. Instead of jumping off a cliff to prove ones courage, life itself can be seen as a daily initiation toward wholeness. Instead of escaping into violence, numbing through drugs,  alcohol and sex, the invitation is to embrace things that enhance life. The exercises are mostly simple things that most youth have access to, the nature of the booklet also allows those who do not have Internet capability to participate.

Children writing on flower petals what qualities they appreciate about themselves

It is my personal hope this catches on, as always time will tell.

May the Purple Dolphin be with you!