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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Think About Water

Interview with Leah McFail

Hi. This is David Donaldson, former Peace Corps Volunteer in Slovakia and a member of the World Wise Schools staff at Peace Corps headquarters. Today we have Leah McFail with us to talk about her experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon and as a program specialist at the Girl Scouts.

David
Welcome, Leah.
Leah
Thanks, David. It's a pleasure to be here talking with you today and sharing my experiences.
David
The first question we have for you is, what was your assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer?
Leah
I was actually a community health volunteer in southeastern Gabon, which is a French-speaking country on the west coast of equatorial Africa. So like all other Peace Corps Volunteers, I underwent extensive cultural and language training for about three months while living with a host family. But my position actually specialized in health concerns prevalent to the region. So whenever I moved to my post in the town of Ngoni, I needed to conduct a community needs assessment to determine how to best partner with the residents there and how I could provide the kinds of resources that they needed as a community. So, as a result, after I did my survey, I spent much of my time in their local health clinic, and I worked closely with the staff to instruct expectant and new mothers on proper maternal health, and breastfeeding, and nutrition. And I also helped organize and carry out community campaigns about malaria prevention, which was a disease that was very, very prevalent in the country, as it is in much of the world, and even affected some of my Peace Corps friends. And finally, I spent the rest of my time creating a teen girls' group to talk about issues that affected them like early pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, drug use, HIV and AIDS, and we even managed to work together and host a World AIDS Day for International World AIDS Day event, where all of the surrounding towns that came. And it included just information and hand outs. And we actually managed to find a woman who was living with HIV who came and spoke, which was a huge honor and a privilege because it's a highly stigmatized condition in Gabon, as it is in much of the world. And people just were absolutely blown over by her realities. So, those were my technical assignments, if you will, but I was always on the job, 24/7, and ready to kind of share my knowledge. But absolutely, without a doubt, I can guarantee that I learned more from them than they learned from me.
David
To build off that, how would you describe your overall experience as a volunteer?
Leah
In terms of experience, living as a minority for the first time in my life was extremely eye-opening and really just provided me with an alternative reality from anything else I'd experienced. And I always think about the tasks that would be so simple in the U.S., like simply going to the post office and buying stamps, operated on a completely different level in Gabon. So accomplishing something that minor often took an entire day, and it was a major accomplishment whenever I actually achieved it. The first few months were definitely exhausting. Because, as with all volunteers, not only are you thinking, and speaking, and learning in a different language, but you're trying to acclimate to a culture and a climate that's vastly different than anything that I was used to. Even though I traveled extensively during college and before then and had been dreaming about joining the Peace Corps for my whole life, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the actuality of my life there. Some of my more miserable days involved, I had amoebas, intestinal worms, foot swelling infections on several different occasions. There were days when I found out that girls in my girls' group had an unplanned pregnancy on their hands. And even just watching several of my community friends in the hospital in malaria-induced delirium, just rolling around and in pain. Those were the low points. But, some of my best memories, there were kids everywhere, and we loved going into the jungle just right outside my back door and looking for wild fruit. And at Christmastime, we'd hang mini-candy canes on our avocado tree, since I didn't have a Christmas tree. And then learning how to make a frozen treat from one of my adoptive moms in the community. And then finding a bug-infested puppy that I adopted and even brought home with me whenever I left Gabon. If anything, just to sum it up, I guess the experiences would be learning what my true limits and capabilities were. And that was a very tangible result of my service. But the real experience was really the human connections I made, and I am still in contact with some of them via e-mail, and just maintaining those friendships.
David
Leah, has that experience in any way influenced your work with the Girl Scouts?
Leah
Oh, absolutely. When I moved to San Diego from Denver a few years ago, I knew that I wanted to work for a non-profit and I wanted that non-profit to allow me to fuse my program development skills, my interest with youth, my need to really reach a wide audience and incorporate my Peace Corps experience and just knowledge. So the Peace Corps absolutely gave me transferable skills, both in tangible work experience and my obvious, proven ability to work with people from different backgrounds and under stress. Whenever I applied for the program specialist position at the Girl Scouts of San Diego Imperial Council, I knew immediately that I had found my match. So I crossed my fingers for a week, and I was offered the job. And just absolutely love what I do here. And my experiences in Gabon influence the kinds of programming that I run for Girl Scouts and the kinds of global topics and issues that I'm able to bring to the table and allow girls and their leaders to explore. For example, the first one that comes to mind is that I was actually able to implement and carry out our council's first-ever HIV and AIDS Day, which was obviously a direct result of the work that I did in Gabon and seeing that on an international level, but being able to bring that to the girls here in San Diego who might not otherwise have any kind of experience or international knowledge about that. So, it's been phenomenal.
David
Leah, many people may know about the Girl Scouts, but at the same time, many people may not know exactly what the mission is of the Girl Scouts. Would you mind taking a moment and explaining that for us?
Leah
