For more than 23 years, I have had the privilege of calling Caitlin one of my dearest friends. We literally grew up together -- we survived adolescence together (eek!) -- we went to the same graduate school at the same time -- she was a beloved bridesmaid in my wedding. Caitlin is one of the sweetest souls I know. We have one of those unique lifelong relationships where even with the bonds of childhood, our adult friendship has deeper meaning because our hearts and interests are profoundly similar. We love all things foodie and cooking, traveling, and to state it very simply...helping people.
After several years working as a social worker in NYC, Caitlin is now serving her third year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, where she has done incredible, impactful work with women and children, conquering the challenges of a chicken & egg situation and textile creation/production to create income and sustainability. Very cool, right?! In addition, Caitlin is the consummate hostess, a world traveling ray of light, a volunteer, a sounding board and a giver to the core. I am so grateful to have Caitlin in my life, in my world, and for her willingness to chat with us for today's post!
Tell us about your life these days. What type of work are you doing? And when your Peace Corps service ends?
I am currently a third year Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Talsint, a small, rural town in Southeast Morocco. As a youth development volunteer, I was assigned to work in a local women’s center, called a Neddie Neswie, where the majority of my work takes place. I was the first female volunteer in my region to be placed at a Neddie, and I am thrilled that through my positive experience it has opened doors for other volunteers in their towns. I do art and creative activities with 65 children in our preschool from drawing and painting to nature rubbings and activities from recycled materials; this work and these amazing children have been a highlight of my days for the past three years. I also teach a variety of English classes including: a beginners' conversation course, a college level class where I support local women who are getting a higher degree in English, and an advanced English class with a group of local professionals. I never envisioned myself as a teacher but have really grown into this role; my students constantly stretch me in new ways whether with a tricky grammar question or more cultural inquiries around US foreign policy or education.
In Peace Corps, we tend to wear many hats, so I have also become an aerobics instructor. As someone who enjoys being healthy and exercising, this was something that I was able to share with my community of women here. My aerobics classes have been very successful, and it has been wonderful to see my Moroccan friends and community members become passionate about exercise and a healthy lifestyle. This past year I wanted to expand and diversify our workouts, so with the help of generous donors from the States (mostly friends and family), I was able to purchase a variety of hand weights, yoga mats and yoga bands for the women.
In addition to my work at the women’s center, I partnered with another local women’s association, The Association of Equity and the Advancement of Women in Talsint, on an income-generating chicken project. With a small grant, we purchased 200 chickens to benefit ten women in our community. This project has been a defining part of my service, full of obstacles, unforeseen challenges and the sweetest joys. It also encapsulated everything that I had wanted and hoped to do as a volunteer: empowering work with women, exploring a new facet of my community, advocating on behalf of a project I was passionate about, developing new skills around raising chickens, navigating new, different and sometimes challenging cultural mores all while maintaining a steadfast vision to see this project through to fruition. The chickens are happy and healthy, laying the most delicious eggs, and the women are selling these free-range eggs and making an income. Additionally you are able to visit our local women’s bakery and enjoy cookies and cakes that have been made from our chickens' eggs. The success of the project continues, and I hope that it will thrive long after I finish my service.
In the past six months, I have also been working with an amazing group of women from the women’s center around an artisan endeavor. These women are making a traditional bread basket called, “tbagh” which is wrapped with beautiful colored string and unique designs. I have been supporting them with color and design ideas to enable them to sell both nationally and internationally. Currently, I am helping the women start a cooperative so that they can continue to sell their baskets and grow their business. This project has been a perfect blend of my love for Moroccan textiles and continuing to support and empower women in my Moroccan community.
The question of what is next after Peace Corps could not be more relevant, and the truth is, it's a work in progress. As a social worker, my passion has always been to find how my background intersects and works within the international realm. I would love to find a position where I could continue to work with women in Morocco. I am also very interested in immigrant and refugee work which I think is a growing field in many parts of the world. Hopefully in a couple of months, I will have more information to add to this question!
What are your earliest memories of giving?
One of my earliest memories of giving was when I was around two years old and first had the pleasure of making Christmas cookies with my Mom. This was the beginning of a tradition that would continue on to this day of making something and sharing it with friends, family, neighbors and community members. The joy continued as I got older and traveled with my Dad to deliver those beautiful plates of cookies to those that needed them most, widows, sick friends and the lonely. This experience made an impression, a small act of kindness can mean so much.
Throughout my upbringing, there were examples of giving all around me, from the time that we took another family’s two children in for a period of time while their parents were going through a traumatic transition to my Dad offering his medical expertise and services to people in the community. I also have many memories of my Mom cooking meals for friends in times of need, sharing professional or personal resources that were helpful and always giving in whatever way she knew how. Growing up around this definitely made an impression, whether I was aware of it then or not.
