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I’ve hit my two-weeks-left-in-Lezhe mark and there is so much to be done, that life seems a little crazy.

Packing for a two month trip, contemplating moving, searching for a job, saying goodbye to friends and colleagues, giving words of wisdom and showing around new trainees, and cleaning up and organizing my house are all on my to do list. Despite it all, it feels great to be busy. I’m also having great success finishing up two other projects – a tourist map for Lezhe and a needs assessment document that I’ve been writing with six other community development PCVs that we presented last week to USAID and the national Association of Municipalities. I’m glad to have work to do right to the end.

In other news, I’ve decided to continue with this blog during my travels after Peace Corps, so stay tuned throughout the summer for updates!

Today my six-month USAID Small Projects Assistance grant project came to an end with a grand celebration of reading, books, and community.

After purchasing needed books back in December with grant funds, I worked with Yllka and the library staff to implement the second phase of our project, a month-long book drive that ended today. All in all, we collected over 1,000 new and used books for the library, an outpouring that is amazing for the first book drive ever in the Lezhe community. Each book donated was given a stamp, specific to the project, with a place for the donator to sign their name.

Today, at the celebratory event, we had all the books on display. The library staff prepared a small program including a poem recitation, a musical interlude, the first showing of a brief documentary about the library’s programs (produced by the Bashkia), and a presentation by myself and my country director who came out from Tirana for the day. It was wonderful to see almost everyone I know in Lezhe in one room – Bashkia staff, school directors, students, friends – gathered together in support of this project that my counterpart and I have worked so hard on for so long. And, the soft-spoken yet eloquent Gjergj Shyti (library director) specifically made mention in his remarks of the fact that I was leaving soon and wished me luck with all future endeavors….and then everyone clapped. It was a memorable, fun and heartwarming end to one of my most successful projects during my time as a PCV.

Lori, one of my Outdoor Ambassadors students who also recited a poem at the event, came up to me afterwards and said “you know Laura, a lot of people will miss you when you leave.” I’ve been so fortunate to be part of such a vibrant community here in Lezhe…and I’m going to miss these people a lot, too.

This Sunday several PCVs are partnering with Green Line Albania to organize a flash mob in Tirana to both honor Earth Day and publicize the Green Line “clean up Albania in one day” event on May 9th. Should be the first flash mob of its kind in Albania and a lot of people will be there – Outdoor Ambassadors group members, PCVs from all groups, PC staff, and students from local high schools and universities all celebrating Earth Day together.

I’m trying to learn the dance this week…it’s proving to be a fun but silly adventure – me dancing in my living room alone, having a great time making the neighbors wonder.

This poster I designed advertising the culminating celebration event of my current USAID funded project is at the printer this weekend and we’re getting ready to launch our book drive in late March. Thanks to all who have helped make this project a success thus far!

Muaj i hapur per librin = Open month of books (the one month book drive)

This weekend I am in Elbasan with 40 students and about 16 PCVs from all over the country at the Outdoor Ambassadors Youth Leadership Conference. Despite heavy snows all over the country (even in Elbasan last night!), we all arrived safely and are immersed in the thick of project idea brainstorming, team-building exercises….and a bit of fun, too! We had to cancel the nature hike, but a riveting game of jeopardy with questions from the “worst case scenario” survival book was a great ice-breaker.

It’s still amazing to me to be involved in an organization that can bring people together from every corner of the country towards a common goal. I love seeing the students interact and feed off of each other’s energy. The two students I brought with me from the club I lead in Lezhe are so confident and independent…even in comparison to when we traveled together to the summer camp last June. Seeing this is inspiring for me in my frustrated-with-the-bashkia winter slump, and I am so proud of how far they’ve come.

Right now we’re working on developing goals and objectives for community projects, and we’re reassessing their film night project to try and see what steps they can change/implement to create a successful, effective project to promote volunteerism and care for the environment in Lezhe. It’s nice to let them develop the ideas themselves….and get feedback from their peers in other cities.

A big thank you again to all who contributed to the Peace Corps Partnership grant that helped fund this weekend conference. Two days may not be much, but for these high-school students it’s an inspiring experience of a lifetime. Oh, and it’s fun for me, too!

