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A four-time Peace Corps Response Volunteer finds her way in South Africa

Peace Corps Response Volunteer teaching

Nine months from the day I accepted my invitation, and after two departure delays, a 15-hour flight, two weeks in sequestration, a plethora of activities related to cultural assimilation, and swearing in, I officially became a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV) in South Africa. That day, after swearing in, my emotions ran the gamut from excitement to anxiety as I took in the reality that my fourth Peace Corps assignment had begun.

I was excited to learn more about the organization I volunteered to work with, Children and Adolescents Are My Priority (CHAMPS), whose vision includes providing health care for all. I also looked forward to meeting and working with my colleagues on the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe (DREAMS) initiative, which aims to reduce rates of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in the highest HIV-burdened countries. It was those thoughts that lulled me to sleep that first night.

An older female stand smiling
Joan Meyler serves as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in South Africa.

The next morning, sunlight blared through the window, awakening me with joyful anticipation. This new day began my experience as PCRV DREAMS Training and Project Officer in Mbombela, South Africa. It had been years since the desire to inspire and support women living with HIV/AIDS was sown in my mind, and I looked forward to the opportunity to work with these determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored, and supported women. I knew that, together, we could change our lives and the lives of community members. I felt supported as the company driver transported me to the office where my colleagues awaited my arrival. Being greeted by the staff of CHAMPS, I felt as if they were celebrating the return of a family member. There were refreshments, flowers, and gifts, as well as introductions to each person and an overview of the CHAMPS initiative.

Days followed weeks, during which colleagues became friends and names of sub-districts became real to me through site visits to sub-offices, clinics, and hospitals. Faces were matched to names I had heard during our virtual staff meetings.

My work as a DREAMS Training and Project Officer is multifaceted. One of my first assignments was to assist the strategic information team with preparations for an upcoming data quality assessment (RDQA). This required using data collection tools and performing a mock RDQA to review data for completeness, modeling the process, and providing feedback on the quality of data while supporting staff through the learning. These activities included making site visits with several colleagues and members of the Linkage team and family mentors in order to observe how recruitment information was collected and how relationships are built with clinic staff. The results of these calls were evident in the shared confidence and professionalism between hospital/clinic staff and CHAMPS representatives.

A teacher and young girl read at the end of school day
Joan has found working with students fulfilling.

As my colleagues and I built our relationships and solidified my place within CHAMPS, opportunities to accompany them on site visits became more frequent and insightful. On one such occasion, Brenda, the family mentor, her program manager, and I met with a caregiver at her home in a nearby township. We discussed her children’s care and living conditions and adherence to program standards. We also discussed the possibility of her family assisting with her care and the care of her children.

This visit was insightful because I observed a family who had endured gender-based violence and was struggling to overcome the trauma inherent in that experience. I also saw how the family mentor used the Mothers to Mothers and DREAMS training to extend compassion and provide coping skills. In this case, there was a risk of the parent losing her children. Fortunately, her extended family members agreed to take responsibility for the children. The next step in this case was referral to the local drop-in center. Much debriefing followed this emotional call. Thankfully, I was available to assist both the family and my team.

Now, my work also includes training and project management. I have implemented an Employee Wellness Program at my partner organization. This program focuses on physical and mental health and wellness and topics of concern to the office staff.

To create the wellness program, I participated in interviewing and hiring a locum nurse to consult with employees about their primary health care related to monitoring cholesterol, high blood pressure, and hemoglobin, and performing cervical, STI, and HIV screenings. As the wellness coordinator, I provided mental health and emotional support as needed. I also led daily stress-relieving activities such as yoga and aerobics. There were weekly “Snack and Chat” discussions that included topics like hypertension and diabetes, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and goal-setting.

Another aspect of the wellness program was the inclusion of financial wellness. For this, selected office and field staff participated in a series of virtual workshops addressing their understanding of financial literacy. This program utilized a facilitator who guided participants through understanding and applying financial principles to their daily lives.

Joan with two of her young learners.
Joan, who previously served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Grenada, Liberia, and Belize, reads a book to children during service in South Africa.

Training is ongoing within DREAMS. I had the opportunity to attend and take part in training sessions that focused on familiarizing new family mentors and facilitators for the comprehensive case management and DREAMS family mentor programs. These workshops not only introduced the family mentors and facilitators to the curriculum used in their work, but also led to participants capacity-building and relationships being developed with hospital/clinic staff, educational facilities, and the communities in which they will work.

In each workshop, I assisted by leading/participating in discussions focusing on previously presented material. I also interacted with attendees and program managers in groups and one-on-one during presentations. These interactions with program managers and staff enhanced relationships acquired through joint home visits and visits to clinics and hospitals.

Because accountability is important, I compiled reports assessing the learning objectives and key approaches used to achieve desired outcomes for each workshop. These observations and suggestions are intended to be used in guiding future presentations as CHAMPS aims to fulfill its vision of “Health for all" through the involvement of community mentors and facilitators.