In October, I spoke with the teachers in my school to find out which two students they recommended that I invite to apply for GAD Camp. GAD (gender and development) camp is a week long retreat for youth ages 12-18 from all over the country to get together to play games, share cultures, learn about health, leadership, respect, responsibility, goal setting, and future planning. For many kids it is the first time they have ever left their province.
For the teachers, the female recommendation was easy, the girl at the top of the class. Albamilia, the 14 year old daughter of a family of Colombian refugees who was finishing up 5th grade. The boy was a bit harder, because there were hardly any boys in the school old enough to go to the camp. Abran was still 11 at the time, but would be turning 12 days before camp, and he was still a top student.
The first week of November, I invited my kids. On Monday I visited Albamilia's family first, explained to them the camp, and could see the excitement in her face even though she said 2 words to me the entire time I visited. Her dad gave her permission, but being refugees, they did not have the Panamanian equivalent of a Social Security Number, or ID. I skipped the blank for now, and told them I would figure it out later. I left an application with her and told her to bring it to me when she finished it, but for sure by Friday when I needed to go turn it in.
Abran's dad was not home when I went to invite him to apply for camp, but his mom excitedly gave him permission and his grin was unforgettable. They fed me dinner, I left them an application, and I went home.
Tuesday afternoon Abran showed up after school to ask me for help figuring out how to fill out the second half of his application. It took an hour but he got all the questions answered and blanks filled.
By 5pm on Thursday, Albamilia still had not turned in her application. I went to her house to pick it up and her sister explained to me she did not do it because she did not understand the questions. I sat down with Albamilia and over two hours painfully tried to pull answers out of her. She was too shy to talk to me. I wondered if she cared about going at all, and told her that if she did not want to do the camp all she had to do was say so, but she stayed put. At 7:30pm I was finally walking back to my house with her completed application.
I turned them in, writing 'refugiado' in the blank for Albamilia's ID #. In early December I got an email saying that of all the kids across the country that had applied, BOTH of my kids had been accepted!!! Both families happily received the news.
In late December I got a call from the Peace Corps Office saying that the insurance company needed that number for Albamilia. I tried to explain that they didn't have one, but, well, have you ever tried arguing with an insurance company? They agreed to accept her refugiado #. However, the Panamanian government required the refugees to turn in their IDs last October so they could be issued new ones, and those had not arrived yet. So with less than 6 hours to go until my 'if you don't give me a number for her, she cannot go' deadline, I was sitting in a closet at the school with one of the teachers, digging through class registration paperwork from the last five years hoping that one of them would have her number on it. It did. Whew.
January came, and I printed out packing slips and permission forms for my kids. I got the signatures for Albamilia and introduced her to Danielle, the Volunteer that would be taking all the Darien kids to camp. While my kids had gotten accepted, I had not been accepted as a facilitator because I could not attend the training. Abran was with his family in another community visiting relatives. Four days before we needed to leave, Abran was not back yet. I called his family and his dad said they would be coming back to Playona on Tuesday. I told him that would not work, since we needed to leave for camp on Monday. He agreed to come back on Sunday. At 5pm on Sunday, I went to their house and sat with the grandparents. One said they would be back any minute, the other said later. A cousin living there told me an hour later they did not think the family was coming back for a week. I called the family again, no answer. I went over to Albamilia's to finalize plans with her, and she told me she had seen Abran at the river and that they had gone upriver to fish, and he had said they would be back the next day. It was 7pm, I had lost one of my kids, and the chiva was scheduled to pick us up in 12 hours. Awesome.
I called Danielle and warned her that I might not be at the bus terminal by 8am as planned, since I had no idea when or if Abran was going to show up. I packed, cleaned my hut, and went to sleep. At 6:45am, I finally got word from Abran's dad. They were in a community between my port and the terminal, along the way. I told him we would pick him up at 7:30. Albamilia and I meanwhile had missed our boat because I was on the phone and waiting for Abran, and it was 7:30 before the next one. Afraid the chiva driver was going to be mad at me since I was so late after specifically scheduling this pick up time with him, I hurried out of the boat at the port. The guys there told me the chiva had not arrived yet. Confused and frustrated, and very, very late, we squeezed into a taxi and headed out. I dashed out of the truck at Abran's house, got the signatures, and then had to put Abran in my lap to fit us all in. As we pulled onto the highway to go town, my chiva drove past. It was 8:15am.
By the time we got 4 PCVs with 8 youth from 5 different communities together and fed breakfast, it was 10am before we got on the bus, but at least it was a nice big one. We had a little trouble at the border police checkpoint explaining what 4 white 20 somethings were doing with 8 panamanian youth, but eventually it figured itself out. We got to the city at 3pm, managed to get the kids seated and fed, and took turns taking them off to the bathrooms. It was a huge relief to send them on the last leg of the journey with Danielle and be liberated of the responsibility!
I got two phone calls from Abran's family that night, checking up to make sure he was doing ok. The next day I got a phone call from Danielle about Albamilia. All of the facilitators were very concerned about her. She wouldn't talk, wouldn't participate, and they didn't know what was wrong. Danielle thought that talking to me on the phone might help, but when she tried to pass on the phone, Albamilia would not take it. I told them to just go slow with her and told them again how shy she was. I hoped she would survive the week.
I was out of phone signal so I heard nothing else for the rest of the week until I picked them up on Friday. The first thing Danielle told me was that Albamilia had become the star of the camp. The last night of camp she even did the traditional shirtless tribal Embera dances with a couple other Embera girls for all of the Latino kids at the camp! She said Abran was great too, younger than everyone else but another favorite, albeit a little mischevious and attention seeking. Albamilia and Abran barely even noticed when I showed up, they were so engrossed in hanging out with their new friends from different parts of the Darien.
We left and found the chiva. An argument between the chiva driver and myself ensued, where he yelled at me for taking a taxi and not waiting for him on Monday and I argued back that he was over an hour late, which he argued was not his fault because he overslept on accident, which I just glared at him for and he conceded it may have been because he was hungover. In the end, he let us get in, and off we went back to real life.
We dropped off Abran on the way to the port with his family- his dad that is either off working or drunk, his mom pregnant with her ninth child, his 16 year old sister pregnant with her 2nd child, his 2 year old nephew, his 13 year old sister pregnant with her first child, his 11 year old brother, his 9, 4, and 2 year old sisters, and the grandparents. I said a prayer as I watched him walk back into that house that he actually learned something at GAD camp and that something he heard that week will actually stick with him in the next few years. (If you wanted to repeat that prayer right now as you read this, I am sure it can't hurt!)
Albamilia and I got stuck at the port for an hour before we found a boat but made it back uneventfully in the end. I repeated my prayer for her as I watched her walk off to her house across the soccer field from me back to her family- her dad being the owner of our cantina, her mom incapable of reading and writing, only speaking Embera, no Spanish, and her 4 younger brothers and sisters. I prayed that as the oldest girl living in my community without a child, at 14 years old, that she would hold onto that title for as long as possible.
Vamos a ver.