By Annalisa Blackham, LCSW
After serving as a student and mentor in five Youthlinc Service Years, and reaching a pivotal change in both my professional and personal lives, I embarked on a journey of service and humanitarian work much different than I ever had before. I joined the Peace Corps, serving in the Philippines post from 2017-2019 as a Children, Youth, and Families (CYF) volunteer. The old saying of the Peace Corps is that it’s “The toughest job you’ll ever love!” or in my local language – “Ang pinakamahirap na trabaho na iyong pakamamahalin!” And that 27 months of my life was indeed just that.
I find myself grateful for several experiences I had prior to serving – growing up in a diverse place such as Las Vegas, engaging in local service much of my younger years, pursuing an education and career in the field of social work, and participating in several different Youthlinc Service Years. In some ways, these things had somewhat prepared me to continue my lifetime humanitarianism with service in the Peace Corps. However, I think something that always stuck out in my mind throughout my Peace Corps journey was a theme in both my social work education/career and throughout my Youthlinc services trips – the idea of identifying what is it an individual/group/community wants or needs, and how we can support and empower them in that process.
Just as the saying alludes to, Peace Corps can be tough. There are days a volunteer feels down on themselves for various reasons, or days they question if they are really offering anything beneficial and sustainable to their community. No one volunteer is immune to this, and sometimes these tough days are only exacerbated by expectations that a volunteer places upon themselves that their family and friends back home need to see some grand project for a volunteer’s service to seem meaningful. Yet is that really true humanitarianism when we think about it? Before being placed at my permanent site, my program manager, a Filipino Peace Corps staff, had a very open conversation with me. He told me that the site he wanted to assign me to had never had a volunteer before, that a lot of foundational work would need to be done, and that likely I would not see the positive “big” impacts of my work, but rather a volunteer several years later would see those impacts and benefits. As he wrapped up, he asked if I would be okay with that – not needing flashy projects to have a meaningful service experience. I emphatically agreed to be placed in the site he felt I was right for.
I moved to the site after the 2.5 month training with his words and the theme/mindset of finding out what my work site wanted and empowering them in that process. What happened was beautiful despite the tough days. I went in with no agenda, no plan, no big project ideas. I went in and asked what they wanted, and how I could use my skill set to help them achieve those hopes. Instead of being so focused on needing to do something big, I spent time really getting to know my coworkers and the youth I worked with in the residential rehabilitation center. I spent time doing small gestures or empowering small ideas that positively impacted thoughts and ideas of my coworkers and the youth. I gave ideas for different things, and let the people I worked with decide if those ideas were feasible and if they wanted to try them. And if they did, I happily was a role model if needed. I felt as much a part of my work family as any of the Filipinos there. I was called “kapatid” (sibling) by the director of the center, and called “mama” by the youth who referred to all female staff as “mama” and all male staff as “’tay” (slang for father). I felt a part of my community in such a deep way, that saying goodbye and returning to the US still has me feeling out of place even six months later. In fact, I’m already planning a trip back to the Philippines hopefully in the near future. As much as coming home and seeing my family and friends here has been nice, I miss my other home in the Philippines. I still regularly speak with my host family, coworkers, several of the youth, and the volunteer who took my site when I left (up until this week due to evacuation of the volunteers due to health concerns with the recent coronavirus).
I didn’t leave service having completed any major projects a person would think of when they hear someone has been a Peace Corps volunteer. Yet my tough days were never about second guessing the humanitarian work I did. There were so many small success stories I was fortunate to experience with my work site and community, and that Filipino Peace Corps staff and fellow volunteers enjoyed hearing. The relationships I cultivated and the work I did engage in left a meaningful mark for me and for the amazing family I developed there. That’s what humanitarianism is to me – something that meaningfully impacts us and empowers those we work with, all while bringing us together no matter how similar or different we may be. “Namimis ko ang lahat ng aking pamilya sa Pilipinas” – I miss all of my family in the Philippines – and I anticipate the day I visit my other home again.