Description of Peace Corps Service
After a competitive application process stressing technical skills, motivation, adaptability, and cross-cultural understanding, Peace Corps invited Ms. Kelsi Loos to serve as a Tourism and English Advising volunteer in the Central American nation of Panama.
Ms. Loos began an intensive 10-week pre-service training on April 21, 2009 in Santa Clara, a small community outside of Arraijan, around an hour west of Panama City. The program consisted of language training, technical training, and cross-sector training. Part of technical training consisted of Ms. Loos conducting a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis with the community to understand and practice community-based development, preparing lesson plans, and teaching in El Copé, Coclé.
Training program included:
· 110 hours of formal instruction in Spanish
· 30 hours of country specific studies (the history, economics and cultural norms of Panama)
· 135 hours of technical training (lesson planning, classroom management, the SIOP teaching model, Peace Corps programs and methodology and community based development best practices)
· 55 hours of field-based exercises (PCV visit, site visit, technical week, culture week)
· 15 hours of medical training
· 190 hours of various interviews
On July 1, 2009, Ms. Loos completed training and was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was assigned to Cambutal, a Latino community of about 1,000 located two hours south (by bus) of the provincial capital Las Tablas, Los Santos. Cambutal has an emerging tourism economy centered on surfing however, most community members earn a living cattle ranching, fishing, other agricultural activities, or working in construction. There is an elementary school present but for higher education, the children must leave the community, often heading for the district capital of Tonosí or Las Tablas.
The primary project assigned to Ms. Loos was to advise and consult the Committee for the Sustainable Development of Cambutal, the organization which requested a volunteer. Certain members of this group splintered off to form Tortuagro (Group for the Conservation of Marine Turtles and the Development of Tourism and the Agricultural Sector of Cambutal). Ms. Loos's main task then became organizing this new group through partnerships with Conservation International and a local NGO, NIDA (Niños de Azuero/ Children of the Azuero). Working together with these organizations and Ms. Loos, the group was able to begin the process of securing legal NGO status and accomplish diverse projects such as building a turtle egg hatchery, beach patrol, community outreach activities, and exchanges with other marine turtle conservation groups as near as Isla Cañas and as far as Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Ms. Loos also investigated various local sustainable revenue sources for the group, including the development of a computer center in the Center for Communication and Environmental Education (Tortuagro's de-facto office) and a recycling project. Side ventures included selling mahogany and the Popsicles locally known as duros. She also offered a 36 hour English course to group members and the community at large with a focus on communicating with tourists and sensitivity to cultural differences.
Ms. Loos also worked with the Agrotourism cooperative, Rebirth of Cambutal. There was a rivalry between this group and Tortuagro so Ms. Loos gained valuable experience working neutrally and managing local political and personal disputes. With the Panamanian counterpart she invited to Peace Corps' project management and leadership workshop, she offered a stream-lined version of the same training to the cooperative. She also invited fellow volunteers to give an agro-business/ agro-tourism workshop to the group and the community at large. While no members of the cooperative actually attended, the event was still a success because of the enthusiasm of the unaffiliated community members who did participate.
Finally, Ms. Loos advised an ATP [Tourism Authority of Panama] employee based in Cambutal in various promotional materials for the community including a website and brochure.
During Ms. Loos' first year of service, she taught English classes Thursdays and Fridays in the elementary school. The school in this time had a part time English teacher who worked in another school the days Ms. Loos taught. The school had about 80 students and ranged from kindergarten to sixth grade. There were three instructors managing two grades per classroom and an English teacher, a special education teacher, and a kindergarten teacher. During Ms. Loos' second year of service, the school hired a fluent, full-time English teacher and they began to informally share ideas and methodology as well as practice English together.
Most of Ms. Loos' English teaching was done outside of the classroom. She informally tutored many community members, and had about four regular students. She offered a general English night class at the beginning of her service and began the above-mentioned tourism focused course towards the end of it.
Ms. Loos also participated in a week-long workshop on the SIOP model of teaching in Changuinola, Bocas del Toro.
Partnering with Tortuagro and with the guidance of her Associate Peace Corps Director, Ms. Loos secured a donation of fifteen computers and a printer for the Center of Communication and Environmental Education. She then planned a 62 hour computer course with a local university student who taught the community how to properly use and maintain the equipment. Ms. Loos also initiated contact between Tortuagro and INFOPLAZAS, an agency for the advancement of technological services who will help to provide internet once the group has official NGO status.
Ms. Loos began a recycling program with educational talks led by NIDA in the school. They also began a community involvement campaign including meetings, pamphleteering, and trash clean up days. They then solicited donations for bins and paint from local hotels and began collecting recycling to sell in Las Tablas. This project was in a constant state of renovation Ms. Loos responded to unforeseen problems and opportunities. The project was left under the management of Tortuagro in partnership with the Representative of Cambutal. She led recycling awareness activities in the communities of Pedasí and Valleriquito as well as advised fellow volunteers in Los Santos (and one in the province of Veraguas) interested in recycling projects.
Tonosí Conservation and EcoTourism Fair
The neighboring volunteer in Isla Cañas and Ms. Loos planned a Conservation Fair in their district capital of Tonosí with the cooperation of the Mayor and agencies including ARAP (Aquatic Resource Conservation), Conservation International, NIDA, MIDES (Ministry of Social Development), and the Azuero Earth Project. They invited community groups from the district of Tonosí to share and celebrate their work with others and learn from speeches by the participating organizations. For many groups, including Tortuagro, this was their first chance to present themselves in public and interact face to face with Panamanian agencies.
Throughout service, Ms. Loos was involved with the youth of Cambutal. Her first English class was designed for secondary school students. She and visiting volunteers also led games for children during an ex-patriot's New Year's party as a healthy alternative to the alcohol-based activities of the adults. The youth were involved in the recycling project and turtle conservation activities through talks in the schools, community cleaning days, and beach patrol.
Ms. Loos supported an ex-patriot's adaptation of the Nutcracker as a way to showcase the youth's talent and raise funds for a family in need.
In partnership with the ATP, she helped develop a Youth Night including songs, dance, and trivia as a way to get the youth interested in learning and to provide a safe social activity for them.
Peace Corps Leadership
Ms. Loos participated in the training of the last group of Tourism and English Advising volunteers. In addition, she facilitated during the four day project management and leadership workshop of group 65. She hosted a total of four volunteers on their site-visit, offering them their first glimpse of Peace Corps work in practice. In addition, she was the secretary of the Gender and Development committee.
Ms. Loos has achieved an medium advanced competency level in Spanish during her service and effectively used Spanish to communicate while working in her community, with Panamanian government and non-government agency counterparts, and in daily life.
Ms. Loos completed her Peace Corps service in Panama on June 17, 2011.