Camp GLOW 2013

7 05 2013

Last weekend was the third annual Camp GLOW in Siem Reap. Sixty-three students from seven secondary schools came to learn about women’s health and empowerment at this four-day workshop. I can’t say enough wonderful things about GLOW – it really is one of my favorite Peace Corps activities.

This year’s t-shirt design

You might remember from last year that Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a project carried out by Peace Corps volunteers across the globe. It’s an opportunity to bring girls together from different communities to share their experiences and build their leadership capacity. Like last year, the camp was funded primarily through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund, with help from each of the participating communities. However, this year the project grew in size – from 39 girls from three schools to 63 students from seven schools. I brought 11 girls from my site, all of whom had been actively involved in my weekly health club.

Posing with some of the girls

Posing with some of the girls

Our philosophy with Camp GLOW has always been to bring in competent, inspiring Khmer women to lead the sessions, and this year was no different. The first two days of the camp were led by the staff at Our Strength, who focused on sexual health and healthy relationships. The Women’s Resource Center joined us again this year as well, leading activities on self-awareness, goal setting, and community education. There was one new addition to the line-up this year though, as we asked students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh to lead a 4-hour session on career planning.

What does it take to be a good teacher?

In addition to the education sessions, there were plenty of fun activities to keep the girls engaged, including a newspaper fashion show, a pizza party, and a trip to Angkor Wat.

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Cute nas

Cute nas

Now that the camp is finished, each group of girls is planning to teach 100 community members about what they learned at GLOW. Having seen the way that my girls organized and led the domestic violence education event for nearly 500 people in March, I feel confident that they will do a great job passing on what they’ve learned. Even on the van ride home from the camp, the girls were fearlessly teaching the other passengers about menstruation and reproductive anatomy.

For more pictures of GLOW, click here.


This Year’s Girls’ Club

30 03 2013

I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned much about my girls’ club this year because, well, they’re amazing! I’ve been meeting with a group of 25-30 eleventh graders weekly since January. I wasn’t able to find a counterpart to help me teach this year so I decided to have the girls themselves co-teach with me. Each week, we pick a different topic related to health or gender, and one student volunteers to co-teach with me. I usually meet with that student once individually to plan the lesson and review the content. Then, later in the week, the student helps me teach the lesson to the rest of the class. Not only does this help the girls practice their own leadership skills, they’re often better at conveying the messages in more engaging and easy-to-understand formats than I am because of the language barrier. Some of our classes this year have covered nutrition, menstruation, and gender roles.

One of the club participants acting out her role as the mother in the role play

One of the club participants acting out her role as the mother in the role play

In February, I met with the girls to teach about International Women’s Day, which is celebrated each year on March 8. Like last year, I thought that this presented a good opportunity for the girls to organize a small project to celebrate women’s rights. We first talked about different aspects of being women in Cambodian society, shared stories about women we admire, and talked about our own goals for the future. Then, I tasked them with completing a project, any project, to mark the special day. After much deliberation, the girls decided they wanted to do a role play about domestic violence. I reminded them that were in charge of the entire process, from writing the script, to acting it out, organizing the performance, gathering props, and fundraising if needed. They enthusiastically agreed. They had one catch: They wouldn’t be able to organize it in time for March 8. They asked if they could perform later in the month.

In the weeks that followed, the girls met frequently, even during exam week. This week, for example, they met for eight hours of preparation. They scheduled a meeting with the school director to ask for permission to perform at the school. They invited all of the teachers to join. They fundraised the cost of a sound system and microphones. They recruited some boys to play the male parts. They wrote and memorized a 40-minute script that illustrated multiple types of domestic violence. They were truly incredible.

When the group was asked, "Who wants to be the village chief," this girl bolted up. "Me! Me! Me!"

When the group was asked, “Who wants to be the village chief,” this girl bolted up. “Me! Me! Me!”

And today was the big day! Today was the day they acted out their role play for  between 400-500 students and teachers. Not surprisingly, I thought they were absolutely fantastic! I can remember being in high school plays, getting nervous to perform in front of the 100 or so people who would show up in the middle school gym where we held the events. Now, multiple that by five! And add in the fact that there was no adult director, no make up artist, no costumes or props. They put it all together themselves, and I have to admit that it was one of the most organized Khmer events I have attended during my service!

The girls’ club will take a break for few weeks now. Khmer New Year means that classes are suspended for vacation and students return to their villages. Tim and I will be heading out for vacation too, but I’m excited to meet with the girls again when we get back.

Setting the scene to educate about child abuse

Setting the scene to educate about child abuse

During our first meeting after Khmer New Year, I will be announcing which 10 of the thirty girls will be attending Camp GLOW in May. Our provincial girls’ empowerment camp has been funded again this year, with girls from six communities joining the activities. Each community can only bring ten students, which means I had to find a way to choose who would attend. Taking into account club attendance, leadership qualities, and a written application form, I decided today which ten it will be. They are all wonderfully kind, brave, and socially-minded young women. Just the type of students who can benefit the most from GLOW. Although narrowing it down was difficult, I couldn’t be happier about the group. Only one short month until GLOW!


GLOW Girls Talking about their Golden Doors

27 10 2012

Today, for the final step of Camp GLOW, the girls from my village led an education session for forty of their peers. After weeks of deliberation, they decided to teach on the female reproductive system and menstruation. In a culture that considers sex far more taboo than even the most conservative of places in the US, I found this decision to be brave and inspiring.

Look at those GLOW girls teach!

The GLOW line-up in their awesomely bright t-shirts.

The GLOW girls spent a full 90 minutes teaching about female anatomy, hygiene, and menstruation. They used loads of good teaching techniques to involve the other students and check if they were retaining the new information. I’m so proud of these girls and hope that some of them will find time in their busy senior schedules to work with me on some upcoming projects.


Camp GLOW: Mission Accomplished

8 08 2012

Just as Tim’s hospitality project is taking off, one of mine is coming to a close. Last week, thirty-nine high school girls, two Cambodian teachers, four NGO staff members and five Peace Corps Volunteers gathered at the Siem Reap Provincial Teacher Training Center for a girls’ empowerment camp. The four-day camp focused on women’s health, rights and opportunities.

On Thursday, all of the girls, aged 14-20, arrived to the guesthouse. They came from three different villages, each approximately an hour or two outside of Siem Reap. This was the first time for some of them to ever visit Siem Reap, and the majority had never stayed in a guesthouse before. They excitedly settled into their rooms and then made the three minute walk over to the training center where we studied.

Group shot

For the first two days, staff from the Battambang-based NGO Our Strength led sessions about women’s health. One of the sessions that the girls cited as being the most informative and important was on menstruation and hygiene. Most of these topics are not taught in school, and the girls said they have never had an opportunity to ask such sensitive questions before. Other sessions touched on issues like sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, gender, Cambodian beliefs about sexuality, healthy relationships, etc. There were also several Q&A sessions, during which the girls demonstrated their complete trust in and respect for the presenters by asking a huge number of questions about their own health and bodies.

During a session related to gender roles

Group work

One thing that impressed me was how well the presenters integrated with the girls. When we would walk to a nearby restaurant together to eat, the staff would always sit and talk with the girls. They would call girls by name, take endless photos with them, and treat them like peers. Additionally, as I wrote in a recent email to the organization, the staff “modeled what it means to be strong, smart, socially-minded Cambodian women.” It was a real pleasure getting to know them and working alongside them.

The third day, we had an equally impressive speaker come from the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Having worked with the organization before, I knew that Pisey would do a great job. The third day, which started with a giggle-filled yoga session, focused on important issues like self-awareness, domestic violence and goal setting. Although they enjoyed all of the sessions, the girls really expressed an interest in the domestic violence part. In fact, two of the three groups of girls decided that they would teach their communities what they had learned about domestic violence.

Pisey facilitating a session on self-awareness

The fourth day was all about preparing the girls to be good community educators because each group is required to go back to their community to teach one aspect of what they learned at Camp GLOW. The girls enthusiastically prepared and presented mock sessions before diving into the plans for their real presentations. My group of girls will be coming over tomorrow to finish their lesson plan and to set a date for the education session(s). They think that domestic violence is an important issue in our community, and I whole-heartedly agree. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Overall, I think the girls were exposed to a lot of new information. The knowledge-based tests show that the girls nearly doubled their understanding of issues related to sexual and reproductive health. Compared to the first day, more girls at the end of the camp also indicated that they “have a lot of friends,” “are proud of themselves,” “have goals that they can achieve” and “are generally happy people.”

