Back to Fourth Grade

This week, I had the pleasure of returning to my alma mater, Fredericksburg Academy, to meet with the third and fourth grade students. While serving in the Philippines, I will be participating in the Coverdell World Wise Schools program. This program was established in order to help meet the third goal of the Peace Corps:

To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Over the next school year, I’ll be keeping in contact with this group of young people and sending them updates about my service along the way.

 

During this first meeting, I talked with the students about the Peace Corps and generally what I’ll be doing. They asked me questions about the Philippines, the culture, and the animals that live there.

Relating to my position as a coastal resource management volunteer, I was especially excited to find out that, as part of the students’ science curriculum, they spend 6 weeks on marine biology and do projects on different marine animals. We decided for next year, the class will focus on animals found in the Philippines! I told them I’d do my best to get some cool underwater animal pictures and videos.

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That’s me top-left!

Something that makes this correspondence particularly special is that my main point of contact, Mr. Evans, was my fourth grade teacher in 2000-2001! Back then, I was still deciding if I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, a fashion designer, or a marine biologist. I think younger me would be pretty-OK with how things have turned out so far.

 

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31 Days Until Staging – Packing

I am many things, but I am most certainly not organized. And, that’s putting it lightly. Ask anyone who’s had the misfortune pleasure of living with me.  Actually, don’t. I’m not proud. However, somehow, maybe by dumb luck, I have survived 24 years without any semblance of organizational skills. I’m bringing this up because now, just 31 days prior to Peace Corps staging, I have begun to pack. (I have already shared my favorite advice on packing in a previous post.)

giphy

Packing for Peace Corps service is difficult for a host of reasons. First, there’s the packing limits. I am allowed 1 carry-on, 1 personal item, and 2 checked bags not exceeding 100 lbs (or 107 inches) total. Theoretically, this should be plenty of room for everything I need. However, it really puts things into perspective. These 4 bags will hold basically all of my possessions for 27 months.

Next, there’s the uncertainty. Although I know the overall climate (a billion degrees, brutally sunny, and sopping wet), a lot is up in the air. I may be placed in an office setting where professional dress is mandatory or I maybe outside/on the water practically everyday. Unfortunately, if I don’t pack well, although I’m a fairly average sized American, I think I’m somewhere around an XXL Filipino. So, getting clothing there might not be a great option.

And it’s not just about clothing. I certainly need my snorkel gear, but what about camping? Should I bring a tent and a sleeping bag? Or a camping hammock with a bug net and a rain fly? How about reference books? Jewelry? Then, how many dry bags are too many dry bags? Should I bring my cellphone? How about a waterproof watch? Will my 3-year-old laptop last my whole 27 month service? Shampoo? Towels? Exercise gear? There is no end.

Packing for this amount of time isn’t just about what I bring, but also what I leave behind. Since going away to college, I have always been under two hours away from my parents, with the ability to come back and forth every few months. This comfort has always lessened the stresses of packing and repacking. Over the past 7 years, ~6 dorm rooms, and 3 houses, I have accumulated a lot of stuff. Most of this stuff fits in the category of, “someday this might come in handy”. Now, it seems most of these things will have to be re-categorized to “donation” or “garbage”.hydro_flask_40oz_wide_mouth_vacuum_insulated_stainless_steel_water_bottle_-_graphite-min

Fortunately, preparing for Peace Corps service is likely much easier than it used to be. Not only have I been provided a PC Philippines specific packing list, I have been put in contact with a large number of current Philippines volunteers, ready give advice and to answer any question I might come up with. (FYI: Apparently Hydroflasks are the best things that have happened to water containment.)

FAQ (Two Months Until Staging)

This Sunday marks just two months until staging for my Peace Corps service in the Philippines. Staging is what PC calls the initial orientation here in the US, before flying out to the Philippines. This event only lasts a few days, and PC staff uses the time to issue passports, go over the rules and schedule, and allow us to meet fellow volunteers. After that, all 80-90 of us are put on one plane and sent to the other side of the world.

There’s a lot I still don’t know about what I’m getting myself into, but here’s some quick answers to some of the questions I’ve been getting.

Do you know what you’ll be doing?

