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Yadariselt R.

“This experience has been so transformative because there is so much power and joy in the collective. After 10 months at my site, I can confidently say that I have formed lifelong friendships.”

Headshot - Yadariselt R

1. What got you interested in Peace Corps?

Showing kindness through acts of service was normal in my family. I am the daughter of two Mexican immigrants; at an early age, I was aware that my circumstances were not the same as my peers around me. I grew up in a low-income household with my mom relying on me to help her get by. Through my upbringing, I came to understand that we have limitations, but through collaboration we can give each other what we don’t have.

What made the Peace Corps so appealing to me is the fact that they require their Volunteers to reside in the community so that the change is not only impactful but also sustainable even after we leave. I firmly believe that you must win the trust of community members, learn their customs, and learn about their local resources so that the community is involved and their vision comes to life.

2. What projects are you working on with your community?

My counterpart and I are collaborating with 50 families who want to learn how to garden at home. Our idea is to cooperate with individuals in town, knowledgeable in a series of gardening topics, and have them teach their techniques and expertise to other townspeople. Some of the identified topics were how to plan and maximize land use, appropriate use of organic pesticides, composting, and how to preserve seeds.

Recently, my counterpart approached me with a new project idea involving a water filtration system for houses located near the river. She noticed that there are at least 16 houses whose wastewater goes directly into the river, thus contaminating it. This has impacted the amount of plant and wildlife in the area. Our next steps include finding a local engineer to design the filtration systems and fundraising for the needed materials.

Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama engages community on local farming techniques
Volunteer Yadariselt engages a Panamanian community on farming techniques.

3. What strategies have you used to integrate into your community?

As a former theater kid, I learned that the first step in creating a successful production is learning how to be a part of an ensemble. When doing improv work, the actor must agree to the terms set by the group, not the individual, and this means “always say yes.” When I first arrived on site, I adopted this policy wholeheartedly—any invitation that was extended to me, I was more than happy to accept.

Most Volunteers will also tell you that kids are your number one supporters! Talking and playing with them gives you an insight and connection to their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Since children tend to be very curious about new people, they are the most likely to approach a new Volunteer. By the time I got around to meeting adults many had already heard about me through their children.

Whether it was working at the finca or cooking bollos with las senoras, I was always happy to be accepted into (what were then) strangers' lives so wholeheartedly. This allowed me to meet many townspeople and their families and form strong bonds. This experience has been so transformative because there is so much power and joy in the collective. After 10 months at my site, I can confidently say that I have formed lifelong friendships.

4. What is a highlight of your time in service so far?

Getting to know the townspeople has truly been a delight thus far. Through this experience I have met people from all walks of life and have made many unlikely friends. In the span of a day, I can eat a plate of homemade food with young adults, play marbles with children, and end the day with a hot cup of coffee at my elderly neighbor’s house.

One of my favorite experiences so far has been moliendo caña (crushing sugar cane) in the trapiche (the device used to crush the sugar cane) and making cocada, a traditional Panamanian sweet treat. My local tios were more than happy to teach me the process of harvesting, crushing, and cooking sugar cane juice to make molasses and then adding coconut to make a delicious and addicting treat that I could share with my host family.

Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama working on a farm
Yadariselt works on a farm in Panama.

5. What have you enjoyed most about the community where you are serving?

My town is in an area near a national park and has an abundance of creeks, waterfalls, and rivers located in and around town. In my first month at site, townspeople took me to all the popular hangout spots where people cool off on a hot summer days. Although Panama on the whole tends to be hot and humid, the local abundance of forest and plant life makes for cooler weather. Finally, living in a smaller town means that everybody knows everybody; what is a 10-minute walk can often become a 30-minute walk depending on how many people you stop to catch up with.

6. What are some of the most important things you've learned from your community?

In my ten months on site I have learned to value the small moments in life. I am from the city that never sleeps, and often there is pressure to always be doing something “valuable” with your time. However, there is value in human connection and mutual bonds; that is what makes me feel the most alive. Whether it's over a cup of coffee, cooking, swimming or lying around in hammocks there is so much to learn from the people around me. Children remind me of the simple joys of life like playing in the rain or catching fireflies. The elderly have many anecdotes and life lessons to share; they love nothing more than talking about their experiences, both good and bad, that life has brought them. Finally, young adults remind me on a daily basis to live in the now, and while thinking about the future is important, knowing how to enjoy what you currently have is also a virtue. Our collective ideals are what informs our work and redefines our futures.

7. How do you spend time when you are not working on a project?

When not engaged in a project I am often working on home projects or learning local crafts such as sombrero pintao making. On rainy or cooler days, I will often go visit my host family and “echar cuentos”—tell stories—over a hot cup of coffee. In the evenings the children often come visit me at my home, and we play games outside or watch the older children play soccer. If I feel particularly energetic, I will hike to the nearby national park or walk to a neighboring community.

8. What are you looking forward to in your remaining time as a Peace Corps Volunteer?

I am most looking forward to continuing to collaborate with folks in town and continuing to fortify relationships. My counterpart and I would like to start an agricultural group with the kids in school. Ideally we would work on the school garden with the kids and grow food for the padres de familia (a PTA of sorts) to cook lunch for the kids. We would also like to take the kids on a field trip to a nearby farm that has cattle and goats.

9. Once you finish your service, what will you do differently when you return to the U.S.?

Due to all the nature readily available in Panama I have taken to walking/hiking as a way to de-stress. Once I return to the U.S., I would love to continue this habit and explore more of the outdoors in the U.S. I will also lean more into community building in the U.S. Panama’s tight-knit communities have taught me that there is so much power and healing in the collective. Basking in the small moments has helped me realize this is where the best of humanity truly lives.