In fact, although the knowledge gained was certainly an important part of the camp, I think there was a lot more to be gained from the experience. It was amazing to watch how three distinct groups of shy, insular girls melded into one big, happy group of friends over the course of four days. One of the best activities we did was to have each girl decorate a paper bag with her name on it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the camp, the other girls would then write nice things about that girl and put it in her bag. At the end of the camp, each girl had a bag filled with compliments and the phone numbers of her new friends. This activity was one that definitely encouraged the girls to become closer.

Decorating paper bags

The beautifully decorated bags hanging from the wall

There were other experiences that were uncommon, or even brand new, for the girls. For example, they got to express themselves creatively as they decorated t-shirts, made bracelets and painted each others’ nails during the evening activities. They got to see a different side of their own country when we took a field trip to Siem Reap’s touristy night market and the town’s only shopping mall. They ate new foods at Lucky Burger, learned new ways to exercise through dance and yoga, and got to make real connections with the volunteers living in their towns.

First, we exercise…

Then we eat fast food

And THEN we eat ice cream. It’s the American way.

Just the experience of being away from families was a big deal for these girls, who often live in cramped quarters where they share a sleeping space with all of their family members. This culture does not allow for much independence so it was an interesting chance for them to examine themselves as individuals. This might all be very Western-slanting, but the girls echoed these ideas as well.

The camp culminated in a closing ceremony, where we gave each girl a certificate and a photo of all of the girls together. We also played a slide show of photos taken throughout the camp. While the girls cheered, laughed and blushed as their faces appeared on the big screen, it was hard not to get emotional. I thought back to all of the activities I did as a teen that I still vividly remember. These experiences – band trips, summer camps, Youth in Government – all played a part in my development. I can only hope that the students who came to Camp GLOW will look back on this experience with the same fondness and appreciation that I feel when I think back on my own. Either way, the most important thing is that they learned and will retain important information related to their health and well being.

The closing ceremony

Camp GLOW 2012 is over, but we’re already looking ahead to next year. In the meantime, I am eager to continue working with the girls as they plan and execute their community education sessions.

You can check out more pictures of the camp here.


Camp GLOW Fundraiser – A BIG Success

23 06 2012

Last night’s fundraiser for Camp GLOW was a success! Thanks to a huge PCV turnout, we raised $154 to help support August’s girls’ empowerment camp. This is a low-cost project so every one of those dollars will have a big impact.

Molly Malone’s, located on Pub Street, did a great job of hosting the event. They promoted the project well and were able to round up an assortment of solid raffle prizes. In fact, several Peace Corps Volunteers won something, including Tim, who  is now the proud owner of a gift certificate for a free dinner for two at a nice restaurant in Siem Reap. I wonder who he’ll take…?

The bar at Molly Malone’s

Today, we’ll be trying  to solidify deals with a couple of local restaurants to provide the food for the camp at a discounted price. Once we get the food settled, we’ll have most of the bigger planning components finished. It seems to me that we’re right on track to have a stellar camp!


Camp GLOW: Speakers Confirmed

8 06 2012

Remember me announcing that my girls’ empowerment project got funding? Well, I’m pleased to say that the planning stages have been going very smoothly. We’ve gotten the blessing of the Provincial Office of Education already, plus the venue and guesthouse are booked. Girls in all three of the participating schools have been attending club meetings regularly, despite the impending end of the academic year. We’ve even planned a Trivia Night fundraiser at a pub in Siem Reap later this month to bring in some extra funds.

However, the best news is that we’ve confirmed some really spectacular speakers for the event. The two lead presenters are young, strong and independent Khmer women who run grassroots NGOs addressing women’s health and empowerment. We couldn’t be any happier to have them on board!

Both organizations are providing women essential physical and mental health services that are not yet offered by any other organization in the area. The Women’s Resource Center, located in Siem Reap, provides health education, mental health counseling, legal aid, literacy education, positive parenting and work skills training. In Battambang, Our Strength describes itself as the only organization in the city for holistic women’s health education and counseling.

The Women’s Resource Center passing out brochures to eager students at the high school

Please click on the links below to view their websites. If you feel so moved, please also consider a donation. I can assure you that both of these organizations are worthy of your gift.