Yes and no. I am going to be a Coastal Resource Management Volunteer. According to the welcome book: “Coastal Resource Management (CRM) Volunteers assist coastal communities’ efforts to implement restoration and protection of marine habitats and to enhance food security through participative community action and environmental education. They work with local government units to implement integrated CRM plans, assist communities with environmental education and training, and establish the bases for legal protection of fish stocks and marine habitats. Although environmental education is a core function of the CRM sector, it is very much people-centered and participatory in its approach to conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine resources.” However, I won’t know my actual role until I get through most of training. aetasmap

How long is your service?

My entire service is 27 months. This is 3 months of training and then 2 years of service. Towards the end, there may be the option to extend my service for a third year.

Do you know where you’ll be going?

I know that my pre-service training will most likely take place in Bataan (in red on the map). After that, I don’t know where I’ll be. And, I won’t find out until several months into training. Being a CRM volunteer, I’ll likely be somewhere rural and coastal.

What are they paying you?

I am technically a Peace Corps Volunteer, so this definitely isn’t about the money. But, I won’t be funding myself. I will be given a monthly stipend meant to reflect the typical earnings of someone in my community, well below what I would be earning in the states, but more than enough to get by. Upon returning to the US, PC does give returning volunteers a “readjustment allowance” to help us… you know… readjust.

Do you have to learn a new language?

Language training is an important part of PC service. Although there are many places in the Philippines where I could get by with English alone, this is not encouraged as the point is to integrate with the local culture. The Philippines has 2 official languages, English and Filipino (a standardized version of Tagolog), as well as 19 regional languages. All volunteers will be taught Tagolog and are expected to be at an intermediate fluency by the end of our 3 month training. However, depending on where I serve, I may need to learn an additional language specific to my region. My goal is to have 50-100 Tagolog words down with semi-fluency in greetings before I leave.

Can I come visit?

Of course! Although, not until I’ve completed training and the first three months of service, and extended stays are not encouraged. But, it helps the Peace Corps with it’s second and third goals: “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”. Still, no surprise visits.

Any other questions? Feel free to ask away in the comments section!

 

Medical Clearance (part III)

Today I received the following message on my PC medical portal!

(See posts Medical Clearance part I, part II to read more about the process.)

Dear Ms. Simpson,
You have received your final medical and dental clearance for Peace Corps service.
Please be aware of the following requirements:
 You are required to bring a three (3) month supply of all your current medications to country with you. The Peace Corps will use generic equivalents whenever possible.
 The Peace Corps does not provide medications that are elective or cosmetic (such as for hair loss or facial wrinkles). The Peace Corps does not provide homeopathic or naturopathic (herbal remedies) or vitamin treatments other than multivitamins.
 Please contact the Office of Medical Services if you are considering an IUD or Implanon for birth control. These products require specific follow-up documentation and their use may affect country placement. The Peace Corps is also unable to support or provide the NuvaRing contraceptive or contraceptive patches, but other alternatives will be offered.
 If you wear glasses, bring 2 pairs with your current prescription with you. The Peace Corps does not provide or support the use of contact lens, due to limited access to cleaning supplies and environmental concerns.
 If you have a medication allergy, or a medical condition that requires a Med-alert or similar type bracelet, you must wear it at all times while in Peace Corps.
 If you have an EpiPen® kit, you are required to have it with you at all times during your service.
 If you have ever had a mammogram or ultrasound of your breasts, please bring a digital copy of the images to your country of assignment.
 Please be advised that during your Peace Corps service we will provide the following routine dental exam schedule: an exam and cleaning at mid-service and COS.

Your medical and dental clearance is based on the information you have provided to us regarding your past medical and dental history and your current medical and dental status. You must notify us immediately if there are or have been any changes in your medical or dental condition. This includes any illness or injury, any treatment by or advice from a health care provider or any updated laboratory or radiology tests. You must also notify us immediately if you change, stop or start any prescription or non-prescription medication.

If you provide misleading, inaccurate or incomplete information, you may be disqualified for or terminated from Peace Corps service at any time.

Regards,
*****, RN

Medical Clearance (part II)

On February 2nd, just 4 days after I thought I had finished medical clearance (see part I), I got an email that I had a request for supporting medical documents. They were as follows:

  • Diagnostic testing results of back or spine condition- (resubmission  required)
  • Copy of childhood vaccines- (resubmission  required)
  • Personal statement on back pain
  • Personal statement on allergies
  • Proof of polio vaccine- PC requires a booster after the age of 18

The personal statements were fairly simple. I was given specific questions about my allergies and back pain, including my treatment, symptoms, etc. No problem.

