This is a guest post by Polly Wiltz, a Camp CHACA 2016 counselor.
Upon arriving to my site a year and a half ago, my first plan of action was to form a volleyball team to help integrate myself into my community. With a little help from my host-dad/counterpart, I had 11 teenagers ready to play for my first day of practice. Over the course of the next six months, I hosted practice three times a week for two hours, covering everything from drills and conditioning, to scrimmage and play-designing. I had grown close to this group of 11 boys, but there were three that especially stood out to me.
Brandon (left middle), a 15-year-old natural born leader, showed up to every practice on time and took it upon himself to ensure his other teammates attended. He put himself into every drill and began to show talent as a volleyball player. His enthusiasm and dedication inspired his teammates to give the same amount of effort. Rain, or shine, Brandon was always ready to play. During the winter, when the rain often pushed the boys to stay home, Brandon was with me at the rec center, working on his blocking and setting. I nominated him to participate in Camp CHACA because he was already qualified to be a role-model.
Yulman (right), 16 years-old and my host cousin, struck me as teenager looking for his opportunity to shine. He was much more soft-spoken than the others. He also participated with fervor, but as a follower and less as a leader. I noticed that he had opinions but refused to speak up in team discussions. He struggled to maintain eye contact with me whenever ever I spoke to him and often missed out on games where we traveled to other municipalities due to responsibilities that required him to stay home. I nominated him to participate in Camp CHACA because I saw his potential to blossom into a strong leader, given the correct tools and environment.
Gilbert (left), a 14-year-old spitfire was perhaps my most passionate player on the team. He was fearless, diving onto the ground after every spike. He had a natural talent for volleyball, and his vertical was crazy high for such a short athlete. He put his heart and soul into the game when he played, with his temper at times getting the better of him in losing situations. He was also my problem child. He often had to miss practice due to his bad habit of skipping school or mouthing off to his professors. I had learned from my host mother that Gilbert’s living situation was much more complicated than the other boys on my team. He was an orphan, often living with those generous enough to open their homes, but it was clear he wasn’t receiving much more than a place to sleep at night. I nominated him to participate in Camp CHACA because he was walking a fine line between making something of himself or succumbing to a future with little promise, as is the norm for vulnerable children in Nicaragua.
To my surprise, all three of my boys were invited to participate at CHACA. I was ecstatic because I was also participating as a camp counselor and would be able to share in their experience. The whole week leading up to camp, these three boys passed by my house every night with a bajillion questions about what was to be expected, what they needed to bring, or if I was certain there wasn’t going to be any females in attendance. On the bus trip up to Estelí I could see the anticipation and nerves in their faces. Upon arrival, the three of them, who had all been friends since pre-school, were split into different small groups. They looked at me as if I were directly responsible for their separation and while I reassured them that everything was going to be fine, they seemed unconvinced.
I cannot emphasize how proud of them I was during our week in Tisey. Repeatedly, other counselors would approach me with nothing but praise for their hard work and enthusiasm. Brandon, while at times a little mischievous, had participated in every activity and session with 100% effort. Yulman, shy at first, had found his voice in his small group and dominated the condom demonstration with a fearless authority that encouraged other boys to follow in suit. Gilbert, was a team favorite. Everyone was charmed by his endless source of energy and attitude. He was respectful and receptive to all the camp counselors and surprised us by often leading discussions and keeping the others focused in small group work. Anytime any of the three of them started to drift out of line, all I had to do was raise an eyebrow at them and their heads would whip right back into the conversation at hand.
The most touching thing during camp, for me at least, was how much excitement they had for every session and activity. During every break, they would interrogate me on what was up next on the schedule and bombard me with all the things they had learned during the previous presentation. When they individually hugged me, telling me they never wanted this week to end, I knew CHACA had made an impact upon them.
I noticed a change in these boys upon our return to San Jose de los Remates. They wanted to recreate a CHACA-like experience for the rest of the boys on the team. We did just that. We formed a youth group, drew up invitations, selected a place to meet and drafted a curriculum for a period of six weeks. We recruited 12 boys to participate, meeting every Thursday night at our rec-center. Of the six sessions, we created for our meetings, Brandon, Yulman, and Gilbert each helped co- facilitate one based on the charla they enjoyed the most. Brandon co-led Communication, Yulman co-led Self-Esteem, and Gilbert co-led Sex, Gender and Sexuality. I facilitated the remaining three sessions which covered Violence in Intimate Relationships, Condom Use, and Paternity, which my host dad/counterpart helped teach. I could write seven blog posts on how proud I was of my CHACAlates. They were fearless in their presentations, they refused to be heckled by their peers, they spoke confidently when sharing their opinions on why machismo is a negative influence on gender development, they brought the same energy and enthusiasm from CHACA to our meetings and they ensured 100% attendance for every meeting.
As I walk through town, at least once a week I hear someone cry out “TEAM WHITE” which was my small group chant during camp. Whenever I turn to see who it was yelling for my attention, I am met by a smile and a wave not just from the CHACAlates, but also members of our youth group. When I walk into class to teach, there is at least one boy who shouts “OYE CHACA,” in which a boy from another classroom responds “VIVE CHACA.” They are the first to volunteer whenever I lead a participative activity and the last to leave the room because they launch at me hundreds of questions asking if there will be another CHACA activity soon. Projects like CHACA are change agents for young teenagers like Yulman, Brandon, and Hilbert that provide opportunities, skill-building and memories that do not just end when camp does. It’s an experience that they continue to carry with them every day. I have felt so fortunate to watch these boys transform from awkward and shy members of my volleyball team, into confident, passionate and well-spoken young men.
Peace Corps Nicaragua Health 65
Camp CHACA 2016 Counselor