The Women’s Resource Center

Our Strength


Immersion Camps

5 09 2010

Since I got lucky enough to have a rare Sunday off, I guess I should write a quick update on what I’m doing with my life these days. I was hired as a coordinator at an English immersion camp company based in Buenos Aires. It’s a relatively small company with no more than 5 full-time employees in the office in a small apartment in the multicultural (read: English-speaking) neighborhood of Palermo. It employs roughly 30 camp counselors from the UK, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland to work at three day camps held in remote locations across central Argentina.

The general idea is to allow Argentine students from 8-18 to experience traveling to an English-speaking country without the expense of a trip abroad. It’s relatively common for students (especially those from wealthier families in Buenos Aires or Bahia Blanca) to study English in an institute before or after school or attend a bilingual school. As anyone that’s studied a foreign language knows, learning in school and talking with native speakers are two very different experiences. In camp, the kids are expected to speak only English with rewards for doing so and punishment for speaking Spanish. The founder of the company is insistent on making the camps as different as possible from Argentina, so everything in Spanish is banned, including basic hygiene products. To complete the illusion of arriving in a new country, the students receive mock passports and have their bags searched for any Spanish “contraband.”

The weekend consists of games from freeze tag and capture the flag to activities like cooking and crafts. The idea is to keep them having as much fun as possible while using English, but not forcing it on them like being in class. There is usually a campfire where they learn songs and make S’mores. The second night they have a special dinner that fits the theme of the camp. There are about a dozen themes, but some are Spy Camp, Robin Hood, Na Fianna, Pirates, Who dun it?, California Gold Rush, Medieval, and Flower Power.

Even the menu is carefully selected to complete the English-only environment. Many kids will eat their first full English breakfast or American pancakes with maple syrup at the camp. They can never believe that anyone eats eggs, bacon, and sausage at breakfast! The waitstaff are even separated from the kids to prevent any Spanish interactions.

As coordinator, I make sure everything at camp runs smoothly. I deal with any disciplinary issues, make sure the other counselors arrive on time, liaison with the teachers, and work on all the logistics that having a camp six hours away entails. Overall, I’ve had a great time with the kids and counselors at the camps. I’ve done four camps so far and will be doing one each week through October.

When everything goes right, camps feel more like vacation than a job. The only real downside is that I have to travel for hours on the bus every weekend and be away from La Plata and the wife on the weekends.

During the week (Monday through Wednesday usually) I teach private English lessons to two Argentine guys here in La Plata. They’re a lot of fun to teach and have a high level of English so there isn’t too much prep work.


Here are some lame-o pictures:

Bits and pieces of news

2 08 2010

Just a couple small things to report.

A few weeks ago, my first group of interns left. For their going away celebration, we all went to see Toy Story 3 in 3D and had tacos at our apartment. The weekend they took off, I went with the new group of interns on their midterm retreat to small town called Chascomus. Unfortunately, we had pretty terrible weather so we spent most of the time in the cabin playing cards and watching movies. It was relaxing, although not particularly exciting.

In fact, “relaxing, although not particularly exciting” is a great way to describe the past few weeks. Everything has been going really well, but there haven’t been any new adventures to speak of. I’ve continued in my quest to find both a volunteer opportunity and a yoga class. Still no luck with either. However, I feel very optimistic that both will work out shortly. Classes at the university start this week too, so I may stop by there and see if there is anything interesting I can sit it in on. Tomorrow evening I am attending a lecture in Buenos Aires entitled, La economía Argentina en un mundo a dos velocidades.

Tim decided to stop taking his Spanish classes, in part because he has found another job on top of private tutoring and substituting at the institute. He interviewed for a counselor position for an English language immersion camp, and got hired in as a coordinator. He left yesterday for a small town in the southern part of the province where he will have four days of training followed by a three day camp. After this week, he will get to pick how many/what camps to attend, which will give him the flexibility he needs to be able to continue with his other jobs and travel with me on weekends. I’m sure he will have a lot to say about it when he gets back on Sunday.

Finally, we have decided to go back to Michigan in December to spend Christmas with our families. Although it will be sad to leave the warm weather when it finally arrives, it will certainly be worth it to see everyone and enjoy the comforts of the US for a couple of weeks.