When I was in high school, I started to really incorporate giving into my life in ways that were interesting and meaningful to me. My junior year, I became a Big Sister to a five year old girl in my community. I would pick up my “little” once a week, typically on a weekend, and spend a few hours with her doing something fun and different. We would go to the park, do art activities, play with play doh and talk about things going on in her life. We developed a very special bond during our time together. This is one of my first strong memories of giving back within my own community, and it had a strong impact on the direction that my life would take. That same year, I traveled to Nicaragua after a devastating hurricane to volunteer at a refugee camp where we built basic shelters, assisted in the medical clinic and spontaneously organized activities for the children. This was my first time traveling to a developing country and witnessing utter and devastating poverty firsthand but also the incredible resilience of the Nicaraguan people. I remember vowing at that point to always give in ways that I was capable, especially to the underserved. This is also when I first had dreams of joining the Peace Corps and immersing myself in a giving role within a different culture.
The spirit of giving would go on to drive my life through college where I volunteered at a local preschool for migrant farm workers’ children and on study abroad trips to Vietnam and Ecuador where I found ways to volunteer my time with street children. I went on to get a master’s degree in social work where I gained experience working with an elderly Latino population in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to working with challenging adolescents at a Bronx Middle School. I then transitioned into a four year position working as a school-based social worker for the Harlem Children’s Zone. Living, working and interacting in these various diverse communities gave me numerous opportunities to give, and those experiences and people have helped to sculpt me into the person that I am today.
Who/what played a role in your spirit of giving and how?
I believe that my family played a large role in instilling a spirit of giving within my life. I grew up in what I would call a “giving family,” my mother was a clinical counselor who ran a private practice working with children and families and later running a non-profit for peer counseling in my middle school and high school. My father was a family physician during my early years, and I can remember making house calls with him as a child. Later, he became the medical director at a university specializing in adolescent health. Growing up in a family where my parents were helping and giving in different capacities greatly influenced me from a very early age. My maternal grandmother, Mimi, was also a giving role model, from volunteering at Hospice to being a go-to neighbor whenever anyone needed anything. At a sprightly 98, she is still giving to whatever group of people that surround her from family to friends and neighbors. I remember writing a paper on Mimi in graduate school for a Health and Behavior in the Social Environment course about how volunteering and giving back was actually a component of healthy aging; she is a living example of this.
What do you enjoy most about giving?
For me, giving feels fulfilling and brings me an immense amount of joy. I like to help and support others, and by giving of myself, my knowledge, my time, my expertise, I feel as though I am contributing to a greater good. Giving has always brought me closer to the various communities that I have been fortunate to be a part of and has provided incredibly rich experiences. I believe that giving promotes more giving, and it can be a very effective way to impart change as well as build social connection. We live in a time where the need for giving and creating connection across different races, cultures and religions is greater than ever.
For three years, I have lived in a Muslim country and more specifically a small, traditional community in the high desert of Morocco. I feel that my appreciation of giving has grown tenfold since living in Talsint. Moroccans are the most hospitable and giving people that I have ever encountered. I am in awe of the way they open their hearts and homes, the way they will give to a complete stranger and never look for anything in return. I experience such a sense of community and taking care of one another, and I love this way of life. From giving comes gratitude and I am so grateful to my Moroccan friends and community for sharing this aspect of their culture with me.
What are the challenges you have faced with giving (at present or in the past)?
While in Peace Corps I have been a facilitator for Wellness Retreats provided to fellow volunteers. It was a project started by volunteers for volunteers as a means of support. We gather for a long weekend of peer education, workshops, conversations on stress reduction, creative ways to cope, meditation and imagery, life in Morocco and mental health, discussions on depression, anxiety and trauma, as well as hiking and yoga. This idea came about because as Peace Corps volunteers we are always on: representing the United States and American culture, serving our Moroccan communities and navigating life in a different language, which at times can be draining. This integrative weekend helps volunteers to pause, work on their needs and issues and recharge to then be able to go out and do their great work.
One of my favorite analogies and one that I share often with friends and other volunteers is what they tell you on an airplane, first put on your oxygen mask so that you can then assist others around you. Self care is a vital part of maintaining good health because if you are not taking care of yourself, there is no way you can give to others.
What is one piece of advice/wisdom you would like to share about giving?
I think it is important to align how you like to give with your own passions. For instance, if you have no interest in working at a soup kitchen but do love dogs, volunteer your time and energy at the local animal shelter. This way it does not feel like a burden to give but instead can be something that you genuinely enjoy.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Caitlin. You make this world a better place! <3