If you’d brought a fortune teller to my orientation training at the Sheraton in 2010, I wouldn’t have believed the prophesied future. An unlikely bunch of 15, from the USA, Nigeria, Australia, Canada, and England. I had no idea that 18months later, three of us would remain, and that we would be in touch, not just with each other, but with new volunteers and those in the application process.
Our group were sent to the unpronounceable ‘Samtskhe Javakheti’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samtskhe-Javakheti), a region in the south, with the exception of 2 people placed in Tbilisi, and one who requested Kutaisi. Samtskhe-Javakheti is one of the least affluent regions, and in my village, old cables and pipes were being replaced (and new oil and gas pipelines being laid), meaning often no electricity, and drawing water from the well. This made communication with TLG logistically challenging, since no electricity meant no charged phone or laptop (thus no internet), but I wouldn’t have changed anything. After school, I was followed home by children, eager to practice English, and I must have looked like the Pied Piper or Mother Hen, with a long train of kids behind me. I loved walking the 2 minutes home from school via the orchard, past chickens and cows. Welcomed home by Bebia (Grandma), whose job it seemed, was to feed me up and keep my shoes shiny no matter how much I tried to lessen her workload. My daily chores included chopping wood for the fire and caring for 15,000 cabbages, and sometimes kids and teachers missed school to help with cabbaging, the bread and butter of many families. In the evenings we sat huddled around the wood burner and candles, host mum busy washing, helping the littlest with homework, Bebia sewing in darkness, and siblings playing ‘panduri’ or singing Gypsy Kings songs. After 17 years as a medic, relentless exams and shift work, the simplicity of village life was a Godsend, as were the addition of weekends, public holidays, a 9am-2pm day, and being sent home early in case I might get tired!
Eighteen months on, and I plan to live in Georgia permanently, albeit in Tbilisi, and my host sister starts University here in September. I’ve had some amazing experiences, and this has increased my confidence, even though I was formerly a primary school teacher (environmental science and outdoor studies), working mainly with young people who were disabled or disadvantaged. I’ve taught in public schools in the village and city, as well as Mandatores and Police Officers. I’ve even had the opportunity to teach Business English to Ministers! Outside of TLG I’ve taught Geography in a private school, and had private students including Directors of large Georgian companies and old ladies selling from stalls. I’ve always found TLG very supportive, especially if you are willing to compromise, and leaving TLG was a tough decision, though I still feel a part of the TLG family.
So you may be wondering why an ex-TLGer is writing for TLG? One reason, is that the end of term is a time for reflection, and I have TLG friends at the end of contracts, now leaving Georgia. Leaving is a huge shock for those returning home after a stint here, and I wonder whether people realise how true the cliché ‘Making a Difference’ is? From my experience, I only realised the impact once I’d left for vacation, and suddenly found myself missing things that I’d previously hated. So, for those of you worrying about ‘what next’ or transitioning back into your other life, I’d like to share my story with you, and to remind you that there is life after TLG.
My story begins in March 2011, when I received an invitation from TLG to join the Minister for Education and Science for breakfast at the Marriott Hotel. As per my usual reaction, I thought I was in trouble, so I was very nervous (and almost refused), but figured if they were going to fire me, the Minister would have better things to do than share breakfast! If I told friends back ‘home’ that I had breakfast with the Minister, received a Christmas gift or opera invitation from the Prime Minister, or that the government paid for flights, or warned me to expect media on arrival at the airport, they would probably think me delusional, but I learnt early on that ‘anything is possible’, and to ‘expect the unexpected’.
Having accepted the invitation, I found the Minister to be extremely personable, keen to listen, and once I’d relaxed a bit, we talked about the future of worldwide education. At both schools, I’d become aware of a divide between the Armenian/Georgian sector in one school, and Russian/Georgian sector at the other, and was surprised that children rarely mixed. We discussed the Minister’s hope for parents to be more involved in education, and with that, a seed that was already rattling around in my brain, turned into a concrete plan. My school was rundown (though its now been totally revamped by the Ministry and looks fabulous), and since I would be in Georgia over summer, I had an idea for a summer school where we could clean and brighten up classrooms with donations of paints and furniture. This would serve to build self esteem, leadership, team work, and a sense of ownership, allowing parents and teachers to become part of the school community, and in my capacity as English teacher, to help students who were struggling in the formal classroom, to be immersed in English as we worked, and I offered free lessons to parents, teachers and students. At first, teachers told me no one would come, but soon enough we had a group of regulars, and it was without doubt, my best vacation ever.
I got to know the children very well, especially those who were difficult or disruptive in class or had no English. Somehow, the summer school developed into a club, led by 12 year olds, and by September we had over 40 people aged 8-25 (plus teachers and parents) signed up from schools and universities across Tbilisi. The kids came up with a name, wrote a list of activities, and designed a logo which was transformed by another TLGer who had experience in Graphic Design. In March 2012 year we officially registered as an NGO.
