We met each other in a hotel conference room. Some of us were anxious, others not as much, but many felt overwhelmed. We each had different talents, different goals and different dreams, yet each of us brought a piece of the puzzle that would make our group a whole—which would make us fit as one. We knew very little about each other and the place we were traveling to, yet we knew we were going there together to challenge ourselves and others, to try and make a difference for those we were going to serve. We were and always have been, Group 82!
This week, I and the other 14 members from my Peace Corps group here in Samoa gathered for our Close of Service conference (COS). COS is held in all of Peace Corps’ posts around the world for volunteers as they prepare to end their service and move on to future plans back home in the United States, or somewhere else in the world. It is meant to help volunteers bring their Peace Corps service proper closure as they finish final projects, and begin to say sad goodbyes. However, it also takes time to look towards the future and prepare volunteers for reentry to life back in the States, discussing future careers, reverse culture shock, and how to best share our stories and experiences with family and friends.
Despite the relatively small size of Samoa, compared to other countries where Peace Corps serves, our group is fairly spread out across two islands and living in rural villages, sometimes with limited bus service. As a result, some of us who are on opposite sides of the country can go two or even three months without seeing one another. Therefore, over the past two years when we are gathered together for a conference or special holiday celebration, it becomes a type of family reunion where we catch up on each other’s lives and talk about successes, struggles and future plans.
That is what this past week has been, yet it has carried a different wait to it than all our other gatherings. This week we have all realized that our time together is quickly coming to an end, and that sharing memories and reflecting on the past two years is more important to us all.
I think all of us have been trying to slow the pace and step aside with one of our fellow volunteers to share a memory, ask about an accomplishment, or talk about the future. Each of us shares a special bond that no one else will ever understand. Although our stories our each unique, they all have common threads. We all know what it’s like to teach Samoan students, ride on a bus, attend an ava ceremony, sit cross legged for one hour, rush to catch a bus, top up on Digicel phone credit, take a bucket bath or kill a gigantic centipede! These are all experiences that will bind us together, no matter how unique each of our own stories has been here in Samoa.
Our conference was held at a resort which was a nice opportunity to relax in a different setting. We were sharing meals together for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were gathering like families do, discussing our lives and talking about our dreams.
With the first members from Group 82 starting to leave as early as mid-November, there are going to be very few times when we all gather together again as we did this week. We all are fully aware that the size of the United States will make it much harder for us to see each other as easily as we do in Samoa, yet I think each of us is willing to make an effort to keep our ties strong as we head home and begin other journeys in our lives.
Throughout the week, our conference was facilitated by the Peace Corps Country Director for Samoa. Dale has been country director throughout our whole length of service and he said he had looked forward to being able to be there with us to begin this final chapter. As part of our last session for the conference, Dale had us gather together in a circle where we went and stood behind another volunteer whose name we had picked. We then said a few words about them, or shared a special memory of that person from the past two years.
I never anticipated that this activity would bring about so much emotion, but many of us got chocked up either when others were speaking about us, or just in listening to others speak about another volunteer. Volunteers were sharing how others had become stronger, more outgoing, or more patient. We heard funny stories of enduring through difficult moments, or becoming accepting of a certain situation. As I wrote earlier, they were all experiences we could relate to in one way or another, and stories that reminded us of our own journeys in Samoa.
On the night before we headed back into the capital from the resort, we all gathered on the beach to take a group photo. We were on the very same beach that had been hit by the devastating tsunami here nearly two years ago. We had found a coconut tree that served as a perfect spot for taking the picture. The coconut tree had been partly uprooted during the tsunami and was leaning out over the beach on an angle, allowing all of us to sit on it for our picture. Despite all of us sitting on its trunk, and more than half of its roots exposed above the soil, it didn’t budge, it stood firm.
Looking back now, I can see some similarities between that coconut tree we found, and the two year journey we’ve been on. Each of us has experienced our own storms these past two years by the many different challenges that have come our way. We each have felt like we’ve had huge waves crashing up against us at times. But despite all of those external forces and difficulties, each of us has managed to keep firmly rooted, standing strong like that coconut tree. That tree changed as we have changed. It’s still a coconut tree, yet it has grown, adapted, and adjusted because of the challenges it faced. Each of us is still ourselves, but at the same time we will never be the same, because we have had to bend, readjust and become stronger.
Some may argue that the coconut tree looked better standing upright, as it most likely did before the waves came crashing on shore, nonetheless, I’d like to argue that it is more appealing now, because it shows its versatility, strength and determination to survive.
Best wishes to Group 82 as we complete our last few months of Peace Corps Service as Volunteers in Samoa.
Lilli and I at dinner one night.
Working in small groups during COS conference.
Riding to our conference in the Peace Corps van.
Matt and I are the only two guys from Group 82, so we have been roomed together for all our conferences the past two years.
Elisa getting down off the coconut tree after the group picture.
Emily and I at the resort.
Matt's guitar has been with our group throughout the past two years. Matt was my roommate in LA before we left for Samoa in 2009. I remember him playing his guitar in the hotel room.