Just want to offer a big “Thank You” to all who contributed to the Outdoor Ambassadors Peace Corps Partnership grant on the Peace Corps website. We reached our goal this weekend, and are in the process of planning the training for early February.

In the meantime, I’m getting ready to have a small gathering at my house for Christmas and am trying to accomplish a few tourism-related projects before everyone in the office scatters over the holidays.

I hope you are all enjoying the season, wherever you may be!

About two weeks ago my counterpart Yllka and I learned that a grant proposal we submitted in early October for a project benefiting the local library was selected for funding. This is our second Small Projects Assistance (SPA) project funded through USAID/Peace Corps and its implementation should carry me through until my close of service in May. Yllka and I along with the library staff are all amazed at the number of people involved and committed to making this project a reality.

We designed the project both to encourage community involvement in the library and to support their purchase of books in Albanian that are in line with the curriculum and summer reading lists of the high school. The budget of the library is poor, and even though they have a nice building, they have been unable to purchase books for almost two years. Most of what exists in the collection remains from before the fall of communism and is in bad repair.

After the initial book purchase to supplement the library’s collection, the second phase of our project will kick in – a book drive in the Lezhe community for one month prior to April 23rd, 2012, World Book Day. Book drives are a relatively new thing for Albania, and, in general, Albanians own very few books. However, I’m optimistic that this project will be successful (with the right amount of promotion) in Lezhe. At the very least, it will be an opportunity to both promote the idea of giving back to your library and to increase volunteerism in the community – all while benefiting the public library and readership in Lezhe the city and the region. We have already identified several willing community partners to help organize the drive, and our hope is that the overall participants will include the general public as well as local schools, NGOs and churches.

Working to design this project with the library staff has been one of the more enjoyable work experiences I’ve had so far in country. They’re all fun to be around, and it’s refreshing to see people so dedicated to making their work environment a better place, even with such limited resources. Even outside the library, when Yllka and I went around town to speak with other NGOs and the schools about the project when we were applying, it was like going around and having coffees with all of my friends – I already had worked with most of the people involved. The small town-ness of Lezhe and my place within it is really coming out in all aspects of my life.

On my first day back at work last week, Yllka and I went to tell the Library staff that we had won the money. It was such a festive occasion – I’ve never seen a group of people more appreciative and eager to begin working on something….I just hope that all of our energy can hold through April!

Many of you may know that the Peace Corps-initiated program called Outdoor Ambassadors (OA) has been one of my most significant ongoing projects since I arrived in Albania.

I serve on a national steering committee of six PCVs that promotes the programs of Outdoor Ambassadors’ network of youth environmental education clubs around the country. In addition to supporting actions at the local level (like our reusable bag project here in Lezhe), the committee has been able to organize annual national-level events such as a summer camp and leadership training for members of local clubs. These events are planned in collaboration with Albanian counterparts and are valuable events that promote networking between students and inspire and give local groups the skills to implement community projects when they return to their home cities.

One such national level event is our Youth Leadership Training, to be held this coming February. The training will bring together 30+ youth from around Albania to hone their project design and management skills and environmental knowledge, giving them the tools to bring implementable project ideas back to their home clubs and communities. I helped organize and run a training like this in 2010, and it was a wonderful experience for the students and facilitators alike.

In order to fund this training, Outdoor Ambassadors was selected to be a part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program. This means that we are listed as a project accepting donations online through the Peace Corps website. All donations through the site are tax-deductible. If you wish to donate or find out more about the project, please visit the PCPP site!

I am continually thankful for all of your ongoing support of my time here in Albania through comments, emails, letters and calls. I have tried to keep up with telling my story to you all through this blog, but sometimes I feel like the fun/travel side of my life rather than the work side is more represented here. As you can see from this post, in the life of a PCV, fundraising is often a large portion of the “work” that gets done!

The Youth Leadership Training will be one of my last projects with OA, as I will be finishing up with PC not long after its implementation. I hope to keep you posted as the planning continues, and hope you’ll consider supporting the project from afar!

The first week of September it has, just like last year, cooled off a little. Finally. However, it’s still supposed to be around 90 degrees for the weekend. I’m ready for Fall! I have to keep reminding myself, though, that the Fall I know and love in Virginia is nothing like Fall here. There are no trees that shed their leaves in Lezhe, and it rains regularly. But, at this point I’m excited to sleep with a blanket again.

The past few months have been a blur, but a good one. Now that it’s September things will settle down a bit as Albania returns to work. I’m getting back into a routine. But, things are still changing. In between all the adventuring and projects I’ve taken on over the summer it’s become official that I am the only PCV in my site. Jen, my partner-in-crime and friend/supporter/surrogate sister/co-chef and winter snuggle buddy here in Lezhe is back in California permanently with an awesome job following a medical evacuation in June. She’s fine, just not coming back to be my neighbor in Albania 😦

Most of what I am working on these days seems to be tourism related – both in Lezhe and Shengjin. However, school will start up again next week and I’ll hopefully continue with a project Jen and I had going on with the professional high school here. I’m also really excited about the reusable grocery bag project I have been working on all summer with three girls from our Outdoor Ambassadors group. I received a generous donation from Baggu bags of 100 reusable bags (it pays to write letters to companies!) that my parents brought over from the states in May. I’ve helped the girls design a project to disseminate them through a few shop owners that they know at a low price that will help produce additional bags at a local seamstress shop. I was proud of the girls for being really adamant about the fact that the project needed to be bigger than the 100 bags we had in hand. Right now we’ve negotiated a price to produce more bags, but are waiting for the original ones to sell/catch on so we can start production. It’s exciting to see shop owners really “get” the project and want to promote the bags. If any of you have any ideas for how to best promote/produce a reusable bag or have completed a reusable bag campaign, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Well, I recently recovered from having 28 people stay at my house and almost shooting myself, some friends, a dog and a power line with fireworks over the span of one weekend (July 4th!) and then barely had time to get back into work before I taking a trip to the mountains. Also – I’ve started working on some tourism projects with the eager new mayor of the municipality in Shengjin (the beach town 15 min away), so suddenly I am a commuter for part of my week and am feeling very productive for a PCV in Albania in the summer. Keeps me on my toes…and gives me an excuse to take a dip in the ocean after work.

But back to the mountains.

As of this June, the American Embassy now lets PCVs travel to the far north of Albania. This means that finally I can check out two of the most famous areas of the country among foreigners – Valbona and Thethi. The two mountainous valleys look like nothing I’ve seen here yet and are connected over a high pass by a trail that is well marked (probably the only marked trail in the country).

This past weekend a big group of us took a trip to this previously forbidden territory to check it out for ourselves. We traveled by ferry across Lake Fierza to Bajram Curri, visited with the volunteers there and swam in the river. Then we camped in Valbona, hiked the pass and spent the better part of two days in Thethi exploring the historic homes, crystal waters and helping with a British-run summer school that is the only operating school in the valley these days.

Since the fall of communism, most of the families move to the coastal area close to Shkoder in the winter as there is routinely more than 2 meters of snow in Theth. Because of this, the small elementary school building has fallen into disrepair and isn’t open at all in the school year. The Balkans Peace Park (B3P) summer program has secured funding with the help of the Germans to renovate some of the school and use it to teach English and environmental studies during the summer. Through some contacts I have with B3P I arranged for us to help with the program’s first day. It was wonderful to get to meet some of the kids and have them show us around their hometown.

Theth is growing in popularity as a tourist site, but the road in is still very poor quality (the worst I’ve seen since being here) and there’s no electricity. This means that most of the traffic is from foreign, not Albanian, tourists. Because of this and because of the nature of the big old family homes in a unique architectural style in town, there are a lot of small guest houses. So different to see after having worked in an area with big, tacky hotels! It’s also an area famous for being at the center of the Albanian Kanun, or historic legal code that condoned blood feuds. There’s a small museum and a Kulla (tower) that we toured that served as a refuge for those men targeted in the feuds for over 300 years. Kindof like “base” in a game of twisted tag.

The more I learn about Albania, the more it never ceases to surprise me. I’ve been here long enough to see so many changes, and I wonder how Theth will continue to change as it becomes more accessible over time. For now, I’ll let the photographs speak for themselves.

Check out the album on the photos page.