We’ve been incredibly lucky, receiving books from America (http://www.darienbookaid.org/), funding from the UK, and support from three prestigious Patrons including BBC Presenter Paul Rose (http://paulrose.org/), European Space Agency Medic Alex Kumar (currently in Antarctica researching space missions to Mars) (http://www.alexanderkumar.com/), and the first and youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean Sarah Outen MBE (http://www.sarahouten.com/). In November, we visited the Royal Geographical Society in London, and it was overwhelming to talk to Michael Palin (best known for Monty Python, and his travel documentaries: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Palin) about TLG and Georgia, and having our project praised to an audience of about 400 people. We are now planning scientific research and archaeology expeditions for the children and 8 leaders (3 of whom are from my original TLG group), and are preparing for a member of the British Royal Family to visit Tbilisi and present the children with their International Awards (known as the Duke of Edinburgh Award in Britain: http://www.intaward.org/). In December 2011, we received a letter from Her Majesty the Queen, and in March received our first Trainers from the UK. Reflecting over the past 18months and life with TLG, I’m amazed by the opportunities I’ve had, and I certainly didn’t expect to end up working full time on a project, led and inspired by 12 year olds from school.
The children and I are now writing a workbook to be published in September, and many will return as Assistant Leaders, mentoring disadvantaged young people including orphans and ex street children, and have been volunteering at Tbilisi Zoo. In January we will launch an international, free, web based version of the course, and through project, other opportunities have arisen, (which would not have been possible without TLG ‘s support for my earlier school projects). A film crew from America will follow us over one year for a documentary, and twice a day I attend Sun Yoga Tbilisi (http://www.sunyogatbilisi.com/) as part of preparation to row across the Pacific Ocean in 2013 with a British team (http://coxlessrowers.com/). As part of the row I’ll be visiting and talking via satellite phone to schools, and linking them with children in Georgia through my role with Education through Expeditions (ETE): http://www.etelive.org/content/contentete.numo?id=171. We hope to set 5 world records, and will be followed by BBC Radio, but my official role is to provide environmental education to young people, and to collect scientific data for my PhD in Sweden. As with any expedition, nothing is certain, and whilst the row itself has sponsorship interest, I have to fund my flights to the UK to train with my coaches and team. Training is always hard, but doubly so, when you are based in different countries and time zones! Thankfully I have a lot of support, especially from host family, though I’m not sure they’ll be able to call me via satellite phone, and convincing Bebia that I don’t need jars of pickles, and knitted socks will be difficult!
I asked the young people what the row might bring to them. They are creative, energetic, and determined individuals, and the row is a testimony to the changes they brought about in me. Their answer is simple: bring the outside world in, (travel is difficult and expensive), and show Georgia in the best light possible as a country we love and want to protect (Georgia is one of 34 biodiversity hotspots worldwide, along with the Amazon jungle! http://www.conservation.org/where/priority_areas/hotspots/Pages/hotspots_main.aspx). I’m constantly in awe of them and amazed at how much they have grown in 12 months. During project, we were extremely fortunate to have support from Georgian Film Producer Nikoloz Khomasuridze (currently producing the much anticipated movie ‘Jeans Generation’ which I’m excited to be involved with: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2180429/). Nikoloz joined project on Saturdays, taught film making and introduced them to crews from Georgia and LA. Seeing them pitch to leading film makers, writing scripts, budget forecasting, applying for sponsorship for their movie ‘Oni’, and writing music compositions has been overwhelming, and I’m proud of them as young Professionals, not just for Georgia, but because I believe teenagers often get a rough deal. They were unruly in class, hard to contain, and spoke little English. Now they are quiet and focused on the film set, pitching fluently in Russian, Georgian, and English, to the point where some of them have been offered roles on films, working with some amazing actors.
I know my story is unbelievable, but I truly feel that every TLG volunteer has ‘made a difference’ to at least one child. It might be a smile to a child who was previously ignored, or loaning your pen so a child can participate. Whatever the action, no matter how small, never underestimate it. It could just be the catalyst that brings about a series of changes, just as meeting the Minister started me on an unexpected journey. Learning to live without electricity, showers, or clean clothes taught me a lot about my ability to do without material things, and being accepted unconditionally by my host family and school children empowered me. If I do get the opportunity to row that very big ocean next year, I know the things that keep me going will be my experiences in Georgia, children I met, host family willing me on and loving me no matter what. I know that I can be resourceful and make do with what I have.
In short, there is life after TLG, you will take away unique experiences,and get out what you are prepared to put in. TLG are supportive, and there is a large community of volunteers willing to share and give advice. My one tip to newcomers would be to come with an open mind, wanderlust and curiosity for all things. Be willing and brave, and see where your journey takes you. It might just be very different from the one you had planned!