Sure, no problem. The mission of the Girl Scouts of the USA is that Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. And it's actually very exciting because in order to honor this commitment to girls, Girl Scouts is moving forward this year in implementing a strengthened leadership experience that will actually allow the girls to develop their potential even further within our organization's safety and support. And it also will give adults the tools that they need to support the girls. And this new leadership model consists of three processes that include girl-driven, learning by doing, and cooperative learning. And these intentionally combined components make our Girl Scout movement unique and allow the girls the opportunity to actually create their own experiences and realities, and reflect on the movement, and apply what they learn to new situations. So, the ultimate goal of the Girl Scouts of the USA is to be the best leadership experience for girls, which will absolutely reflect on our mission of building these girls of courage, confidence, and character.
David
Leah, on February 22, 2008, the Girl Scouts have what they call World Thinking Day. What exactly is World Thinking Day, and why do you feel it's important for the community?
Leah
World Thinking Day, on a very broad level, is the joint birthday of Lord Baden-Powell, who is the founder of Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting, which originated in England, and his wife Olave, who was the world chief guide. And World Thinking Day gives Girl Guides and Girl Scouts across the globe the chance to reflect and share experiences and show camaraderie with their sisters worldwide. And for the last 50 years, World Thinking Day has also been a fundraising event for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, which is also referred to as WAGGGS. WAGGGS is actually the umbrella organization for all of the 144 Girl Guide and Girl Scout national associations, of which Girl Scouts of the USA is one. So, in 143 other countries, there is some sort of Girl Guiding or Girl Scouting program, and WAGGGS is the mother organization, if you will, that provides support and resources and really ties this whole global community of women and girls together. And we are over 10 million members strong. And it really just unites all of the organizations, and promotes and establishes programming in new countries. WAGGGS also has a voice in the United Nations, so we are a very respected worldwide movement. World Thinking Day, in the United States, we make a contribution to WAGGGS from the Girl Scouts of the USA Juliette Low Gordon Friendship Fund every Thinking Day. And Juliette Low Gordon actually founded Girl Scouts in the USA in 1912 after meeting with the Baden-Powells in England. She was instrumental in promoting and spreading Girl Scouts nationwide. This day is really just a chance for girls to honor themselves and their sisters across the world, and help make donations to WAGGGS so that we can further promote our services, and our experiences, and commitment to a girl's life.
David
Great, thank you very much. And each year, from what I understand, there's a theme for World Thinking Day, is that correct?
Leah
It is, absolutely. Yes.
David
Oh, okay.
Leah
And it's focusing on water's importance to health and on the issues of access to clean water and conservation. And the theme is chosen by WAGGGS every year. I'm not quite sure how they go about the process. But I'm assuming that this year they came up with "Think about Water" because it is a universal concern for not—obviously the world—but also very much so for girls and women, who are also the ones who are typically involved in getting water every day and are missing educations because they are instrumental in their family accruing water for the day. And this theme is also tied to the issue of adolescent health, which the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts is currently promoting. So, it's a very relevant issue, and this year they are putting out a bunch of resources to help girls and volunteers worldwide prepare, and celebrate, and explore the issue of water. And I believe that there are a few sub-themes talking about providing access to clean water, and drinking water for health, and then conserving water for the world. So obviously how all of these things not only relate to a girl's experience in her home country, but how that might relate to her sisters worldwide and for their realities and their daily experiences. So again, just really taking this day to have girls acknowledge themselves and their sisters worldwide around an issue that matters to everybody.
David
There are many returned Volunteers around the country. Has the Girl Scouts called on any returned Volunteers to help in such things as—or volunteer in such things as—World Thinking Day?
Leah
In terms of returned Peace Corps Volunteers volunteering at Girl Scout events and within our programming, we have a massive cadre of volunteers that we call upon, and I'm not sure what the percentage is of those that are returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I know that we have a very active returned Peace Corps Volunteer community here in San Diego. So I'm sure that that is reflected in our volunteer pool. But on my level, whenever I plan my programming, obviously since global issues are one of my passions, I always try and involve Peace Corps Volunteers in the experiences with the girls and in the programming that I run. So for example, last year I ran an overnight event for girls 8 to 11. And it was called "Global Awareness," and it focused on—coincidentally—the issue of water and a girl's life in Africa. So I planned an overnight event, and I had different stations, just relating about access to water, what girls have to go through throughout Africa to get water. So really just looking at a girl's life in Africa through the lens of water and tying it to girls' experiences here in San Diego, since we obviously have water issues here as well. I contacted the local Peace Corps council and committee and asked them if they would have anybody willing to come out and work with the girls. I actually had their board president come out, and she helped run one of the rotations. And I absolutely think that returned Volunteers are instrumental in helping bring that global perspective to girls, share their experiences, being able to roll in these men and women who have lived in incredible places and had amazing experiences, really I think opens girls' eyes to what else is out there, and what they can do, and just issues that affect girls that they would never think about in other countries. So, yes, we absolutely involve them. It's just a matter of at which events, basically.
David
Wonderful. And Leah, we would just like to thank you for taking the time today to share about your Peace Corps Volunteer experience in Gabon and also your work with the Girl Scouts.
Leah
Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences and hopefully key people in to some of the things that Girl Scouts is working on but also some of the things that we are addressing with girls and women around the world. So, thank you so much.
David
Thank you, Leah.

About the Author

Leah McFail

David Donaldson of World Wise Schools speaks with Leah McFail about her experience as Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon.