As most of you know, 3 days after having arrived to my site of Portoviejo, the earth decided to throw a tantrum and change the world for so many people. Although at times the first month of being a volunteer were overwhelming, sad and just plain difficult, I was constantly reminded of how lucky and privileged I was to still have food, water, a roof over my head, my life and my friends. I wish I could have spent my 2 years of service in Portoviejo, but sometimes life throws you the hardest of curveballs and you have no choice but to roll with the punches as best as you can.
After being removed from Portoviejo, because the Peace Corps had deemed it unsafe for us to stay, I along with 32 other volunteers who had been in the effected region, were taken to Quito. At the time, there were so many unknowns. We didn't know how long we would be in Quito, whether or not we would be able to return to our sites or how we may be able to help with the relief efforts from so far away. At the time it felt like ages, like we were stuck in limbo, but eventually we did get answers to all of these questions.
We relied on cellphones to keep in touch with our host families in our communities, to see how they were doing, if there was anything we could do to help, and to make sure they knew that even though we had to leave, we would do anything to be there with them and to help in any way we could. Our host families had all taken such good care of us and had treated us as just another member of their family, after only having known us for 3 days, and in an unimaginable situation where food, water and safety were all scarce. I am forever indebted to them and will always consider them family.
Within the first few days of being back in Quito, I realized there would be multiple ways I would be able to help with the relief efforts. Over the next three weeks, I spent quite a bit of time, organizing and packing supplies to send to the Manabi and Esmeraldas provinces. In one day alone, I, along with a few other volunteers and many college students from Quito, helped PLAN international to pack 2,000 bags full of supplies to send to families around Portoviejo. Each one of these bags had supplies meant to be able to last for 2 weeks.
In addition to helping with relief efforts, many of the first few days were spent in meetings and group, as well as personal, therapy sessions. We talked a lot about what had happened and how we were feeling in relation to all of the events that had occurred. I was mentally exhausted and did not feel much like talking to people who had not also lived through the earthquake. They were the only people who really understood, and I took comfort in being surrounded by them.
After about a week, the first volunteers were being cleared to go back to their sites. A group of us who had been in Portoviejo, Manta and a few other towns, were the last of the 33 to still be in Quito. We were the ones who would not be able to return to our sites. The damages were too extensive and we would not be able to perform our duties as a TEFL volunteer. Telling my Portoviejo family I would not be able to return was one of the hardest moments of my life. I felt like I was not only abandoning them, but also the school I was supposed to have worked at and the community I was supposed to be a part of. That entire night I was a mess.
Around the time I found out I wouldn't be able to return to Portoviejo, I honestly had no idea how I would move forward. I decided I needed to return home to the U.S. for a few days before I could continue. I needed some normalcy and consistency in my life but most of all I needed to hug my parents, go to a church service and see my best friend. I thought this would give me the energy I needed to continue and it did. I was lucky enough to be able to go home for just about a week, and it was exactly what I needed.
When I returned to Ecuador, there were 5 of the original 33 volunteers still in Quito. I found out my new site would be in the province of Santa Elena, and that I would be leaving the next day.
Peace Corps tells you so many times that to be a volunteer you need to be resilient, flexible and persevering. Little did I know that I would be tested in all of these qualities, just days after swearing in as a volunteer. These are not easy qualities to have, especially after having survived an earthquake, and I would be lying if I told you that I didn't have to work extremely hard at times to really embody these qualities.
I know, however, that if I stick with the Peace Corps for the two years, this experience will all be worth it. Every day I write down one thing that made me happy that day in my "happy book". Any sadness and fear I have right now due to the earthquake(s), I know will be greatly overpowered by the 2 years full of memories I have waiting for me to write down in my happy book.