I was confused by the request for childhood vaccines– I had submitted the records from my undergraduate. I sent my assigned PC nurse (Tina- she’s great) a message through the medical portal. She said they needed a more detailed record. So, I contacted my high school. Miraculously, they still had all of my vaccination records on file.

The original document I submitted relating to my back condition wasn’t what the PC wanted. I had submitted a form from my doctor basically saying, “yep- she can serve”. But, they want actual diagnostic reports. So, I had to contact the original doctor I saw for the condition, the one who actually ordered an MRI and diagnosed me. They sent me my medical forms no problem. Another task down.

The polio vaccine was a little trickier. I tried contacted my general practitioner. (She and her office had been awesome helping with medical clearance so far.) But, they said they didn’t do polio boosters for adults.  Then, I tried a veteran’s affairs clinic. While they do see PC volunteers, the one I contacted didn’t do polio vaccines. So, as a final resort I contacted passport health. This is where I incurred my first PC medical cost. They charged $145 dollars for the appointment fee and the vaccination. Rough. But, it was done.

Finally, my pre-service nurse, asked if it was possible to obtain medical records of the two foot surgeries I reported. I said probably. So, new task! Getting the records from the first surgery was tricky. They had to dig up the original paper file, filed under the wrong name. But, they got it to me pretty painlessly. Getting the other set of records was a pain. And, they charged me $0.39 per page and then sent me 50 pages of mostly garbage. But, again, another task down.

Now, I’m just hanging in, fingers crossed, hoping to receive final medical clearance soon!

 

Medical Clearance (part I)

 

After accepting my invite, I was feeling antsy about getting started with the medical clearance process. I had heard it can be horrible. I’ve heard of people feeling blindsided by not being granted clearance. I’m fairly healthy– but I was worried. I have a history of weird allergies and a recent back injury. And, of course there was always the chance that while getting cleared, a doctor would find something I didn’t know about.

However, medical tasks don’t arrive until no more than 200 days prior to staging. So, I waited. Then, on December 14th (precisely 200 days before staging), my tasks appeared. They were as follows (with some notes):

  • Prescription eye glass form – (only for people w/ reported vision issues) so that PC can replace lost/broken glasses in service
  • Pap smear cytology report- obviously, females only
  • HHF positive response form- just confirming what was filled out in the health history form submitted with the application
  • Reported medication verification- confirmed the reported medications, needed to be signed by a physician
  • Physical examination form- the was the largest task
  • Physical exam lab work- basic blood work
  • Copy of vaccination records – I submitted the records from my college
  • Medical care compliance form – sign and send
  • Varicella proof of immunity form – I got a titer
  • MMR proof of immunity form – Vaccination records
  • Dental exam forms – pretty easy, I had my dentist fill it out from my last check up, no new appt needed
  • Dental x-rays – obtained print outs from my dentist, scanned, and submitted
  • TDAP proof of immunity form – Vaccination records
  • G6PD lab test – included in my physical blood work
  • Spine condition medical records – scheduled a new apt with the back doctor I had been seeing

Completing the above tasks was not a trivial matter. But, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined. Also, having good health insurance, I spent no additional money on the above steps. Everything was covered, except the physical, but my doctor’s office submitted the Peace Corps cost share forms and received payment from them directly. I had submitted all forms by January 21st, several weeks before my deadline.

Quick Packing Advice

Last night, I participated in a pre-service conference call organized by my country’s desk officer. (The country desk officer is a PC employee who is in charge of coordinating all issues between PC countries of service and the PC headquarters in DC, among other responsibilities.) A variety of topics were discussed, mostly focusing on setting appropriate expectations. There was one piece of advice I really liked that I thought I’d share:

“When you’re preparing for departure, don’t spend too much time packing. Spend time with you friends and family, because, six months in, everything you packed will be moldy, and you’ll be trying to figure out how to Skype home.”

I liked that. It’s a good reminder that, although I’m extremely excited to get started on my journey, the most important thing I can do pre-departure is spend time with the people I’ll be leaving behind during my 27 months of service.