Albania’s youth take on community development

By Vincenzo M. Tanza
April 27, 2023

Virtual Service gave me the opportunity to return to the Peace Corps community – what I consider my family.

By donating my time to support an Albanian partner, I had the privilege of working with Peace Corps Albania’s incredible Community Development team and with an amazing counterpart named Mira to support a local NGO’s youth center, Liberi di Viaggiare (Free to Travel).

For 16 weeks, Mira and I collaborated on tasks for the youth center and worked to increase its digital presence. Mira organized two virtual seminars, during which we spoke with high school and university students about the impact of pollution, what they can do to within their community to help the environment, and the importance of volunteering.

A man wearing a beige Peace Corps shirt smiles
Vincenzo proudly wears a Peace Corps shirt.

In our first seminar, Mira and I engaged in conversations with the students, asking what they see as the most harmful pollutants in their country, how it became common practice to litter, and their thoughts on the impact a single person can have in their community. The students were slow to participate, but I explained this was a chance to share ideas freely.

Each participant began by providing examples and testimonials of pollution in their communities and barriers they experience to making effective environmental changes. Since I served as an in-person Volunteer in Albania from 2016 to 2018, many students asked about the pollution I saw in their country and how it compared to my current residence in Los Angeles. All were surprised to hear that the pollution in my home city is equally bad, with factories and manufacturing plants billowing gases and smoke into the air, causing a thick layer of smog.

The second seminar Mira organized focused on university and career preparation through volunteerism. The students were new and shy and less engaging. Mira and I spoke about the benefits of volunteerism and the advantages of identifying related careers through different forums. I spoke largely about community and public service, as my career has been in special education and my volunteer experience (apart from my Peace Corps service) has been working with adults with special needs.

I shared my history as a troubled youth and being issued several months of community service as a disciplinary action. At the time, I chose community service that helped people with special needs in various capacities. I explained how that experience was life changing and led to my current career trajectory as a teacher for students with moderate to severe special needs.

I encouraged each participant to research volunteer opportunities within their communities related to their interests or dream career. At the end of the seminar, the students began asking for ideas and suggestions of what to research. In response, I asked them about their interests. For those interested in medicine, I suggested checking out a local hospital or clinic. When someone else mentioned animals, I suggested a veterinarian or even local farmers. I mentioned that NGOs and local municipalities are always in need of extra help for the students keen on political careers.

I personally never felt a sense of belonging to any group or community, until I joined the Peace Corps.

Vincenzo Tanza

One of the most memorable interactions during this virtual engagement was in the pollution seminar. A student asked how they would know if they made a difference in their community, particularly in reducing the trash on the streets and increasing recycling efforts. I was transparent that societal behavior changes take time. I encouraged the student to remain optimistic and passed on an encouraging message a Peace Corps staff member once shared with me, “If you speak to 100 people about recycling and throwing trash in a designated can or bin, and only one of that 100 decides to change their behavior, you were successful.”

Virtual Service is an incredible opportunity, especially for those who wish to continue their Peace Corps journey from home. The ease of logging on to a virtual meeting has allowed for faster, stronger, easier, and more efficient collaborations. Speaking with the Albanian youth regarding issues they encounter daily and building skills for prospective careers has reignited my desire to serve with the Peace Corps. In fact, once I complete my special education teaching program, I hope to serve again as in-person Volunteer supporting special education in North Macedonia. Virtual Service gave me a chance to learn more about a culture and find new ways to collaborate with NGOs and international partners.

Community service is not an obligation, but those who enter the field to complete projects virtually or in person, are, in my opinion, those who find the greatest pride in helping others. Community is not just a neighborhood, a city, a town, or even a country. Community is where one feels the most comfortable with people. Community is shared interests. I personally never felt a sense of belonging to any group or community, until I joined the Peace Corps.

A man wearing a beige Peace Corps shirt smiles

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